Pujols: The best in the game?
The following players are ranked as if a general manager were able to start a team with any first baseman he wanted, without any salary considerations. This team would then be dismantled after the 2012 season ended.
As a result, the players’ salaries and potential in future seasons are not considered. However, defense and baserunning are included in the evaluation of the players. These are not fantasy rankings.
Despite him recording the worst season of his career in 2012, Pujols’ reign as the top first baseman in baseball will continue for at least one more year. Keep in mind, Pujols’ “worst” season was still a top-five season among first basemen.
There is reason to believe that Pujols' numbers were down last year due mostly to luck, as opposed to any skill degradation.
Throughout his career, balls have landed for a hit 31.1 percent of the time when put in play. Last season, this was at a career-low 27.7 percent. Uncharacteristically low batting averages on balls in play are generally assumed to be due to bad luck. It is safe to assume that his fortunes, along with his numbers, will rebound in 2012.
At the age of 32, Pujols already has a Hall-of-Fame career under his belt. He has arguably been the best position player in the game since 2003. His value to the Cardinals was recognized with three MVP trophies and four runner-up finishes.
Judged on offense alone, there are a few other first basemen that would have a case for the top spot in this ranking. When his Gold-Glove defense and intelligent baserunning are considered, Albert Pujols stands unchallenged atop the rest.
The last two seasons have solidified the Reds' Joey Votto as one of the top five position players in the National League. The 2010 season was his coming-out party on offense, with a league-leading 1.024 OPS. For context, that is the same OPS that Sammy Sosa posted in his magical 66-home run campaign of 1998.
Joey Votto is more than just a great offensive player.
Last year, his strong glove work was recognized with his first Gold Glove award. Votto's all-around value, along with no major injuries in his career, separate him from the next two sluggers on this list, who are his equals at the plate.
Adrian Gonzalez’s value at the plate has been outstanding for years. His three Gold Gloves attest to his defensive prowess. Yet he ranks below Joey Votto on this list due to one red flag.
Shortly after the 2010 season, Gonzalez had shoulder surgery. Then he experienced shoulder weakness for at least the final month of the 2011 season. This ailment might explain some of the bizarre hitting outcomes for Gonzalez in 2011.
After establishing himself as a fly-ball hitter throughout his career, he suddenly turned in to a rather extreme ground-ball hitter in Boston. This resulted in a 40-point improvement in his batting average, for a career-high .338.
However, it is unlikely that he can sustain the .380 batting average on balls in play from 2012, which was well above his career mark of .322. Gonzalez likely cannot thrive by relying on ground balls getting through the infield.
If he remains a ground-ball hitter, this means the days of 30-plus home runs are behind him. In his first season at Fenway, he was fond of smacking doubles off of the Green Monster, especially early in 2011. An increase in doubles could partially offset a decline in home runs, but the larger issue of how much his shoulder weakness and ground-ball tendencies will sap his extra-base power remains.
Even with the worries that Gonzalez’s offense may lose some of the power from earlier in his career, he still remains the correct choice for No. 3 on this ranking. His top-notch fielding separates him from the rest of the pack.
For that reason, it would take a large offensive decline to close the gap between him and the next guy on this list.
New Detroit Tiger Prince Fielder may be the worst defensive first baseman in the game.
Despite this, he ranks as the fourth-most-valuable first baseman entering the 2012 season. This speaks to how remarkable Fielder's offense has been throughout his career.
Prince Fielder’s game revolves around his power, which is as good as anyone's. He led the NL in home runs in 2007 with 50, while he has finished second twice (2009 and 2011).
The Baseball Writers' Association of America has acknowledged the value Fielder brings to his team, voting him in the top five for the MVP award on three occasions.
The selection of the New York Yankees' Teixeira at No. 5 comes with its own set of worries.
He has seemingly taken a significant step back over the past two years. It can be hard to see this in his home run and RBI numbers, which have remained above 30 and 100, but his reliable .950–1.000 OPS numbers have slipped to the mid-.800s range.
Despite these worries, Teixeira still deserves this high ranking. His above-average fielding guarantees that he’ll remain one of the top first basemen, even if his offense stays stagnant.
However, there are some promising signs that his offense will inevitably rebound, although probably not to the production of his prime years.
There appears to be an element of bad luck behind his weak numbers.
His .300+ batting average on balls in play that he enjoyed pre-2010 has disappeared over the past two seasons. In 2010, this number was .268 and it was even lower in 2011 at .239. This decline has partially been driven by a propensity to hit infield pop-ups. It seems unlikely that these trends will continue into the future, although they have held true for two full seasons.
Taking a gamble on a 32-year-old with a valuable glove coming off of a "disappointing" 39-home run season will pay off more often than not.
Lance Berkman’s story is the opposite of Teixeira’s.
Berkman is coming off of his best season since at least 2006. At the age of 36, it is unlikely he has regained the ability of his prime. The question remains, can Berkman, who will play first for St. Louis, hold on to the magic for one more year?
There are a couple of signs that cast doubt on 2012 being a repeat of 2011 for Berkman.
First, he hit line drives at a noticeably higher rate than he has since 2005. Balls that he normally hits on the ground became liners instead. Second, Berkman’s fly balls were leaving the yard at a rate above his career average.
Both of these patterns will likely revert back to normal rates in 2012, but it is not inconceivable that Berkman has actually become a better hitter with age.
Injuries are always a concern for older players, but Berkman has a relatively clean bill of health. Other than the nagging injuries that come with being 36, there are no major injury issues.
Berkman is a liability in the field, but a healthy Berkman should continue to produce at the plate this season.
After a long career as a consistently solid player, Paul Konerko has made an unusual leap forward in his mid-30s. The two best offensive seasons of his career have come in the past two years, at the ages of 34 and 35.
Other than the general suspicion around a player peaking this late, there are no good reasons to doubt Konerko will fail to repeat in 2012.
In addition to his offensive abilities, Konerko brings an enormous amount of leadership to the clubhouse. There were even semi-serious talks in the White Sox front office of making him a player-manager.
Other than Konerko’s poor, though not terrible, defense, he possesses all of the traits one looks for in a valuable ballplayer. White Sox fans should feel blessed that Konerko has spent 14 seasons in Chicago and plans to finish his career there.
The ceiling for Eric Hosmer is incredibly high.
In 2011, his first season in the majors, Hosmer established himself as a solid everyday player on both offense and defense. His power potential was also on display: 19 home runs in 128 games.
This is the best young player on the Royals, a team stacked with young talent. He will eventually be slugging 30+ homers in the middle of the Kansas City lineup. There is a good chance that begins in 2012.
Ike Davis is a solid young player with 20-homer power and the potential to hit around .300. His glove is also an asset.
The New York Mets are relying on this guy to be a main part of their lineup going forward. He probably will not disappoint. Davis ranks behind Hosmer due only to his slightly lower ceiling.
The past two seasons have been down years for the Rays' Carlos Pena. On the other hand, the three years prior to that were his best. He puts the ball in play so infrequently that he can go through major ups and downs from season to season.
Despite his streakiness, Pena will always bring plenty of power and solid defense to the table. Since Pena is on the wrong side of 30, the young guys, Eric Hosmer and Ike Davis, look like safer bets at this point for 2012.