Pick your franchise cornerstone

Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki are elite players and leaders, but who's better to build a team around?

Originally Published: April 22, 2005
ESPN.com

The Matchup:

Albert Pujols against Ichiro Suzuki

The Question:

Who's the better player to build a team around?

Albert Pujols vs. Ichiro Suzuki
Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols' comparisons usually start with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com

Some players have the God-given ability to do incredible things. Others have to work all their lives to compete against the truly gifted ones.

Only occasionally do you find a guy with the designer genes who acts like he's going to get sent down to the junior varsity if he doesn't outwork every grunt on the field. Those are the guys who become the greatest ever at their sports.

Albert Pujols, like Tiger Woods, is one of the rare ones. He's the cornerstone any franchise would want to build its team around, and just happened to fall to the St. Louis Cardinals.

"The thing about Pujols, he's not going to do something halfway,'' Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo said. "He has a lot of pride in how he plays the game. When you're that kind of player, you continue to get better.''

Ditto your team.

In the four seasons that the 25-year-old Pujols has been in the majors, the Cardinals have won three division titles and one pennant. He could have already won two MVP awards but had the misfortune to enter baseball at the time that Barry Bonds was rewriting the record book.

For Pujols, the runnerup MVP finishes in 2002 and '03 (he's never finished lower than fourth in MVP voting) have only added fuel to his seemingly bottomless tank. He has done things only a handful of players ever did in their early years in the majors but somehow finds the perspective to spend as much time thinking about the few things he hasn't done, like won a World Series.

"They talk about [Joe] DiMaggio and [Ted] Williams and that's nice, but I don't care about that,'' Pujols said during the 2004 World Series. "I just want to keep working.''

It's the perfect attitude for the perfect player to build a franchise with.

Consider all you get with Pujols:

A STUD HITTER: Pujols is a lifetime .332 hitter who in 642 big-league games has hit 164 home runs, driven in 512 runs and scored 509. DiMaggio and Williams are the only other hitters who ever drove in more than 500 runs in their first four seasons. DiMaggio, Williams and Al Simmons are the only others to have at least 100 RBI in each of their first four seasons. But the trend that perhaps illustrates how truly special Pujols is lies in his plate discipline and contact hitting. He has both cut down his strikeouts and increased his walks in each of his seasons, going from 93 strikeouts and 69 walks in 2001 to 52 strikeouts and 84 walks in '04. "He knows that putting the ball in play is the winning play,'' said St. Louis manager Tony La Russa. Mitchell Page, the Cardinals' former hitting coach, said that a slump for Pujols was "0-for-2.''

A VERSATILE FIELDER: Pujols, a wide-bodied shortstop at Maple Woods Community College near Kansas City, played all over the infield in his first spring training with the Cardinals. He wound up playing at least 39 games at four different positions in that Rookie of the Year season (third base, first base, left field and right field), moving all over the field to help compensate for a miserable season by Mark McGwire. Pujols appeared to have settled at third base the following season but then moved to left field when St. Louis acquired Scott Rolen in a midseason trade. Elbow problems were a concern out there, triggering his move to first base last season. The Cardinals believe he can become a Gold Glove fielder if he stays there, as he probably will. But they also know that in a pinch there's almost no place on the field he could not help them win games. "He's a good enough athlete that he can pretty much accomplish whatever he sets his mind to,'' Oquendo said. "It's important to him to be a complete player, not just a great hitter.''

A LATIN LEADER: In a game in which 24.8 percent of players are from Latin America, Pujols is an ideal leader. He is idolized by aspiring Latins, who emulate his work ethic. Non-roster outfielder Raul Gonzalez, six years Pujols' elder, was like a puppy following him around at the Cardinals' spring training complex. "My first day here, when I got the chance, I went up to him and said, 'I want to see you work,' " Gonzalez told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "Whenever he went out there [to the batting cages], I wanted to go out there.''

You can't blame revenue disparity for Pujols' landing with a team that already had McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew. The shame of his being the perfect player to build a team around is that one of the skid-row franchises didn't land him.

There were 401 players taken before the Cardinals landed him in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. Imagine the impact he could have made had a team like Tampa Bay taken him.

