On Thursday, I gave you part one of my baseball preview, in which a coaster picked the Phillies to beat the Twins in the World Series. Today, we look at individual performances; specifically, the five players most likely to win each major award.
NL Cy Young
5. Zack Greinke, Brewers
If healthy, Greinke might be the favorite to win this award. It’s easy to forget after Ubaldo Jiminez’s unhittable first half of 2010 and Cliff Lee’s historic strikeout-to-walk ratio, but Zack Greinke’s 2009 was one of the great pitching seasons of the modern era. Greinke’s had his ups and downs, pitching for terrible Royals teams, battling a somewhat famous anxiety disorder, and nearly hanging up his spikes for good to play golf, but when he’s focused and motivated, there’s probably no better pitcher in the game. Greinke was worth an unfathomable (in this era, at least), his 9.4 wins above replacement better than any pitcher since Randy Johnson’s 9.9 in 2004. In the American League, you’ve got to go back to Pedro Martinez’s legendary 2000 season to find a higher pitcher WAR (10.1).
It’s the difference between the leagues that leads me to believe Greinke could win the Cy Young this year, even in a season he’ll begin sidelined with a rib injury. Greinke has four things in his corner: his incredible stuff, his age (27, exactly when most players peak) the motivation of what is likely to be a pennant chase (the Brewers’ opening season sweep at the hands of the Reds notwithstanding), and all the easy Ks he’ll earn against pitchers, all-field, no-hit shortstops, and Houston Astros.
4. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Three years removed from his major league debut, it’s hard to believe Kershaw just turned 23. His WAR in his first three seasons: 1.4, 4.2, and 4.8. If you prefer a more traditional stat, his strikeouts: 100, 185, 212. Or try innings pitched: 107 2/3, 171, 204 1/3. Now firmly established as the Dodgers’ ace, this could be the season in which Kershaw explodes for 240 strikeouts in 215 innings. If he does, it’s easy to see him winning the first of what may be a few Cy Young awards.
3. Roy Halladay, Phillies
Halladay was the best pitcher of the first decade of the 2000s. He may have been the best pitcher in 2010, and there’s a good chance he’s the best pitcher in baseball right now. In May, though, Halladay will turn 34, and as young and dominant as he looks on the mound, his WAR over the last three seasons are slightly in decline (7.5, 7.3, 6.6, and that includes a league change from which he could have benefitted). If Halladay pitches like he did last year, 6.6 WAR may be worth 20 wins and another Cy Young award. I wouldn’t count out the possibility of Halladay winning Cy Youngs in 2015 and 2017. But I wouldn’t call him the prohibitive favorite this year either.
2. Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Yeah, the Brewers have a pretty good rotation. Gallardo was thrust into the role of staff ace at 23, and last year, at 24, he lived up to the hype, going 14-7 with a 3.84 ERA and an even more telling 3.02 FIP (fielding independent pitching, which focuses on the outcomes within a pitcher’s control, rather than the ability of the fielders behind him). He’s struck out 200 in back-to-back years, and brought his walks down from 94 to 75 in 2010. This year, with some of the pressure deflected to Greinke, if Gallardo can pitch 200 innings, strike out 220, and walk fewer than 75, he just might be the staff ace again, and maybe even the best pitcher in the league.
1. Cliff Lee, Phillies
I know, I dismissed Roy Halladay because he’s almost 34 and now I’m predicting great things for Lee, who will be 33 in August. Well, first, putting Halladay between Gallardo and Kershaw on this list doesn’t necessarily count as a dismissal. Jerk. And second, Lee’s career is not exactly on the same trajectory as Halladay’s. Or anyone’s, for that matter. Lee had some early career struggles before breaking out in 2008 for 7.2 WAR, 22 wins, and his first Cy Young award. Since then, he’s changed teams four times, taken two teams to the World Series, and solidified his reputation as the best big-game pitcher in baseball.
