This spring has been pretty bleak for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Gods of Baseball have cast injury spells at the organization's weakest positions, The Secret Weapon himself may be lost for the season, and there is "palpable unease" in the clubhouse.
So rather than peer further into the void, I thought it a good time to look back exactly 15 years to the moment an unheralded draft pick from the Dominican via Kansas City became one of the greatest ballplayers of all-time.
I can't recall exactly the first time I heard the name Albert Pujols, but like most Cardinal fans, I'm pretty sure it was somewhere in the offseason run-up to the 2001 season. Coming off his first season in the minor leagues, when he played across two levels of A-ball and a handful of September and postseason at-bats in AAA, Pujols was ranked as the #2 prospect in the organization by Baseball America. But even they raised questions about his weight and eventual defensive position, ultimately predicting that he would spend 2001 in AA and could be in the big leagues by 2002 at the earliest.
That was about all there was to go on at the time. The MLB prospect industry wasn't nearly the behemoth it is now. And with internet publishing still in its relative infancy, a couple paragraph blurb in a print annual was about all anyone could expect.
But even if we had a bigger window into the minds of Learned Baseball Men of the time, we would have seen a lot of uncertainty regarding Albert Pujols.
That uncertainty started soon after what looked to many observers like a full-grown man enrolled as a high school junior at Fort Osage High School in Independence, MO in 1996 and begin crushing baseballs. He continued to do so for the next two seasons, putting up video game numbers in high school and American Legion leagues. One local columnist encouraged locals to "do yourself a favor and go watch him play as much as you can. That way you can say you saw him before he was a major leaguer."
But while some were sure they were watching a future All-Star, it was widely speculated that the already-balding Pujols had lied about his age and was simply feasting on younger players. In addition to a physique that appeared beyond his years, by 18 Pujols was already dating his future-wife Diedre, a 21-year-old woman with a child.
The other knock on Pujols was his body. One scout, who watched Pujols play for Maple Woods Community College, where he enrolled in Spring 1999, said he had a heavy lower-half which would be a future weight problem. While impressed by some of Pujols skills, the scout rated him a future utility player at best.
If Michael Lewis' Moneyball is the best - or at least the most familiar - window into the world of scouting in this era, the famous Billy Beane retort that "we're not selling jeans here" comes to mind regarding Pujols. Concerns about his body (coupled with questions about his age) was enough for many scouts to leave him off their draft boards altogether, despite tales of home runs clearing scoreboards.
An area scout for the Devil Rays was so taken with Pujols, he insisted on bringing him in for a pre-draft workout - the only team to do so. But despite performing well at the tryout, even at the position of catcher, which he had never played before, the higher-ups in the organization left Pujols out of their draft plans altogether. The scout quit the organization in protest.
And so it was that Pujols tumbled all the way to the Cardinals with the 402nd pick. The club offered a meager $10,000 bonus to sign. That summer, Pujols would play with the Hays Larks of the Jayhawk League and produce at such a level that the Cardinals eventually bumped their offer up to $66,000, which he accepted.
If you've read Howard Megdal's excellent The Cardinals Way, with it's vivid description of how the organization developed its universal prospect rating system, STOUT, it's easy to see how that system is designed exactly to avoid missing out on a player like Pujols. Whereas STOUT (and systems like it which are now almost universally in use) combines data and evaluations from scouts, balancing for quality of competition and so-on, in 1999 it was still possible for the "conventional wisdom" among the scouting community to drown out all the things we can look back on now that were shouting "this is a great ballplayer."
The Cardinals scouting department was not brilliant for drafting Pujols in the 13th round. They were simply slightly less stupid than every other team.
By many accounts, Pujols "firmed up" his body when he became a professional. And if that wasn't enough to assuage the skeptics, he hit .314 / .378 / .543 across three levels of the minors in 2000. On Aug. 23, 2000, he got his first mention in the Post-Dispatch outside of just a minor league recap, when it was noted he had become "one of the organizations most-prized offensive prospects."
That was enough to get him a non-roster invite to the 2001 Cardinals Spring Training, where he was assigned #68.
But again - all of this detail about where he came from - this was largely unknown to Cardinal fans in the spring of 2001. In fact, it was even unknown to other Cardinals players. Mark McGwire famously said he had "never heard of" Pujols before Spring Training. The big question for the Cardinals entering spring training was whether or not McGwire would be healthy - same as it ever was.
If you really read the tea leaves, the fact that the Cardinals had traded Fernando Tatis in the offseason might have suggested that they saw Pujols as their big league third baseman down the line. But for 2001, that spot looked to be occupied by Placido Polanco or Craig Paquette.
In the outfield, Jim Edmonds and J.D. Drew were cemented in center and right field. While the team had parted ways with Ray Lankford as their primary left fielder, they had signed 38-year-old Bobby Bonilla to take that position.
Pujols numbers that spring were excellent, but as with any spring training, the numbers themselves don't mean a lot. What does mean a lot is playing time. As the spring went on, I remember noticing just how often Pujols was in the lineup. Third base, left field, right field... even appearances at first base and shortstop. Hardly a day went by when Albert Pujols was not somewhere on the field.
By March 18, Pujols continued success was no longer just a footnote, it was the lede, as Rick Hummel wrote "most of the other minor leaguers, especially the inexperienced ones such as Albert Pujols, have been returned to their roots down the hall at the Cardinals' spring training complex. But Pujols, a strapping, 6-foot-3, 210-pounder, remains."
It was becoming very clear that Pujols was going to be a major leaguer some day, but with no open spot in the everyday lineup, the expectation was still that he would be sent down to AAA to get everyday at-bats.
And then, on March 24, 2001, one of the greatest moments in Cardinals history happened: Bobby Bonilla pulled his hamstring. On April 1, after it became clear that Bonilla would miss at least a few weeks of the season, Tony La Russa told Pujols that he would be the starting left fielder on opening day.
Given the density of MLB prospect coverage these days, a spring surprise on the scale of Albert Pujols seems unlikely. And while I am grateful for the depth of that coverage, there was something magical about the possibility of a great player suddenly emerging from the corn.
Like many fans, my feelings about Pujols are a little more complicated now. Watching him play out his career in Anaheim, it's not unlike trying to convince yourself you had a great marriage while you still bump into your ex-wife at the grocery store.
But if I can block all that out and remember what it was like fifteen years ago to see a mostly unheralded player emerge from Spring Training and hit the ground running at an MVP level, and for that player to play for MY team... it felt like winning the lottery.