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Pujols breaks away from pack at first base


Pujols' monster 2009 season (47 HRs, 135 RBIs, 124 runs, 16 steals, .327 average) stands as one of the greatest 5x5 performance of this century. Lucky for us, he has a good shot at surpassing those numbers in '10 -- at least on two fronts. Projections: 44 HRs, 141 RBIs, 117 runs, 14 steals, .338 average.

In the mood for a heated fantasy debate to carry you through March? Look no further than predicting the order of first basemen after Pujols -- Nos. 2 through 7 -- among Cabrera, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Justin Morneau and Adrian Gonzalez. Truth be told, we could make a sustainable case for either one at No. 2 ... and No. 7. Officially, we've decided to get jiggy with Miggy -- our choice for American League MVP. Projections: 37 HRs, 114 RBIs, 102 runs, 4 steals, .331 average.

Howard is the easy choice for No. 3 here -- even if he doesn't feel the need to swipe eight or more bases again in 2010. Bottom line: There is no greater lock for 44 homers, 145 RBIs and 105 runs in fantasyland. He also holds a greater fear factor over Teixeira and Fielder -- provided he doesn't slink back to the days of hitting .251 (circa 2008). Projections: 46 HRs, 144 RBIs, 102 runs, 4 steals, .277 average.

Aside from a somewhat-deflating K/BB ratio in 2009, there are no design flaws with Fielder's fantasy machine. He's averaging a Howard-like 43 homers, 121 RBIs and 100 runs since 2007 and has (surprisingly) evolved into an annual candidate for .300 or better. Here's where it gets tricky, though: The Brewers have more across-the-board firepower than at any other time in Fielder's Milwaukee tenure, which could affect his bottom line at season's end. Projections: 39 HRs, 131 RBIs, 93 runs, 2 steals, .301 average.

Without a doubt, Tex is a fantasy moose and likely Round 1 pick in AL-only and mixed-league drafts. On the flip side, he's neither a lock for 40 homers, 120 RBIs, 100 runs nor .300 average even in Yankee pinstripes. Put it all together ... and he represents an exciting -- but safe -- choice at No. 5. Projections: 34 HRs, 124 RBIs, 97 runs, 4 steals, .298 average.

At first blush, it seems preposterous that Morneau could supplant both Gonzalez and Berkman in the upcoming fantasy season. After all, the Twins no longer play in the warm and comfy confines of The Metrodome (hello, Target Field) ... and Morneau has been somewhat injury-prone in recent years. But we're not giving up on the twentysomething Morneau, who's been an absolute fantasy dynamo in odd-numbered years. Consider this selection a substantial leap of faith. Projections: 34 HRs, 128 RBIs, 100 runs, 3 steals, .317 average.

If Gonzo remains property of the Padres all season (odds of that occurrence: 40/60), he's likely a solid choice for the seventh slot. But if he should be traded to the Red Sox before July 31 (odds: 60/40) ... then all bets are off with the following forecast. Projections: 38 HRs, 96 RBIs, 92 runs, 1 steal, .280 average.

Forget about the 44 HRs/102 RBIs/24 steals/223 strikeouts for just one second, as we point to this telling stat: In 2009, Reynolds hit just .208 with runners in scoring position. That alone should indicate Reynolds' dream season was not a fluke. In fact, he might be in store for more good karma in 2010. Projections: 32 HRs, 104 RBIs, 92 runs, 27 steals, .259 average.

Berkman is the highest-ranking player at his position to experience across-the-board reductions in all major categories last season. Conversely, he's the lowest-ranking first baseman with the greatest chance of cracking the top-5 in 2010 -- assuming last year's mini-malaise was an aberration. Confused? Thankfully, we've got a firm grasp on Fat Elvis' seasonal forecast. Projections: 31 HRs, 103 RBIs, 91 runs, 8 steals, .302 average.

If you can stomach a slow start in April or May, Lee will gladly reward your patience with consistent destruction from June-September ... lest we forget his four-month rampage in 2009 (30 HRs, 92 RBIs). Here's another hidden bonus: You won't have to pay a draft-day arm and/or leg to acquire Lee -- leaving you more time for underrated pitching gems whose last names rhyme with Fester, Blershaw, Throwey or Plainwright. Projections: 29 HRs, 104 RBIs, 92 runs, 2 steals, .301 average.

Don't be fooled by Votto's middling ranking here. In savvy mixed leagues, he'll never slide past Round 4; and in NL-only leagues, he's an unheralded candidate for Round 1. In other words, you'll have to make a lightning-fast choice on Cincinnati's only lead-pipe cinch for 27/95/.320. At the same token, be weary of frequent visits to the disabled list. Ouch! Projections: 27 HRs, 95 RBIs, 86 runs, 4 steals, .320 average.

