Fun With Alternate Reality: Albert Pujols And The 1999 Draft

  • Friday, February 18, 2011 4:47 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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All 30 MLB teams would love to have Albert Pujols, and with El Hombre's negotiating deadline with the Cardinals coming and going Wednesday, it now seems likely that all 30 teams will have a chance to get him.

Well, not really. That's not how things work, of course. The economics of the game dictate that probably no more than a few teams could launch themselves into the payroll stratosphere a Pujols deal would require.

But there was a time when all 30 teams did have a basically equal shot of landing this generation's greatest player. The year was 1999, and Pujols entered the June amateur draft out of a Missouri junior college. And as most people know by now, everyone passed on him -- and passed on him again, and again, and again, and again, and so on.

It wasn't until the 13th round and the 402nd overall pick that the Cardinals selected Pujols.

While nobody would argue Pujols did not turn out to be by far the best pick in the draft, it is stunning to actually go back and look nearly 12 years later.

Here is the clearest way to illustrate the big man's impact: Pujols arrived in the big leagues in 2001 and in 10 seasons has racked up 83.8 wins above replacement (WAR), the second-largest total for a player's first 10 seasons, behind only Ted Williams.

I looked at every team's 1999 draft on Baseball Reference and found that, even including players who have accrued most or all of their value with other organizations, no team came anywhere close to matching Pujols' worth through all their picks combined. The closest was the then-Devil Rays, whose selections (including the now-departed Carl Crawford and since-born-again Josh Hamilton) have accumulated 50.8 WAR in the big leagues.

There are even three teams, including the arch-rival Cubs, whose picks actually have earned negative value in limited MLB action (Cheers, Steve Smyth).

This Joba Chamberlain-sized chasm between the Cardinals' 1999 draft and everyone else's brings up an interesting opportunity for some counterfactual history. In other words, what if one of the 29 other teams took one of its dozen-plus chances to draft Pujols before the Cards did? How would that alter our current reality?

Anyone who has watched Back to the Future knows that changing the past can trigger an unexpected chain reaction of consequences beyond what you could imagine. Maybe if the Orioles had drafted Pujols, he would have torn up his knee in the minors and never been the same. Maybe the Royals would have converted him to pitching.

But the chances seem good Pujols still would have turned out to be Pujols. Talent like that is a bit like a cockroach -- it can thrive pretty much anywhere. What would the effect have been though?

Even historically excellent players cannot will a franchise to glory on their own, but maybe drafting Pujols would have been the boost the Pirates needed to turn the ship around. Or maybe he would have put up five Pujolsian seasons for a fifth- or sixth-place team and bolted for greener pastures at his first opening. It's impossible to know.

Maybe with the Cubs, Pujols, still playing either left field or third base in 2003, would have out-fought Steve Bartman for a foul ball at Wrigley Field, then hit five home runs against the Yankees in the World Series to snap the famous championship drought at 95 years.

The possibilities are endless, and you could tie your brain in knots trying to calculate all of the implications. But what else are you going to do on a warm February afternoon with Spring Training getting underway -- work?

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