The headlines could have read, ‘Former Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Albert Pujols will potentially retire after 2021 season.’ Instead, the speculation of a generational talent beginning his farewell tour, sparked by an Instagram post from his wife, is another reminder of what could have been.
This goes back to one of my favorite stories in Rays/Devil Rays folklore: Fernando Arango was an area scout for the Devil Rays and stumbled upon a relatively unknown high school prospect for good reason. Albert Pujols and his family had recently moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was 16 and he was just making a name for himself as a high school ballplayer.
I first learned of this story years ago while reading The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri. ESPN published an excerpt of the story and it is clear that Arango was fully confident in the potential Pujols had to be a star in the majors.
Undaunted, Arango told his bosses, “All I want to say about this guy is that someday he’ll hit 40 home runs in the big leagues.” Jennings wasn’t ready to dismiss Arango’s report or his ranking of the top prospect in Arango’s five-state area. So he sent in R.J. Harrison, a national cross-checker (who would take over, years later, as scouting director). Harrison’s verdict: “I can’t do anything with this guy.”
Despite relationship Arango built with Pujols and the raw skills that were displayed in a pre-draft workout at Tropicana Field, the Rays passed on drafting the likely future Hall of Famer.
Many people argue that every other team also missed on drafting him — for 13 rounds — though, it’s important to question how many of those other teams had a scout begging and pleading to draft him.
The other common discussion point is that in that same draft the Devil Rays selected Josh Hamilton with their first two draft picks.
Instead of settling for those two selections, recognizing Hamilton’s MLB accomplishments came outside of the Tampa Bay organization, they picked eight consecutive players from the sixth round to the 13th round that never made the majors for a day, a game, an inning, a minute, or a second unless they purchased a ticket, period.
Any one of those selections could have, should have, and would have been Pujols if the front office had listened to the trusted advice of their scout.
Imagine Hamilton, Crawford, and Pujols coming up through the ranks together...
Of course, there are numerous variables that could have de-railed this revisionist history fantasy. That doesn’t make it any less real that the Devil Rays could have had a young and talented trio so successful we never would change the name, jerseys, or know the name of Stu Sternberg.
Unfortunately for Rays fans, this is just a story that hurts every time you relive it.
So far, Pujols has hit .271/.316/.519 with 15 home runs in 54 games against the Rays. You might remember some of these performances against Tampa Bay:
For some, it’s a painful reminder every year, and will be until Pujols retires. Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Area scouts are smart people too.
Fernando Arango resigned his position after the team refused to take his recommendation on the player he deemed the best in his region. But that is not the end of his baseball story.
In 2003, he joined the Milwaukee Brewers and was promoted to Coordinator - Latin America, and then to Director of Scouting for the Dominican Republic. Before entering retirement in 2015, he also spent his three years as a crosschecker for the St. Louis Cardinals (after Pujols had departed for the Angels).
Arango passed in 2019. Along the way, he remained a close friend to Pujols, a man that should have been a Devil Ray.