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It's a common refrain amongst fantasy baseball analysts: Do not fall in love with unproven players during spring training. But who among us could've resisted Morales' out-of-nowhere greatness last year at this time after Kendry went Ted Williams on Cactus League pitching, batting .397 in Arizona. Of course, it helped that the Angels had a gaping hole at first base (thanks to Teixeira's departure). Fast forward to the present, as Morales must now live up to heightened expectations, while also losing his outfield eligibility in the process. Talk about a mixed bag. Projections: 29 HRs, 104 RBIs, 85 runs, 1 steal, .297 average.

Assuming Youk collects 500 at-bats for the Red Sox, he's a reasonable lock for 26/96/97/.303. However, with the presence of the No. 13 stud in this countdown -- along with the omnipresent Adrian Gonzalez-to-Boston rumors -- we have no choice but to exclude him from the top-10. Projections: 26 HRs, 96 RBIs, 97 runs, 5 steals, .304 average.

If V -Mart should play 140-plus games this season for Boston, he's the easy choice for No. 2 catcher behind Joe Mauer (sorry, Brian McCann). And if the word "platoon" never gets whispered in his direction -- in association with Jason Varitek -- well, he just might surpass Mauer by season's end. Strange but true. Projections: 19 HRs, 89 RBIs, 92 runs and .297 average.

If there was a Hall of Fame wing devoted to the sweetest swings in baseball history, Pena would get reasonable consideration for this honor. And yet, the man finished with a Uecker-like .227 last season, rarely reaping the benefits of Tropicana Field's super-fast turf. So, how are we supposed to balance putrid numbers in batting average/steals with the strong likelihood of 30 HRs/100 RBIs/100 runs? Draft Pena in the middle rounds ... and then spend every subsequent pick on a player who'll hit .285 in his sleep. Projections: 37 HRs, 104 RBIs, 93 runs, 1 steal, .264 average.

Just imagine what kind of damage Sandoval could do if he had better protection in the Giants' lineup. And then imagine how many runs and steals a slimmed-down Sandoval could register in only his second full season. Well, there are reports that Sandoval lost significant weight during the offseason, which should boost his runs and steals to 85 and 11, respectively. As for the lineup-protection part, he still must overcompensate for the power-deficient travails of Eugenio Velez, Freddy Sanchez, Edgar Renteria, Aaron Rowand and likely Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff. Projections: 25 HRs, 94 RBIs, 85 runs, 11 steals, .331 average.

Dunn's ears must've been burning from the Pena quandary. Over time, the big lug has proven to be an automatic source for 38 HRs/105 RBIs, while yielding mediocre-at-best results in runs, steals and batting average. And just like Pena, we recommend only taking Dunn in two situations: You've stocked the rest of your offense with proficient hitters ... or you're completely punting average in the name of homers and RBIs. Projections: 39 HRs, 104 RBIs, 75 runs, 3 steals, .254 average.

There's plenty of room left with Butler's learning curve in the major leagues. Fortunately, there's also plenty of room on the Butler bandwagon for 2010 -- at least until the masses realize that his July-August-September tear (14 HRs/59 RBIs/.338 average) correctly raised the bar of expectations for this season. Projections: 23 HRs, 95 RBIs, 76 runs, 2 steals, .317 average.

If it appears strange to see a player in his late-20s with a .939 OPS and 42-homer pace from '09 this low in the countdown, you're not alone. Simply put, this is based on the assumption that Jones will likely endure some kind of sophomore slump. Hope we're wrong, frankly. Projections: 26 HRs, 79 RBIs, 69 runs, 8 steals, .289 average.

What are the chances of Loney posting 13 homers, 90 RBIs and seven steals -- his precise output for 2008 and '09 -- this season? And what are the chances he'll hit .331 -- his amazing production from 2007? The answers, my friends, are blowing in the Chavez Ravine wind. Projections: 14 HRs, 88 RBIs, 77 runs, 5 steals, .323 average.

Cuddyer owes an improved preseason draft ranking to his 32 homers from 2009 ... and Justin Morneau's well-chronicled back injury throughout last September. Such versatility probably has greater meaning in AL-only leagues, which explains his pedestrian location in this countdown. Projections: 25 HRs, 88 RBIs, 82 runs, 2 steals, .278 average.

It's been five years since the White Sox broke their long-standing championship jinx and then ponied up the dough for Konerko to stay in Chicago. And now, it's fair to wonder if Konerko, 34, has another big salary-drive season in him? Maybe. Projections: 27 HRs, 85 RBIs, 74 runs, 2 steals, .272 average.

Best Of The Rest23. Adam LaRoche, Diamondbacks24. Jorge Cantu, Marlins25. Todd Helton, Rockies26. Carlos Delgado, Mets27. Chris Davis, Rangers28. Garrett Atkins, Orioles (his 1B-eligibility kicks in ASAP + five days)29. Russell Branyan, Indians30. Hank Blalock, Rangers31. Lyle Overbay, Blue Jays32. Justin Smoak, Rangers33. Aubrey Huff, Giants34. Nick Johnson, Yankees35. Micah Hoffpauir, Cubs