MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

'Best player' label is open for debate

Leach: 'Best player' label is open for debate

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?
Albert Pujols
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.
Miguel Cabrera
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.
Matt Kemp
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.
Jacoby Ellsbury
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.
Jose Bautista
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.
Evan Longoria
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.
Ryan Braun
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.
Troy Tulowitzki
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.
A highly unscientific survey of people around the game -- including GMs, scouts, players and performance analysts -- yielded a variety of answers. Troy Tulowitzki and Pujols were the names offered most often, but no one came anywhere close to a majority of the votes. Kemp, Braun, Cabrera and Cano all garnered mentions. That in itself tells much of the story. Even just one year ago, certainly two years, it's hard to imagine Pujols not dominating such a poll.

The same sort of picture reveals itself in the hard numbers. Three of the top sources for value above replacement show three different players as the best in the Majors in 2011. They agree on the best over the past three years, a fairly conventional baseball time frame, but that leader is Pujols, and he fell behind in the various metrics in '11.

Fangraphs.com's Wins Above Replacement (WAR) rates Ellsbury No. 1 for 2011. BaseballReference.com lists Kemp as No. 1 in the Majors in WAR in '11. And Baseball Prospectus' WARP shows Bautista at the top of the list. Each of those numbers considers offense and defense, attempting to sum up a player's contribution in a single number relative to "replacement value," which is essentially the expected contribution from a Minor League free agent or other freely available talent.

All three systems show Pujols with the highest value over the past three years. And as a general rule, when we talk in baseball about the best or the greatest, we're not talking about this minute and this minute only. History matters. Right now matters, too, but it's not the only thing.

Still, Pujols had a down year at 31, not 28. Even Hall of Fame players have decline phases, and the worry is that Pujols has begun his. He's 32 now, and it's a very short list of players who had as much value from age 32-35 as they did from 28-31. What may be most interesting is who comes in right behind Pujols in those longer-term assessments. In both FanGraphs' and BasebalReference's measurements, the second-best player over the past three years has been Evan Longoria.

Longoria played only 133 games last year due to injury, posting a health-hindered (and bad luck-hindered) .244 batting average. So clearly he wasn't the best player in the game in 2011. But over the past three years, only Pujols outperformed him in all facets, and Longoria turned 26 after last season ended.

Longoria is a complete player, with power, on-base ability, a little speed and elite defense at a key position. He's also a player you can fully expect to be better in '12 than he was in '11. But it's extremely hard to justify a player coming off a down year like Longoria's as the best in the game. We're at the top levels here -- any knock on any of these players is a significant knock, and a subpar 2011 is a pretty big knock.

A nice analog for Longoria, but a player not coming off a down year, is Tulowitzki. He was named top player by an analyst, a general manager and a player in the unscientific poll, a nice cross-section that speaks well to his complete skill set. Like his fellow "Dirtbag," Tulowitzki is a tremendous athlete still in his prime, an all-around offensive star who plays elite defense at a premium position. If you like up-the-middle players, he's likely your guy.

But if staying healthy is a skill, it's one that Tulowitzki has displayed less successfully than others. There's also the matter of the thin air in Denver, which has given him a boost of more than 100 points of OPS over his career.

If the bat is what you're looking for, Cabrera and Bautista are your men. Cabrera has been the game's best hitter not named Pujols, and it's possible that he's surpassing his friend. But when Cabrera doesn't hit, he doesn't offer much. Bautista is a better defender at a more premium position, but unlike Cabrera, he doesn't have nearly a decade of track record.

Ellsbury and Kemp are interesting cases. Ellsbury showed power he'd never had before in a season when he turned 28, while Kemp's brilliant 2011 simply made his disappointing '10 look like an outlier. It's much easier to believe that Kemp developed into something great than Ellsbury, who might have just had his career year. It won't be at all shocking if Kemp is the name on everyone's lips a year from now. Like Tulowitzki, he's a great two-way player and a great athlete at an up-the-middle position.

And then there's Braun, maybe the hardest to figure. Like Cabrera and Bautista, he's not an elite defender, but he is an impressive athlete who contributes on the bases. He's a high-average, high-power hitter with quality plate discipline. And he may well be suspended for the first 50 games of 2012, opening a whole new set of questions, both about what happened in the past and what happens next.

You can make a case for any of them, and probably for some others. Surely Yankees fans would scream at the exclusion of Cano, and in a year, it may look absurd not to include Upton. But that's the whole point. It's a fascinating transition point in the game, and it will be great fun watching all the candidates state their cases on the field in 2012.

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.