Entering this week’s action, St. Louis Cardinal first-baseman Matt Adams is second in the National League with a batting average of .316 (a distant second, as Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki is hitting .340). Only one former Memphis Redbird has won a batting title: Albert Pujols with an average of .359 in 2003. This had me considering the best major-league seasons by former Redbird players, which led to the list below, one man’s top ten.
[An important qualifier: For the sake of variety, I’ve limited players to no more than two appearances on this countdown. We’ll call this The Pujols Rule.]
10) J.D. Drew (2004) — The Redbirds’ first real star, Drew made his big-league debut late in the 1998 season in the considerable shadow of Mark McGwire. He was a five-tool golden boy, on his way to comparisons with Mickey Mantle. As it turned out, this was the best Drew had. After arriving in Atlanta in a trade that sent Adam Wainwright to St. Louis, Drew hit .305 with 31 homers and 93 RBIs. He scored 118 runs and finished 6th in the MVP voting. The Braves, alas, fell in the divisional round to Houston while St. Louis won its first pennant in 17 years.
9) Rick Ankiel (2000/2008) — Ankiel’s story is unique and earns him special placement on this countdown. The club of players to win 10 games in an MLB season and hit at least 50 home runs for his career includes two men: Babe Ruth and Ankiel. The Florida native was first a pitching prodigy in Memphis (1999), then slugged 32 homers as the Redbirds’ centerfielder (2007). His 194 strikeouts for the Cardinals in 2000 broke the franchise rookie record held by Dizzy Dean. Eight years later, he returned to hit 25 homers and drive in 71 runs as the Cardinals’ everyday centerfielder. A generation of baseball fans still wonders what might have been had he not suffered that stomach-turning meltdown on the mound in the 2000 playoffs at Busch Stadium.
8) Jason Motte (2012) — Memphis fans were first introduced to Motte when he played behind the plate for the Redbirds in 2004. (Motte saw another young catcher on his way to St. Louis by the name of Molina. So he moved to the mound.) In 2011, Motte took over closing duties in September from Fernando Salas and ended up throwing the final pitch in the Cardinals’ World Series victory. A year later, he tied for the National League lead with 42 saves, only the fourth Cardinal to save 40 games in a season.
7) Dan Haren (2009) — Pitching for a dreadful Arizona Diamondback team (70-92), Haren finished fifth in the Cy Young vote, winning 14 games with a 3.14 ERA and 223 strikeouts, the most ever by a former Redbird. He pitched in his third straight All-Star Game and made Cardinal fans ache even more over the 2004 trade that sent him to Oakland for, yes, Mark Mulder.
6) Allen Craig (2013) — Craig led the National League champs in RBIs (97) despite missing most of September with an ankle injury. But it was his batting average with runners in scoring position (.454) that got him on this list. Since the statistic was first charted in 1974, only two players have hit better with ducks on the pond than Craig did last year: Hall of Famers George Brett (.469 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.459 in 1997).
5) Adam Wainwright (2010) — Waino has finished second in the Cy Young voting twice, and third another time (when he and teammate Chris Carpenter supposedly split the Cardinal-supporting vote). This was his first All-Star season, though, when Wainwright struck out a career-high 213, posted a career-best ERA (2.42) and won 20 games for the first time. He put up these numbers for an under-performing Cardinal team that failed to reach the playoffs. St. Louis winning the World Series the next year while Waino recovered from Tommy John surgery may be the greatest irony in franchise history.
4) Matt Carpenter (2013) — Check out the club of players to lead major-league baseball in hits, runs, and doubles in the same season: Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1911), Pete Rose (1976) . . . and Matt Carpenter last season. Carpenter put together this dream season in his first year as an everyday player while manning a position (second base) he never had as a professional. The catch for the Cardinals’ current third-baseman, of course, will be living up to the standard the rest of his career.
3) Yadier Molina (2013) — Yadi won his sixth consecutive Gold Glove, solidifying his place alongside Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez among history’s greatest defensive backstops. But Molina also won his first Silver Slugger, hitting .319 and setting a Cardinal record for catchers with 44 doubles. The offensive booster landed Molina third in MVP voting. He also became the first Cardinal since Stan Musial and Marty Marion to play in four World Series.
2) Albert Pujols (2003) — Still playing more leftfield than first base (remember Tino Martinez in St. Louis?), Pujols won the Cardinals’ first batting title in 18 years while leading the National League in runs (137), hits (212), doubles (51), and total bases (394), all figures that remain career highs to this day. He finished second in the MVP voting to Barry Bonds, who hit 45 homers, drove in 90 runs . . . and walked 148 times.
1) Albert Pujols (2006) — It’s a testament to Pujols’ greatness — and the inadequacies of MVP voting — that Albert’s two finest seasons came in years he was runner-up for the sport’s most prestigious individual award. Just looking at his triple-crown stats, Pujols was better in ’06 (.331, 49 home runs, 137 RBIs) than he was in his MVP seasons of 2008 (.357, 37, 116) or 2009 (.327, 47, 135). He also won his first Gold Glove at first base this season, not to mention his first World Series championship. Ryan Howard can keep the MVP.