With 700 in the books, where does Albert Pujols rank among baseball’s all-time best players?

We know where Albert Pujols is on baseball’s all-time home run list.

He’s fourth, just behind Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds. That’s easy. We also know where he sits on the RBI career list, although that could change. He’s comfortably behind Aaron, but just six behind Ruth’s 2,214, and that seems achievable with 10 games left in the regular season. And we know where Pujols ranks in overall bases, only behind Aaron on this list.

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But as his career winds down with a dream final season in St. Louis – where he belongs, as it deserves to end, with a celebration of team and individual success unlike his Anaheim years – and with his membership in the exclusive 700 club, it only makes sense for baseball fans to ask themselves this question: where does Pujols rank on the list of all-time greatest baseball players?

His teammates ask this question in one form or another every time a major Pujols baseball returns to the dugout to be authenticated and enrolled.

“Every time he gets one, it’s like, ‘Okay, who is he passing?’ Which top 5 player of all time is he overtaking in which category,” longtime Cardinals teammate Adam Wainwright said last month. “He overtakes legends every day. He passes on names that don’t seem accessible to most of us in the record books.”

Maybe it’s not an important question, but it’s an interesting one. Living in St. Louis, I’ve heard this question more times than I care to count: “He might be the best right-hander in baseball history.” Of course that’s silly.

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Henry Aaron, who is above Pujols in all three categories we just mentioned, was a right-hander. That was Willie Mays.

“Pujols is undeniably great, but it’s his shining glory at the end that has fans dizzy,” John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, said via Twitter DM.

But after these two inner circle Hall of Fame superstars, is Pujols in talks about the next level? I posed this question to future Hall of Famer CC Sabathia earlier this week.

“Oh yes. Absolutely,” Sabathia said. “Especially when you look at his first 11 or 12 years and what he’s been doing. To be able to be so consistent from the start is incredible. I think you definitely have to take him with you bring the best right-handers, especially this generation, into the conversation.”

Any conversation about Pujol’s position among the game’s greats has to start with his first run with the Cardinals from 2001-2011. In those 11 seasons, he won three MVP awards and finished as runners-up four times. His worst MVP result was a ninth place finish in 2007; His “breaking year” included a .327/.429/.568 slash with 32 homers and an NL-best 8.7 bWAR.

His average season over those first 11 years: .328/.421/.617, 170 OPS+, 40 HR, 121 RBI, 117 runs, 41 2B, 89 BB/64K. Also, no “per 162 games” average. Actual average season only. He averaged a bWAR of 7.9 over those years, with seven consecutive seasons of 8.4 or higher.

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In his first 11 seasons in the major leagues — his first run with the Cardinals — Pujols produced an 86.6 bWAR. Curious where this sits in baseball history? It’s first, just ahead of Rogers Hornsby (86.4), Mickey Mantle (84.7) and Barry Bonds (83.6).

Ted Williams is fifth with 83.0, but that includes two seasons limited to 43 games total due to his service in the Korean War; exclude those and look at his first 11 non-military seasons and his tally jumps to 97.2.

ESPN released a ranking in February that ranked Pujol 30th all-time. Two spots behind Derek Jeter seems…wrong, and putting him ahead of Alex Rodriguez now seems reasonable too. A-Rod was at 26.

Longtime baseball author Joe Posnanski wrote a series of essays for The Athletic in March 2020 listing the top 100 players in baseball history, and each of them is required reading. He inserted Pujols at number 23, and I want to share a passage here.

It’s important to note that Pujols hit 23 home runs for the Angels in 2019 but only had 92 OPS+ and 0.3 bWAR. He looked exhausted.

It was so hard to watch one of the greatest players in baseball history fade away. Every year, against all hope, I hope that Pujols will be Pujols again. Unfortunately, time doesn’t work that way. He’s 40 now and a decade past his prime. However, it was not a sad career; far from it. It was exceptional. It was an inspiration.

Posnanski then detailed Pujol’s iconic home run against Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.

And Pujols swung the bat and connected.

And there was silence. It wasn’t a normal silence. It was the kind of stillness that has its own weather pattern. You know that silly old threat of punching someone into the next week? Albert Pujols had knocked the ball into the next week. And it was so quiet you could hear his cleats pounding the dirt as he ran around the bases.

He’ll never be that player again, no. But maybe he’ll reconnect like that again. That would be nice. It would be great to say to our children, “Yes, this is Albert Pujols.”

How cool is it that today in 2022, for days, weeks, and months — not just another moment — the kids can look at their parents and say, “Hey, that’s Albert Pujols!”

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Where exactly does Pujols rank? There is no right answer. And honestly, it’s hard to be objective right now. You saw 699 and 700 on Friday, right?

“Fans are present, so they’ll shower him with praise and gifts while forgetting about Musial or Hornsby, which they’ve probably never seen. That’s fine,” Thorn said. “Baseball honors its spirits well enough; Let the fans cheer for the man whose exploits they only recently witnessed.

I know this: however you choose to define the “inner circle” Hall of Famer, that’s where he belongs.

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