Albert Pujols convinced himself and voters what's worthy of the NL MVP award.

NEW YORK — Albert Pujols convinced himself and voters what's worthy of the NL MVP award.

The St. Louis star became a two-time winner Monday, outdistancing Philadelphia slugger Ryan Howard in a result that's sure to renew a debate Pujols once raised himself: What qualifies as "most valuable"?

Pujols won despite the Cardinals' fourth-place finish in the NL Central, the lowest spot for an NL MVP winner since Andre Dawson and the Chicago Cubs wound up sixth in 1987. Howard led the majors in home runs and RBIs for the World Series champions.

"You have to consider everything. You have to put all the numbers together," Pujols said.

Pujols saw it a little differently a couple of years ago.

In 2006, a month after leading the Cardinals to the World Series crown, he carped when Howard — whose Phillies missed the playoffs — captured the coveted award.

"I see it this way: Someone who doesn't take his team to the playoffs doesn't deserve to win the MVP," Pujols said at the time.

Shortly thereafter, Pujols clarified his remarks and said Howard was a proper choice.

"I think the writers made the right choice in 2006," Pujols reiterated Monday. "He did deserve it."

Just as Pujols believed he earned it this year.

"I wasn't surprised at all," he said.

Pujols hit .357 with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs while playing with a sore right elbow that required surgery. Howard hit 48 homers with 146 RBIs for the Phillies.

Voting was completed before the playoffs began.

"I'm happy I didn't have to make that decision," Pujols said on a conference call from his St. Louis home. "What you do for your team. The players who take their teams to the playoffs should have some consideration."

Los Angeles outfielder Manny Ramirez and Milwaukee pitcher CC Sabathia, who both led postseason pushes after being traded by AL teams in July, also drew strong support.

Pujols got 18 of the 32 first-place votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America and had 369 points. Howard drew 12 first-place votes and 308 points.

Pujols added to the MVP award he won in 2005, and was the only player listed on every ballot. The All-Star first baseman became the 25th multiple MVP winner in either league.

Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun was third with 139 points, and Ramirez fourth at 138. Houston's Lance Berkman was fifth and Sabathia sixth.

Brad Lidge, perfect on 41 save chances for the Phillies during the regular season, drew the other two first-place votes and came in eighth.

The AL MVP will be announced today. A close vote is anticipated, with Minnesota's Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau among the top contenders along with Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis.

Pujols was remarkably consistent all year — a trait he's demonstrated throughout his career. He is the only big leaguer to hit at least 30 home runs in his first eight seasons and has finished in the top 10 of the NL MVP voting each year.

Pujols led the league in slugging percentage and intentional walks. He drew 104 walks while striking out only 54 times, and was second in the NL with a .462 on-base percentage.

Almost single-handedly, when the Cardinals' rotation was depleted by injuries, he kept St. Louis in contention while batting .398 in August. The Cardinals finished 86-76, 111/2; games behind the Central champion Cubs.

In mid-October, Pujols had surgery for nerve irritation in his right elbow, an ailment that caused numbness, tingling in his ring finger and pinkie, a weak grip and pain in his forearm. He hopes to resume weight training after Thanksgiving and is expected to be ready for spring training.

"I had some pain," he said. "The worst part was the last two months."

Pujols said there was still a slight chance he might need Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.

"I'm crossing my fingers," he said.

Howard's best month came in September, when he set a team record with 32 RBIs and helped the Phillies rally to the NL East title. He hit .251 overall.

Ramirez led Los Angeles' push to the NL West title, hitting .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs after the Dodgers acquired him from Boston on July 31.

Sabathia got 121 points. He was 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA after Milwaukee acquired him from Cleveland on July 6 and helped the Brewers win the wild-card spot.

Pujols earned a $200,000 bonus for winning the award. Ramirez got $75,000 and Braun got $50,000.

The 28-year-old Pujols has two years remaining on a seven-year, $100 million deal he signed in 2004, and the Cardinals have an $11 million option for an eighth year through 2011.

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said there was no rush to begin talks on another long-term contract.

"I think at some point, that discussion will happen," Mozeliak said. "Right now we don't feel that just because of the events of today, needs to happen.

"You look at what he's meant to this organization, and it only would make sense at some point."

Mozeliak said he thought talks could "wait another year," but added things could be accelerated if needed.

"What he brings to this organization is so special," Mozeliak said. "He's the whole package."

AP Sports Writer R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis contributed to this report.