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Too Good To Be Ignored Now
Once a 13th-round pick, Albert Pujols has become our Player of the Year
By Tim Sullivan
ST. LOUIS--In the prehistoric period before cell phones became commonplace and e-mail went wireless, Jay Darnell would send his scouting reports to the Rockies as circumstances permitted.
"I remember pulling into a truck stop and leaving a voice mail," said Darnell, who is now a national crosschecker for the Padres. "I told them, 'Just in case something happens, I think this guy is going to hit for a lot of power.' "
The guy was Albert Pujols. The advice was ignored.
Pujols is the slugger who slipped beneath baseball's radar, the greatest player ever selected with the 402nd choice in the amateur draft. He signed his first contract in 1999 with the Cardinals for $60,000 and might have been a bargain at $60 million.
Long before he led the Cardinals into the World Series last year, before leading them to the best record in baseball in 2005—and before he became Baseball America’s Major League Player of the Year—Pujols was recognized throughout the industry as the big one that got away.
More than any player in a generation, Pujols forced scouts to reevaluate their methods, their priorities and their eyeglass prescriptions.
His 2005 season provided yet another example of his excellence--.330-41-117, a league-best 129 runs, career highs in stolen bases (16 in 18 attempts), walks (97, with just 65 strikeouts) and intentional walks (a league-leading 27), a .430 on-base percentage and .609 slugging mark. He was the constant force in a Cardinals lineup riddled by injuries much of the season, playing through a painful case of plantar fasciitis in both feet.
The Cardinals first baseman is the first player to hit at least 30 home runs in each of his first five big league seasons, and he was just the third player to reach 500 RBIs in his first four seasons. The other two were Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
Not that the nation's scouts need to be reminded of that.
"For a while, I just thought I was hexed," said Dan Jennings, who is now the vice president of player personnel for the Marlins. "I'd come in the room when he first got in the big leagues and it would be Pujols hitting a double, Pujols driving in a run. I'd say, 'God, I get the message.' You can make one bad decision and it will bite you forever."
Albert Pujols was known as Jose Pujols then. He was playing out of position at Maple Woods Community College, and he was playing out of shape. Like many talented players with roots in the Dominican Republic, Pujols was suspected of being older than he claimed.
Nor did he meet the run-and-throw standards scouts have been trained to seek in amateur prospects. Darnell's May 14, 1999, scouting report, filed less than three weeks before the draft, described Pujols as "heavy legged," and observed that his throws "often tail and sink as fingers are not on top of the ball."
Yet with a bat in his hands, Albert Pujols was precocious and powerful. If you were paying attention, he held it.
"Guys that can hit are going to play," said Brad Kullman, director of major league operations for the Reds. "Our reports were that he had power and he was undisciplined at the plate--a free swinger. That's one of his strengths now--he's so disciplined."
Arango was on record early that Pujols would ultimately hit 40 home runs in a season. In his first five years in the majors, Pujols hit 37, 34, 43, 46 and 41 homers.
"What I saw in him was tremendous athletic ability," said Arango, who is now the Latin American scouting coordinator for the Brewers. "He just hit the ball with an impact that you didn't see every day. I went to a game at Maple Woods, and he hit two home runs and the sound off the bat sounded like cannon shots."
Arango's enthusiasm persuaded the Devil Rays to bring Pujols to Tropicana Field for a predraft workout. The day, Jennings recalls, was a disaster. Based on his body type, Pujols was asked to perform in catching equipment, and reluctantly agreed.
"It wasn't very pretty," Jennings said. "Then we let him hit and he hit one ball in batting practice that went to the warning track, and no balls that went in the stands for a home run. He might as well have been Joe Smith. There was nothing that said this was a great player.
"We were blinded by our own eyes."
Arango says Pujols was fully capable of putting on a power show that day, but was primarily focused on scorching line drives. Less than a month after Arango's lobbying led nowhere--and the Cardinals were still able to pluck Pujols in the 13th round--the scout tendered his resignation.
"I was a little frustrated," Arango said. "Dan Jennings asked me the question if I left because of Pujols. To me, it was very simple. If I can't get a guy like that, even in the 10th round, maybe I should take a sabbatical from amateur scouting."
Pujols played shortstop at Maple Woods, and some clubs focused on his body (which was big but not necessarily firm) and lack of a true position as negatives. The Cardinals were the first team to decide to take the chance that his bat would be enough, with area scout Dave Karaff and crosschecker Mike Roberts doing most of the scouting that led to him being drafted.
“Dave always liked him,” says Frank Leo, who not only coached Pujols in the summer of 1999 but also served as his host family. “He stuck with him when some others didn’t.”
Pujols played for Leo in the Jayhawk League, a summer college league in Kansas, after the Cardinals drafted him and offered him a $10,000 bonus. He batted .343-5-17 for the Hays Larks, earning a bonus of close to $60,000 at the end of the summer. Dave Bingham, the former Kansas coach, recommended Pujols to Leo after coaching him for a travel team based out of his Kansas City baseball school. Leo said Pujols’ advanced game was apparent to scouts who paid attention.
“The ball exploded off his bat almost like it does now,” Leo says. “He hit doubles off the wall, not chinks over the infield. That was his first time using wood bats full time, but his swing was always compact. He always understood the game, things like baserunning and situations, even at a young age.”
The Red Sox also had their eyes on Pujols, according to then-scouting director Wayne Britton. Pujols moved to the top of the Red Sox draft board midway through the first day of the '99 draft, and Britton called Pujols to ask if he would consider signing for ninth- or 10th-round money. Pujols refused, the Red Sox moved on, and Britton learned a valuable lesson.
“I should have just taken Pujols and seen if we could have signed him,” says Britton, who is now the national crosschecker for the Yankees. “I decided after that that I’d never pass up a player in the lower rounds because he said he wouldn’t sign.”
Herk Robinson, then the general manager of the Royals, says the failure to find Pujols right under his nose "may be the one that stings the most."
"Here's the kicker," Robinson said. "We had someone in our engineering department here at Kauffman Stadium who actually lived with Albert for about three months. You can't get much more in your back yard than that."
Padres scouting director Bill Gayton, who was then with the Rockies, says some clubs were discouraged by unresolved questions about Pujols' midyear move from high school to junior college, his age and his residency status. Looking back, a lot of due diligence never got done.
Gayton says the Pujols case reinforces the need to re-examine scouting decisions after the fact, to determine what one scout saw that another missed. Jennings says Pujols taught him to defer to his scouts when they are adamant about a player's ability.
"That was obviously the biggest mistake we made when I was in Tampa Bay," said Jennings, who took Josh Hamilton No. 1 overall in that draft. "If we had picked him in the ninth round, we'd look like geniuses."
Tim Sullivan is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Jim Callis and John Manuel contributed to this story.