First awards watch looks at each league's early MVP contenders
Each week will offer a look at a different major award: MVP, Cy Young, ROY
Some players put a stranglehold on major awards before the start of summer
Miguel Cabrera, Andre Ethier are early favorites for AL, NL Most Valuable Player
Starting today, and for the remainder of the regular season, I will take a weekly look at the competition for baseball's major awards by ranking the top five candidates in each league for Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year honors, taking on one award per week on a rotating basis (MVP today, Cy Young next week, Rookie of the Year the week after, repeat). To be sure, it's still early in the season but it's not unusual for candidates to announce themselves by now and in some cases -- like Zack Greinke did with the AL Cy Young last year -- put a stranglehold on a major award before the calendar officially turns to summer.
MVP is by far the most controversial of the awards due to conflicting definitions of the term "valuable." I'm among those who believe that player value is absolute and synonymous with runs created at the plate and prevented in the field (or on the mound), and that a team's failure to convert that value into wins is not the fault of the player in question. However, the majority of the voting pool (of which I'm not yet a part) tends to believe that player's value, as intended by the creators of the award, is reflected in team performance. It is a debate not unlike that concerning the interpretation of the Constitution (or even the Bible), a philosophical chasm few have been able to span.
Though I disagree with the majority of baseball's electorate with regards to the interpretation of "valuable," their beliefs will be reflected in my rankings, as I'm trying to figure out who will win the award, not necessarily who, in my opinion, most deserves to win it (though I'll certainly indicate the latter in my comments). Similarly, my MVP rankings will largely be limited to hitters unless a pitcher emerges later in the season with a season-long performance that demands MVP consideration. No pitcher has won a league MVP since Dennis Eckersley did so in 1992, 18 years ago. Given recent voting patterns, that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
NOTE: All stats through Monday, May 10; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
1. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers
Season stats: .377/.465/.648, 7 HR, 33 RBI, 22.5 VORP
Last three weeks: .382/.460/.658, 4 HR, 19 RBI
Candidacy: Cabrera finished fourth in the voting last year and probably lost votes at the last minute after a wild night during the season's final week that included drinking with members of an opposing team, police involvement in a domestic dispute between Cabrera and his wife that got physical and being picked up from a police station by Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski the morning of an important game as Detroit was trying, ultimately in vain, to hold off the hard-charging Twins in the AL Central. Over the winter, Cabrera went to rehab for his alcoholism and has stepped up his offensive game considerably in 2010. That combination of a good story, great production and prior near-miss status, as well as the sense that Cabrera is a player who could easily hit his way to Cooperstown if he can stay on the wagon, puts him out front in the early going. Oh, and he leads the league in RBIs, the voters' favorite category.
2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees
Season stats: .353/.406/.647, 9 HR, 22 RBI, 19.5 VORP
Last three weeks: .361/.439/.625, 5 HR, 12 RBI
Candidacy: For all of their success, the Yankees have had just one player win the MVP since their return to glory in the mid-'90s: Alex Rodriguez in 2005 and 2007. Derek Jeter had deserving seasons in 1999 and 2006, but failed to garner enough votes both years. If Jeter couldn't win the award, what chance does Cano have? Consider the power of expectations. Jeter arrived as a star (and Rookie of the Year) on a championship team in 1996, and his best seasons were examples of him simply living up to his reputation. Cano, on the other hand, has had ups and downs on the way to stardom, but his great start combined with his being moved up into the fifth spot in the Yankees lineup seems to indicate the delayed arrival of a major talent as well as a young player rising to a challenge. Given his fine fielding at a middle infield position and the recent history of rival second baseman Dustin Pedroia winning in 2008, Cano has a strong candidacy.
3. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins
Season stats: .339/.471/.624, 7 HR, 21 RBI, 20.2 VORP
Last three weeks: .355/.474/.710, 5 HR, 13 RBI
Candidacy: Morneau beat Jeter by just four percent of the vote in 2006, a year in which not only Jeter, but two of Morneau's teammates (catcher Joe Mauer and ace Johan Santana) were more deserving. That and Morneau's similarly undeserved second-place finish in 2008 prove that the voters like him (and his flashy RBI totals). In the early going this year, Morneau has been far more productive than in either 2006 or 2008 (though his RBI pace is a bit behind those seasons), and the Twins have the third-best record in baseball. If both keep up, he's sure to finish in the top four.
4. Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays
Season stats: .328/.395/.641, 9 HR, 25 RBI, 20.3 VORP
Last three weeks: .321/.370/.560, 3 HR, 14 RBI
Candidacy: Wells was the AL leader in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) as recently as Monday, and while that stat may not move many voters, it does indicate that Wells has been among the most productive players in the league to this point in the season. He's also a former All-Star having a comeback season (a career year, in fact) for a team that has been greatly outperforming expectations in the early going (the third-place Blue Jays are a game and a half ahead of the Red Sox and have more wins than every team in the AL West and Central except the Twins).
5. Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox
Season stats: .273/.398/.717, 13 HR, 27 RBI, 17.8 VORP
Last three weeks: .316/.444/.860, 9 HR, 19 RBI
Candidacy: The major league home run leader went deep in his first two games and hasn't looked back, but he plays the same position as two superior candidates and does so for a losing team. Konerko's also an aging, second-tier star. The last MVP in either league to fit that description was Cardinals' third baseman Ken Boyer in 1964, and he was the captain of a pennant winner (and the NL's RBI leader).
Alex Gonzalez, SS, Blue Jays: Gonzalez is second in the AL in homers (10) and RBIs (27) and is a fine defensive shortstop, but his performance screams fluke and his .306 on-base percentage is the opposite of valuable.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: The best hitter on the major's best team at the moment is a good bet to crack the top five moving forward.
Ty Wigginton, 2B, Orioles: Filling in for an injured Brian Roberts, Wigginton has been one of the AL's hottest hitters, but he's sure to fade and ultimately return to a bench role.
Nick Swisher, RF, Yankees: A visible and popular player due to his outsized personality, Swisher has hit .366/.423/.690 with six homers and 20 RBIs over the last three weeks.
Andruw Jones, OF, White Sox: Though he's still not the same afield, Jones suddenly looks like the vintage Braves version at the plate and is getting credit for his clubhouse leadership from fellow veterans such as Konerko.
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