It would be some sort of sacrilege to label Albert Pujols as anything other than the best player in baseball. Just when it appeared he was in danger of yielding that triumphant title, he scorched the earth in the second half of the 2011 season and then went all Ruth and Reggie on the Rangers en route to his second World Series ring. Pujols is the best. Only a fool would argue otherwise. But when it comes to the luxury automobile that is the big-swinging first baseman, is Pujols the best investment available on the open market?
No, he's not. Contrary to what my colleague Alden Gonzalez tells you, that title belongs to Prince Fielder. The exact market for either of these superstar sluggers is going to have its limits. After all, the game's three top spenders -- the Yankees (Mark Teixeira), Red Sox (Adrian Gonzalez) and Phillies (Ryan Howard) -- each already have a major, multimillion dollar commitment to a first baseman. That said, there is certainly enough interest and certainly enough wild cards -- the Angels, Marlins, Cubs, Rangers, Dodgers, Nationals and Blue Jays among them -- at play here to ensure that both men are going to come out of their first taste of free agency with big smiles and bigger bank accounts. Six contracts with a total value of $100 million or more have been given to first basemen over the years, including the extension Pujols signed with the Cardinals in 2004. Both Pujols and Fielder will easily clear the $100 million hurdle, and both will undoubtedly challenge Teixeira's $180 million contract, which is the largest given to a first baseman in history. Again, they'll both come out happy. The question, of course, is which player is more worthy of the more substantial commitment? Unfortunately, free agency functions largely as a means to reward players for past, not future, performance. It often becomes a vehicle by which players seek out respect relative to their peers. In that regard, Pujols has no equal in this conversation. Over the course of the last decade, he's been the best there is, and now he'll be rewarded accordingly. In fact, it has long been hinted that Pujols will be looking for an average annual value that trumps the $27.5 million average that Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in the game, is hauling in over the course of his 10-year, $275 million contract. Really, I have little doubt Pujols will make more money than Fielder this winter. But I also have little doubt that, over the long haul, the team that signs the 27-year-old Fielder will get more bang for its buck than the team that signs the 31-year-old Pujols. That four-year difference in ages will loom large. To that point, A-Rod inherently serves as a lesson for any Pujols suitor. Pujols will be 32 next season -- the very same age A-Rod was the season after he opted out of his initial contract with the Yankees. At the time he opted out and signed that decade-long deal, Rodriguez was coming off a 54-homer AL MVP effort and had played seven straight seasons in which he had logged at least 154 games. He has simply not been the same player since, as his on-base plus slugging percentage has dropped each of the four years that have followed and, because of a barrage of injuries, he's averaged 124.5 games played over that stretch. Many other greats -- from Mantle to Musial to McCovey to Man-Ram -- suffered similar declines past the age of 31, if not in performance then certainly in playing time. Ted Williams, who probably could have hit .300 well into his retirement years, was still a great hitter as he hit the big 4-0. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron aged particularly well, as did Barry Bonds, though he's probably best left out of this discussion entirely. But the point at large is that as elite a hitter as Pujols is, both in modern times and in the scope of history, his performance and playing time will undoubtedly be affected, in some measure, by his advancing age. Perhaps the first half of 2011, in which Pujols endured an uncharacteristically slow start, is an indication of what's ahead, perhaps not. But one way or another, it's coming. Even for a man known as "The Machine." Now, Fielder's big body opens him up to his own share of scrutiny. He's listed at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds. History is littered with heavy hitters whose careers all-too-quickly petered out, from Boog Powell to Dave Parker to Kevin Mitchell to Mo Vaughn to Prince's own pop, Cecil. That said, none of those guys had the track record of durability that Fielder has amassed in six full seasons with the Brew Crew. He's averaged 160 games played in that span, and he's just now entering what are usually considered to be a ballplayer's peak years. It is rare to be able to add such a prominent bat at such a prime point in his career. And Fielder, of course, is not the one-dimensional slugger his father was. His career on-base percentage is .390 -- a mark Cecil never matched in any single season. Fielder's performance has fluctuated against fellow lefties, he's still unproven in the postseason and he's nowhere near the defender Pujols is at first, but we've only begun to see what he can do with his bat. He had a slightly better regular season than Pujols -- certainly the more consistent of the two. Both hit .299, with Fielder hitting 38 homers to Pujols' 37 and driving in 120 runs to Pujols' 99 (of course, having NL MVP candidate Ryan Braun in front of Prince helped). All told, Fielder had a .981 OPS to Pujols' .906. But this isn't about one walk year. It's not about anything we've seen in the past. It's about what lies ahead. It's about the value that is going to be provided and the risk that is going to be associated with the name scribbled on the dotted line. Honestly, if you're offering a contract beyond, say, four or five years (and it will undoubtedly get to that point), you're taking a major financial risk with either player -- Pujols for his age, Prince for his frame. But all things considered, if I'm a general manager with the luxury of choosing between the two, I'll go with the younger, if bigger, body. Even if it means passing on the best player in the sport.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.