Troy Tulowitzki(notes) is the best player in baseball right now. There really is no arguing this. He leads the major leagues in home runs and slugging percentage. He's the best defensive player at the most demanding position. He spent all of last year in a mullet and made it look good. Think Albert Pujols(notes) could do that?
The imperative words in the previous paragraph are right and now. Tulowitzki may not be the best next week. He may be the best the week after. Such an honor is fickle and fleeting.
Excise the postscript and capitalize the title, and The Best Player in Baseball is an entirely different thing. Tulowitzki is not that yet. It takes more than two scorching-hot months on top of a few years of on-and-off excellence to wrest it from Pujols, whose robotic consistency for a decade surely earned him a grace period longer than Tulowitzki's transcendent streak.
Which, admittedly, reached ridiculous proportions this week. It was one thing to see him treat September pitching like batting practice and whack 14 home runs over a 15-game stretch. For Tulowitzki to wield his billy club again this week and lay home runs on the New York Mets four straight games – four in Citi Field, no less, a ballpark that eats fly balls for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and liquefies them for a digestif – proved his power is far more real than anyone imagined.
Remember, Tulowitzki left Long Beach State known far more for his fielding prowess. His yearly precious metal haul was supposed to be Gold (Glove), not Silver (Slugger). That Tulowitzki evolved into a one-man mine brought him to the precipice of the label Pujols has held since taking it from Alex Rodriguez(notes).
He's not there yet. Not close really. Not even with a batting average 125 points higher than Pujols' .239, an on-base percentage about 200 points higher than his .288 and a slugging percentage nearly twice his .433. At 26, Tulowitzki is playing the best baseball of his career and carrying the best team in the game right now, his Colorado Rockies, who are 12-3 heading into perhaps the most intriguing series of the year this week: a rendezvous with the defending champion San Francisco Giants.
1) Troy Tulowitzki usually struggles. Two Aprils ago, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle actually benched Tulowitzki amid an 0-for-19 streak. He was fired less than a month later, Tulo led the Rockies to the playoffs and finished fifth in MVP voting.
As important as they are, shortstops rarely win MVP awards. Of the 182 MVP awards handed out between the American and National leagues, only 15 have gone to shortstops. Perhaps the two worst MVP winners were shortstops (Marty Marion in 1944 and Dick Groat in 1960), and Zoilo Versalles (1965) wasn't much better. All of this goes to a bigger point: If Tulowitzki does continue to play out of his mind for a full season and force himself into consideration for Pujols' title, he'll be treading where only a handful of shortstops have in the last century.
During A-Rod's time at shortstop, Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) and Barry Bonds shared a padlock on the designation. Perhaps Cal Ripken had a case in 1991, but during his '83 MVP season, Dale Murphy was winning his second straight. While Ernie Banks won back-to-back MVPs in 1958 and 1959, everyone knew Willie Mays was the tops. To find an unequivocal Best Player, rewind more than a century, to the first decade of the 1900s, when between 1904 and 1909 Honus Wanger was the greatest. Nap Lajoie was great early in that period, and Ty Cobb's talent showcased itself toward the back half, but Wagner was the original shortstop lollapalooza.
So, hey, only 102 years separate Tulowitzki from the last person who did what he's trying to do. Just another thing to help distinguish him in the draft class of 2005, from which …
2) Alex Gordon(notes) is finally starting to catch up to his peers. The 2005 draft is to baseball what 1983 was to the NFL and 1984 to the NBA, down to its very own Sam Bowie. (Sorry, Jeff Clement(notes).)
Among the first 12 picks went Justin Upton(notes), Ryan Zimmerman(notes), Ryan Braun(notes), Ricky Romero(notes), Tulowitzki, Mike Pelfrey(notes), Cameron Maybin(notes), Andrew McCutchen(notes), Jay Bruce(notes) and Gordon, second overall to the Kansas City Royals. His letter-perfect left-handed swing and solid defense at third base made him a better bet than Zimmerman, Braun and Tulowitzki, also left-side-of-the-infield college bats. The superstardom they've seen was supposed to be Gordon's.
