PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Working his way through the St. Louis farm system as a first baseman, Chris Duncan, the Cardinals' first-round pick in 1999, had little inkling that the guy selected in the 13th round of that draft, also a first baseman, would emerge as the best hitter in the game.
But that is precisely what Albert Pujols did, which is why Duncan transitioned to the outfield.
Acquired from St. Louis on July 22 in a trade for Julio Lugo (along with a player to be named later from the Cardinals, and the Sox paying the remaining $13.5 million on Lugo's contract for this season and next), Duncan, 28, appeared in 87 games for the Cardinals this year, batting .227 with five home runs and 32 RBIs. He played 68 games (64 starts) in left field, six games (three starts) at first base and served as the designated hitter in four games this season. A left-handed hitter, he is a career .257 batter with 55 home runs and 175 RBIs.
Over his career, he has hit right-handed pitchers for a .270 mark with 49 home runs, 142 RBIs, a .366 on-base percentage and a .485 slugging percentage. Against lefties, he's hitting .206 with six homers, 33 RBIs, a .269 OBP and a .346 slugging percentage.
"There's some uncertainty with our health, some concern in the organization about enough depth where if something does happen, where do we go?" manager Terry Francona said upon Duncan's acquisition. "He's a good left-handed hitter. He doesn't have to carry the team."
But that was before the trade-deadline acquisition of catcher/first baseman/designated hitter Victor Martinez.
Duncan would likely not be called up before rosters expand on Sept. 1, as long as injuries don't necessitate an earlier move. But he would give the Sox some offensive flexibility — a left-handed hitting outfielder, a lefty bat off the bench or another backup at first base. The last option may have been more likely before Martinez joined the team.
"I try not to think about it right now," Duncan said. "I just try to take good at-bats and help this team here win, and hopefully that stuff will take care of itself."
Immediately before the trade was completed, the Cardinals optioned Duncan to Triple-A Memphis, a condition required for the deal to go through. The Sox then assigned him to Triple-A Pawtucket.
"Chris Duncan is a very large human, and he has true power," said PawSox manager Ron Johnson. "I know he's going to hit. He's been struggling a little bit lately, but he's a proven track record guy with the years he has in St. Louis. So I know he's going to catch fire. It's an adjustment for him coming over here. But I love the way this guy plays the game.
"He plays the game very hard. That has stood out for me. Both of these guys [with Brian Anderson, another recent acquisition] have been really good additions to this clubhouse and the atmosphere [with] the professionalism they bring. And they're both quality people that we think can help us."
But just how and where Duncan can help the Sox remains to be seen. In 15 games with the PawSox, he is batting .176 (9-for-51) with one home run and six RBIs. Still, this is a chance for him to start fresh.
"[Duncan] has good power and hits right-handers fairly well," said one scout. "He's OK against left-handed pitchers, but more of a platoon guy. He was a first baseman in the minor leagues, but was quickly given a crash course in left field at the big-league level. He has below-average range but catches what he gets to. He may take a funny route or two for good measure."
But another scout was less optimistic.
"He's a horrible outfielder, allergic to leather. He's below average at first base. He has big power with a long swing that can be jammed easy. He loves the ball away from him."
Duncan, who is signed through this season, acknowledged some disappointed at being back in the minors.
"A little bit," he said. "I think I was fortunate enough to play in the big leagues for a few years with a good organization. And it's a little upsetting when they cut ties and you have to come back to the minors, but I try to put that in the past and just try to focus on what's ahead of me and looking for the opportunity to play here.
"I think we have a great manager, a great coaching staff and lot of good players and everyone works hard. And even though we're not winning, it seems like everyone's attitude is really good. I think it's a great place to play."
At 6-foot-5, Duncan would appear to be a prototypical power hitter. He and Pujols are the only batters in Cardinal history to begin their careers with consecutive 20-home run seasons. In his rookie season of 2006, he hit 22 homers in 280 at-bats and followed that the next season with 21, giving him 43 roundtrippers in 655 at-bats.
But his power numbers have been lagging, declining in each of his big league seasons, which could be largely attributed to injuries. His last two seasons have been cut short by surgeries. His 2007 season ended on Sept. 20 when he underwent a procedure for a bilateral sports hernia. Last season ended for him on July 22 when he went on the disabled list with a herniated disc, eventually undergoing a cervical disc replacement surgery on Aug. 4.
Cardinals fans are among the game's best, giving nearly unconditional support to their players — the one condition being that a player must try. While Duncan never crossed that line, as he struggled on the field, he heard some rare negativity from the fans in St. Louis. Being drafted in the first round by the team for which your father is now in his 14th season as pitching coach brings with it added attention — and expectations.
The reaction of the Cardinals’ fans surprised him.
“A little bit,” he said. “But I tried not to pay attention to it. Just tried to stay focused on just playing ball and just doing what I could to help the team, and that’s about it.”
But he will always hold a place in Cardinal lore. His first career home run, a solo shot against the Reds on the last day of the 2005 season, was the last regular-season homer ever hit at the old Busch Stadium. It also proved to be the game-winning RBI.
"I had a lot of good years there and a lot of good memories with my dad," he said. "But I think it was just time to turn the page and get a fresh start somewhere else."
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