You might have heard that Albert Pujols signed a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. It’s hard to blame the Angels for shelling out such a hefty sum. After all, we are talking about a player that hit 0.328/.420/.617 in his 11-years with the St. Louis Cardinals. We’re also talking about a guy who has played in no fewer than 143 games in any season since making his debut while amassing 88.7 WAR.
That works out to 1,705 games in 11 seasons for an average of 155 games per year. It’s hard to imagine that Albert can maintain his level of production, consistency and health over the next decade but that’s not why I’m writing this.
Instead of looking at the future, I wanted to look at the past. Not just the past 11 years, but further back to the days before Pujols made his major league debut.
In the Spring of 1999 Albert was playing JC ball at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, MO. Maple Woods for what it is worth is just a couple miles East of where I live here in Kansas City’s beautiful Northland and from what I hear, it was obvious to those that watched him play, that he had a special bat. Of course, at the time I had just graduated from Creighton and was still living in Omaha so I didn’t have the pleasure of watching him as an amateur.
That June, Albert was passed over many times before the Cardinals selected him with their 13th round pick. St Louis certainly deserves credit for drafting him, but let’s not forget that they selected 15 players before they deemed Pujols worth a selection. For 12 rounds – proving the MLB draft is an inexact science – everyone missed on the future Hall of Famer. He was the 402nd player taken, but will easily go down as the best to come out of a very loaded 1999 draft class.
A fun not-so-little side note, St Louis had seven, players not named Pujols, from their 1999 class reach the majors including 7th round pick Coco Crisp (19.9 WAR). The other six to make it to the show were; 1B Chris Duncan (1st supplemental), RHP Josh Pearce (2nd supplemental), OF Ben Johnson (4th), RHP Jimmy Journell (4th), RHP Mike Crudale (24th), and everyone’s favorite scrappy SS Bo Hart (33rd). Even without Pujols and Crisp their class still generated 3.3 wins above replacement so far in their major league careers.
Albert didn’t play professionally in 1999 due to signing late. He didn’t like the Cardinals initial $10,000 offer and opted to player in the summer collegiate Jayhawk League. He performed well and St. Louis upped their offer to $60,000 to get him under contract.
Pujols made his professional debut with the Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League (A) the following season. While displaying his excellent plate discipline right off the bat with more walks (38) than strike outs (37), he hit 0.324/.389/.565 in 133 games. Then he moved up to the Carolina League (A+) and played in 21 games for the Potomac Cannons. His season culminated in a 3 game taste of Triple-A with the Pacific Coast League’s Memphis Redbirds, and – oh by the way – was the MVP of the PCL’s playoffs.
In just one season the 20-year Pujols had marched his way through the minors and wound up hitting 0.314/.378/.543 with 41 2B, 7 3B, 19 HR, 46 BB and 47 SO in 544 plate appearances. After the minor league season was over, the Cardinals sent him to the Arizona Fall League and, not surprisingly, he continued to hit.
The Cardinals 13th round pick from 1999 – after just one minor league season – was suddenly ranked by Baseball America as the 42nd best prospect in all of baseball. Among Cardinals prospects, BA had Albert slotted at #2 behind only Bud Smith.
In their 2001 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America wrote the following of Pujols:
He uses the whole field and has great strike-zone discipline. He goes the other way well and should add power as he moves up. He’s still young but has the approach of a veteran … Pujols wasn’t a more notable amateur prospect because he was heavier and didn’t move well.
In the STATS 2001 Minor League Scouting Notebook they wrote about Albert:
The ball jumps off his bat, and he shows good drive to all fields. I think his power production is going to increase as he matures, and he should be a Fernando Tatis-type hitter.
Both sources ticketed Albert Pujols for Double-A to start the 2001 season with a major league ETA of 2002. Instead he made the Cardinals Opening Day roster and hit 0.329/.403/.610 with 47 2B and 37 HR in 676 PA as a 21-year old rookie. He unanimously won the NL Rookie of the Year receiving all 32 1st place votes. He also placed 4th in MVP voting, made the All-Star team and took home a Silver Slugger Award.
Not surprisingly he hasn’t appeared in a minor league game since.