By now, most know his story. He grew up in the Dominican Republic, playing baseball with friends using milk cartons for gloves, sticks for bats, and anonymous round objects for the ball. Some of these young ballplayers end up staying in their home country, while others head to America, destined for greatness in America's pastime. Just few examples are Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Alex Rodriguez.
Of course, as of right now, one Dominican player stands apart. That man happens to the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman, and he is leading off our position-by-position analysis.
2006 wasn't just another season for Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals. It was one of the most up-and-down baseball seasons in the history of the game. Then again, at the start of the season, consistent was the only way to define Pujols, who set a Major League-record with 14 home runs in the month of April. It was an astonishing opening month for Albert, who had one of his best games ever on Easter Day against the Reds when he hit three long homers into left field, including a game-winning two-run blast against Reds' reliever David Weathers.
It started out wonderfully for Pujols, and things continued smoothly for the Cardinals' first baseman all the way into early June. As the Cardinals entered the month, Albert was on track to hit 79 home runs on the season. For those who don't keep up with records, the single-season mark for home runs is 73, a record that Barry Bonds set during the 2001 season. If Albert kept up that pace, there were no barriers keeping him for reaching some extremely high expectations. Unfortunately, June brought bad news for Pujols and his team.
It was June 3rd, during a hot summer series against the rival Chicago Cubs. Pujols, who was already starting to become more and more of a defensive star to compliment his power at the plate, scrambled backwards to reach a pop-up that seemed to keep carrying. Apparently he scrambled and stretched just a tad bit too much, and when he grabbed his side in pain, the entire Cardinals' fan base collectively held their breath.
Pujols was down and out – headed to the disabled list for the first time in his career. A strained right oblique was the cause of the pain, and it put him on the disabled list. In the month of June, Pujols compiled very few stats, a byproduct of his limited at-bats (39). Just one home run, 10 hits, two RBI's, and a .256 batting average hurt his season totals greatly.
Then again, this is Albert Pujols, whose nickname is "The Machine". The injury was actually rumored to be bad enough to possibly cut his playing time by up to two months. Instead, Pujols came back in just two weeks, trying to jump-start his already-amazing campaign. His attempt was not a failure at all, but he certainly never was the same for the rest of the '06 season.
After hitting a torrid 14 home runs in April and another 11 in May, Pujols was limited to only one home run in June, seven in July, six in August, and 10 over September and part of October. For most Major League baseball players, this is anything but a disappointment, but after the way Albert started the season, these stats seemed more mediocre than anything.
Things did get better for Pujols as the season progressed, as he started hitting with power once again – but a few more minor setbacks kept 2006 from being one-of-a-kind for Albert Pujols. An elbow injury and a problem with his foot that has bothered him his whole career slowed the first baseman down for much of the remainder of the season. Of course, throughout all of this, Pujols hit a career-high 49 home runs and delivered another high batting average of .331. The nagging injuries spoken about earlier were consistently bothering him at the plate, but his defense continued to improve.
Pujols points to hard work as the secret to his steadily-improving defensive skill at first base. He is known for working hard before games at digging errant throws out of the dirt and for bringing in wild throws from all around him. These workouts have made an amazing difference, and Pujols made several astounding plays with his glove this year. His jumping ability has vastly improved, and his pure athleticism seems to have been unlocked even more than ever.
In fact, Albert's dedication and hard work made him a first-time Gold Glove Award winner in 2006. After winning the National League Most Valuable Player award in '05, the Gold Glove certainly made him appear as more of a complete player. It's nothing new that Albert is a hard worker, but because he believes he always has room to improve, he should continue to be the best first baseman and overall player in baseball.
His backups in 2006 included Scott Spiezio (13 games) and Chris Duncan (11 games). Even starting centerfielder Jim Edmonds (pictured above) took over first base in six games, doubling his appearances there over the five previous seasons combined. All are slated to remain with the club in 2007 but should not see much time covering for Pujols, a player who expects to be in the lineup every day.
2007 should bring exciting new headlines for Pujols and his World Series champion Cardinals, especially since he is starting out healthy again. Every year starts out like it could be a career year for Pujols, and last year seemed to be shaping up as his best – but the 27-year old first baseman's best years are likely ahead of him.
Look for another stellar year offensively and defensively, as Albert Pujols could reach the 50 home run mark for the first time and should hit for an average over .300 for the seventh-straight season.
Overall Position Grade: A+
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