Best Cardinal

Albert Pujols

Given the disturbingly unpredictable quality of their team play, it's surprising that the 2001 Cardinals feature so many players having individually fine years: Fernando Via (at bat but especially in the field), Placido Polanco, Matt Morris, Darryl Kile (skimpy win total to the contrary), Steve Kline, J.D. Drew (when not benched by injury), even part-timer Craig Paquette. But in a bipolar season of wild fluctuation -- extended winning streaks interrupted by a depressive malaise -- the steadiest and clearly the best performer is Albert Pujols. Certain to be the uncontested NL Rookie of the Year, Pujols briefly slumped (by his already lofty standards) in July but has otherwise proved a consistent astonishment, remaining entrenched among the league's elite in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base average, hits, runs, runs batted in, home runs and doubles. (Don't look for him to challenge Vince Coleman's rookie stolen-base record, however. Although a heady runner, Pujols is slow afoot, leaving him prone to double plays.) Do the splits, and you'll find no vulnerable areas: Pujols excels against right-handers and left-handers, during day and night, on grass and turf, at home and away. His defensive versatility makes his offensive achievements still more impressive: Pujols has started at third (his ostensible position), first, left field and right field, seldom embarrassing himself and frequently impressing with soft hands and a strong, accurate arm. And have we mentioned that Pujols is 21 years old, with only one previous season of professional ball (mostly at Class A Peoria) on his short résumé? Of course, there's no real need to recount most of these facts -- you know them already because Pujols' sensational debut has been covered extensively both locally and nationally. His continuing success in the face of that ceaseless attention is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Pujols' season: His head still fits easily in a regular-sized cap, and he's displayed admirable maturity on and off the diamond. The only question that remains: What can he possibly do for an encore?
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