In the decade that began shortly after the historic home run chase many believe saved the game of baseball, it’s no surprise that only one National League player with fewer than 30 homers placed in the top three of MVP voting. In 2009, Hanley Ramirez only had 24 home runs but also had a league-leading .342 batting average to go along with 42 doubles and 27 stolen bases, which pushed him into the mix for NL MVP. He finished in second place, although he didn’t receive a single first place vote.
But as much as home runs were a primary driver in measuring the decade’s hitting success, it would understate the talent of the two players who accounted for seven of the MVP awards between 2001-2009 to define them by that one statistic. They were simply two of the greatest all-around hitters to ever play the game. Here’s a look back at how those two, along with the three other NL MVPs of the 2000s, were acquired.
In a span of just over four years, Jeff Kent was traded three times in exchange for an All-Star. In each case, it seems unlikely that the team trading him away believed he would finish his career as a borderline Hall of Famer with 377 career homers, 560 doubles (tied for 30th all-time), and an NL MVP award.
Kent, a former 20th round draft pick, did have enough value, along with outfield prospect Ryan Thompson, for the eventual World Champion Toronto Blue Jays to acquire right-hander David Cone from the New York Mets in August 1992. In July 1996, when the Mets were interested in acquiring a struggling Carlos Baerga, still only 27-year-old and a year removed from his third All-Star selection, Kent and infielder Jose Vizcaino were sent to the Cleveland Indians in return. Eight months older than Baerga and considered a defensive liability, Kent’s exit from New York was not considered a major loss.
For the remainder of the 1996 season, the Indians utilized Kent in a utility role — he made starts at first, second, and third base — while also giving him two starts in the AL Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles. If he was trying out for a spot in Cleveland’s infield in 1997, he failed the audition. He was traded in November, along with Vizcaino and pitchers Joe Roa and Julian Tavarez, to the San Francisco Giants for third baseman Matt Williams, a four-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner.
As the most notable player acquired for Williams, who was extremely popular with Giants fans after a decade-long run in San Francisco, Kent ensured from the outset that Brian Sabean would not regret one of his first moves as the team’s new general manager. After hitting 29 homers and knocking in 121 runs in his debut season with his new team, Kent would reach the pinnacle of his career three years later when he hit .334 with 81 extra-base hits and 125 runs batted in while beating out teammate Barry Bonds for the NL MVP award in 2000.
|MVP||Barry Bonds||SFG||38||Free Agent (PIT) Dec ’92||550||45||7||1.278||212||10.2|
|2nd||Albert Pujols||STL||23||Drafted 13th Rd ’99||685||43||5||1.106||184||9.5|
|3rd||Gary Sheffield||ATL||34||Trade (LAD) Jan ’02||678||39||18||1.023||163||7.3|
|MVP||Barry Bonds||SFG||39||Free Agent (PIT) Dec ’92||617||45||6||1.422||233||11.9|
|2nd||Adrian Beltre||LAD||25||Amateur FA (DOM) Jul ’94||657||48||7||1.017||161||9.7|
|3rd||Albert Pujols||STL||24||Drafted 13th Rd ’99||692||46||5||1.072||171||7.8|
It was Bobby Bonds, Barry’s father, who began his career with the San Francisco Giants, compiling 186 homers, 263 stolen bases, and two All-Star selections in seven seasons with the team. Less than a decade after the elder Bonds’ final season with San Francisco, Barry would be selected by the Giants in the second round of the 1982 draft. Despite the history — Barry was three years old when his father made his major league debut and 10 when he was traded to the Yankees — he opted to go to Arizona State when the Giants wouldn’t meet his asking price.
More than a decade later, the Giants signed Bonds to a record-breaking six-year, $43.75 million free agent contract. The 28-year-old, widely considered to be the best player in the game at the time, joined a team that had lost 90 games the previous season. Led by Bonds and new manager Dusty Baker, the 1993 Giants went on to win 103 games, although they fell short of the playoffs and would not have another winning season until 1997.
Seven seasons would pass before Bonds would win another MVP, although he was always in the mix while averaging 39 homers and 27 stolen bases per year over that span. Heading into his age-36 season, Bonds’ chances to add on to his collection of MVP awards would certainly decrease under normal circumstances. But, from what we now know, Bonds had been taking performance-enhancing drugs for at least the previous year.
As baseball fans, we understand how challenging it is for a player to remain healthy and productive once their physical skills begin to diminish. The experience and knowledge gained through years as a professional baseball player can make up for it to some extent, but Bonds’ ages-36 to 39 seasons, in which he won his fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh MVP awards, served as a real-life experiment in what could happen if a player did not lose a step during the years when they were also at the top of their game mentally.
The second half of Bonds’ career will always be viewed as tainted, even if it was educational and highly entertaining. But it’s notable that he slashed .276/.480/.565 in his final season — he turned 43 years of age when the 2007 season ended — with 28 homers in 477 plate appearances. It had been years since accusations and suspicions of his performance-enhancing drug usage had been in the news. Even with increased measures taken by the league to identify cheaters, Bonds was still one of the best in the game. Maybe he was just a really good cheater? Maybe a drug-free Bonds would’ve been an MVP-caliber player in his late 30s, anyways? It’s a shame that we’ll never know for sure.
A version of this write-up was originally published as part of How They Got There: The 1990-1999 NL MVPs.
