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Albert, Adrian or Prince? Would you rather have Pujols, Gonzalez or Fielder?

10.23.11 at 1:26 am ET
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The Red Sox opted to trade for Adrian Gonzalez (left) 10 months ago, passing on the chance to pursue Albert Pujols in free agency. (AP)

A year ago, the Red Sox recognized that they would have an opportunity to add an extraordinary first baseman in the near future. After the 2010 season, Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder were all one year away from reaching free agency.

Though the baseball world was operating on the assumption that Pujols was all but certain to re-sign with the Cardinals, Gonzalez and Fielder were almost certain to be available either in a trade prior to the 2011 season or on the open market after it. With Mark Teixeira under contract to the Yankees through 2016, the Sox understood that — while nothing is certain in free agency — they would be in a strong position to acquire one of those three players by 2012.

But the Sox didn’t wait. Instead, they made their move to acquire Gonzalez from the Padres last offseason, trading three prospects to land the young superstar for a 2011 season during which he was under contract for the bargain salary of $6.3 million. The Sox then signed Gonzalez to a seven-year, $154 million extension that will keep him in Boston through 2018, in his age 36 season.

And despite the fact that the recovery of his right shoulder from surgery last offseason to repair a labrum tear sapped Gonzalez’ power down the stretch, he delivered just about everything the Sox could have asked for in his first year in Boston.

That said, the sight of Pujols’ ridiculous and historic performance in Game 3 of the World Series — in which the slugger tied World Series records with five hits, six runs batted in and three homers — made obvious the question: Would Gonzalez still have been the offseason first baseman of choice had the Sox waited until after 2011 to make their move?

Take a look at how Gonzalez, Pujols and Fielder performed in 2011, then vote below on which first baseman will be the top performer during his next contract:

PRINCE FIELDER

27 years old, .299 average, .415 OBP, .566 slugging, .981 OPS, 38 homers, 120 RBI, 162 games

Fielder is the youngest of the bunch, at an age that suggests he is just entering his prime, and that he’s likely to be the healthiest of the players over the coming few years (despite concerns that his massive frame will make it difficult for him to remain hold up for the long haul). He also put up huge numbers in 2011.

He’s been somewhat less consistent than Gonzalez and Pujols, having alternated MVP-caliber numbers with star (rather than superstar) level production in the last six years. His year-by-year OPS since his rookie year of 2006: .831, 1.013, .879, 1.014, .871, .981. His defense is also a notable step down from that of past Gold Glovers Pujols and Gonzalez, and the likelihood that he spends the life of his next contract as a first baseman (rather than a DH) is low.

Moreover, he has benefited from his home park, with a .965 career OPS at Miller Park and an .896 road mark. Still, his power is extraordinary, and his ability to impact a baseball while unloading with a monster swing bears resemblance to David Ortiz.

ADRIAN GONZALEZ

29 years old, .338 average, .410 OBP, .548 slugging, .957 OPS, 27 homers, 117 RBI, 159 games

Gonzalez had his fewest homers since 2006, a development that was at least partly the result of the fact that he lost strength in his surgically repaired shoulder over the course of the year and that he suffered a mid-year neck injury that hindered his ability to drive the ball.

However, removed from the offense-smothering environment of PETCO Park in San Diego, he also performed near an MVP level, with the highest average and OBP of his career, along with the second highest slugging mark. Moreover, Gonzalez is in the middle of his prime.

With a healthy offseason of workouts in front of him, there is reason to believe that he is capable of sustaining or improving upon his 2011 performance in the coming couple of seasons, so long as he remains relatively healthy.

ALBERT PUJOLS

31 years old, .299 average, .366 OBP, .541 slugging, .906 OPS, 37 homers, 99 RBI, 147 games

Pujols is the oldest of the three, and he is at the end of what is typically a player’s prime offseason seasons, at a point where decline typically sets in. His career-low average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS and RBI total suggest as much. That said, his production was still remarkable, particularly given that he shook off a poor start and that he missed just two weeks after suffering a wrist fracture in the middle of the year.

Yet there is little question that he has been the best hitter in baseball since his major league debut in 2001, a fact that makes it all the more painful for the Sox to consider what might have been given that one of their scouts, Ernie Jacobs, pushed hard to try to get the Sox to draft him, and was heartbroken when the team passed on him and saw him sneak into the Cardinals’ hands in the 13th round.

And he remains a force now, someone who does not so much hit baseballs as he criminally assaults them.

Still, he will likely receive the highest annual salary of any of the three. In spring training, he turned down a reported nine-year offer in excess of $200 million from the Cardinals. While Pujols was believed to be willing to compromise on the number of years he would seek in his next contract, it was also believed that he wanted the highest average annual value in the game’s history, exceeding the $27.5 million a year that Alex Rodriguez is receiving from the Yankees.

Which first baseman will be the top performer over the life of his next contract?

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