I was doing a little Black Friday browsing, looking at various summation in the wake of the 2010 fantasy baseball season and I was surprised to see several early rankings for 2011 that had unfamiliar names at the top.
Tristan Cockcroft at ESPN started his Top 50 with Hanley Ramirez. The guys at Bleacher GM were split between Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto. I even saw a few cautious arguments for Carlos Gonzalez (how far we've come in one year).
I don't buy it.
For a couple years now there has been arguments for Han-Ram based exclusively on his positional eligibility. There are several stat-hogging first-baseman around, but no shortstop comes within striking distance of Ramirez. Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins have been dogged by injuries two years running. In case you haven't heard, Derek Jeter is in decline. Michael Young switched positions. Troy Tulowitzki's been consistently inconsistent.
But, while Han-Ram still has a huge edge over the rest of the shortstop class and is very much in his prime at the age of 27, he's also coming off his worst season since 2006. Even taking into account three-year averages, he's just not in the same weight class as Albert Pujols in the typical 5 X 5 categories:
Pujols: .331 AVG, 113 R, 42 HR, 123 RBI, 12 SB
Ramirez: .314 AVG, 106 R, 26 HR, 83 RBI, 31 SB
It's an old adage, but positional scarcity just isn't relevant in the first round. You need to select a stat-hoarder with the #1 pick and Pujols is the premier stat-hoarder...and has been for a decade.
That, of course, is what's fueling the case for guys like CarGo and Votto. Whereas Pujols is now in his thirties, and has suffered moderate declines in AVG, OBP, and OPS in each of the last two seasons, Gonzalez and Votto are coming off MVP-level campaigns and are still in their mid-twenties. However, youth cuts both ways. CarGo won me several leagues this past season, but even I can recognize that his home/road splits are a bit disturbing and his BABIP was unsustainable. I expect Gonzalez will continue to improve some aspects of his game, including his aggression on the basepaths and perhaps even his power, but there's potential for regression also.
I would also observe that, as good as Votto was, he did most of his damage in the midsummer months, got progressively less productive down the stretch, and had only one lonely hit in the playoffs. Is that evidence that opponents had developed some kind of moderately effective scouting report? Maybe, maybe not. But I don't want to expend the #1 pick in the draft on a guy who could very easily revert back to his admirable, but not spectacular '08/'09 rates (.309-76-25-84-6).
Yes, both CarGo and Votto have advantages over Pujols in terms of more hitter-friendly ballparks, deeper lineups, and younger legs, but what they proved capable of doing for the first time in 2010, Pujols has done for a decade. Coming off another year in which he led the NL in HR and RBI, he's given us absolutely no reason to think he's ready to stop.
Which brings us to Miguel Cabrera...
This is the argument I find most compelling. If it weren't for the existence of Pujols, we'd be talking a whole lot more about what Miggy has done through the first seven full seasons of his career. Let's put them side by side with the previous standard for consistency in first-base sluggers:
Lou Gehrig ('25-'31): 1053 G, 929 R, 232 HR, 981 RBI, .341/.443/.642
Miguel Cabrera ('04-'10): 1103 G, 702 R, 235 HR, 817 RBI, .317/.392/.558
Albert Pujols ('01-'07): 1091 G, 847 R, 282 HR, 861 RBI, .332/.420/.620
As you can see, Cabrera's only a nose behind the legends, despite the fact that he's played on far inferior teams. With consistency and production on par with Pujols, especially in recent years, Cabrera's supporters can actually argue three distinct advantages. 1.) Cabrera is three years younger and coming off the best year of his career thusfar. The bulk of his prime may still be in front of him. Scary. 2.) He plays in the AL, where he has the luxury of taking an occasional game at DH, so his bat stays in the lineup (in an of itself, this explains why Cabrera has gotten a dozen more games than Pujols in the first seven years of his career). 3.) Miggy doesn't have any lingering injuries. Obviously, Pujols has never missed significant time either, but he's had a pair of reconstructive surgeries on his right elbow, prompting ongoing speculation that he might eventually need Tommy John, which would undoubtedly send him to the D.L.
On this basis, I wouldn't fault somebody for taking Cabrera first. I wouldn't do it myself, but I appreciate the rationale.