American League Most Valuable Player
The one thing we can say for sure is that it won’t be Raul Ibanez. I should probably also say, “It won’t be Evan Longoria either,” even though I’ve been picking him since approximately 1977. Check my ballot for that year, you'll see "Rod Carew, Thurman Munson, and Evan Longoria, who won't be born for another eight years, sorry."
1. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Detroit Tigers
My Bleacher Report career has not quite spanned 72 hours to this point, but I have already typed “Miguel Cabrera” approximately 783 times; I’m going to map those letters to a hot key. There’s a reason for his ubiquity: His story is incredibly important to the coming season.
What happens when a player moves to a skill position, succeeds when many were skeptical that he could do it, contends for a batting title all the while, and his team makes the postseason? That is what you call “a story,” and stories are what win the hardware.
2. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Boston Red Sox
Gonzalez’s .338/.410/.548 last year was the kind of campaign that typically gets some award notice, but he faced the dual disadvantage of his team’s collapse and playing with two other strong candidates in former MVP Dustin Pedroia and last year’s eventual runner-up, Jacoby Ellsbury.
As with the Yankees in the late 1990s, this is about the only occasion when you can say a player suffered for having too many stars on the team. Boston will be back in the thick of things this year, and Ellsbury seems certain to regress to some degree. Gonzalez will still have to compete with Pedroia, but he’s up to the challenge.
3. Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels
Here’s another storyline for you: All-time great player switches leagues and continues to prosper as his team finally overhauls the rival Rangers. In the long term, the Angels will regret the Pujols contract. In the short term, they should benefit immensely. The moment Pujols steps on the field in an Angels jersey, he becomes the greatest first baseman in club history.
4. Jose Baustista, RF, Toronto Blue Jays
He probably suffers from PED-related skepticism due to his sudden rise to prominence (not that there has been any evidence for that view), but he’s been so good that you can’t dismiss him. The problem is that he’s better than his 81-win team and probably will be again this year.
5. Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees
Despite great teams almost every season since 1993, Yankees players have picked up just two MVP awards in that span, both going to Alex Rodriguez. Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and pals? Sorry, you got too much help, ownership spent too much money.
Second base is a crowded position in the AL, with Cano, Dusin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Ben Zobrist, and Howie Kendrick the established stars and Jemile Weeks, Dustin Ackley, and Jason Kipnis coming up behind. A great bat as long as he hits .300 and an underrated defender, Cano was a deserving third-place finisher in the award balloting in 2010.
At least one prolonged cold streak each season has prevented him from winning a batting title, but if he can avoid that this year (or the peaks are even higher) he could easily capture the voters’ fancy.
Six More Candidates
Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston Red Sox
He suffers from the same competition “problem” that Gonzalez does, but also has to overcome the ghost of his own award-winning 2008 campaign.
Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore Orioles
A super-dark horse candidate given the Orioles won’t be competitive, but combine his excellent defense with another step forward on offense and he’ll get some notice.
Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins
The Twins won’t be any closer to the pennant race than Brasilia is to Trenton, and Mauer has much to overcome in terms of his own health and his aversion to hitting at Target Field. A few years ago, I speculated that his career might follow the same pattern as Jason Kendall’s, and so far I’ve been depressingly correct.
Josh Hamilton, LF, Texas Rangers
He gets hurt, but he won the award two years ago while playing in only 133 games, showing that if you’re good enough, the voters will overlook some downtime. I don’t think he’ll hit .359 again, but you never know.
Prince Fielder, 1B, Detroit Tigers
What I said about Albert Pujols, but heavier and with less defense.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays
A perennial choice because he is clearly one of the most talented players in baseball and the Rays will contend. As good as he has been, he hasn’t yet put together the massive year that will get him into the top five in the balloting.
American League Cy Young Award
Forecasting pitchers is about as fun as a visit to the dentist and just as productive, but we have to try.
1. Jered Weaver, RHP, Los Angeles Angels
Weaver is 29 now, and I should probably let go of the idea that he’s going to follow his brother Jeff’s career pattern and just implode one day; Jeff’s career was just about over at 29.
