The case for baseball’s best player

This is my Monday column on the best position player in Major League Baseball.

In honor of Tuesday’s All Star Game and all the great players participating in it, answer this question: Who is the best position player in baseball?

I don’t mean the player having the best month or season or season and a half. Lots of guys have been great for a season or two before they got hurt or busted for steroids or the league figured them out. The best position player in baseball should have more than two seasons of sustained excellence. Two years is an arbitrary number, but I hope we can agree on it.

That means no Yasiel Puig. No Chris Davis. No Mike Trout. God love them for the future.

From 2005 to 2010, the No. 1 position player was Albert Pujols. There was no discussion. He could hit for average – .357 in 2008 – and power – 47 home runs in 2009. But since he turned 31 years old in 2010, his numbers have declined. This season he’s hitting just .249, 72 points worse than his .321 career average. He isn’t even an All-Star.

Today, no consensus exists on the best position player in the majors, but we probably can agree on a top five: Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey.

I’ll make a case for and against each player, and then I’ll choose which player is the best. Remember, these are the best players in the game. Each time I make a case against one of them, I’m playing the devil’s advocate.

The case for Cabrera: He’s the best hitter in baseball. Last year, he won the Triple Crown and the American League MVP award, and this year he’s playing even better – .367 batting average, 30 home runs, 95 RBIs and 58 walks.

The case against Cabrera: He’s a subpar fielder wherever you play him – third base, first base or the outfield. Also, he committed the ultimate baseball sin last season when he struck out looking to lose the World Series for the Tigers. He was a statue at the key moment of his career. Fans never will forget the image of Cabrera standing there.

The case for Cano: The past five seasons he’s hit .312 with 136 home runs for the Yankees. No other second baseman has had that combination of power and ability to hit for average since Jeff Kent. Unlike Kent, Cano is a good fielder – he won Gold Gloves in 2010 and 2012.

The case against Cano: He’s just a second baseman. It’s valuable and rare to have a power-hitting second baseman, but it’s more valuable to have a power-hitting shortstop or a power-hitting catcher.

The case for Beltre: He’s a four-time Gold Glove third baseman and he’s been one of the most dominant hitters in baseball since 2010. This season he has 21 home runs and a .316 batting average. Last season he had 36 home runs and a .321 average. He is the Rangers’ best player.

The case against Beltre: He’s 34 years old and, as good of a fielder as he is, he isn’t even the best overall third baseman in the majors. That’s Cabrera.

The case for McCutchen: The Pirates’ Gold Glove center fielder is a five-tool player – he hits for power and average and he can field and throw and run. He already has stolen 20 bases this season, and he’s just 26 years old.

The case against McCutchen: Although he’s a very good hitter, he isn’t as good as Cabrera or Cano or Beltre or Posey. McCutchen is hitting .302 with 10 home runs and 49 RBIs this season. Good, but not great.

The case for Posey: He’s one of the best hitters in baseball and an excellent catcher. He throws out runners and he handles a pitching staff beautifully. Plus he’s young, just 26. Very few catchers are good at hitting and fielding. Besides Posey, there are Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer, but those two don’t hit for power. Posey does.

The case against Posey: Catchers’ legs tend to wear down from all the squatting they do as they enter their 30s. If Posey has to become a first baseman to save his knees in a few seasons, he won’t be as valuable.

You can’t go wrong picking any of these five players, but I’m picking Posey. He’s as good a hitter as anyone in baseball except Cabrera, but unlike Cabrera, Posey actually can field his position. And Posey never would have struck out looking to lose the World Series. He would have put his career on the line to take a swing in the ultimate dramatic moment.

The fact that he’s a superb catcher and wants to play catcher puts him over the top. Posey is the best catcher in baseball and he has the talent to become one of the greatest catchers ever.

What does it mean for the Giants that Posey is the best position player in the majors? It hasn’t meant much to the Giants so far this season, because they currently have the 10th-worst record in baseball.

The Giants have to rebuild their team. The only players who definitely figure into their future are starting pitchers Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, shortstop Brandon Crawford and Posey. That may seem bleak, but it’s not.

Posey is the perfect position player to build around. He plays a premium position, he’s young and he’s a proven super star.

Thanks to Posey, the Giants should be able to rebuild their roster into a World Series contender in an offseason or two.

He gets my vote for best player, and to me, it’s not even close.

Grant Cohn writes two sports columns per week for the Press Democrat’s website. He also writes the “Inside the 49ers” blog. Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.

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