First things first: Pujols, Fielder tower over all
Big hitters dominate free-agent first basemen, and everyone else
There's Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and everybody else when it comes to first basemen on the free-agent market.
Pujols and Fielder are the biggest free agents available, and both will command huge contracts. Where they wind up could reshape the National League Central, considering that Fielder helped the Brewers win the division and Pujols' Cardinals rallied to win the Wild Card and eventually the World Series.
Pujols' free agency figures to be dramatic. He's one of the game's greatest players, a nine-time All-Star who surely will be headed for the Hall of Fame when he's finished playing. He has spent his entire 11-year career in baseball-mad St. Louis, but broke off contract talks with the Cardinals in February.
Pujols, who will turn 32 in January, is coming off a season in which he hit 37 home runs but set career lows with a .299 batting average and 99 RBIs while being paid $16 million in 2011. But he will certainly seek more than the five-year, $125 million extension Ryan Howard signed with the Phillies in April 2010. Indeed, something closer to the 10-year, $275 million deal Alex Rodriguez signed four years ago might be expected.
Like Pujols, Fielder has played his entire career with one team, having finished his seventh year with the Brewers by hitting .299 with 38 homers and 120 RBIs. The Brewers figure to have a tougher time re-signing Fielder than the Cardinals will with Pujols, who's a legend in St. Louis.
The Red Sox and Yankees have high-dollar first basemen in Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira, respectively, and New York general manager Brian Cashman has said he will not pursue a big hitter in the free-agent market. Still, it wouldn't be wise to ever rule out the American League East rivals when it comes to players of the magnitude of Pujols and Fielder.
Looking to buy: New Cubs president Theo Epstein would make a huge splash by signing either Pujols or Fielder away from Chicago's two biggest division rivals. Nothing would get Wrigley Field rocking next summer like Pujols or Fielder in the middle of the lineup. ... If the Brewers can't re-sign Fielder, they will be on the prowl for a new first baseman. ... The Rangers might be looking to improve at first base, though they're probably more likely to focus on starting pitching. ... Don't count out the Dodgers. Despite their financial troubles, Los Angeles could be looking for an upgrade over James Loney.
Top dog: Pujols' free agency will be one of the biggest stories this offseason. Seldom do players of his caliber and with his pedigree hit the open market, and the Cardinals certainly understand the significance of trying to re-sign him when it comes to the performance of their team and public relations. St. Louis fans would shudder seeing him in another uniform, especially if it were that of the Cubs. Pujols has won three Most Valuable Player Awards and two World Series. Sure, his numbers slipped a tad this year, but as he showed in Game 3 of the World Series when he hit three home runs, he's as dangerous as any hitter in the game.
Best of the rest: The talent level at first base drops off significantly after Pujols and Fielder, but there are some good players available. Though primarily an outfielder, Michael Cuddyer, who has played his entire 11-year career with Minnesota, has significant experience at first base and is coming off a season in which made the AL All-Star team and hit .284 with 20 homers and 70 RBIs. ... Derrek Lee has bounced around a bit in recent years -- hitting .267 with 19 homers and 59 RBIs with the Orioles and Pirates last year -- and at age 36, his best years are likely behind him. Still, he could be a good pickup. ... Carlos Pena still has the ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark, but he strikes out a lot and doesn't hit for average.
Worth a shot: If you're looking for a group of 30-something players who have bounced around in their careers, there is no shortage among first basemen. Brad Hawpe, Casey Kotchman, Xavier Nady, Lyle Overbay, Ross Gload and Russell Branyan are among those looking for work.
Potential class of 2012: Carlos Lee, who will be in the final season of a six-year, $100 million deal with the Astros, moved to first base last season. Loney will certainly generate some interest, and the Rangers' Mike Napoli, who plays first in addition to catching, will try to carry a strong playoff performance into next year. Aubrey Huff, Adam LaRoche and Ty Wigginton will be on the market if their options aren't picked up.