Projecting 2012 award winners
Evan Longoria is heading into his age-26 season off a terrific finish to 2011
Albert Pujols and Roy Halladay have to be considered award favorites every year
A heavy workload could drop Justin Verlander behind Felix Hernandez for AL Cy
For the second year in a row, my Awards Watch column correctly predicted all six winners of the Baseball Writers' Association of America's player awards, so in an effort to prove my fallibility, here's a look at the top three favorites to win each of the three major awards in each league next year. Note that just four of the 18 players named in this piece a year ago actually finished in the top three for that particular award, and that's counting Cliff Lee, whom I had listed for the American League Cy Young prior to his signing with the Phillies. Predicting awards nearly 12 months in advance is a shot in the dark at best, but that doesn't mean it's not fun to contemplate.
1. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: I had Longoria in this spot a year ago, but he finished a distant 10th in this year's voting after losing April to an oblique strain and struggling through most of the season. Longoria was hitting .226/.336/.434 with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs on August 3, but hit .272/.383/.585 with 17 home runs and 46 RBIs over his final 53 games to help lead the Rays into the postseason. I'm expecting a big bounce-back season next year in what will be his age-26 season. That the Rays should be a better team thanks to a full season of Desmond Jennings in left and possibly Matt Moore in the rotation.
2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers: Cabrera has finished in the top five in the AL MVP voting in each of the last three years and twice finished fifth in the National League voting while with the Marlins. Over the last two seasons, he has hit .337/.434/.604, good for a 179 OPS+, while averaging 34 home runs, 116 RBIs, 111 run scored, and 46 doubles, and walking more than he struck out, and he won't turn 29 until April. He's a designated hitter in first baseman's clothing, which hurts his ability to get over the top in the MVP vote, but his production at the plate is elite and reliable in a combination rivaled only by that of Albert Pujols.
3. Prince Fielder, 1B, TBA: This is a real guess, because Fielder could just as easily end up in the National League, but just for a moment, picture him leading, say, the Rangers or Angels to a division title. He'd get the bulk of the credit for the latter, and the former would provide him with an even friendlier hitting environment than Miller Park. Fielder will be 28 in May and has three top-four finishes in the NL voting in the last five years, including a third-place finish this year. He's a very similar player to Cabrera, but without Cabrera's off-field baggage.
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, TBA: Pujols has finished in the top five in the NL voting in all but one of his 11 seasons, and came in ninth in the exception. He led the NL in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement in each of the last six years prior to this one and in seven of the last nine seasons overall. By his absurd personal standards, 2011 was an off year. He'll be 32 in January, and it's possible that some small amount of decline has started to intrude upon his greatness, but until that decline is more evident, he's the automatic favorite for this award every year.
2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds: Votto shed some power this year (29 home runs, .531 slugging compared to 37 and .600 the year before), but otherwise had a very similar season to his 2010 MVP campaign. He also picked up his first Gold Glove this past year, and just turned 28 in September. With the Brewers likely losing Fielder and the Reds ready to install a trio of prospects in the lineup as upgrades over their 2011 counterparts, the Reds could fair better in the division next year. That would help boost the candidacy of their best player, who finished sixth in this year's vote despite that drop in power and his team's losing record.
3. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers: Both of this year's top two finishers have the ability to be perennial contenders for this award, but the things Braun did this year, which in concert made up his best season, individually each had precedent in his career. The same could not be said about Kemp's season. Also, the Brewers, though they will suffer from the loss of Fielder (assuming he signs elsewhere) are still closer to winning than the Dodgers, meaning Braun will retain the advantage that helped him beat out Kemp for this year's award.
1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners: The primary difference between Hernandez in 2011 and Hernandez in the previous two seasons, when he finished second (2009) and first (2010) in the Cy Young voting, was a few more fly balls and a few more balls in play falling for hits. Otherwise, he was the same pitcher, so there's every reason to expect him to return to his previous form in his age-26 season.
2. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers: Verlander's opponents hit .237 on balls in play this year, but his career BABIP is .287. So, look for his luck on balls in play to even out and for him to have a slight hangover from the 271 1/3 total innings he threw between the regular and postseasons this past season. Those two factors could bring him back into the pack. Otherwise, he's still one of the handful of best pitchers in baseball heading in to his age-29 season.
3. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees: Sabathia has finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting in his league in each of the last five seasons, and in the top four in each of the last four seasons that he spent entirely in a single league. Also, in contrast to Verlander, he threw fewer innings last year between the regular and postseasons than in any season since 2006 and his .322 BABIP was a career high that should regress toward his career .294 mark in the coming season, so the 31-year-old who finished fourth in this year's voting could be even better in 2012.
1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies: Halladay won this award in 2010, and there was a reasonable argument to be made that he deserved it this year as well (he finished second). He has finished in the top five in his league's voting in each of the last six seasons and has unquestionably been the best pitcher in baseball over the last four. He's the Albert Pujols of the Cy Young award and has shown no sign of decline despite approaching his 35th birthday.
2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers: This year's winner of both the Cy Young and the pitching triple crown won't be 24 until March and, as I showed in my look at his Cy Young winning season last week, has been pitching at a similar level for three years now. It's entirely possible we haven't seen his best yet.
3. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies: Yes, I'm going with the top three finishers in this year's voting here. It's hard to argue with Kershaw's talent or the track record of the Phillies' top two aces. Over the past four seasons, Lee has posted a 2.83 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 5.65 K/BB while averaging 16 wins, six complete games, and three shutouts. Those are numbers that are equal or better to what Tim Lincecum has done over the same span. The Nationals' Stephen Strasburg is a tempting pick, but the 23-year-old will be on an innings limit next year after returning from Tommy John surgery in September, though a strong 2012 season could put him on this list a year from now.
1. Jesus Montero, DH/C, Yankees: I had Montero on this list a year ago, before the Dodgers non-tendered Russell Martin and the Yankees snapped him up, blocking their top prospect. One of the top hitting prospects in the game, Montero finally made his major league debut on September 1 and hit .328/.406/.590 as the team's part-time designated hitter down the stretch. Those numbers should come back down to earth a bit in the coming season, but Montero, who now projects to be the Yankees primary DH in 2012 while spelling Martin behind the plate a couple of times a week, hit .308/.366/.501 in his minor league career and has 30-homer run power that just so happens to go the other way, making the soon-to-be-22-year-old the rare right-hander who can take advantage of Yankee Stadium's homer-happy rightfield porch.
2. Matt Moore, LHP, Rays: After a pair of uninspiring relief outings, Moore made his first major league start on September 22 and struck out 11 Yankees against just one walk in five scoreless innings. With the Rays needing to burn through their best established starters to leapfrog the Red Sox into the playoffs, the 22-year-old then became the team's surprise starter in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Rangers in Texas. All he did in that game was throw seven more scoreless innings while holding a team that came within one strike of the world championship to two hits and a pair of walks while striking out six. Prior joining the big club, Moore struck out 210 men in 155 innings while posting a 1.92 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 4.57 K/BB in 27 starts between Double- and Triple-A. He's younger and better than this year's AL Rookie of the Year winner and his future rotation mate Jeremy Hellickson. The only question is if the Rays will make room for him in their rotation to start the season. As a contending team in baseball's toughest division, they should.
3. Mike Trout, OF, Angels: Trout came close to losing his rookie eligibility this year with 123 at-bats (the limit is 130) and 35 days on the major league roster prior to rosters expanding (the limit is 45). Fortunately, he still qualifies for the coming season, which sets up a potentially thrilling race between the men rated the second-, third-, and sixth-best prospects in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2011 season (Trout, Montero, and Moore, respectively). Trout, a centerfielder who just turned 20 in August, hit .326/.414/.544 in Double-A this past season and is considered one of the fastest players in the game. He's a total stud, but he also struggled in his major league opportunities, save for a brief hot stretch in late August, and in the just-completed Arizona Fall League, a hitter-friendly environment. As a result, the Angels may decide to give him a bit more seasoning at Triple-A before making room for him in their outfield, but that could change if he impresses the team in spring training. Either way, look for him to make an impact in 2012.
1. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals: Harper just turned 19 last month and there are concerns about his emotional maturity, but his talent is undeniable. The top pick in the 2010 draft, Harper is the top prospect in baseball. Coming out of high school, he made his professional debut in full-season A-ball this spring and forced his way up to Double-A before the season was over, hitting .297/.392/.501 overall, then lighting up the AFL to the tune of a .333/.400/.634 line. The Nationals aren't expecting Harper to be in their Opening Day lineup -- he did struggle in Double-A, hitting just .256 with three home runs in 37 games -- but he'll get a serious look and could well force the issue. Even if he has to prove himself in Double- or Triple-A for a month or two, he has the kind of monstrous bat that could win this award in a half-season in the majors. He's the Stephen Strasburg of power hitters. Then again, Strasburg didn't win this award.
2. Drew Pomeranz, LHP, Rockies: The fifth-overall pick in the 2010 draft, Pomeranz was the key player acquired from the Indians in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. The big lefty made four starts for the Rockies in September and, though he failed to turn in a quality start due to pitch limits, was effective in three of the four and appears to have a rotation spot sewn up for the coming season. Pomeranz made his professional debut in High-A in April and dominated both at that level and in five Double-A starts before getting the call from the Rockies. In total, he struck out 119 men against just 38 walks in 101 minor league innings, posting a 1.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 3.13 K/BB.
3. Yonder Alonso, LF, Reds: Three rookies could find themselves in the Reds' lineup on a regular basis next season: Alonso, shortstop Zach Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco is the top prospect in that bunch, but he'll likely have to split time with Ryan Hanigan behind the plate and has further pressure from fellow catching prospect Yasmani Grandal from below. Cozart has the clearest path to playing time, and is a superlative fielder, but likely won't put up the same kind of numbers that Alonso, a converted first baseman, will in left. Alonso, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2008 draft, is a career .296/.364/.478 hitter in Triple-A and already has a comparable .299/.354/.479 career line in 117 big league at-bats after getting looks in each of the last two seasons. Those are better numbers than NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Freddie Freeman put up for the Braves this year. If he plays enough to collect the 20 home runs and 70-odd RBIs Freeman had this year, he'll be right in the thick of this race, if not out in front.