Ranking the top MVP candidates (cont.)
1. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (HM)
Season Stats: .357/.530/.762, 9 HRs, 16 RBIs, 4 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .355/.529/.806, 7 HRs, 14 RBIs, 4 SBs
Bautista's breakout 2010 season was built largely on the strength of three monster months (May, July and August) in which he hit a combined .311/.424/.758 and homered once every 8.3 at-bats. Through the first month of 2011, Bautista has hit .357/.530/.763 with a home run every 9.3 at-bats and is leading the AL in home runs, batting average and total bases (64) and the major leagues in on-base percentage, slugging, walks (30), and runs scored (25). He hit .213/.314/.427 with just four home runs last April. Most of the discussion surrounding Bautista this offseason concerned whether or not his regression from last year's career year would be large or small; hardly anyone entertained the possibility that he could be even better, but thus far he has been. Shocking fact: Just one of Bautista's 28 walks has been intentional. Cherry-picked but impressive fact: Bautista is the first man in major league history to finish April with at least 30 hits, nine homers, and 28 walks.
2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (N/A)
Season Stats: .320/.340/.630, 8 HRs, 21 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .317/.338/.651, 6 HRs, 16 RBIs
I picked Howie Kendrick as my April All-Star second baseman in the AL on Friday, but in a three-game home series against Bautista's Blue Jays over the weekend, Cano went 4-for-9 with a pair of homers, a pair of walks, a hit-by-pitch, and a stolen base, reaching base seven times in 12 plate appearances and goosing the weak .309 on-base percentage that prompted me to look past him before the weekend. Cano, who finished third in the AL MVP voting last year, is my top pick from among a pack of Yankees who currently boast five of the top eight OPS marks in the league. Cano trails third-place Curtis Granderson by a difference lost to rounding, with both officially listed at .970, and is followed by Alex Rodriguez (.964), Russell Martin (.963), and, after an enemy interloper, Mark Teixeira (.957). I favor the 28-year-old Cano here because his near-MVP season last year and relative youth (only Martin is younger out of that quintet) suggest he's most likely to maintain his current level of performance, and his low walk rate (he has just three on the season) and batting average on balls in play (.312 compared to a career mark of .322) suggest he could actually improve as the season progresses.
3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: .333/.460/.626, 7 HRs, 20 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .324/.459/.559, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs
Cabrera is actually a detriment to his team outside of the batters box, so in order for him to take home the hardware either he needs to lap the field with his production at the plate or the Tigers need to win their division, thus making Cabrera appear more valuable to those voters who still mistakenly link player value to the standings. Though the AL Central is standing on its head at the moment, and the Tigers have the best record of the three supposed contenders, Detroit still seems unlikely to see October baseball, and with Bautista doing the field-lapping, Cabrera's customary raking seems somewhat unexceptional. Still, he has been the second-most productive hitter in the league thus far this season.
4. Russell Martin, C, Yankees (N/A)
Season Stats: .293/.376/.587, 6 HRs, 19 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .289/.396/.556, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs
Martin is my second pick from among that cluster of Yankees, because of his position (the average AL catcher is hitting .228/.290/.382 thus far this season), his strong on-base percentage relative to the third up-the-middle defender in the quintet, Curtis Granderson, his youth (he turned 28 in February), and the manner in which the question marks in the Yankees' rotation are increasingly being answered in the team's favor (save for the likely ailing Phil Hughes, of course). I don't actually credit Martin for that last, but I expect the voters will if the Yankees upset the Red Sox and win the division. I also have serious doubts about Martin's ability to sustain his April performance, but the similarity of his performance to his 2007 season (.293/.374/.469) gives it some precedence, and the return of Francisco Cervelli from the disabled list on Sunday should lead to the workhorse Martin getting the rest he'll need, unlike in '07 and '08, when he appeared in more than 300 games for the Dodgers.
5. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees (N/A)
Season Stats: .256/.387/.570, 7 HRs, 17 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .302/.424/.585, 3 HRs, 7 RBIs
Teixeira, who finished second in the voting in 2009, is a notorious slow starter who has hit .237/.348/.427 with a home run every 24.3 at-bats in March and April over his career. This March and April, he hit .256/.392/.549 with a home run every 13.7 at-bats, the best first-month performance of his career. That suggests that, at age 31, he could be on his way to the best season in what is shaping up to be a Hall of Fame-quality career. He has also won the Gold Glove in four of the last six years, the two exceptions being seasons that he split between leagues.
Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (N/A). Much as they do seem likely to cancel each other out, all five of those Yankees deserve mention. Granderson isn't just off to a hot start, batting .281/.330/.640 with 8 home runs, he has been raking ever since Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long altered his mechanics in August of last season, making particularly large gains in his performance against left-handed pitching and in his power stroke. Add in his excellent defense in center, a promotion to the two-spot in the batting order, and the ability to steal a base (though he hasn't done much of that thus far), and Granderson's case has to be taken seriously.
Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees (3). Rodriguez, who won his third and most-recent AL MVP in 2007, had a monster spring training and earned considerable MVP buzz pre-season despite entering his age-35 season. He then got off to a red-hot start, hitting .405/.511/.865 through his first 11 games before back stiffness stole his mojo. He missed two games due to his back and has hit just .139/.256/.278 in 43 plate appearances since. Stay tuned.
Howard Kendrick, 2B, Angels (HM). Assume all those Yankees will cancel each other out and the Indians will fall from their perch atop the AL Central. The Rangers' most productive hitters thus far have been their sophomore first baseman and 34-year-old designated hitter. That bounces the eye to Kendrick, who has been the offensive spark behind the Angels' strong start, which has them tied with Texas atop the AL West heading into Monday's action. I had Kendrick, who in his age-27 season is already nearly half way to his career high in walks (28, set last year) and more than half of the way to his career high in home runs (10, set each of the last two years), in my top five until I realized that over the last three weeks he has gone back to being the same disappointing hitter he's been over the last five years (.257/.329/.419 vs. a career line of .295/.330/.432).
Jeff Weaver, SP, Angels (N/A). I generally avoid including pitchers on these MVP lists because no pitcher has won the award since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, 19 years ago, and no starting pitcher has won it since Vida Blue in 1971, 40 years ago. However, Weaver, despite getting scratched from his Sunday start due to a stomach virus, is off to the kind of start that brings MVP talk into play.
Travis Hafner, DH, Indians (N/A). No player who has played the majority of his games at designated hitter has ever won the award, which is perhaps the most significant of a number of strikes against Hafner's candidacy. Among the others are the unlikelihood of the Indians staying atop their division, and Hafner's own lack of durability as an injury-prone, 34-year-old DH who hasn't hit this well in half a decade.
Off the list: Nelson Cruz (2), Dustin Pedroia (4), Ian Kinsler (5), Paul Konerko (HM), Adrian Gonzalez (HM), Yunel Escobar (HM)
Next week, Awards Watch revisits the Cy Young award races.