Joining a Phillies rotation for the ages, Lee will have plenty of big game opportunities this year, and they won’t come against the Red Sox and Yankees’ lineups, but against the Braves and Brewers, lineups just begging to yield to Lee over nine 14-k, no walk innings. Someday, age may catch up to Cliff Lee. But as long as he can paint corners with Tiger Woods-like accuracy, he’s a contender for the Cy Young award.
Honorable mentions include Ubaldo Jimenez, whose 2010 was a combination of great pitching and great luck, only one of which is bound to repeat itself in 2011, Josh Johnson, who broke out last year, and is either due for a regression or beginning a Hall of Fame career, Tim Lincecum, whose young arm has too many innings on it to count on another year like ’09, and Matt Cain, whose greatness I will gladly accept if he can outpitch his pedestrian FIP by a full run yet again.
AL Cy Young
5. CC Sabathia, Yankees
In some ways, Sabathia has had rough luck ever since he became the richest pitcher in history on the richest team in history. In his two Yankee seasons, Sabathia has won 40 games with a 3.27 ERA in 637 2/3 innings, striking out exactly 197 each year, and hasn’t won a Cy Young award in either. However, Sabathia’s trend line is concerning, as his walks have gone up (from 37 to 59 to 67 to 74) the last four seasons. He completed two games each in ’09 and ’10 after completing a total of 30 from ’06 to ’08. After topping 7 WAR in ’07 (his Cy Young season) and ’08, when he pitched dominantly in both leagues, he dropped to 6.3 in 2009 and 5.1 in 2010. He’ll be 31 in July, and his size may catch up to him eventually. There’s no reason to believe Sabathia won’t win another 18 games with the run support he’s sure to get, and that may warrant his inclusion in the Cy Yong discussion, but he’s not the best pitcher in the AL anymore.
4. Jered Weaver, Angels
Weaver, somewhat quietly, led the AL in strikeouts last season with 233, his 3.01 ERA supported by a 3.06 FIP. He’s still only 28, and may finally be the dominant pitcher he was expected to be when he joined the Angels’ rotation in 2007. If he keeps his walks down and gives up fewer than the 23 homers he yielded last year, he could be the league’s best pitcher in ’11.
3. Jon Lester, Red Sox
Lester has been the best pitcher on the Red Sox for three years now, but it took the convergence of a few happenings to get people to recognize this last season. First, Josh Beckett was hurt for much of 2010, and was awful when he did pitch. Second, Lester’s teammates fielded better behind him (turning a .02 improvement in FIP into a .16 ERA boost, and hit better when he was in the game (resulting in 19 wins, after 15 in a similar number of innings in ’09). In reality, if Lester wants to win this year’s Cy Young award, he’d be better served to recreate his 2009, when he struck out 225 with just 64 walks, than to repeat last season, when he struck out the same number and walked 19 more, resulting in .7 fewer wins above replacement (5.6).
2. Justin Verlander, Tigers
Another seasoned veteran who’s still under 30 (28 all season), Verlander has pitched over 200 innings four seasons in a row, striking out at least 219 in each of the last two. Like Lester, Verlander needs to build on his 2009 season, when his 269 strikeouts and 63 walks led to a 2.80 FIP and 8.3 WAR. With the AL Central looking as weak as it has in years, Verlander may dominate at that level again in 2011.
1. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
At this point, it makes little difference who fills the 2 through 5 slots on a list like this. The best pitcher in the American League is still 24 (for another week) and has improved each of the last four seasons in innings pitched (peaking at 249 2/3 last year), ERA (2.27), and strikeouts (232).
Honorable mentions include John Danks, who seems ready to break out at 26, Jeremy Hellickson, the most touted pitching prospect not recovering from Tommy John surgery, and David Price, whose 2010 success was largely a factor of great fielding and run support, but who is still establishing himself as the ace of a championship contender.
5. Brian McCann, Braves
One of the more underrated players in either league despite his All-Star game MVP award last year, McCann has been at least a 4.3 WAR player each of the last three seasons, which is all the more impressive as a catcher, where WAR doesn’t account for the 20-30 games most catchers take off, and where some defensive contributions may be underappreciated. If McCann can repeat his .375 OBP from 2010 and crack the 25-home run barrier, an MVP award is not hard to imagine.
