MLB Free Agents 2012: Prince Fielder Is Not on the Same Level as Albert Pujols

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MLB Free Agents 2012: Prince Fielder Is Not on the Same Level as Albert Pujols
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As the two premier players available in this year's free-agent class, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are perpetually linked, constantly mentioned together as if they are one and the same.

The two sluggers both play first base, have spent the entirety of their careers in the NL Central and have been fixtures in the leader boards of the NL during their time in the big leagues.

Pujols, a once-in-a-generation talent, has put together an incomparable 11-year run with the St. Louis Cardinals, winning three MVP awards, two World Series titles and compiling statistics worthy of the game's greatest legends.

Fielder, a rotund but athletic slugger, has produced a fine career, worthy of admiration and the young man is sure to garner plenty of attention in this offseason's free-agent frenzy. His power and durability would be an asset to almost any team in the league.

However, when taking a closer look at their respective careers, Pujols' resume has him worthy of entrance into the Hall of Fame right now, while Fielder is undoubtedly a tier down from Pujols in the pantheon of modern baseball stars. While Fielder is a fine slugger in his own right, he's not deserving of such a close association with the legendary Cardinal.

I don't mean to disparage Fielder, especially after his fantastic 2011 season, in which he helped lead the Brewers to the NL Central crown and only their second playoff appearance since 1982. He was a powerful force in the Milwaukee lineup and was instrumental to their success over the course of the year.

He is, however, not a player of the same caliber as Pujols.

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Though he turned in his least statistically impressive season of his career, one that has inevitably invited whispers of an age-related decline ahead of his free agency, Pujols has been on another level throughout his career.

A three-time NL MVP honoree, Pujols would have been recognized with the award more, if not for the miraculous late-career renaissance of Barry Bonds. The consistency he has displayed through his first 11 MLB seasons is unparalleled.

Upon his arrival on the major league scene, Pujols was a finished product and began producing immediately. Though his amazing stretch of 30-home run and 100-RBI seasons that began his rookie season ended in 2011, when he failed to reach the plateau by finishing with 99 RBI, Pujols stands among the game's all-time greats in nearly every category.

With a .328 batting average, a .617 slugging percentage, a 1.037 OPS and a 170 OPS+, Pujols possesses the top mark among all active players in each of those categories. His OPS and adjusted OPS place him in the top 10 all-time, alongside baseball luminaries such as Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Bonds, Hornsby, Foxx and Mantle.

Only 11 years into his career, Pujols has amassed 445 home runs and 1,329 RBI, impressive totals that have him on pace for some truly breathtaking career marks somewhere down the road.

The way the conversation regarding the coinciding free agencies of the two sluggers has been going, one would assume that Fielder is in the same class of modern baseball legends. 

Following a stellar season in a contract year, Fielder has elevated his own status just in time to cash in mightily alongside the consistently great Pujols.

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One look at his career, though, tells you that Fielder, while a top slugger in today's game, has not displayed the consistent greatness that his counterpart has in St. Louis.

His 2011 season was highly impressive, as he played 162 games, hit .299 with 38 home runs, a .415 OBP, a .566 slugging percentage, a .981 OPS and a 164 OPS+. Aside from batting average, Fielder's 2011 stats ranked him in the top four in those categories among all National Leaguers for the season.

That follows a 2010 season in which he posted an OPS of .871 and an OPS+ of 135. Of course, those are both solid marks, but not in the same class his 2011 marks might suggest. In 2010, his OPS was 10th in the league behind Aubrey Huff and Dan Uggla and his OPS+ saw him drop out of the top 10. He still led the league in walks and compiled a .401 OBP, but the 110-point variance in his OPS is interesting.

Of course, in 2009, Fielder had another tremendous year in which he crushed 46 home runs, drove in 141 runs, with an OPS of 1.014 and an OPS+ of 166, all marks which ranked him either first or second in the National league that season. He was an undeniable force in the heart of Milwaukee's order.

