Spend wisely: Prince or Pujols?

Prince Fielder is the heart and soul of the Milwaukee Brewers, a gregarious slugger who tries to hide his girth in a baggy uniform and with the pants he wears over the tops of his baseball spikes. His bowling ball physique and bushy beard project his enormous strength but disguise the artistry he produces with his 34-ounce C271 Louisville Slugger. Fielder is hitting .301 with 28 home runs and a league-leading 100 RBIs after he drove home one in the Brewers' 11-4 win over the Pirates on Tuesday night. But he has also earned more walks (and he had three more Tuesday) than strikeouts and sprays singles and doubles all over the field. He’s like the Tony Gwynn of this potato chip generation, only he smacks the ball 400-plus feet with regularity.

He’s also one of the leading MVP candidates in the National League, especially since the Brewers have pulled away in the NL Central with a 24-4 stretch that has put them 10 games ahead of the Cardinals. Over those 28 games, Fielder has hit .350 with six home runs, 27 RBIs, a few of his trademark bowling alley “strike” home run celebrations and the weight of a franchise that has never won the World Series carried on his broad shoulders.

Of course, he’s also about to become very, very rich, as he enters free agency in the offseason. The Brewers have already signed Ryan Braun to a megabucks extension through 2020. Rickie Weeks will make $34 million through 2014. Corey Hart will make over $19 million over the next two seasons. Zack Greinke is on the tab for $13.5 million in 2012 and Yovani Gallardo's salary increases to $11.5 million in 2014. In other words, the Brewers may not be able to afford Fielder. It’s the gray cloud over Milwaukee’s terrific season that is always lingering off in the distance.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals faded despite their resident superstar and impending free agent heating up. Albert Pujols uncharacteristically struggled for two months, hitting .245 in April and .288 with just two home runs in May. Was the pressure getting to him? Was he hiding an injury? Had his bat slowed down? Nobody knew. He had never been in a slump before. But since June 1, he has hit .309 with 22 home runs in 59 games despite a short stint on the DL with a broken forearm. While he’s in danger of not hitting .300 or driving in 100 runs for the first time, his reputation as the best hitter and player in the game seems repaired.

Indeed, he’s about to become a very, very wealthy individual, and maybe even challenge the $275 million extension the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez to before the 2008 season.

There will be tremendous pressure for both clubs to sign their first basemen. The Cubs are sitting out there in need of a first baseman, perhaps with the willingness to pay, and perhaps the desire to prick a division rival. Other clubs will undoubtedly jump in the fray. The question: Which guy would you rather have?

This isn’t really a question of who’s better; while Fielder is having the better season at the plate, I think most people agree that Pujols remains the superior player, with more value in the field and on the bases. However, he’s also four years older than Fielder, so it becomes a question of risk investment. Do you like Fielder for less money, turning 28 and with concerns about his weight? Or do you like Pujols, turning 32 and coming off the worst year of his career?

For Pujols, I did a quick study looking at the 13 best hitters since World War II through age 31, based on adjusted OPS from Baseball-Reference.com. The list (in order of best OPS+): Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Frank Thomas, Dick Allen, Barry Bonds (through the 1996 season by the way), Jeff Bagwell, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron, Manny Ramirez, Mike Piazza and Frank Robinson. Obviously, few hitters are comparable to Pujols (he’d rank fourth on the list), but we can at least see how these great hitters aged.

Through age 31, the group collectively averaged 142 runs created per 162 games played. From age 32 through 39 (that’s an eight-year contract for Pujols), it averaged 125 runs created per 162 games played. Seventeen runs may not seem huge, but there’s a catch. The members of the group didn’t play as many games as they aged. From 24 to 31, they averaged 143 games per season. From 32 to 39, they averaged 125, but that doesn’t include the fact that Allen was done at 35, Mantle at 36 and Bagwell at 37.

This doesn’t mean Pujols will fade. Mays and Aaron aged very well (Mays’ OPS+ fell from 159 through age 31 to 155 from 32 to 39; Aaron’s OPS+ actually increased from 157 to 162). Williams remained a terrific hitter. Bonds, of course, improved, but maybe he’s not the best comparison. It should be noted, however, that the four first basemen on the list -- Thomas, Allen, Bagwell and McCovey -- all declined or had some injury problems.

Maybe the most interesting comparison is Pujols’ contemporary, Rodriguez. He was also set to enter his age-32 season when he opted out of his contract following the 2007 season. Rodriguez was coming off seven straight seasons of 154-plus games and hit 54 home runs and won the MVP award in 2007. The Yankees gave him a 10-year deal that averages $27.5 million per season. If Pujols gets that much over eight seasons, we’re talking $220 million. A-Rod, as healthy as he had been, has missed 131 games the past four seasons.

Fielder is a little harder to evaluate, considering the lack of 5-foot-11, 275-pound players who were really good to compare him with. There isn’t a good database that lists accurate weights -- Cecil Fielder, Prince’s dad, is listed at 230 pounds, which makes you wonder what he weighed when they turned on the scale. So I picked 10 hitters who were good and also … well, large. Or they got large.

Anyway, the 10 hitters: Mo Vaughn, Boog Powell, Kevin Mitchell, Cecil Fielder, Kent Hrbek, John Mayberry Sr., David Ortiz, Dave Parker, Greg Luzinski and George Scott. From ages 25 through 27, those players averaged 96 runs created per season; from 28 through 34, they averaged 76 -- and that’s with a big boost from Ortiz, whose first season with the Red Sox came when he was 27.

Vaughn is the player most cite when looking at Fielder’s future, remembering Vaughn’s health problems with the Angels and Mets. But Vaughn was 31 when he left Boston and some of his decline his first two years in Anaheim was attributable to leaving Fenway Park, where Vaughn had mastered hitting to the opposite field to take advantage of the Green Monster. His injury issues didn’t come until he missed the 2001 season at age 33.

Powell was another huge guy. He won an MVP award at 28, but slugged over .500 just once after turning 29. Prince’s dad had his two best seasons at 26 and 27. His final 30-homer season came at 32.

In the end, if you’re looking at historic precedent, both players come with enormous risk. Fielder has been one of the most durable players in baseball and I might like him on a five-year deal. But seven or eight seems like a scary investment. You can make the same argument for Pujols.

So the question becomes: Who bites? Because we know somebody will.