Trick question: How many times has Miguel Cabrera been the best first baseman in the majors in the past three seasons?
The answer: Zero.
Cabrera, of course, played third base in 2012 and 2013, when he won American League MVP honors. Moved to first base last season after the trade of Prince Fielder, his power numbers fell as he battled injuries and hit just 25 home runs after hitting 44 each of the previous two seasons. And while he still had a superb year, it was a clear dip from those monster MVP seasons.
Cabrera ranks first among first basemen in ESPN's position rankings, but is he a clear-cut No. 1? He turns 32 a few days into the season and is coming off offseason surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle and repair a stress fracture. While surgery might alleviate the pain he played through last year, it's still surgery and he's still a guy starting to creep into that "watch his age" category. Plus, there are some good first basemen in the league. Our top 10:
1. Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
9. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
10. Fielder, Texas Rangers
Here are the top 10 first-base seasons since 2012, using Baseball-Reference WAR:
1. Goldschmidt, 2013: 7.3
2. Votto, 2013: 6.4
3. Chris Davis, 2013: 6.1
4. Votto, 2012: 5.9
5. Abreu, 2014: 5.4
6. Freeman, 2013: 5.4
7. Rizzo, 2014: 5.1
8. Cabrera, 2014: 4.9
9. Pujols, 2012: 4.8
10. Fielder, 2012: 4.7
I don't think it's obvious Cabrera should be No. 1. Goldschmidt was having another excellent season until he was hit by a pitch in early August and broke his hand. His numbers were on pace to match his 2013 season's, when he led the National League in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage and won a Gold Glove. Maybe he's not quite the hitter Cabrera was in 2012-13, but he has distinct advantages over Cabrera in the field and on the bases. Cabrera's 2012-13 seasons were valued at 7.2 and 7.5 WAR, so Goldschmidt's 2013 compares favorably.
Abreu's .317/.383/.581 line with 36 home runs would fit in nicely in Cabrera's career, and maybe he'll get even better as he grows more comfortable in the States. Rizzo is the young guy I love, just 25 years old and coming off a 32-homer season with a .286/.386/.527 line. Maybe Votto bounces back after playing just 62 games last year.
Cabrera is pretty special, certainly the game's best hitter in those MVP seasons. Assuming good health, he should age just fine, although none of the projection systems see him hitting 40 home runs or slugging .600. But great players can age better than computers foresee. Mike Schmidt had his best offensive season at age 31 but also led the NL in adjusted OPS at age 32, 33, 34 and 36. Hank Aaron's OPS+ in his 20s was 158; in his 30s, it was 161. George Brett hit 30 home runs for the first time at age 32 and won a batting title at 37. Barry Bonds well, let's skip him.
Those are isolated examples, of course. If there's a notable difference, those guys were better athletes than Cabrera: leaner, faster, better defenders. You can argue their superior athleticism helped them to age so well. Will Cabrera's body hold together? Or will the breakdowns he suffered at the end of 2013 and during 2014 be ongoing issues the rest of his career that will affect his performance? That, we don't know.
I do think Cabrera should continue to be one of the game's best hitters in 2015, maybe the best, but if you'd ask me which first baseman I want in 2015, I think I'd go with Goldschmidt's total package of offense, defense, baserunning and age. That's not a knock on a future Hall of Famer; that's the value of Goldschmidt's entire game.
And don't sleep on Rizzo.