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Draft Round Battles: Gonzalez Vs. Pujols

It's easy to form an attachment to one of your fantasy team's former stars, and since Albert Pujols has undoubtedly swung countless leagues over his 13-year career, this built-up affection might explain why Pujols is getting a lot of draft cred.  Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position reports are showing that Pujols is still going in the third round (35.17 ADP) of most mock drafts, a generous showing for a 34-year-old who played only 99 games in 2013 and is coming off the worst season of his career.

I use the term "worst" accurately, though somewhat lightly.  Pujols hit .258/.330/.437 with 17 homers, 64 RBI and 49 runs scored over 443 PA.  That was still good enough for an 111 wRC+ and, if projected over a full season, those counting numbers start looking a lot more Pujolsian.  While there are certainly reasons to be concerned about how Pujols will perform in 2014, maybe you can add me to the "he's still Albert!" club since I'll defend that late-third round ADP placement, even to the point of preferring Pujols ahead of another certain Los Angeles first baseman in Adrian Gonzalez.

Gonzalez's own ADP is 67.67, and while there are a lot of first basemen hovering in that sixth round position, I'm a little stunned that A-Gon is behind Chris Carter (62.58), Jose Dariel Abreu (64.64) and Brandon Moss (67.58).  Seriously?  Mock drafters prefer Captain Strikeout, a rookie prospect with holes in his swing and a platooner ahead of one of the most durable and productive hitters of the last decade?  I certainly think Gonzalez merits a higher draft placement than that....though not ahead of Pujols.

Let's start the draft battle by acknowledging the elephant in the room, durability.  Since 2007, Gonzalez has averaged 160 games per season.  Pujols had a strong record of durability himself before last season, when he was hobbled by (and eventually shut down early because of) plantar fasciitis in his left foot.  Pujols had been bothered by the injury for a decade with little effect on his play, though the pain intensified in 2013 and he partially tore his plantar fascia in July.  That small tear, however, may have spared Pujols from surgery and now he says he's ready to go for Opening Day.

Since plantar fasciitis can be the kind of injury that never goes away, you have to wonder if Pujols' health will really hold up for the majority of a season.  Even if the foot is totally fine, you still have to consider Pujols' age (34) and a couple of knee injuries in recent years.  If you're drafting solely on having a first baseman for as many games as possible, Gonzalez is the safer pick.

If both men are healthy, however?  Well, if both players end up with roughly the same number of plate appearances, I'll go with Pujols.  While there's no doubt that Pujols' performance has been in decline over the last two seasons, I can't help but feel that his struggles have been somewhat exaggerated by all the hype over Pujols' ten-year, $240MM contract and the fact that his decline began basically as soon as he put on an Angels uniform.  Check these numbers out from 2012-13...

Pujols: 1113 PA, 134 runs, 47 homers, 169 RBI, .275/.338/.485, 130 OPS+

Gonzalez: 1325 PA, 144 runs, 40 homers, 208 RBI, .296/.343/.462, 121 OPS+

Despite the additional 212 PA, Gonzalez still falls behind Prince Albert in homers and OPS+, and you have to figure that with equal playing time, Pujols would've caught up in runs.  Despite all the bad press and the contractual albatross label hanging around his neck, Pujols has still been the best first baseman in L.A. over the last two seasons.

Gonzalez, of course, has been dealing with some physical issues himself in recent years.  He underwent shoulder surgery prior to the 2011 season and, as Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan has illustrated, Gonzalez has since become primarily a pull hitter and his power has greatly diminished.  A-Gon's .166 ISO in 2012-13 was well below his .207 career average, and it's possible Gonzalez's overall hitting numbers would've been lower were it not for a .325 BABIP over the same period (Pujols has a .273 BABIP over the last two seasons, by the way).

Also, Pujols' critics have noted that he's posted the three lowest walk rates of his career over the last three seasons, and since 2010, Pujols has recorded three of the three highest strikeout rates of his career.  To recap, that's an 8.7% walk rate and a 10.7% strikeout rate from 2011-13 for Pujols --- that still tops Gonzalez's 8% walk rate and 16% strikeout rate over the same span.  While those three-year percentages represent a bigger drop from previous career norms for Pujols than they do for Gonzalez, let's also remember that Pujols was putting up ridiculous, all-time great numbers from 2001-10.  Naturally he has further to fall since he's coming from a greater height, and yet even the 2011-13 beta version of Pujols is still getting on base more and striking out less than Gonzalez.

To steal a line from Mark Twain, rumors of Pujols' fantasy demise have been greatly exaggerated.  With a little more batted-ball luck (and less plantar fasciitis pain) over the last two years, Pujols might've made the Angels feel less terrified a bit better about that long-term investment.  If Pujols really has put his foot issues behind him, it's hard to argue that Gonzalez is the better option.  While there is certainly no shame in being considered "a poor man's Albert Pujols," it doesn't look like Gonzalez will escape that label even at this late date in Pujols' career.

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