St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 3: 1B Albert Pujols

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

NO. 3: 1B Albert Pujols

St. Louis Cardinals fans woke up on the morning of Dec. 8, 2011, to both good and bad news.

The good news was that more than a year of tense speculation about whether or not the Redbirds could re-sign Albert Pujols had been put to rest. The bad news was that they couldn’t — the Cardinals best player had been lured away by the California Angels for a $240 million payday.

Everyone knew the money would be obscene and that, at some point, its term would prove the law of diminishing returns. But, to fans in St. Louis, that could all be rationalized by the promise of witnessing another legend cement his place in baseball history wearing the Birds on the Bat.

Records would fall and milestones would be met, followed by a teary farewell, and a lifetime of Opening Day parades with the Red Blazer Club. Induction Day at the Baseball Hall of Fame would arrive five years later with no questions about which team’s cap would be represented on his plaque.

Pujols was a once-in-a-generation player, even by the standards of a franchise that’s won more World Series championships than any team but the New York Yankees. A full career with the Cardinals might have changed a common conversation in St. Louis: when somebody says “meet you by the statue,” the post-Pujols response might have become “which one?”

That’s the loss Cardinals fans felt even more than the gaping hole his departure left in the middle of the lineup. They wanted to venerate “The Machine” — so named because of his factory-like mass production of hits — like they had “The Man.”

St. Louis acquired Pujols in the 1999 amateur draft out of Maple Woods Community College near Kansas City, where he played shortstop and third base. He was the 18th pick of the 13th round, No. 403 overall. Right-handed pitcher Chance Caple was the Cardinals’ first-round pick that year, which also included the compensatory-round selection of first baseman Chris Duncan at No. 46 overall.

The Cardinals signed Pujols for $30,000, which was less than half of what they gave catcher Tim McCarver 40 years earlier. Of the 402 players selected ahead of him that year, 290 of them would never set foot on a big-league field.

“It’s a chip on my shoulder that I will have for the rest of my career,” Pujols told mlb.com in 2016.

In the summer of 2000, Pujols made the climb through three levels of the Cardinals’ minor league system in just 133 games. His .314 average, 19 home runs and 96 RBIs were good enough to warrant a non-roster invitation to big-league spring training. With a .351 Grapefruit League average and eight of his 12 hits going for extra bases, he forced some unexpected conversations.

Then came the red-letter date in St. Louis baseball history. On March 24, 2001, left fielder Bobby Bonilla strained his hamstring and was sent to the disabled list. The Cardinals departed for San Francisco and the season opener with Pujols, John Mabry and Bernard Gilkey in tow, each in consideration for the open roster spot.

Pujols didn’t just win the spot, he didn’t miss a game.

A middle-round, second-day draft pick not 10 months earlier, he torched big-league pitching to the tune of .329/.403/.610 with 37 home runs, 47 doubles and 130 RBIs. Pujols finished fourth in the balloting for National League MVP and was the unanimous pick for Rookie of the Year.

What followed over the next 10 seasons was a string of historic feats and milestones that puts Pujols in company with some of baseball’s all-time elites:

  • From 2001-2010, Pujols batted at least .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. It remains the longest such streak by any player over any 10-year period and it ended only when Pujols batted .299 with 99 RBIs in 2011. Lou Gerhig was the previous record holder at nine years.

  • With the exception of 2002 and 2007, Pujols matched those lofty triple crown statistics with on-base percentages greater than .400, slugging averages over .600 and at least 100 runs scored.

  • Only Alex Rodriguez and Hall-of-Famer Jimmie Foxx matched his 10-year run of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.

  • Hall-of-Famers Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Al Simmons are the only other big leaguers to drive in 100 or more runs over their first five seasons.

  • Pujols’ 83.8 total WAR remain the second-highest 10-year total among position players behind only Williams.

  • On Sept. 20, 2005, Pujols belted his 200th career home run, making him the third youngest behind Mel Ott and Eddie Matthews to reach that milestone. Only Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. got to No. 350 faster.

  • When Pujols collected his 3,000th hit in August of 2018, as a member of the Angels (he had 2,073 of those with the Cardinals), he joined Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Rodriguez as the only players with 600 home runs to reach that benchmark.

Along the way, Pujols finished in the top five of National League MVP balloting 10 times, including four second-place finishes to San Francisco’s Barry Bonds. He won it three times, though, including two consecutively in 2008 (.357/.462/.653, 37 home runs, 116 RBIs, 100 runs) and 2009, when Pujols led the NL in home runs (42), runs (124), on-base percentage (.443), slugging (.658) and total bases (374). He also batted .327 with 45 doubles and a career-best 135 RBIs.

“I believe he’s been reincarnated, that he played before in the 20s and 30s, and he’s back to prove something,” said Mark McGwire, Pujols’ one-time teammate and hitting coach.

The Cardinals won more games than any major-league team other than the Yankees during Pujols’ tenure, too. They were disappointed by a four-game World Series sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox in 2004, despite winning 105 regular-season games.

Pujols nevertheless earned two championships rings with the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. His Game 3 performance against the Texas Rangers put him with the ranks of Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to belt three home runs in a single World Series game. He was the only one them to do it, however, while also going 5-for-6 with six RBI and four runs scored.

If there is one signature moment to pick from the many great ones, it probably would be Pujols’ ninth-inning, game-winning bomb in Game 5 of the 2005 league championship series.

The Cardinals were on the verge of playoff elimination, trailing Houston 4-2 with two on and two out. Pujols stepped in against Astros’ closer Brad Lidge and sent an 0-1 pitch high above the bleachers in left-center field, over the Spanish arches at Minute Maid Park, and into the infrastructure that supports its retractable roof. 

The crowd fell instantly silent, though cameras caught pitcher Andy Pettitte on the Astros’ bench mouthing the words everyone else was thinking: “Oh, my God!”

Houston won that series in six games, but Pujols had created another indelible moment that’s in a class with Slaughter’s “Mad Dash,” Gibby’s 17 strikesouts, and Ozzie’s “Go Crazy Folks” home run.

After 18 seasons, Pujols ranks in the top 10 in baseball history in home runs (sixth), RBIs (seventh), total bases (ninth) and doubles (10th).

But he’s hardly been the same since leaving the Cardinals.

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 2001-2011

KEY STATS

.328/.420/.617 in St. Louis | 9x All-Star | 2 Gold Gloves | 7x Silver Sluggers | MVP’05,’08,’09 | 2 WS rings | 86.6WAR

TOP 100 SCORE: 8.79

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