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Albert Pujols Is Already Baseball Royalty, But Can He Claim the Crown?

M. EccherCorrespondent IApril 23, 2009

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 23: Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates his first home run of the game against the New York Mets on April 23, 2009 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Mets 12-8.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball doesn't hand out much hardware in April. Unless you're gunning for Cactus League prizes, you can't collect a batting title or a Gold Glove in spring.

And you certainly can't win a Triple Crown.

So it's a little early to put Albert Pujols and his National League best home run and RBI totals on 'round-the-clock-watch.

And Carl Yastremski—the last man to top either league in batting, homers and RBI all at once—doesn't have to worry about recording a congratulatory message for the Busch Stadium Jumbotron just yet.

Indeed, projecting a Triple Crown winner is almost always a losing proposition. It's the most rare of baseball accomplishments: The game has seen more perfect games (17) than Triple Crown winners (16).

Yastremski's trifecta came al the way back in 1967. No NL player has done it since St. Louis' Joe Medwick in all the way back in 1937.

To put it another way, three different racehorses have claimed the Triple Crown in their own sport since MLB's last Triple Crown winner.

It takes a rare combination of power, contact and opportunity to make a run at the ultimate hitter's coup. But if any active player has a chance to end the drought, it's Pujols.

Believe it or not, Pujols has led the league in a Triple Crown category just once, when he won the NL batting title in 2003.

His resume is littered with near misses: Pujols has two second-place finishes and a third-place showing in each category. The closest he's come to putting it all together was 2005, when he finished second in batting, second in RBI and third in home runs.

On more than one occasion, Pujols has been the thwarted in a Crown category by a lesser player who put together a flash-in-a-pan career year.

In 2004, Pujols hit 46 home runs to match Adam Dunn, only to watch Adrian Beltre, who had never topped 23 dingers and hasn't sniffed more than 26 since, smack 48.

In '05, Derrek Lee, a career .282 hitter who had never broken .300—and has done so just once since—hit .335 to edge Pujols for the batting title by five points.

That same year, Lee whacked 46 home runs, blowing past his previous high of 32. His best effort since: 22. Meanwhile, Andruw Jones, (previous best: 36 longballs) belted 51, relegating Pujols' 41-dinger campaign to a distant third.

Last season, another Jones—Chipper, this time—hit a career-best .364 at age 36 to eclipse a .357 year from Pujols.

Some guys just can't catch a break.

Pujols has also been a victim of his own remarkable consistency. Aside from steady gains in strikeouts and on-base percentage, there haven't been many ups and downs in his career Triple Crown line of .334/39 HR/122 RBI.

That steady march is a great way to build a first-ballot Hall of Fame career, but it makes Pujols vulnerable when other players swing to an extreme.

Pujols is also at the mercy of a number of factors beyond his control. His supporting cast has been suspect since the end of the Jim Edmonds-Scott Rolen glory days. He's seeing fewer pitches to hit as he goes along, and led the league with a career-high 34 intentional walks in '08.

He's also competing with a handful of bonafide sluggers for the NL home run title. Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Dunn all swing for the fences with more gusto than Pujols.

Pujols has the power to match them—he hit 49 home runs in 143 games in '06, and 37 in 148 outings last year—but against big boppers who are willing to rack up triple-digit strikeouts to take round-trip cuts, he's at a distinct disadvantage.

With St. Louis off to a blistering offensive start—and Fielder and Howard struggling through sluggish Aprils—Pujols' chances may never be better.

The odds say he'll come up short. But Prince Albert has been a rare force in his big-league tenure. He might just be worthy of a new Crown.

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