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Every week I will rank the top five candidates in each league for one of baseball's three major awards. Today I return to the MVP races, which I last examined three weeks ago. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list (HM stands for honorable mention).
NOTE: All stats through Monday, May 31; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
1. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins (3)
Season stats: .368/.488/.667, 11 HR, 36 RBI, 35.8 VORP
Last three weeks: .419/.519/.742, 4 HR, 15 RBI
Candidacy: Last year, Joe Mauer led the American League in all three slash-stat categories (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging), led the majors in the first two and was a nearly unanimous selection for AL MVP. On Sunday morning, Mauer's teammate Morneau was leading the AL in all three slash stats and the majors in the first two (Miguel Cabrera passed Morneau in slugging on Sunday). Morneau plays a position with a much higher average level of production and isn't as highly regarded defensively as Mauer even there, but the slash-stat triple crown should be enough to guarantee a hitter the MVP award. To put the accomplishment in context: Mauer was the first American Leaguer to accomplish the feat since George Brett in 1980; only four NL hitters have pulled it off since Stan Musial did it in 1948, the most recent being Barry Bonds in 2004. I'd be surprised to see Morneau regain and maintain the lead in all three categories, but given how close he is to that accomplishment at this point in the season, he has to be the favorite for AL MVP.
2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (1)
Season stats: .352/.427/.670, 14 HR, 48 RBI, 30.2 VORP
Last three weeks: .317/.368/.730, 7 HR, 15 RBI
Candidacy: Cabrera has been an all-or-nothing hitter since topping this list three weeks ago. Yes, he has hit seven home runs and driven in 15 men in those three weeks, but three of those home runs came in a single game this past Friday, all but three of those RBIs came via the long ball and he didn't drive in a single run in any of the 11 games in which he failed to go deep. Still, Cabrera is on pace for 163 RBIs, a total not reached since Manny Ramirez drove in 165 in 1999. Cabrera's batting average and on-base percentage have come down significantly over the past three weeks, but his hot start and recent power surge have kept him on the short list for MVP honors.
3. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays (HM)
Season stats: .325/.391/.577, 10 HR, 42 RBI, 10 SB, 26. 0 VORP
Last three weeks: .325/.384/.571, 3 HR, 19 RBI, 5 SB
Candidacy: After listing Longoria among the honorable mentions three weeks ago, I wrote, "The best hitter on the major's best team at the moment is a good bet to crack the top five moving forward." Well, here he is. While players such as Robinson Cano, Vernon Wells and Paul Konerko have slowed their pace, Longoria has remained a model of consistency. Note the similarity between his rate stats from the last three weeks and his season stats. Longoria is second in the league in doubles, third in RBIs and has already tied his career high for stolen bases, swiping ten at an 83-percent success rate. Just 24 years old and a stellar defensive third baseman, Longoria seems likely to win an MVP sooner or later. With the Rays still boasting the best record in baseball, this could be the consistent Longoria's year.
4. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (2)
Season stats: .362/.405/.607, 10 HR, 37 RBI, 30.8 VORP
Last three weeks: .375/.407/.538, 1 HR, 15 RBI
Candidacy: After going deep nine times in his first 24 games, Cano went homerless in his next 23 before finally snapping that drought with a grand slam on Friday. The rest of his game remained sharp, however; he's now second in the AL batting race and leading the majors in hits with 71 (a 230-hit pace). Consider him the anti-Cabrera -- just don't consider him out of the MVP race.
5. Nelson Cruz, RF, Rangers (N/A)
Season stats: .327/.405/.729, 10 HR, 35 RBI, 7 SB, 19.0 VORP
Last three weeks: .333/.385/.689, 3 HR, 17 RBI
Candidacy: When I took my first look at the MVP race three weeks ago, Cruz had been on the disabled list for two weeks due to a strained right hamstring. He was hitting .323./419/.758 with seven homers and 17 RBI when he hit the DL, but the time he missed was enough to keep him off my list. He was nearly as productive after returning to action on March 14, but after just two weeks of play, the hamstring put him back on the DL this past weekend. Cruz is expected to be out only the minimum 15 days, but by then he'll have missed a whole month's worth of games. Still, though he is already short of the required plate appearances to qualify for rate-stat titles (he'd trump Cabrera in slugging if he qualified), his overall production is comparable to the other players on this list. Mix in his strong defense and basestealing (seven bags at a 78-percent success rate) and the fact that his first DL stay failed to cool his bat, and he just squeaks into my top five.
Vladimir Guerrero, DH, Rangers (N/A): Guerrero, a beloved veteran making a strong Hall of Fame case, is staging a big comeback season for a division leader. He's also a designated hitter and has drawn just six unintentional walks all season.
Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox (N/A): A bad start and powerful division have masked the fact that the Red Sox have gone 17-9 since May 3, good for a .654 winning percentage (and a 106-win pace) over that span. Youkilis, the major league leader in walks and runs scored and a fine defensive first baseman, has been Boston's best hitter over that span, hitting .325/.527/.662 with six homers and 15 RBIs.
Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays (4): Wells hit four home runs in the first three games of the season, but has been gradually cooling off since. He hit just .232/.250/.493 over the last three weeks, but, like Cabrera, his hot start and surviving power stroke are keeping him in my top 10.
Alex Rios, CF, White Sox (N/A): Wherever he is now, J.P. Ricciardi must be banging his head against a wall. Roy Halladay just pitched a perfect game for the Phillies, and the players (Wells and Rios) signed to the two disasterous contracts that got Ricciardi canned are in the discussion for AL MVP. Rios, who was such an albatross that Ricciardi let the White Sox claim him off waivers late last year, was a disappointing right fielder under Riccardi and is now having a career year as a center fielder in Chicago at age 29. Like Wells, however, Rios is actually cooling off after a hot start. Does that count as vindication for Ricciardi, or further proof of how badly he overvalued those two players?
Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (N/A): Sticking with the Blue Jays theme: Three weeks ago, Jays shortstop Alex Gonzalez was second in the AL in homers and RBIs and an honorable mention that I said "screams fluke." Gonzalez has had one homer and five RBIs since. Now, 29-year-old career utility man Bautista leads the majors in homers, ranks fourth in RBIs -- and is screaming "fluke" at me. Bautista's 16 homers tie his full-season career high, and his 41 RBIs are more than he had in 404 plate appearances last year. Bautista's fly balls are leaving the yard at more than twice his career rate and more than three times the league average. That won't continue, and he won't be on this list three weeks from now.
Off the list: Paul Konerko (5), Alex Gonzalez (HM), Ty Wigginton (HM), Nick Swisher (HM), Andruw Jones (HM).
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