During the previous season, Fielder still had a great season, but it was another example of a vast fluctuation in his production which dropped him from elite status. His .879 OPS ranked him 14th among NL players and 26th in all of baseball. The adjusted OPS+ figure of 130 for the season was 12th in the NL and 19th in all MLB.

Fielder's 2008 was preceded by a 2007 campaign in which Fielder truly broke out in a massive way, as he hit a career-high, league-leading 50 home runs, drove in 119 runs and finished second in both OPS and OPS+ to Chipper Jones with marks of 1.013 and 157 respectively. His massive power production earned him a third-place NL MVP finish.

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Prince's rookie year was fantastic for a 22-year-old debutant, as evidenced by his 28 home runs, 81 RBI, .831 OPS and 110 OPS+. He was rewarded with a seventh-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting, but it was the first step in a pattern in which he would alternate between splendid seasons and really good seasons.

To be fair, Prince Fielder has never been anything less than a potent offensive force in the league, however a team that will reward him with an elite-level contract will need the production to resemble that of the odd-numbered years and not the even years in which he was roughly the same as 15 or 20 other players across the league. His new employer will expect more Miguel Cabrera, rather than Dan Uggla, Aubrey Huff or Ryan Ludwick. 

There has been no such fluctuation in the production of Albert Pujols, who has consistently performed at at an elite level, perhaps even setting the ultimate standard for players of his generation as the premier player among them.

With a 1.037 career OPS, Pujols has only had one season in which he has ventured into Fielder's territory with his .929 career OPS. Pujols' .906 mark in 2011 was the only season his OPS has ever fallen below .955.

Let's not forget the other critical aspect of the game in which Pujols has also thrived—on defense. While Fielder is best suited as a full-time designated hitter, Pujols has evolved from a man with an uncertain position, spending time at both corner infield spots, as well as the corners in the outfield, to one of the elite defensive first basemen in the game.

Since 2006, when Fielder became a regular major league player, Pujols has a stellar defensive resume, as Fangraphs rates him as the best first baseman with at least 6,000 innings played during that span, with a 7.9 UZR per 150 games. 

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Within that same time frame, Fielder ranks dead last with a -6.5 UZR per 150 games. It is abundantly clear that Fielder represents more value to an American League team in need of a slugging DH, rather than an elite, well-rounded first baseman.

According to Fangraphs' WAR evaluation, Prince Fielder ranks as the 30th most valuable major league player from 2006-11, with 23.3 Wins Above Replacement, in comparison to Pujols' MLB-leading 47.5 WAR during that span.

There is obviously the factor of age, which clearly favors Fielder. He won't turn 28 until May of 2012, while Pujols will turn 32 in January.

Pujols' subpar (by his standards) 2011 season may very well indicate the beginning of his inevitable decline phase, which afflicts all ball players of a particular age. A talent of his caliber and physical prowess likely has three or four years of significant production in his reserve.

However, as Fielder is still shy of his 28th birthday, he may just be entering his prime years. There has always been concern about his body type though, so the assumption is that his physical condition may prevent him from enjoying the same longevity that a similar player in better shape might. Prince has proved to be extremely durable in his career to this point, having only missed a single game over the last three seasons combined.

In all likelihood, Prince Fielder will sign a lucrative contract with a power-hungry ballclub, and will provide elite production for them for the next five years or potentially a few more.

One thing is for certain however: Whichever team signs him should not expect that they're getting the equivalent of Albert Pujols from the left side of the plate. Surely, they'll gain a powerful bat, capable of driving the ball out of any ballpark, as well as a patient hitter who will rank near the top of his league in drawing bases on balls.

Let's never forget, though, that there is only one Albert Pujols. Prince Fielder, although a fine player in his own right, is not on the same level as the man they call "Prince Albert." 

Perhaps a change of nickname is in order to truly reflect the difference in the two.

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