4. Buster Posey, Giants
The only offensive force on the defending world championship team, Posey propped up the offense for weeks at a time, all the while managing the league’s best young pitching staff. A sophomore slump is always a possibility, but so is a .300/.400/.500 slash line and recognition as the best player on what may be the best team in the league.
3. Jason Heyward, Braves
Another standout in last year’s deep and talented rookie class, Heyward flirted with a .400 OBP in 2010 despite a midseason slump. If Heyward’s power breaks out this year, he’s immediately the best hitter in the NL East, and potentially the successor to Albert Pujols as the perennial MVP frontrunner.
2. Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Speaking of Pujols, until someone proves otherwise, he’s still the best hitter (and probably the best player) in the game. As Joe Posnanski points out here, at age 30, Pujols has more homers than a 30-year-old Babe Ruth, more RBI than a 30-year-old Hank Aaron, more runs scored than a 30-year-old Rickey Henderson, and more hits than a 30-year-old Pete Rose. He may go down as the best hitter in the history of the game, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
So why don’t I think Pujols will win the MVP award? Because the voters are sick of giving it to him. Last year, he had essentially the same season as Joey Votto, and Votto was nearly a unanimous choice for MVP. Even if Pujols puts up another .330/.420/.600/8 WAR season and his fielding returns to an elite level, someone is bound to be close to as good as he is, and the novelty of that someone is likely to win over the voters.
1. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
This isn’t just an “I had to pick against Pujols” pick. Tulowitzki was probably the best player in the National League in 2010 when he was healthy. He hit .315/.381/.568 with 27 homers, nearly scoring and driving in 100 runs despite an injury-ravaged early season. Most importantly, Tulo put up these numbers as a slick-fielding shortstop, and positional scarcity dictates that he doesn’t have to put up Pujolsian numbers to be just as valuable as Albert. Tulowitzki was worth 5.7 marginal wins in 2009 and 6.4 in 122 games in 2010. If there’s an 8-win season waiting to happen in 2011, he’s the guy who will do it.
Honorable mentions include Carlos Gonzalez, who joined the MVP conversation last year at age 25, Joey Votto, whose 2010 was absolutely for real, but who will regress some unless he proves to be another Pujols-level talent, and Ryan Zimmerman, who is more likely to be the best player in the league than to be recognized by the voters as the most valuable.
Postscript: Looking back, I missed a few key candidates here. Hanley Ramirez’s omission was somewhat intentional. I think his status as the game’s best shortstop went out the window with disciplinary struggles last season and Tulowitzki’s breakthrough. He’s still one of the best players in the NL, and maybe more likely than McCann or the two sophomores to win the MVP, but he’s not the best shortstop and he’s not on a great team, so I don’t completely regret leaving him off. Ryan Braun’s omission, on the other hand, was a mistake. Heyward has a higher ceiling for his career, but based on recent numbers, I expect bigger things in 2011 from Braun than from Heyward, and both play on teams that will contend for a playoff spot. I won’t revise my predictions, but know that both Braun and Ramirez are worthy of the top five.
5. Josh Hamilton, Rangers
Jash Hamilton has every tool a baseball player needs, and probably most of the tools an olympic decathlete needs. He can hit a ball about a thousand feet, circle the bases in two or three seconds, and throw a ball from Bo Jackson’s house to Chuck Norris’s on one hop. In 2010, he hit .359 with 32 homers in 133 games. He is fully capable of even bigger things in 2011 if he’s able to stay healthy. The problem with Hamilton, or at least one of the problems, is that he’s never proven he can stay healthy, playing more than 135 games only once in his career. Hamilton will be 30 in May, has lived hard and played hard, and is no guarantee to be on the field all season.
Furthermore, Hamilton’s defense has fallen off some, to the point where he’s a full-time corner outfielder after several years in center. He’s never walked much (peaking at 55 unintentional walks in 2008), and last season, he struck out 95 times in 518 at bats. Hitters, unlike pitchers, are sometimes able to sustain high batting averages and on-base percentages despite striking out a lot and not walking enough, but they depend heavily on balls falling in gaps and are more susceptible to slumps than players who strike out less and walk more. I think there’s a chance Hamilton repeats as MVP, but there’s also a chance his OBP dips back under .350 and he’s a league-average player.
