Who's going be the No. 1 first baseman in the majors through 2019?
The four best first basemen in the major leagues in 2010 were Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez. Justin Morneau would have made it five, except he missed almost half the season with a concussion. What makes this project difficult is that none of those guys are old, and none are particularly young. We can happily ignore Aubrey Huff (33) and Paul Konerko (34), but those first five all played last season at Age 30 or younger. There was a time when I might ignore a 30-year-old in a discussion like this, and most of them probably should be ignored. Players like Albert Pujols, though, you don't ignore.
There are other candidates, of course. I'm sure that Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis have their partisans, but both are on the wrong side of 30 and obviously don't stack up with Pujols. Billy Butler's exceptionally young and will have some big seasons, but I suspect he'll be a DH during most of them. I like Ike Davis, but there doesn't seem to be much superstar potential there.
There are also some fine first-base prospects who figure to eventually make a splash, especially Eric Hosmer (Royals), Freddie Freeman (Braves), Brandon Belt (Giants), Yonder Alonso (Cincinnati) and Jonathan Singleton (Phillies). But Singleton, Alonso, and Belt are all blocked in the majors to varying degrees. Hosmer, perhaps the best prospect of the bunch, is still a year or two away. Which leaves Freeman, who's slated to take over at first base for Atlanta this season.
Freeman's got opportunity, ability, and youth - he turned 21 just last fall - on his side. My only reservations about Freeman are that he doesn't walk a lot, and his 124 Triple-A games last summer represent his only superlative play above Class A. Those aren't knocks, really; I'm just looking for chinks in his armor, because this is a tough competition. I don't see how he breaks into our top five today, but it won't be all that surprising if he's there in 2019 when we look backwards (and yes, between Freeman and Jason Heyward that's quite a duo the Braves should be featuring for the next half-decade).*
*By the way, I'm now getting all my information about prospects from John Sickels' latest, The Baseball Prospect Book 2011.Oh, and you can read a lot more from John about Brandon Belt and Freddie Freeman here.
So let's go back to our original five, with the caveat that we're probably going to miss one of the kids ...
Here they are with Seasonal Ages in 2011, plus on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and Wins Above Replacement (via Baseball-Reference.com) over the last two seasons ...
- Cabrera (28) - .407/.582, 11.3
- Gonzalez (29) - .400/.530, 13.3
- Pujols (31) - .429/.627, 16.4
- Votto (27) - .419/.585, 10.7
- Morneau (30) - .390/.553 (8.4)
In case you're curious, the other first basemen with at least 10 WAR over the last two seasons are Youkilis (10.7), Prince Fielder (10.2) and Teixeira (10.1). I've already dismissed Youkilis and Teixeira, and I have a hard time imagining Fielder aging real well.
If Morneau hadn't been hurt last season, he probably would be third or fourth on the WAR list. So we have to consider him. Except for the little matter of not knowing when he's going to play. Sure, the Twins are supposedly still optimistic that Morneau will be ready for Opening Day, but I think that actually means they're hopeful that he'll be ready. Which isn't all that encouraging. If Morneau was a little younger, or had spent the last three months getting his swings, we might consider him seriously. But he's not, and he hasn't, so we can't.
Let's look at the other four, starting with the youngest. Votto's one year younger than Cabrera, two years younger than Gonzalez, and four years younger than Pujols. Even so, he's 27 - already hitting his peak seasons. We probably can't expect better from Votto than we've seen, and in fact 2010 was his first great season. Will he have others? Probably. But Cabrera's already had three or four great seasons, Gonzalez two.
(Hey, I think we're getting somewhere!)
Meanwhile, Pujols ... well, Pujols has been great in every season. Literally every season. He's played in 10 seasons, and was great in all of them.
Pujols is so good, I think he's one of those rare players - like Willie Mays, like Barry Bonds, like Ted Williams - who will continue to dominate his competition well into his 30s. He might not be a great player at 38 and 39, but he'll have been great enough earlier that nobody can catch up to him.
This does assume, of course, that he's now actually 31. It's not completely unreasonable to believe that he's a year or two older - some people think more, actually - but based on the information we've got, I think we have to assume that Albert Pujols will be the game's top first baseman in this decade.