Rob Rains Inside Baseball: Sign Pujols or Fielder?

The best kind of debates in sports are always hypothetical, because there is no winner or loser, no right answer and no wrong answer. It is strictly a matter of opinion.

So here is today’s hypothetical question: If you were the owner of a major league baseball team this winter, and could afford to spend $200 million and needed to sign a free agent first baseman, who would you rather sign, Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder?

Before you make an immediate response, consider some of the facts for both players:

The two biggest differences between the two are that Pujols hits right-handed, and Fielder bats left-handed, and the age of both players — Pujols will be 32 when the 2012 season begins, and Fielder will celebrate his 28th birthday one month into next season.

The four-year difference in age might be the biggest single factor in this debate. As great as Pujols has been in his career, you can’t escape the fact that if both players sign seven-year contracts, for example, Pujols will be 39 when that contract is being completed and Fielder will be 35.

In baseball years, that’s a huge difference.

What owners will have to ask themselves is whether they think Pujols, between ages 32 and 39, can realistically come close to equaling the offensive numbers he has put up so far in his career. Or would Fielder, because of the age difference, be a better investment?

Both Pujols and Fielder made their major-league debuts when they were 21 years old. For his career, Pujols has averaged 42 homers, 127 RBI and a .329 average. In his shorter career, Fielder has averaged 38 homers, 106 RBI and hit .281.

For the past three seasons, between his 28th and 31st birthday, Pujols averaged 42 homers and 123 RBI, and one could easily argue that in those prime years of his career, Fielder could put up similar numbers over the next three seasons.

Another factor in this debate is the way Fielder has played so far this season, finally cutting down on his strikeouts – just 38 in .312 plate appearances through Sunday – while raising his average to .301. He hit his 20th home run of the year Sunday against the Red Sox, tying with the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp for the league lead, and also producing his league-best 61st RBI. Could an owner realistically expect similar numbers the next few seasons?

Pujols, before leaving the Cardinals’ game on Sunday with injuries to his left shoulder and wrist suffered in a collision at first base, hit his 17th home run, driving in his 45th run. His batting average, uncharacteristically low, nevertheless is now at a season-high .279 after his three hits on Sunday.

The Cardinals said they will know more about the extent of Pujols’ injuries after he completes X-rays and an MRI on Monday.

The biggest negative toward signing Fielder to a long term contract stems from concerns about his weight, now estimated at 275 pounds. Consider this, however: despite that weight, Fielder has never had any health-related problems, and has never been on the disabled list in his career. In his five complete seasons, he has played a minimum of 157 games. In the past three seasons, he has missed a total of four games.

Also consider that Fielder has always been a big man, or boy. When he was 12 years old, he already was big enough to hit the ball out of Tiger Stadium. When he was drafted in 2002, he reportedly weighed about 250 pounds. He was listed at 260 as a rookie in 2005.

Could his weight cause Fielder problems as he gets older? Certainly. But Pujols also has had some injuries along the way, as we saw on Sunday, and he could have some issues as he gets older too – once again considering the age difference between the two players.

Finally, an owner would have to take this into consideration as well: If he offers Pujols a $200 million contract, is Pujols’ roots dug so deep into the St. Louis community that he would just take that offer back to the Cardinals as leverage, having no intention of leaving St. Louis, just trying to use that offer to get as much money out of them as possible before he signs.

With Fielder, and his agent, Scott Boras, there is no doubt he is looking for the biggest contract he can get, and will sign wherever that leads him. The most common belief is that Fielder will end up in either Washington, which has a cozy relationship with Boras and some of his other clients, or Seattle, where the longtime Milwaukee scouting director is now the general manager.

Despite the well-documented close relationship between Pujols and Cubs’ GM Jim Hendry – which apparently dates back to a dinner when Pujols was a young player and was invited by teammate Alan Benes to join him and his college coach at Creighton, Hendry – most observers in Chicago do not expect the Cubs to pursue any long-term free agent deals this winter.

In all likelihood, both Pujols and Fielder will get $200 million or close to it in deals this winter, and the true answer about which was the better signing won’t be determined for several years to come.

Head over to RobRains.com and read Rob’s thoughts on Ryan Theriot, U2 and news around MLB and MiLB.

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