Albert Pujols doesn’t owe Bobby Bonilla?

Consider it news to the entire Cardinals’ fan base or a non-issue to some. In B.J. Rains’ article this morning about Albert Pujols’ 10 year anniversary of making that opening day roster in 2001, Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa is quoted saying that the story that Bobby Bonilla’s injury gave Pujols his opportunity to make the roster, isn’t true.

As the story goes, Pujols was destined to begin his 2001 season at Triple-A Memphis. However, he was dominating in Spring Training. Ultimately, it was a hamstring injury that resulted in Bonilla hitting the disabled list that opened up a spot and allowed Pujols to make the team. Since then, it’s been history.

Pujols has dominated at the majors becoming one of the best hitters in baseball history.

Today, that story was thrown into doubt as LaRussa was quoted. “That story has been retold a bunch of different times, and that was all because of Bonilla. That wasn’t true. That’s been worked over a little bit. I think it made for a better story, but no.”

Obviously in 10 years, recollections can change and your opinions can change. There’s no doubt that Pujols earned his spot and maybe that’s what LaRussa is referring to with the statement, but would he have had one if Bonilla hadn’t gotten hurt? Was the team prepared to eat the $900,000 on Bonilla? Was it another spot that he was going to take?

But what can we find out? Well, we can look at quotes from articles about Pujols. If the Bonilla story wasn’t true, wouldn’t you have had one of the top members of the Cardinals speaking up sooner than 10 years after the fact? To me, I think it highly unlikely that it was never brought up in an interview.

In a May 16, 2001, article by Steve DiMeglio for USAToday Baseball Weekly, DiMeglio talked about the rise of both Albert Pujols and Rafael Furcal. In this article, Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals’ GM at the time, was quoted. “Each week when we had our cut meetings, there we were, figuring he had to go back to the minors at some point, and each week he kept impressing us more and more. It got to the final week and we just said, ‘Look, we’re a better club with him,’ the way he was playing.”

In the same article, Tony LaRussa said that veterans politicked to have Pujols on the major league roster, and it was injuries to McGwire and Bonilla that gave him the extra playing time in Spring Training.

Yet nothing indicating that the team intended to keep him with the major league team, if anything the quote by Jocketty indicates that they intended to send him to Memphis.

We can also look at the 2001 Opening Day roster.

There were the usual suspects on that roster. Mike Matheny and Eli Marrero on as the two catchers. Mark McGwire, Fernando Vina, Edgar Renteria, Placido Polanco, Ray Lankford, Jim Edmonds, and J.D. Drew as your starting position players. The bench players on the roster were Craig Paquette, John Mabry, Larry Sutton, and Albert Pujols.

Now, that’s 12 position players and they kept 13 pitchers on the roster, which we know is something LaRussa likes to do, especially on a west coast road trip. St. Louis started the season on the road against Colorado and then Arizona.

Other position players competing for a spot in Spring Training for the Cardinals that season were Bobby Bonilla and Bernard Gilkey.

Since you aren’t going to remove anyone from the starting lineup, where do you go from there? You look at the bench players. John Mabry was a favorite of LaRussa’s. So much a favorite that he played for the Cardinals’ three times. Brought back three times via free agency, despite being traded away once. Odds are he makes the roster.

Craig Paquette was viewed as a member of the third base platoon with Placido Polanco. Paquette didn’t hit for average in 2000, but he did hit fairly well for power, hitting 15 homers in 420 plate appearances. At first glance he might be cuttable, but then you notice his $1.5 million salary in 2001 and he becomes quite less so. So he makes the roster.

How about Larry Sutton? He was a utility player whose name I’d never heard. He hit .320 in 23 games and 33 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2000. Also, according to a USAToday Spring Training recap on the NL Central from March 28th, he was hitting .464 with a week to go. Odds are they were going to take an established .300 hitting pinch hitter who was more familiar with the role coming off the bench than an unproven rookie.

That leaves a three-way competition for the final spot. Bobby Bonilla, Bernard Gilkey, and Albert Pujols. Before the season started, the Cardinals released Bernard Gilkey. And then there were two.

Pujols was tearing up spring training and LaRussa was highly favorable of Bobby Bonilla in the same Spring Training recap I mentioned earlier. “If you know Bobby (Bonilla), it’s not a surprise. He’s got excellent hands, he runs good routes, he gets good jumps. This guy has played on winning ballclubs. And what’s been really positive has been his conditioning. He’s put a lot of time into all parts of the game.” Not really the words of a person getting ready to cut a guy in just under a week, who will cost you $1 million to cut.

Ultimately the decision was never made and there are only a handful of people who know where Pujols was going to end up at the end of the season. It was a decision that LaRussa never had to make. But I think there’s more than enough evidence out there to show that Pujols was destined to make the trip down I-55 to Memphis.

Was he worthy of making the roster? Definitely. I think that’s what LaRussa is getting at with his comment, but I don’t think for a moment that he would have actually made it had Bobby Bonilla not had hamstring problems.

As LaRussa was quoted in the Baseball Weekly special on Pujols and Furcal:

“You don’t do what we’ve done with Albert very often. You’re mindful of shattering a player’s psyche, concerned about bringing a player up too soon considering the lack of experience and age. It is rare – very rare – that a player so young and so lacking in seasoning and experience will survive.”

That’s about all you need to know.