The Devil Rays' area scout, Fernando Arango, was as least as high on Pujols as was Mike Karaff, the scout who recommended him to Jeff Scott, then St. Louis' scouting director. Arango was so distraught when the Devil Rays left Pujols hanging on the draft board for so long that he quit three weeks after that draft.

"To me, it was very simple,'' Arango told the San Diego Union last year. "If I can't get a guy like that, even in the 10th round, maybe I should take a sabbatical from amateur scouting."

You lose a guy like Pujols, you don't just go get 'em the next year.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.

Ichiro Suzuki
Four years, four Gold Gloves, four All-Star Games, Rookie of the Year and AL MVP.

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

Looking for the perfect player around which you can build your team? Start at the logical place: the top.

The top of the Seattle Mariners lineup, that is.

Since arriving from Japan for the 2001 season, Ichiro Suzuki has been the premier leadoff hitter in the game, serving as catalyst for the Mariners batting order. Everything else flows from Ichiro's many skills – speed, defense, arm strength and consistency at the plate. So it would be if you were beginning a team from scratch. Ichiro would be the perfect starting point.

It might be something of a stretch to label Ichiro a five-tool player since, in his four years with the Mariners, he's hit a total of 37 homers. Only once in those four seasons has Ichiro reached double figures in homers.

But that's nitpicking. As the Mariners' leadoff hitter, it's Ichiro's job to get on base, which he does as well as anyone. Last season, when he smashed the single-season hit record with 262, he compiled a .414 on-base percentage, second-highest in the American League.

Of course, the ultimate measuring stick of a leadoff hitter is not how frequently he reaches base – it's how frequently he rounds them. Here, too, Ichiro is a standout. He's scored 101 or more runs in each of his four seasons, including an astounding 127 in his rookie season of 2001. Undoubtedly, his relatively modest figure last year (101) would have been far higher if the Mariners had a more productive middle of the lineup. Seattle's having added run producers Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre over the winter to address that need, it's a given that Ichiro's runs scored will increase this season.

Offense is only a portion of Ichiro's game. He's among the speediest players in the game going from home to first, making even the most routine grounder a potential infield hit and constantly forcing the opposition to guard against the bunt.

When Ichiro reaches base, the real fun begins. His presence on first ensures that the hitters who follow him in the Seattle lineup are bound to see more fastballs.

In four seasons, he's averaged slightly more than 39 steals per season, and has been successful in 76 percent of his attempts.

Ichiro, then, can disrupt at the plate and on the bases. He puts the other team on the defensive from the time he hits until he's retired – or the inning is over.

But it's in the field where Ichiro shows his overall value. He's won a Gold Glove in each of his four seasons, covering the spacious right field of Safeco Field and preventing balls from shooting up the gap or down the line.

Baserunners run on Ichiro at their own risk. He possesses arguably the most accurate outfield arm in the big leagues. Vladimir Guerrero may have the strongest outfield arm in the game, but he can be erratic with his throws. Not so with Ichiro, who cut down a runner trying to go from first to third in his very first big league game.

That throw – a laser-like pea, that seemed almost otherworldly – served as Ichiro's calling card, his mission statement. What's astonishing is that so many baserunners continue to try their luck on Ichiro's howitzer-like right arm – 40 have been gunned down over the previous four seasons. That doesn't begin to reflect the number of baserunners who stay put out of respect – if not outright fear.

Durable? Ichiro is that, too, missing a grand total of 15 games over his first four seasons.

Look at it this way: If you had Ichiro as your building block, it's likely you would already have one of the game's best baserunners, outfielders, throwing arms, run scorers and contact hitters.

Everyday, he has the potential to change the game four different ways – with his bat, his legs, his glove and his arm.

Run producers? There's plenty of those around. But there's no one in the game who can do as many things as well as Ichiro does.

Not bad for starters.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

Career Totals
  Ichiro Pujols
Average .339 .333
At-bats 2722 2363
OBP .384 .413
Runs 450 500
Homers 37 160
RBI 242 504
Steals 157 13
Total bases 1207 1474
Gold Gloves 4 0
MVPs 1 0
Doubles 114 189
Triples 29 9