We can all agree on one thing. Albert Pujols, FORMER St. Louis Cardinals first baseman, was one of the best players to ever put on the Cardinals uniform. He could have decided to stick around for nine or ten years, whatever general manager John Mozeliak and owner Bill DeWitt Jr. actually offered him, and be considered every bit as great as Stan Musial. Some may consider his 11 seasons in St. Louis enough to put him in the same discussion as Stan the Man. No matter, he is gone and we must all move on. Superstars in baseball just don’t stick around for an entire career any longer. For every Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter there are many more Albert Pujols. Another thing that cannot be argued is that Pujols did some amazing things in his time in St. Louis. In what I imagine will be among my last posts specifically devoted to Pujols, let’s take a walk down memory lane and marvel in Pujols’ accomplishments on the field.
In all began when Pujols was drafted in 1999. He was definitely gifted and it was obvious he was going to be a good player. My colleague Wally Fish at Seedlings to Stars, wrote an excellent piece detailing the scouting reports on Pujols when he was in the minors. I suggest you check out the article. Believe it or not he was compared to Fernando Tatis. I would say they missed just a little on the projection.
No one expected Pujols to begin the 2001 season in the major leagues. Well, he received the chance, ran with it and never looked back. His numbers in his first season; .329 BA, 37 HR, 120 R, 131 RBI, 1.013 OPS. Basically he destroyed the ball. He easily won the NL Rookie of the Year Award winning all 32 first place votes. He finished fourth in the MVP voting.
2002 – 2003
Pujols did not suffer anything remotely similar to a sophomore slump. He put up incredibly similar numbers to his rookie campaign, this time coming in second in the MVP voting leading the Cardinals to a 1st place finish in the NL Central. In 2003 he led the league in runs (137), hits (212), doubles (51), BA (.359) and total bases (394). He again placed second in the MVP voting, but the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs finishing 85-77.
In February 2004, Pujols signed a seven-year/$100 million contract extension with a $16 million club option for 2011 with no-trade provisions. Pujols helped the Cardinals to their best regular season finish of his tenure going 105-57. The team was swept in the World Series by the curse busting Boston Red Sox. Pujols hit .333 in the series with zero homers and zero RBI. The entire team shutdown at the plate, hitting a collective .190 for the series.
Pujols’ first MVP award came in 2005. He hit .330 with 41 HR and a league leading 129 runs scored. The Cardinals reached the national League Championship Series and lost in the NLCS to the divisional rival Houston Astros in six games. Pujols hit .304 with 2 HR and 6 RBI during the series.
The Cardinals snuck into the playoffs winning the NL Central with a 83-79 record. But they got hot at the right time. They beat the San Diego Padres in the divisional series, the New York Mets in the NLCS and the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Pujols did not play a huge part in the World Series win with only three hits in fifteen at-bats. However, he was the main reason they even made the postseason. In the regular season he posted his still standing career highs in homers (49), RBI (137) and SLG (.671).
This was one of Pujols’ less spectacular seasons, though many players would give anything to put up the numbers he did. It was the first time he failed to live up to his own hype and standards statistically. He still hit .327 with 32 HR and 102 RBI. Again, Cardinals’ fans were spoiled by his exploits in seasons past.
2008 – 2009
Pujols wins back to back MVP awards. In 2008 he led the league in SLG (.653) and OPS (1.114) while hitting .357, 37 HR and driving in 116 runs. The Cardinals missed the post season in 2008, but would return in 2009 buoyed by another monster season from Pujols. He led the league in runs (127), HR (47), OBP (.443), SLG (.658), and OPS (1.101). The Cardinals were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Division Series. Pujols went 3 for 10 with zero home runs and 1 RBI.
In 2010 the Cardinals missed the playoffs but again Pujols was the star. Leading the league in homers (42), runs (112) and RBI (118) Pujols continued to build his legacy as one of the best right-handed hitters of all-time. Moving toward the last season of his contract, Pujols and the Cardinals could not come to an agreement and tabled discussions until the end of the 2011 season.
While Pujols will never admit it, the fact that he could not come to a resolution on a contract extension in the offseason weighed on him. He started incredibly slowly for him, or anyone. He hit .245 in March/April with 7 HR and 18 RBI and May was worse with 2 HR and 13 RBI. His OPS was just over .750. People were suggesting this was the exact reason why while he was an icon in St. Louis that it was a risky proposition to over a contract of 10 years. But, something clicked in June and from that point he seemed to get better as the season wore on. He practically dragged the Cardinals through the last month of the season and they made the playoffs on the last day of the season, benefiting from the collapse of the Atlanta Braves.
The Cardinals came into the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the league. While it was not easy, they beat the Philadelphia Phillies in five games and then sent their division rival Milwaukee Brewers home winning the NLCS in six games. They went on to defeat the Texas Rangers in a wild World Series where they were down to their last strike on two separate occasions only to fight back to win game 6 and then the series. In game 3, Pujols went ballistic, going 5 for 6, with 4 runs, 3 homers and 6 RBI.
Once the series ended and after the parade, it was back to the business of baseball. Pujols had a decision to make and despite previous statements he would love to play out his career in St. Louis, chose to move west and play for the Los Angeles Angels. In the end he will undoubtedly go down as one of the best players in St. Louis Cardinals history, but the best player in history of this great organization may forever be Stan Musial. Pujols made sure of that yesterday.