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Albert Pujols joins 3,000-hit club

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Albert Pujols (right) embraces first base coach Alfredo Griffin after hitting a single against the Mariners’ Mike Leake in the fifth inning on May 4 for his 3,000th career hit. Albert Pujols (right) embraces first base coach Alfredo Griffin after hitting a single against the Mariners’ Mike Leake in the fifth inning on May 4 for his 3,000th career hit. (AP photo/Elaine Thompson)

One of Major League Baseball’s most exclusive clubs has a new member.

With an opposite-field single off Seattle Mariners pitcher Mike Leake on May 4, Los Angeles Angels first baseman/designated hitter Albert Pujols became just the 32nd player to reach the 3,000-hit plateau. He’s the latest in a run of players to reach the mark – Alex Rodriguez in 2015, the just-released Ichiro Suzuki in 2016 and Adrian Beltre last season – though it’s likely that it’ll be a while before the club gets any bigger.

But as rarified as this air might be, Pujols has made his way into even more impressive company. He becomes only the fourth player – after Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Rodriguez – to reach both 3,000 hits and 600 home runs. Throw 600 doubles into the mix and it is just Aaron and Pujols.

He’s the second Dominican-born player to reach the milestone – after Beltre – and only the sixth player born outside the continental United States to do it – Beltre, Ichiro (Japan), Rafael Palmeiro (Cuba), Rod Carew (Panama) and Roberto Clemente (Puerto Rico) are the others.

Yeah – it’s an incredible career, albeit one that is definitely in its end stages. But when you take its beginnings into consideration, it becomes even more remarkable.

Pujols was drafted in the 13th round out of community college in Kansas City by the St. Louis Cardinals back in 1999. He was a borderline prospect in a lot of ways. But pretty much from the moment he stepped onto a professional baseball field, all he did was hit. He blew through the minors and essentially forced his way onto the Cardinals lineup. Once there, all he did was put up one of the best offensive decades in the history of the sport.

In his 11 seasons in St. Louis, he slashed .328/420/.617. It’s where he put up nearly 2,100 of those hits. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2001 and won three MVP awards (in 2005, 2008 and 2009). He was one of the most – if not THE most – prolific hitters of the 2000s.

His 2010s have been less successful. After signing a mammoth free agent contract with the Angels (10 years, $240 million), Pujols has seen his production gradually diminish. Health issues and the normal changes that come with aging have left the slugger struggling. In his seventh season, he’s barely a replacement-level player, hitting a few homers and driving in some runs, but displaying little of the plate discipline that was central to his batting brilliance.

At 38, it seems likely that this current contract is his last – counting this season, he’s on the books for three years and $87 million. Whether he’s still taking the field when that last check is cut remains to be seen. Still, even with his ebbing productivity, he’ll be around long enough to potentially take a serious climb up the hits list. Simply maintaining his current level of effectiveness would get him into the top 20 by the end of the season. It’ll be interesting to see where he ultimately lands.

Now that Pujols has crossed this threshold, the most interesting question becomes: who’s next?

It seems safe to predict that the run of consecutive seasons with a new addition to the club is coming to an end after this year. The closest active players to the mark are Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (who is less than 350 hits away) and Seattle’s Robinson Cano (who just passed the 2,400 mark). While Cabrera looks to have largely bounced back from his subpar 2017, he’ll have to get back to MVP form to be able to hit the mark by 2019’s end. Not impossible, but he’s more likely to get there early in 2020.

Barring injury, Cano will get there sometime in 2021 and then … it’s tough to say. There are only four other active players with even 2,000 career hits. Jose Reyes and Victor Martinez don’t seem likely to stick around long enough to make it. Joe Mauer is a bit more likely, but still a big longshot at 35; a lot of things will have to fall just so for him to have any real chance.

The most intriguing possibility is Nick Markakis, of all people; no one’s going to mistake Markakis for a superstar, and yet … he could do it. He’s the youngest of the bunch at 34 and he NEVER gets hurt, having just once failed to play at least 147 games. And he’s never looked better – he led the NL in hits for the season as of press time. He probably needs to keep it up for another six seasons after this one, but still … he might.

So it looks like Pujols might be “the new guy” for a while. But even as we watch his skills erode in these last few years, we can celebrate the excellence of his incredible body of work. He was perhaps the game’s best hitter in a time filled with great ones; an inner circle Hall of Famer.

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