According to Chris Osborn, a former arbitration lawyer for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Yankees made an offer for Albert Pujols in the 2003-2004 offseason that would have “resulted in more rings” than Pujols alone brought to St. Louis.
While Osborn was unable to divulge full details of the proposed trade, here’s what we do know:
- In the 03-04 offseason, the Cardinals were about to enter arbitration with their star slugger Albert Pujols.
- As a team in a mid-sized market, they strongly considered dealing the ultra-valuable Pujols to lengthen their window of contention.
- The Yankees, a team that had just made the World Series in 2003, needed an upgrade at first base.
- The Yankees also had a deep farm system and deeper pockets and were determined to get back to the Fall Classic and come away with a victory.
In the winter of 2003, Pujols was coming off his best season to date. In addition to finishing second in the NL MVP voting, he slashed .359/.439/.667 while winning the batting title and swatting a league-leading 51 homers.
Up until that point, though, he had earned about the major league minimum through his first three seasons in the bigs. With three years of service time under his belt, Pujols was about to cash in big for the first time in his career through the arbitration process.
We all know how this story ends, though. Pujols agrees to a 7-year, $100 million contract to stick around in St. Louis through 2011. As Osborn mentioned last week, things could have gone quite differently had the Cardinals decided to go in another direction.
Osborn wouldn’t mention specific details of the package that was proposed by New York, but he did go as far as to say that there were multiple premium prospects, and 20-20 hindsight says if the Cards had taken the deal, they would have been better off.
Given the recent success of the St. Louis baseball franchise, that’s pretty hard to imagine, but it didn’t keep my from trying.
The question to answer is “Who was in the Yankees pipeline in 2004 that would be good enough to replace 7 years of prime Albert Pujols?” A quick perusing of the Baseball America top prospects yields an easy answer to part of that question.
Entering the 2004 season, Robinson Cano was the #6 prospect in the Yankees system. He was a raw 21-year-old second baseman with a sweet left-handed swing who had just spent 2003 between high-A and AA Trenton hitting .280 with minimal power.
Of course, Cano today still holds the title of one of the best second basemen in our game, and his presence in a Cardinals lineup with Yadier Molina and Scott Rolen would have been a sight to behold.
Cano on his own, though, still doesn’t hold a candle to prime Albert. He doesn’t replicate the prodigious power and game-changing talent that Pujols brought to the park in the 2000’s. Another scan down the Yankees farm system in the early 2000’s doesn’t yield much in the way of major league stars.
Their #1 prospect in 2004 was Dionner Navarro – yes, that Dionner Navarro. Other notable major leaguers of note include Phil Hughes, Chien-Ming Wang, Bubba Crosby, and Melky Cabrera.
So let’s try to piece together that franchise-altering deal that Osborn was mentioning. It surely starts with Cano, but let’s tack on Hughes, Cabrera, and some major league talent too, maybe Alfonso Soriano?
From the looks of it, Soriano wasn’t long for the Bronx anyway, as he ended up with the Rangers in the Alex Rodriguez deal anyway.
While the Yankees did decide to go in a different direction – specifically the direction of Alex Rodriguez and the Rangers – it’s still tantalizing to envision guys like Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Cano in Cardinal uniforms.
More fun, though, is to think back on the times when Albert Pujols brought home his two championships as a St. Louis Cardinal.
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