In 1999, the Mark McGwire show was still happening in St. Louis. The new single-season home run king was off to another great start, although the Cardinals were at somewhat of a crossroads. They were a team that had been mostly in the mediocre-to-slightly-above-average range with just one division title since 1987. McGwire, at age 35, was not going to be the superstar to lead the team into the next century. Following an 86-loss season, St. Louis was ready to make some big changes.
Several offseason acquisitions by general manager Walt Jocketty, including trades for center fielder Jim Edmonds and starting pitcher Darryl Kile, helped revive the team in 2000. But little did anyone know at the time, it was a 13th round pick from the previous year’s draft, a third baseman named Albert Pujols, who would go on to make the biggest impact on one of the most successful teams in baseball over the next decade.
Despite a strong recommendation from at least one scout, Fernando Arango of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Pujols would be passed over 401 times before the Cardinals finally selected him. At pre-draft meetings, Arango claims to have touted Pujols as a potential “.280-.290 hitter who could hit 40 home runs some day.” Incensed that the Devil Rays did not heed his advice on Pujols, he resigned within a year. It didn’t take Pujols long to make Arango look good.
After winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2001, Pujols won a batting title (.359 BA) and reached the 40-homer mark for the first time in 2003. Two years later, with Bonds sidelined for most of the season due to injuries, Pujols had a clear path to his first NL MVP, well-deserved in a season in which he became the second fastest in major league history to reach 200 homers.
|MVP||Ryan Howard||PHI||26||Drafted 5th Rd (140) ’01||704||58||0||1.084||162||5.9|
|2nd||Albert Pujols||STL||26||Drafted 13th Rd ’99||634||49||7||1.102||174||8.1|
|3rd||Lance Berkman||HOU||30||Drafted 1st Rd (16) ’97||646||45||3||1.041||158||6.1|
The 2000 Phillies lost 97 games and were 29th in the league in home runs. The following June, the team drafted power-hitting first baseman Ryan Howard, who some scouts compared to slugger Fred McGriff. Weeks later, the Phillies would unveil the design of their yet-to-be-named future stadium, which turned out to be a homer-friendly bandbox after it opened in 2004. Whether the selection of Howard or the ball park dimensions were reactions to the team’s lack of power during the previous season or not, it set the Phillies up to become one of the premier home run hitting teams in the game soon thereafter.
Despite playing in just 88 games and striking out 100 times in 348 plate appearances, Howard won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2005 with 22 homers and a .924 OPS. Proving that his success was not the result of a small sample size, the 25-year-old would take it up a notch in 2006 when he hit .313 with 108 walks and a league-leading 58 homers and 149 runs batted in.
While it was enough for Howard to win the NL MVP, the second-place Phillies fell short of the playoffs for a 13th consecutive season. Beginning in 2007, however, they would win five consecutive division titles and a World Series championship in 2008. Over that span, including his first six full big league seasons, Howard led the majors in homers with 262.
Almost 15 years after five-time All-Star Larry Bowa and Ryne Sandberg were traded to the Chicago Cubs for Ivan De Jesus, the Phillies drafted 17-year-old shortstop Jimmy Rollins with the 46th pick in the 1996 draft. Not only was Bowa the last consistently productive shortstop in Philly, he would become the team’s manager prior to Rollins’ first full big league season in 2001.
The switch-hitting Rollins quickly asserted himself as one of the better all-around shortstops in the league and the catalyst of an up-and-coming Phillies’ lineup. But in an era when home runs were the biggest factor in gaining MVP votes, it took a season that almost perfectly defined the phrase “filling up the stat line” for Rollins to finally break through. While starting all 162 games and logging a major league record 778 plate appearances, the 28-year-old Rollins had 212 hits, 139 runs scored, 30 homers, 38 doubles, 20 triples, 94 runs batted in, and 41 stolen bases to go along with his first Gold Glove award. No player in major league history had ever recorded 200 hits, 30 homers, 30 stolen bases, and 20 triples before.
|MVP||Albert Pujols||STL||28||Drafted 13th Rd ’99||641||37||7||1.114||184||8.7|
|2nd||Ryan Howard||PHI||28||Drafted 5th Rd (140) ’01||700||48||1||0.881||120||2.8|
|3rd||Ryan Braun||MIL||24||Drafted 1st Rd (5) ’05||663||37||14||0.888||129||4.5|
|MVP||Albert Pujols||STL||29||Drafted 13th Rd ’99||700||47||16||1.101||180||8.4|
|2nd||Hanley Ramirez||FLA||25||Trade (BOS) Nov ’05||652||24||27||0.954||149||7.1|
|3rd||Ryan Howard||PHI||29||Drafted 5th Rd (140) ’01||703||45||8||0.931||139||4.4|
After Howard and Rollins wowed voters with their respective performances in 2006 and 2007, it was time to recognize Pujols again while he was still in his prime. In 11 seasons with the Cardinals between 2001-2011, Pujols’ level of consistency and greatness was awe-inspiring. He reached 700 plate appearances three times and never had fewer than 641. He hit at least 40 homers six times. He hit at least .300 in every season but one, when he hit .299. He scored 100 runs in every season but one, when he had 99. He knocked in 100 runs in every season but one, when he had 99. His production in 321 post-season plate appearances over that span is also in line with his regular season numbers.
While his performance declined immediately upon joining the Los Angeles Angels in 2012, Pujols is considered one of the greatest hitters in baseball history and a lock for the Hall of Fame.