My Top 50 on Cardboard
2001 Bowman Heritage Albert Pujols
Before I started publishing this list I ran the list by a couple other long-time collectors just to get a little bit of input on the list before I actually started hitting the publish key on this series of posts. One of the hardest players for me to rank, and ended in the biggest conversation about the rankings, was the great Albert Pujols. While Albert Pujols might have been higher on this list a few years ago he has clearly fallen behind some of the other elite players in the eyes of baseball card enthusiasts. Still Pujols could walk away from the game today and be a Hall of Famer in five years. His cards will always carry some value and enjoyment to collectors because he's Albert Pujols. Even as a die-hard Cardinals fan who sold off a big chunk of his Pujols collection during the 2011 season, there is still something cool about finding a nice Pujols card. Even if they are not as high in value as they once were, it would be hard to say that they are a bargain. Time heals wounds and I am guessing that Cardinals fans will come around to overlooking the fact that Pujols took his services to Disneyland. While his prices may continue to drop a little more while Pujols hobbles to the final years of his career, I expect his cards will maintain decent value and might find a rallying point in a year or two when he starts to approach some of baseball's milestone numbers like 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.
I attended the first game Albert Pujols played in St. Louis in 2001 for my 24th birthday. I still have the ticket stub which holds a special place in my collection. While Pujols did not have any baseball cards out at the beginning of the 2001 season, it did not take card companies long to fill the void. By the middle of the summer all of the card releases had a Pujols and the questions were continually asked: How many are in the print run and how hard is it going to be to find this card? The short printed serial numbered rookie card was all the rage that summer and Pujols had tons of them.
Back in 2001 they were all the rage and outrageously expensive all at the same time. Those tough to find short printed, serial numbered cards have come back down to Earth slightly, but can still be tough finds. Some times they can still be pricey too. One of my favorites is the 2001 Fleer Premium.
2001 Fleer Premium Albert Pujols RC
This card would have easily run into the low 100s back in the early 2000s. It's not the toughest Pujols rookie to find with the card being numbered to 1999, but it's a nice cleanly designed popular rookie card. As I recall it was also an exchange off a generic looking card that did not identify a specific player, but rather just simply a rookie card and a number. You might have ended up with Wilson Betimet. I did. Anyway, this card has cooled off to be just below $50. A fair price for this card would be anywhere from $40-$50 depending on where and whom you were buying the card from. Considering the season that Pujols had last year, there is definitely a little bit of staying power in the value and popularity of his cards.
The same trends can be found in other Pujols cards too. Yes, there has been a downward trend on Pujols relics and autographs the past two or three years just like his rookie cards. Yes, these cards still hold value for collectors. Yes, these cards are still popular and still widely pursued by collectors across the hobby. I would dare say given the level of play that Pujols will be remembered for big picture, the card prices at the moment might be somewhat of a bargain in the future.
2003 Topps Albert Pujols Autograph
While I am not sure that the Pujols card market has reached its basement yet, I am not sure how much further his cards can realistically fall. It's true that Pujols is declining at a significant rate, but he is still possibly one of the best hitters ever and in the argument for the best offensive player of his generation. A player like ARod still offers collectors decent value and his autographs still regularly sell for more than $30 despite everything he's done wrong. Albert has simply gotten older, not any garbage like ARod. I liken the decline of the Pujols market to the downturn in Griffey cards later in his career. The prices of Griffey cards declined during the latter stages of his time in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Seattle, but he's still Ken Griffey Jr. Albert might be getting old and declining, but I wouldn't hedge my bets on his cards falling much further.
On The Field-
I will just throw this out at the beginning: Albert Pujols in his prime is the best offensive player I have ever seen. Not to say that a player like Miguel Cabrera could not pass him by over the next few years, or a talent like Mike Trout couldn't catch him too. Both are spectacular players. Pujols has just played at a high level for a really long time, it's hard to find active players who can be compared to The Machine. A quick check of Baseball-Reference shows his comparable hitters through age 33 are: Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, and Vladimir Guerrero. Read that list again a few times. Really impressive and exclusive company to have a comparable stat line to that many Hall of Famers and great players who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.
Before I get into some of the more complicated statistics and more comparisons to his peers, if you are into the counting stats, Pujols is basically a Hall of Famer right now if he announces his retirement. He is just short of 2500 hits and should cross that marker within a year, along with hitting his 500th home run, and 1,500 RBIs. Add in the fact that he ranks in the top 50 in homers, doubles, RBIs, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.
JAWS ranks Pujols as the third best first baseman of all-time behind Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. If Pujols can pull another healthy season or two out of his legs he should pass Foxx by in the next year or two. Gehrig is going to be a challenge for Pujols to catch, particularly if he continues to slow down his production. Pujols has actually passed Foxx by in OPS+ sitting at 165 compared to Foxx at 163.
What more can be said about Pujols? The guy is one of the best of all-time. It was fun watching him play for my favorite team for a decade. Here are three of my favorite Pujols moments:
3. Most people remember the Rolen home run off Roger Clemens which was the game winner in game 7 of the 2004 National League Championship Series. Most people don't remember that the batter before Rolen, Pujols, actually tied the game up by doubling home outfielder Roger Cedeno with the tying run. The whole at-bat was great, but check out where the pitch was on the video. Add in that it was a 93 mile per fastball and that Pujols, a right-handed hitter, had quick enough hands to keep the ball fair going down the third base line. Really impressive.
2. The most remembered Pujols postseason home run, but not his best in my opinion. Brad Lidge. Albert Pujols.
1. Best home run in the career of Pujols in my opinion is the Game 1 home run he hit off of Tigers ace Justin Verlander. I know many might point out his three home run performance against the Rangers in the 2011 series, but that game was a complete bludgeoning and much of the work was finished after the first Pujols home run in that game. The 2006 World Series home run came in a series where the Cardinals were heavy underdogs to the Tigers who had a clear Game 1 pitching advantage with ace Justin Verlander matched up against rookie Anthony Reyes. The Cardinals had taken the lead the batter before Pujols on a Chris Duncan double. With first base open, I believe the Tigers were "pitching around" Pujols when he hit this fastball off the plate to the opposite field. It wasn't a terrible pitch by Verlander, but it seemed to set the tone for the Cardinals on their way to winning the 2006 fall classic.
This could be a top ten list which I probably shouldn't do today. Instead I am going to go with an under the radar Pujols card which I love and is affordable for any card collector. One of the really cool things about Albert's time in St. Louis was his sense of history (right up until the end). He was always respectful of the deep traditions of the Cardinals franchise and always said the right things about past players. He seemed to be good pals with Stan Musial and was cordial towards many of the other former players who linger around the franchise.
Given the interest shown by Pujols in the past history of the Cardinals I really enjoyed seeing the 2010 National Chicle card of Albert featuring him wearing a St. Louis Browns uniform. There are plenty of Pujols cards of him wearing throwback Cardinals gear, but to my knowledge this might be his only card made where Albert is wearing a uniform that doesn't some how belong to the Angels or Cardinals. Really cool card put out by Topps.