And may yet be. Gordon has started well before. Not like this. He leads the AL with 23 hits, the Royals with 11 RBIs and is actually coming through on what seemed a patently ludicrous boast last fall. In late September, Gordon told The Kansas City Star: "I'm going to dominate next year."
Now in left field permanently, Gordon is doing at 27 what scouts expected half a decade ago. The Royals will take it anytime. Alongside Billy Butler(notes), they're anchoring the highest-scoring lineup in the AL (seriously) and leading the Royals to what would be a league-best 10-5 record …
3) If not for Travis Hafner(notes) and the Cleveland Indians. Before lavishing deserved praise on Hafner, credit goes to the Indians' pitching staff, which is surrounding a lockdown bullpen with top-notch starts. It's one thing to have 21 scoreless innings from closer Chris Perez(notes) and lefties Rafael Perez(notes) and Tony Sipp(notes). It's another to back it up with a blooming Justin Masterson(notes), an in-control Fausto Carmona(notes), an out-of-nowhere Josh Tomlin(notes) and the yin-and-yang of Mitch Talbot(notes). (Yin: Eight scoreless innings last time out. Yang: Hit the disabled list Sunday with a bum elbow.)
So Hafner. Yes, he's still around. Yes, he's still DHing. Yes, he's still obnoxiously paid, getting $13 million this year, more than a quarter of Cleveland's payroll, and $13 million next. At least he's mashing. Asdrubal Cabrera(notes) has more RBIs and Grady Sizemore(notes) superior publicity – after homering Sunday in his second at-bat back from microfracture knee surgery, it is deserved – but Hafner is the offensive soul of the Indians' surge, his .407 on-base percentage and .646 slugging percentage resembling those of his prime. As the Tribe has stomped its way to the top of the AL …
4) The Los Angeles Angels tiptoed their way there by jumping aboard Dan Haren(notes) and letting him play Rudolph. Well, perhaps that's not entirely fair. Jered Weaver(notes) is Haren's co-Rudolph, or his Donner or Blitzen or whichever reindeer he wants to be. He's getting plenty of hype already.
Haren, on the other hand, is doing what he always does: thrive without recognition. He did it for three years in Oakland, 2½ more in Arizona and is showing the Diamondbacks' assessment of him last season – a depreciating asset – was rather pre-emptive. Haren, after all, was the player whom the Diamondbacks traded Carlos Gonzalez(notes), Brett Anderson(notes) and four others to acquire in hopes that he could pair with Brandon Webb(notes) and return Arizona to the World Series.
He never did, and when Los Angeles GM Tony Reagins acquired him last summer, the deal drew little interest because the Angels were so far behind Texas. They're tied with the Rangers today at 10-5, Haren and Weaver both 4-0 and the Angels owners of baseball's longest winning streak at five. Feeding off a cut fastball that he's throwing more than one-third of the time and a kamikaze splitter, Haren's arsenal is so diverse – and unique – that it matters not he's down a few miles per hour on his pitches in recent years. He's getting it done …
"I just want to prove to myself I can still get it done," Berkman said in mid-February, around his arrival in St. Louis Caridnals camp. The Cardinals took a decided risk on him. Berkman hadn't played outfield regularly since 2004, and they gave him $8 million and their right-field job. In his first 10 days with the Cardinals, Berkman barely hit his weight.
Then the Cardinals went to Arizona. Berkman hit four homers in three games. In Los Angeles, he had another two-homer game. Granted, they came off, in order, Juan Gutierrez(notes), Sam Demel(notes), Armando Galarraga(notes), Ian Kennedy(notes) and Jon Garland(notes) twice. Home runs are home runs, though, and six in five games for Berkman propelled St. Louis' offense to a 60-run outburst after scoring 27 in their first nine.
No longer is Berkman the all-around hitter of his prime. He is more the stationary slugger, drawing walks, hitting bombs, butchering fly balls. Essentially …
6) Jonny Gomes(notes) plus five years. Which is no insult to Gomes. On the contrary, teams don't seem to understand the value a Gomes-type provides beyond furnishing tequila in every necessary situation.
