Ahead of Draft, few saw Pujols' potential

Rays scout tried to convince team to take future superstar, who fell to 402nd overall

September 24th, 2022

In the 1999 MLB Draft Josh Hamilton went first to the Rays, Josh Beckett went second to the Marlins, and 399 other players were selected before the Cardinals finally took a chance on Albert Pujols, with the 18th pick of the 13th round.

"It's a chip on my shoulder that I will have for the rest of my career, until I'm done wearing a uniform," Pujols said in 2016. "I still think about it."

Even the benefits of modern technology and the reams of analytical data compiled by today's front offices can't strip the subjective, uncertain nature of the process. Draft results are rarely ever kind with the benefit of hindsight. And the 1999 version remains a classic example of how easy it can be to overlook young players, because it took Pujols only 24 months to go from an unheralded draftee too one of the game's premier players.

He thought the Rays would make him their second pick, after Hamilton, but they didn't budge.

He was told he could go within the first five rounds, but it never happened.

He thought the Mets would get him in the ninth round, but his representative at the time, a lawyer-turned-agent who reportedly scared away teams with his financial demands, overplayed his hand.

He thought the Red Sox would take him in Round 10, but they didn't offer to pay for his schooling, which Pujols required as a fallback option if baseball didn't work out.

The Cardinals wound up getting him on a $30,000 signing bonus, with another $30,000 promised for a college tuition that Pujols ultimately never needed.

"I told my wife that I was going to play three years in the Minors, and if I don't make it, I'll retire," said Pujols during his Angels tenure. "I was just frustrated at the time. If I were still playing in the Minors, I would've continued to play. But it took me one year, man. And that was just to prove people that they were wrong."

Of the 402 players selected ahead of Pujols, 290 never played a game in the Majors. The Angels made the 401st pick and selected a Mexican-born shortstop named Alfredo Amezaga, who carved out a modest nine-year career mainly as a utility infielder.

Amezaga still teases Pujols about that.

"I say it all the time -- every organization failed that year," Fernando Arango, a retired scout who was with the Rays at the time, said in Spanish. "All of them did, because not even the Cardinals knew what they had."

Arango remains one of Pujols' closest friends, a man Pujols says "understands my swing better than anybody."

It began at a baseball tournament in the small town of Republic, Mo., in 1997. Arango -- then an area scout covering Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas -- heard about a thick-bodied, power-hitting third baseman at a high school roughly 150 miles away and felt obligated to meet him at a local tournament.

Arango introduced himself to Pujols that day. They made small talk, exchanged phone numbers, promised to stay in touch -- and by the spring of 1999, Arango was hooked.

He sat in the stands to watch Pujols, at that point a shortstop, play for Maple Woods Community College and smash two baseballs into the tall trees that sat well beyond the left-center-field fence, which measured 375 feet away from home plate.

Said Arango: "It sounded like two cannon blasts."

That May, Arango met with Dan Jennings, then the Rays' scouting director, and Stan Meek, one of their cross-checkers, at a hotel near the airport in Houston. He told them with conviction that the Pujols kid he kept following would someday hit 40 home runs in the Major Leagues and, as Arango recalled, "they looked at me like I was crazy."

Jennings was nonetheless intrigued. He told Arango to bring Pujols to a showcase at Tropicana Field later that month, the only pre-Draft event Pujols was invited to attend.

He ran the 60-yard dash in 7.1 seconds, hit a baseball off the top of the left-field foul pole and even crouched behind the plate for the first time in his life, producing a pop time of 1.85 seconds that was well above average for his age group, according to Arango.

Arango left that workout almost certain the Rays would take Pujols with either their second- or third-round pick. But the Rays weren't nearly as impressed. They took Carl Crawford in the second round, then followed with four pitchers -- Doug Waechter, Alex Santos, Seth McClung and Eric Henderson.

"I couldn't believe it," Arango said. "I'm like, 'What's going on here?'"

Arango saw a strong kid with a disciplined approach, a rocket arm, elite defensive instincts and off-the-charts makeup. Others were concerned that Pujols was older than he claimed, or that he was overweight, or that he didn't have a position. So they passed him by.

Arango was so displeased the Rays ignored his recommendation that he quit a year later, eventually spending time as an agent and making stops with a couple of other organizations until retiring last October.

Pujols spent the summer of 1999 playing in the Jayhawk Collegiate League. He signed in August, homered in his first two at-bats for the Cardinals' instructional league the ensuing fall, played one season in the Minor Leagues the following summer, then began to carve out possibly the greatest 10-year run in Major League history.

He is already perhaps the second-best first baseman of all time, behind only Lou Gehrig.

"He was someone who embraced challenges, who had conviction and an incredible belief in himself," Arango said. "That's what you call 'makeup,' and that is the toughest thing to truly know about a player."