Now that the 2012 Major League Baseball season has closed the book on its first month, many baseball followers are asking what seems to be the question of the day: Who's the best player in the game today?
The Albert Pujols Era appears to be done with. It's May already and he still hasn't hit his first home run. Pujols is showing his first signs of slowing down and of not being a player who is destined to destroy every meaningful batting record. Ryan Braun is battling to regain his good name. Jacoby Ellsbury dislocated his shoulder and the other contenders are tightly grouped. However, there is one player who has placed significant distance between himself and the rest of the pack.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have the best record in baseball, new ownership, and a looming billion-dollar television contract. But center fielder Matt Kemp is the most encouraging point about one of baseball's marquee franchises. A few months ago, Kemp and the Dodgers agreed to an eight-year, $160 million contract extension. Twenty-two games into the season, the deal is a bargain.
Kemp began this season on a higher level than any other player. He is No. 1 in the majors in home runs (10), batting average (.466), on-base percentage (.506), and slugging percentage (.905). If you're stunned by those numbers, I understand. Feel free to read them again.
At age 32, Pujols is in the midst of the longest struggle of his brilliant, future Hall of Fame career. He now plays with the Los Angeles Angels after signing a 10-year, $250 million contract. His career batting average is .317. This season, his slugging percentage is .310. Pujols seems to have fallen into a slump similar to the ones that Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth experienced last year after signing huge free agent deals. At this point, the Angels are asking themselves if it's a minor obstacle, or an indication that Pujols could be beginning the descent of his career.
He has given one Southern California team cause for concern while Kemp, 27, has given another optimism and new hope.
Pujols brought his power-hitting reputation to the Angels, who have disappointedly fallen into last place in the American League West. Kemp has brought his positive energy to the Dodgers, who have sprinted into first place in the National League West shortly after learning an investment group led by Magic Johnson would take ownership of the team.
Prior to the season, Kemp predicted a year of 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases for himself. Thus far, he only has one stolen base. But in the City of Angels, he's making everything else seem possible -- including a swift passing of the baton from the last Best Player in Baseball to the next.