Gomes hit his sixth home run Sunday. He's on one of his jags right now where he hits everything hard, and even better, he seems to have picked up a new skill over the winter. Gomes' walk rate was always decent; this year it's been insane: a major league-leading 15 free passes against 46 at-bats. His .261/.435/.696 isn't as gaudy as Joey Votto's(notes) .444/.544/.667, but then neither is his salary.
Tampa Bay non-tendered Gomes in 2008. He signed a minor league deal with the Reds before the 2009 season, got cut and didn't arrive until late May. He slugged .541 … and ended up non-tendered again. He re-signed with Cincinnati in late February 2010 for $800,000, with a $1.75 million option … which the Reds almost didn't pick up.
They did. They're atop the NL Central. And Gomes is doing right by …
Damon's emergence lent a little bit of sheen back to a Tampa Bay Rays franchise encircled by bad luck verging on plaguedom. First Evan Longoria(notes) injured himself five at-bats into the season. Then Manny Ramirez(notes) retired after getting busted for steroid use. Once Damon – a package deal with Manny – and the rest of the Rays couldn't hit, the cause felt lost.
Prior to a loss Sunday, the Rays had won five straight – and Damon had knocked in the winning run in all five. They're still just 6-9, he's still hitting just .232/.259/.346 and he had to leave Sunday's game with a finger injury, but Damon's heroics salvaged the Rays as …
8. Alex Rodriguez kept the New York Yankees offensive machine chugging right along before he, too, sat Sunday, to rest an oblique injury. Only A-Rod is within 100 points of Tulowitzki's slugging percentage (.821 to Tulo's .836), and with nine walks against four strikeouts, A-Rod's patience has paid extreme dividends early.
At 35, Rodriguez never will regain the Best Player title. He's too old, too beaten up, too fragile. He can, as he has shown, exhibit greatness few others do, and the comfort in knowing that should be plenty to sustain A-Rod as he tries to get back on the all-time home run record chase. With four this season, A-Rod is at 617, leaving him 145 shy of Barry Bonds.
It's not an impossible number. It's not an easy one, either, as aging and metabolism gnaw simultaneously at his skill set and body. Not that he'll ever …
9. Turn into Pablo Sandoval(notes), who greeted his crossroads with grace and resolve and is eating just one thing these days: success. Baby Panda's numbers through 14 games are eerily similar to his breakout 2009 campaign, from batting average (.330 then, .347 now) to on-base percentage (.387 and .385) to slugging percentage (.556 and .551).
Sandoval isn't carrying the Giants, per se, as this is a team built not to need a daily backpacker. He hit a couple homers during their recent four-game winning streak and another when Arizona snapped the streak Sunday. It'll be someone else eventually: Buster Posey(notes), more than likely, or Aubrey Huff(notes) or Brandon Belt(notes) or Freddy Sanchez(notes) or Cody Ross(notes). The Giants are a collective; it makes them successful and vulnerable. Once Posey proves his superstardom for good, the incumbency falls upon him in the same way …
10) Troy Tulowtizki grabs the Rockies and shapes the team after his wills and desires. He signed with the Rockies for 10 years this offseason because he believed in Colorado and believed in himself, and the strength of his conviction overwhelmed any concern of tethering himself to one uniform and one franchise.
When Tulowitzki signed the extension this offseason, I wrote a piece arguing it was bad for both sides. The premise from Tulowitzki's perspective not only was flawed – it presumed the Rockies couldn't afford to bring in other big-ticket players about a month before they gave Carlos Gonzalez a seven-year, $80 million deal – but included one line of epic stupidity: Tulowitzki "lacked the fortitude to chase the greater glory that awaited him elsewhere."
There is no greater elsewhere for Tulowitzki, nor should there be. The Rockies drafted him, developed him and watched him grow into one of baseball's few must-see players. Tulo can homer. And rob a hit. And go first to third on a single. He does everything well. Well enough right now to be the best player.
And that's OK. It may be short-lived. Or maybe we're seeing the real thing – the next Best Player in Baseball – blossom into it before our very eyes.