4. Joe Mauer, Twins
Mauer owns one MVP award, but should probably have won three. I don’t put much stock in batting average, but when a good defensive catcher wins a batting title and draws a lot of walks, it’s hard to imagine anyone else winning the award. Joe Mauer, over the past several years, has been the best player in the American League. Like Hamilton, he must be healthy to win the award (though like Hamilton, he sat over 30 games the year he won his), and Mauer’s only once played 140 games, but when he did, Mauer was worth 8 marginal wins, practically impossible for a catcher. The Twins are counting on a huge year from Mauer to lead them to another division title, and if he delivers, it’s hard to see him being denied another deserved award.
3. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox
For years now, Red Sox fans have considered Gonzalez their personal property, a guy wearing a Padres cap as if it were a Pawtucket Red Sox hat. And for years, the SABR community has expected Gonzalez to turn into the Incredible Hulk as soon as he’s freed from the shackling confines of Petco Park. Now that Gonzalez is finally a Red Sox and the lineup around him is as terrifying as any in the majors, it’s easy to predict huge things for Gonzalez. After all, he hit .314/.401/.576 on the road last year, doing much of that damage in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Fenway could turn him into a .340/.430/.610 guy, right?
Sure, it could. But then, Gonzalez has a few things working against him. He moves to from the NL West, which has some good pitching but not a lot of depth, to the AL East, where pitching may be down this year, but there are not a lot of easy assignments. Also, as good as his last two WAR have been (6.5 and 5.3), those numbers are park adjusted, so we shouldn’t expect him to turn into a 7.5 WAR monster overnight, just because the left field wall moved in 70 feet. Gonzalez may also struggle with expectations, as it’s hard for a lefty to hit home runs out of Fenway, and fans and writers are assuming 40 homers is a baseline for Gonzalez in 2011. If he comes close to living up to the expectations, the Red Sox are likely to contend for a pennant, and his numbers will look like those of an MVP, but if he doesn’t, well, the Sox have a few more candidates anyway.
2. Evan Longoria, Rays
Ok, I may have cheated. I came up with these rankings a few nights ago, before Longoria went on the DL with a strained oblique, and I just might have had Longoria first then. Longoria’s still 25, and has been worth 5.4, 7.3, and 6.9 wins above replacement, respectively, in the past three seasons. He was a reasonable candidate for last year’s award, before the offense around him was shipped off to more desirable cities around the country, leaving him with the keys to the team. If the Rays win even 85 games and Longoria comes back healthy and puts up his usual .300/.400/.525, it will be tempting to say he carried a bad team into contention. If he doesn’t win this year’s award, there are plenty of chances in his future.
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees
The Yankees have some age problems. Derek Jeter is old, and possibly regressing for good. Alex Rodriguez is not the player he was when he factored in the MVP conversation every year for a decade. Mark Teixeira may have a huge season, as early returns suggest, but he may also continue the decline he’s been on for a few years. Jorge Posada is playing with house money at this point. Unfortunately for those of us whose spring baseball dreams involve the Yankees moping around after missing the playoffs for the second time in four years, they also have the best middle infielder in the major leagues.
Cano was awful in ’08, worth just .2 marginal wins. He was a 4.4 WAR player in ’09, when the team won the World Series, and last season, when much of the offensive burden shifted to him, he became the 6.4 WAR superstar many expected him to be. This season, the pressure’s on him again, but he’s shown he can carry a $200 million team offensively while playing an adequate second base. I see him doing just that again, and being rewarded this time with a nice trophy.
Honorable mentions go to Miguel Cabrera, who probably can’t win an MVP award if he didn’t win one the way he hit last season, Shin Soo-Choo, who may finally break out of anonymity with Carlos Santana hitting behind him, and Kevin Youkilis, who’s much more valuable if he can put up the same numbers he’s been putting up at first base while playing the hot corner.