|Tuesday, August 19
Updated: August 20, 12:34 PM ET
Pujols simply the complete package
By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com
Two years ago, Albert Pujols did more to get his team into the playoffs than any other hitter in the major leagues.
As a rookie, the precocious Pujols hit .329 with 37 homers and 130 RBI. He came from nowhere to give Tony La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals the run production they had penciled in from Mark McGwire, who hit .187 as his knees and back failed him. Pujols put up his numbers while filling holes all over the diamond, starting at least 32 games at third base, first base, left field and right field.
He deserved serious MVP consideration. But unfortunately for him, he arrived in the big leagues as Barry Bonds was having arguably the greatest season a hitter has ever had. Pujols finished fourth in the National League MVP voting, behind Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Luis Gonzalez.
Sosa was the only player other than Bonds to receive a first-place vote. Both of his came from beat writers who cover the Cubs. While Sosa had a great season -- better than his MVP year of 1998 -- we still suspect those voters were traveling the path of least resistance in regard to the thin-skinned slugger.
Pujols would have gotten one first-place vote had it been a year when I was given an MVP ballot. He, and not Bonds, lifted his team into the playoffs. But obviously a team's success is not a decisive consideration for the majority of voters.
Assuming that's still true, Pujols is looking like the 2003 NL MVP.
Bonds, who was a unanimous choice when he and Pujols finished in a 1-2 finish for the '02 MVP, is having another eye-popping season. He could win his sixth MVP, becoming the first to ever grab one three years in a row. But his only major edge over Pujols is the Giants' standing as an almost-certain playoff team.
Pujols, once again, is playing a huge role for a flawed La Russa team. It's time he steps out of the giant shadow Bonds has cast throughout Pujols' brief career.
Even more so than the great Bonds, Pujols has demonstrated wire-to-wire skills as a complete hitter. With September growing large on the horizon, he remains a candidate to win a Triple Crown.
Pujols' 30-game hitting streak has carried him to a .371 batting average, which is 16 points higher than Todd Helton. He has hit 34 home runs, three fewer than Bonds. He has driven in 108 runs, eight fewer than Preston Wilson. He leads the league in total bases (318) and trails only Helton with 108 runs scored.
Unlike Bonds, he somehow has consistently found another gear for the biggest at-bats.
Pujols is hitting .413 with runners on second and third, including an almost-unheard-of .410 average with men in scoring position and two outs. He's hitting .468 in the late innings of close games.
In terms of hot and cold, he's the San Diego of hitters. No one -- not even Bonds -- is as consistent.
Pujols has batted at least .330 in every month of this season. Bonds is also steady, but he didn't elevate his average beyond .309 for any month until June.
Bonds seemingly would diminish Pujols because he is a moving part for La Russa.
"He has no position,'' Bonds said about Pujols at midseason. "He plays first base, third base. Pujols, to me, reminds me of Bobby Bonilla, but better. Bobby Bonilla played different positions, first base and right field. All the (great) players you're talking about had a position.''
Without knowing exactly which great players were in that discussion, we'll say that is true. Willie Mays was a center fielder, Roberto Clemente was a right fielder, Mike Schmidt was a third baseman and Alex Rodriguez is a shortstop.
But is it always a good thing to know where you'll find a player on any given night?
It seems to me that Pujols' versatility is a huge asset for the creative La Russa. It is hardly a drawback.
Pujols has spent most of this season in left field -- a position he plays better than the aging Bonds, whose misplay contributed to the Giants failing to hold a 5-0 lead in Game 6 of last year's World Series -- but has also had 25 starts at first base this season.
Many of those came during a frightening stretch in April and May when La Russa fretted that Pujols' sprained right elbow would pop if he had to unleash a strong throw. Give Pujols credit for playing through an injury that might have put a more finicky player on the disabled list.
It's no wonder that La Russa calls Pujols "the best player I've ever had.'' Nothing seems to bother this guy, whose greatest tools are not easily quantified. His abilities show up more in box scores than scouting reports. That's why he spent time at Dominican Republic academies run by the Marlins and A's without getting signed.
Many players are their statistics. Only a handful of the great players mean even more than the numbers they produce.
Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken, Paul Molitor, George Brett and Frank Robinson are among the Hall of Fame talents who meant even more than their huge skill sets. This is the company Pujols has placed himself in.
He shouldn't have to win the Triple Crown to get recognized -- but he just might win it, anyway.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.