In 1968, with the sixth pick of the 18th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, the Cleveland Indians drafted UC-Riverside shortstop John Lowenstein. By any reasonable standard, for being the 402nd pick of the draft, Lowenstein had a successful MLB career—he played parts of sixteen seasons in Major League Baseball, with his best season coming as a left fielder for the Baltimore Orioles in 1982. The next season, Lowenstein won a World Series title with the Orioles. At 10.1 career Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, Lowenstein easily surpassed the WAR totals of eight of the other nine players drafted #402 overall who made the big leagues (a list which includes former St. Louis Cardinals farmhand Reid Gorecki). He even got Hall of Fame votes.
Lowenstein, however, has a career WAR total which still ranks below the average among 402nd picks that made it to the Majors, thanks entirely to one man—a third baseman out of Maple Woods Community College by the name of Albert Pujols.
Pujols made the St. Louis Cardinals out of Spring Training in 2001 and spent eleven years being awesome. And he became a St. Louis Cardinal seemingly by magic. The only player who outranked Pujols by FanGraphs WAR over the first decade of the 2000s, Alex Rodriguez, was a #1 overall pick who signed the most lucrative contract in history twice and, when the New York Yankees acquired him from the Texas Rangers, had to trade all-star Alfonso Soriano for his services. Barry Bonds, #3 in fWAR, was a #6 overall pick who also signed a record free agent contract with the San Francisco Giants. But Albert Pujols just kind of happened.
Like many people reading this, I grew up with Albert Pujols. He debuted when I was in grade school and he signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim when I was out of college. I became accustomed to his presence and quietly internalized that he would always be around—”he” not necessarily being Pujols, but a winning lottery ticket of production, a nearly-free five to ten extra wins.
The Cardinals teams of Albert Pujols’s time in St. Louis were overwhelmingly successful. The Cardinals had just one losing season and made the playoffs in seven of his eleven seasons. Subtracting a player’s WAR total from a team’s win total is an inexact way to measure the impact a player had on his team, but it does provide a decent idea of where the team would be without him. So here it is.
- 2001: 85.8 wins
- 2002: 91.6 wins
- 2003: 75.5 wins
- 2004: 97.2 wins
- 2005: 92.3 wins
- 2006: 74.9 wins
- 2007: 70.3 wins
- 2008: 77.3 wins
- 2009: 82.6 wins
- 2010: 79.2 wins
- 2011: 86 wins
Without Pujols, the average Pujols-era Cardinals team won just under 83 games per season. In 2017, the Cardinals won 83 games, the lowest win total for the franchise in the post-Pujols era and one which has led to much consternation about the decline of the franchise among fans. It is abundantly clear that the most direct way for the Cardinals to become an elite franchise once again is to draft teenage Albert Pujols again.
In his 11 seasons in St. Louis, Albert Pujols averaged 7.39 fWAR per year. Only one position player, (unsurprisingly) Mike Trout, has averaged more in the six years since; #2 on the list, Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson, has averaged over a full win less per season (6.18). There have been only 22 total position player seasons since Pujols left of more fWAR than what Pujols averaged for over a decade, and only Trout and Donaldson have accomplished the feat more than once (Trout five times, Donaldson twice).
The sarcastic response that some of you are probably thinking, and I know that I would be thinking, right now is that the Cardinals should just go ahead and trade for Mike Trout. Good idea! But even this far-out hypothetical would be far less valuable to the Cardinals organization than drafting Pujols in 1999 was. Trout will make $33.2 million per season for the next three years before hitting free agency, and as absurd as it feels to say this, he is dramatically underpaid. In 2017, Trout missed nearly two months with injury and still finished 4th in American League Most Valuable Player award voting while being worth, according to FanGraphs estimates, $54.9 million.
The Cardinals could still acquire Mike Trout, I think, but it would cost such a dramatic haul of prospects and current MLB talent that 2007 Albert Pujols would blush at a one-man team the Cardinals would become. Trout’s value to the Cardinals doesn’t come from gutting the existing core and future; it comes from magically putting him on an already good team and thus turning them into a great team. This is what the Cardinals got with Albert Pujols.
2011 was easily the worst Albert Pujols season in St. Louis. It was the Godfather Part III of Pujols seasons: it was comparatively bad given the greatness we had seen before, and he clearly showed signs of deterioration and yet, just as Part III got a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Bad Cardinals Pujols was still a 4-win player who finished 5th in NL MVP voting. He posted a career-low (at the time) wRC+ of 147, still good for 9th in the NL and 14th in MLB. Pujols was 47% better than MLB average at his worst.
Nine qualified players in Major League Baseball in 2017 were better hitters than 2011 Pujols, and one of them, Tommy Pham, was a Cardinal (for what it’s worth, Pujols was only the 3rd most effective hitter on the Cardinals in 2011 by wRC+, behind Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday). Only one of the eight other players was realistically available to MLB teams this off-season, and that was Giancarlo Stanton, who refused a trade to the Cardinals, but even had he accepted it, it would have required the Cardinals to inherit most of the financial burden of the richest contract in baseball history, as well as some prospect cost.
The second biggest bat by 2017 wRC+ to switch teams this off-season was Stanton’s Miami Marlins teammate Marcell Ozuna, whom the Cardinals acquired for the next two seasons in exchange for prospects. Ozuna had a breakthrough, probably unsustainable 2017 at the plate and yet even that season put his wRC+ at 142, a lower mark than St. Louis Pujols at his worst.
The only two players whom the Cardinals could realistically still acquire (i.e. their names have been floated in trade rumors, or they are free agents, even if the players have not really been linked to St. Louis) whose 2017 wRC+ eclipses that of 2011 Pujols are J.D. Martinez and Josh Donaldson, neither of whom batted enough to qualify for MLB leaderboards but who posted, respectively, a 166 wRC+ and a 149 wRC+. Martinez is a dreadful fielder, his 2017 offensive production was considerably above his career precedent, and he will cost a Major League team nine figures in salary...and even in his absurd 2017, his wRC+ still ranked below the median Cardinals Albert Pujols season. Josh Donaldson is a more well-rounded player, with solid defense and base running, yet his 2017 wRC+ was better than only 2011 Pujols. And the Cardinals would likely have to part with high-end prospects and/or good MLB talent just to get one year of Donaldson.
This is not to say the Cardinals should not pay for good players simply because they aren’t Albert Pujols good, because they absolutely should. But the impact that Albert Pujols had on the Cardinals over eleven seasons was lightning in a bottle—the Cardinals paid Pujols about as much money as they paid Matt Holliday during his Cardinals tenure, and Holliday was:
- A good player who was worth his contract
- Less than a third as valuable to the Cardinals as Pujols.
Imagine how differently we would perceive the Cardinals of the first decade of the 21st century if Pujols hadn’t been around. They would still field some good teams, but looking at how good Pujols was and how much impact he had on those teams is weirdly humbling. Yet it’s hard to deny the Cardinals got lucky—even if Pujols didn’t project to go higher than the 13th round, there is no way the front office would have let him wait that long if they knew he would become this.
So I’ll just go ahead and make my Christmas wish that the Cardinals draft another Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 2018 draft. But I’m not going to count on it.