Albert Pujols has his 600th career home run, the ninth most in MLB history. It’s hard to believe he was a 13th-round pick in 1999. On the latest Ringer MLB Show, Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann spoke with longtime Cardinals executive John Vuch about Pujols’s career path.
It’s obvious that no one saw Pujols as a Hall of Famer when the Cardinals drafted him. But he had already showed promise as a hitter.
"Well, the first time I heard the name was shortly prior to the draft in ’99," Vuch said. "Our scouts obviously liked him. … Our senior scouts … liked him more than the area scout did. But everyone who saw him bat prior to the draft really loved the bat. He was a guy that we really liked. Signability ended up being a little bit of an issue for him, we didn’t end up signing him until the middle of August, after he played in a summer league. So we signed him to a contract for the 2000 season."
Even in camps, Pujols turned heads.
"The first time I saw him play was during our instructional league camp," Vuch said. "It’s the old cliché but in this case it really was true: The ball sounded different coming off his bat. I remember telling one of our scouts then, ‘If this is our 13th-round pick, I can’t wait to see the 12 guys we liked better than him.’ He really was an incredible guy right from the start."
Pujols started with the Peoria Chiefs, a Cardinals minor league affiliate; he quickly moved up through the minors.
"Peoria is only about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from St. Louis, so that was always a pretty accessible trip to make," Vuch said. "I myself and probably a couple other people from the office would go up there a few times, and so got to see him play live. It was clear that he was one of those guys that was better than anybody else on the field. Right off the bat, it was clear that he was a special talent."
Some teams started looking at Pujols as a trade target, but the Cardinals knew already that they couldn’t even entertain offers for him.
"When we were starting to get close to the trade deadline in July, teams were already starting to sniff around about him," Vuch said. "[Cardinals assistant Mike Jorgensen] was a big proponent of saying, ‘Hey, we’ll deal some other guys.’ And we actually ended up trading some guys who were higher draft picks than Pujols in some of the trades that we made. [Jorgensen] was pretty quick to recognize that Pujols should be a guy who should be off-limits as far as dealing."
By the end of the season, Pujols helped the Memphis Redbirds to the Pacific Coast League championship.
"Late, late in the year our Memphis club looked like it was going to make the playoffs, and they kind of got a double whammy as far as outfielders go where they had one guy called up to the big leagues, Thomas Howard, and Ernie Young ended up going to play on the Olympic team. So they lost two outfielders right at the end of the season, and it was apparent they were going to make the postseason. Pujols had played third base really the entire year, but Jorgy felt like he had developed enough to move to the outfield, so our manager at Triple-A got him into a few games at the end of the season at left field and showed that he could handle the position defensively. And as it turned out, he capped off that year, hit a walk-off home run to win the Pacific Coast League championship. So he’s always had a flair for the dramatic."
It’s uncommon for any MLB player to work his way into the majors in just a year, but it’s obscenely rare for guys picked as late in the draft as Pujols.
"He’d done so well in that first year in the minor leagues that he’d earned the opportunity to come to big league camp, which was fairly unusual in itself," Vuch said. "Then he had such a good spring that he really kind of forced his way onto the club. There’s sort of this old wives’ tale that floats around St. Louis that when Bobby Bonilla hurt his hamstring, that was the only reason he made the Opening Day roster. Pujols had actually made the club already, and then when the decision was made to DL Bonilla, that’s when [John] Mabry ended up getting added to the roster. For some reason there’s always a connection made between Pujols and Bonilla, but really it was Mabry and Bonilla that kind of worked out that way. Pujols was already on the club; really, the Bonilla injury had nothing to do with Albert making the club. The rest after that — 2001 — was history."
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.