'Best player' label is open for debate
Several have a case for Pujols' once-undisputed crown
It's not all that unusual, Albert Pujols' situation. Just as Pujols begins a contract recognizing him as baseball's preeminent player, it's no longer a slam dunk that he's the best in the game. Free agents like Pujols are often paid for what they have done, rather than what they will do.So although Pujols will be paid like the best in the Majors, it's an open question as to whether he is the best. His offense slipped the past two seasons, to the point that he didn't lead the National League in any positive hitting category in 2011 -- the second time since 2003 that's been the case. Pujols led the loop in double plays grounded into, but that's not exactly a positive. Matt Kemp was decidedly a better player than Pujols in 2011, as was Ryan Braun, and Justin Upton at least had a case. In the American League, Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Miguel Cabrera and maybe Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano staked claims. As 2012 begins, the best player in baseball is open to debate. Let's leave pitchers out of it; it's not that they're not worthy, just that it's a little too apples-and-oranges when we're already trying to compare Red Delicious with Macintosh with Granny Smith. For the first time since before Barry Bonds went supernova, there's a range of candidates for the title of best player in baseball. Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Pujols ruled the past decade-plus. Now there are no fewer than eight players, and maybe more, with some claim to the title.
Who is the best?
|Case for: Over any time frame going back further than just 2011, the best in the game; contributes in all facets as a dominant hitter, Gold Glove defender and excellent baserunner. To be the king, you've got to beat the king; has anybody actually knocked him off yet?|
|Case against: Offense has declined two straight seasons, a bad sign entering age-32 season.|
|Case for: A younger Pujols at the plate, at least arguably the game's best hitter and still in his 20s.|
|Case against: A defensive liability at first base, and now moving to a tougher position; contributes little when not at the plate.|
|Case for: Truly did it all in his age-26 season, hitting for average and power, stealing 40 bases at a high success rate and playing plus defense in center field. Age indicates that it could well be a breakout rather than a career year. Extremely durable.|
|Case against: His 2010 season gives pause.|
|Case for: By at least one measure, 2011's best player. Developed power to go with already solid speed/OBP skill set.|
|Case against: Did something at 28 that he's never done before; that's not always a sign of what's to come. Defensive numbers have been inconsistent as well.|
|Case for: The game's most dominant power hitter at the moment, Bautista actually improved his batting average and on-base percentage from his monster 2010 into 2011.|
|Case against: Even with two straight big years, it's a bit hard to shake the memory of his relatively forgettable first six seasons. Not a great defender.|
|Case for: Impact hitter and Gold Glove defender at a vital position. Just turned 26, so as a young veteran he's only now coming into what should be his prime.|
|Case against: Hit .244 last year. That's about it -- and even so, he still managed very strong OBP and SLG.|
|Case for: The walking definition of a great hitter, with power, strike-zone judgment and the ability to hit for average. Has been durable, is an excellent athlete and a threat on the bases.|
|Case against: Improving but still not great defender at a non-premium position. Effects of a pending PED suspension are unknown, as is the status of the suspension.|
|Case for: The best all-around shortstop in the game is a good start. Elite defender who hits for average and power.|
|Case against: Durability has been an issue, with only one 150-game season in the past four, and the Coors Field factor can never be completely ignored.|
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.