Weaver is at his best now when he started, his style left him vulnerable to left-handed hitters, but that’s no longer the case (they hit .216/.260/.318 against him last year). With improved run support this year—at least in theory—he could top 2011’s 18 wins. Double his chances if the Angels beat out the Rangers for the division title.
2. Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers
I said stories make award winners. It’s uncommon for rookies to win one of the major awards (think Fred Lynn in 1975), but Darvish’s Japanese record is so good that it’s easy to envision it happening.
Maybe I’ve succumbed to the hype, but if Darvish isn’t that good, he’s going to rate as a disappointment. That’s a heck of a burden to carry, especially given that the Japanese game is structurally different from the American version.
3. Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers
A monster at this peak, but I worry about workload. Back-to-back awards are also more the exception than the norm, and Verlander can’t slip at all if he’s going to take home another trophy.
4. Dan Haren, RHP, Los Angeles Angels
Haren never seems to be discussed when the best pitchers are named, but he has a career ERA+ 20 percent above the league average (16th among active pitchers), never walks anyone, and is good for 190 to 200 strikeouts a season.
Felix Hernandez’s 2010 award would seem to have put a stake in the importance of won-lost records insofar as awards go, but the only thing Haren hasn’t done to burnish his credentials is win more than 16 games in a season. All that will take is a little run support.
The Angels will have to burn through Vernon Wells and/or Bobby Abreu before they can fully help Haren, but the time will come.
5. David Price, LHP; Jeremy Hellickson, RHP; James Shields, RHP; Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
I have no idea how to choose among these guys. Shields’ workload distresses me. Hellickson is just getting started. Price can be inconsistent. Moore is a rookie but looks terrific. Most likely none of them will win it, but they all could, and that says amazing things about the Rays’ possibilities regardless of their limitations on offense.
Five More Candidates
Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle Mariners
Yet another workload guy for me, but he has to be in the picture.
Derek Holland, LHP, Texas Rangers
If he has a whole season like last year’s second half, he’ll get some attention.
CC Sabathia, LHP, New York Yankees
This is the last time I mention workload, I swear.
Jon Lester, LHP, Boston Red Sox
A couple of bad September starts marred his season—on Sept. 6 he had a 2.93 ERA. As a fellow cancer guy, I feel obliged to root for him, and his ability means he should be mentioned even were that not the case.
Ricky Romero, LHP, Toronto Blue Jays
His major problem is he tends to fall apart against the Yankees and Red Sox, a problem if you want to establish yourself as an ace in the AL East.
Rookie of the Year
Another difficult award to forecast, because contingencies arise during the year, players take surprising steps forward on the development path, and some that you thought would storm the majors take a step back. I’m going to limit myself to just five choices here.
1. Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
With a 1.92 ERA and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings at Double- and Triple-A, he has nothing left to prove in the minors. The Rays may send him there anyway, because they get twitchy about the arbitration clock. If they actually want to go to the postseason, that would be a major miscalculation. Update: I had forgotten about Moore's December major-league contract, which obviates the need to worry about arbitration. The only obstacle to Moore breaking camp with the Rays is his own performance and Wade Davis. Neither should hold him back long, if at all.
2. Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers
If he wins the Cy Young award, he’ll get the ROY and vice-versa.
3. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Trout just barely retained his rookie eligibility. One of the top three prospects in baseball (with Harper and Moore), he has the potential to be an all-around star, but between his spring training illness and high-salary roadblocks to playing time, he may not get a full season in the bigs.
4. Jesus Montero, C-DH, Seattle Mariners
He will hit and then some, but lack of defensive ability is always going to relegate him to the second tier behind more versatile players.
5. (Tie) Travis d’Arnaud, C, Toronto Blue Jays and Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston Red Sox
Neither of these cats has a place to play. I discussed d’Arnaud and his status as the heir apparent to J.P. Arencibia yesterday. An Arencibia slump combined with a d’Arnaud hot streak at Triple-A could open the door, and since Arencibia struggles to hit for average, that’s not an unlikely scenario.
Middlebrooks made it to Triple-A last year. He’s not selective, but has real power and is a good glove at third. He’s behind Kevin Youkilis, but Youkilis injuries are not unheard of.