With the All-Star break now in effect, I thought I'd chime in on the status of races for some of Major League Baseball's prestigious hardware to be awarded at the conclusion of the season. Included are my personal opinions on frontrunners, contenders, dark horses, and those who should be in the discussion but will fade down the stretch. So without boring you with any more of an introductory paragraph, let's get to it!
My Frontrunner: Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas Rangers
I was tempted to argue that Jermaine Dye has been more valuable to the White Sox than Hamilton to the Rangers. Dye is hitting .306 with 21 HR and 56 RBI for a team that was never even considered to be competitive in the AL Central with the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians expected to duke it out. And while the Rangers are off to a 50-46 start due to a potent offence that includes Ian Kinsler, Milton Bradley, Michael Young, and David Murphy, it's been Hamilton who has anchored that lineup since Opening Day. His .310 average is higher than Dye's, he has the same amount of homers (21), and his 95 RBI are the 5th most ever before the All-Star break. It's hard not to root for the guy after everything he's gone through. Could Jeff Allison find the same success for an MLB club in a couple years?
K-Rod should definitely garner some votes as his 38 saves are the most ever before the All-Star break, and clearly the reason the Angels are tied with the Chicago Cubs for best record in all of baseball. Morneau, meanwhile, leads the Twins in average, home runs, RBI and OPS with an impressive .323/14/68/.903 line. Lurking in the pack for me is A-Rod. He's the best hitter in baseball and despite missing time due to injury, sports a .312/19/53/.972 line. In June, he hit .366 with 9 homers and 23 RBI. With Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu hitting well around him, pitchers may have to give him something to hit more often, and that's just scary. He could definitely lead the Yankees to a wild-card berth, which would certainly make for a solid argument.
Youkilis and Drew, meanwhile, are certainly worthy of discussing now but will definitely see their arguments weaken during the 2nd half. With David Ortiz poised for a July 25th return, their impact will not be as significant. For Youkilis, he’ll need to avoid the 2nd half pitfalls that have haunted him thus far in his career. The guy leads the Red Sox in average (.314) and RBI (63) and is on pace for career highs in most statistical categories. Drew, meanwhile, is having an output that most baseball pundits have sought from the underachieving 5-tool player his entire career. His .302/15/55/.984 line is solid, and we all remember the ridiculous month of June he had with a .333 average, 12 bombs and 27 RBI. But the Sox' offence is balanced throughout that production seems to come from a different guy every night. That being said, you'll be hard pressed to find a guy with a significantly higher rate of production than say, Hamilton, who has 35 more RBI than David Murphy, 2nd on the team.
Final prediction: Hamilton holds on and Disney swoops in for a movie deal.
AL Cy Young
There's a reason Lee was selected to start the All-Star game, and that's because he's been the best pitcher in the AL all season long. He started the season 6-0 with seven quality starts and has allowed two runs or fewer in 13 of his 18 starts. He's tied with Joe Saunders for the league lead in wins with 12, sports a 2.31 ERA and 106 strikeouts to compliment a 1.03 WHIP, which is awesome for a starting pitcher.
The case for Rodriguez is the same here as it was for MVP. Duchscherer doesn't have the strikeouts or win total that Lee presents, but his 1.82 ERA and 0.87 WHIP might have you thinking he's still a reliever and not a converted starter. The guy has been ridiculous, allowing more than 2 earned runs in an outing only once this season, and that was a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves in which he surrendered 3 earned over five innings. But I think the A's have overachieved, and with Rich Harden gone to the Cubs, Duchscherer will be leaned upon even more. He's a former reliever, so I wonder if he'll fade down the stretch at all, but with the A's offence relatively weak, I don't think he finishes with more than 16 wins.
Halladay, meanwhile, has thrown seven complete games, two shutouts, 146.1 IP, has 11 wins, a 2.71 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 121 strikeouts. This guy is a gamer and one of my favorite pitchers in all of baseball because of his willingness and ability to go deep into a game every night. The Blue Jays won't make the playoffs, but Halladay is a seasoned veteran who racks up the IP total every year. He's a former Cy Young winner (2003) and I think he could sprint ahead down the final stretch and win it.
Mussina (11-6, 3.61 ERA) and Saunders (12-5, 3.07 ERA) have been solid so far, but I don't think either have enough in the tank to keep it up, never mind win a Cy Young. Besides, come season's end, Saunders will be the 3rd or 4th best starting pitcher on that staff and his closer may have a better case than he does.
Final Prediction: Halladay remains consistent throughout the 2nd half, tossing three more complete games including another shutout to win his 2nd Cy Young.
AL Rookie of the Year
In contention: Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays; Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox
Lurking behind: Joba Chamberlain, SP, New York Yankees
Everyone is obsessing over Longoria, including me; I drafted him on all three of my fantasy baseball teams this year (same with Joba). But quietly, David Murphy is putting together a similar if not better season statistically than the Rays' third baseman. Murphy is hitting .276 with 13 homers and 60 RBI, is striking out at a far lower rate and has an OPS of .783. Longoria, meanwhile, has hit .275/16/53/.861, but he's a freer swinger than Murphy having struck out 17 more times in 46 fewer at bats. Murphy is hitting in a better offensive lineup so he'll probably get more opportunities to drive in runs. Ultimately, however, I think the hype train and media blitz surrounding Longoria will turn attention away from Murphy and he'll most likely fly under the radar. If he continues to produce, let's hope he at least gets some recognition.
Ellsbury has been everything the Sox could have hoped for in the leadoff spot. His line of .269/5/27 are average at best, but his 35 stolen bases in 42 attempts and 60 runs scored bode well for his campaign. He played with success down the stretch last season, so his experience in that environment should mean he continues his production for Boston come late in the season.
Chamberlain, meanwhile, is still in the midst of a conversion from reliever to starter for the Yankees. He's 2-3 with a 2.62 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. Most impressive for me has been his ability to continue striking out hitters at a high frequency as a starter (9.9 K/9 as compared to while being a reliever (11.4 K/9). His high ceiling and growing familiarity with being a starting pitcher make him my dark horse down the stretch. With seasoned veterans like Mussina and Andy Pettitte on the staff, he's learning from two greats on how to be a successful starter, and I think he'll continue to develop and prosper as the year goes on. He was preseason pick for ROY, and while he's definitely not a front runner at the moment, I think his ceiling is extremely high and he could make a great case come the end of the year.
Final Prediction: The hype train is just too much for Murphy, Ellsbury and Joba to overcome as Longoria finishes with 30 homeruns and claims the ROY award.
AL Manager of the Year
Frontrunner: Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays
What the Rays have done over the first half of the season has been nothing short of amazing and spectacular. Despite the fact that the team has lost seven straight, it's still only a half game behind the Red Sox. With a nice mix of youth and veterans in the clubhouse, the Rays could certainly be right in it till the end. Many thought they'd continue to improve this season, and perhaps finish 3rd or 4th in the ever competitive AL East, but no one ever expected this. Joe Maddon deserves a lot of credit for what he's done, and if he can right the ship after the All-Star break, this team could be tough to put away.
Gardenhire, meanwhile, is another manager who has defied the odds; but then again, that's the Twins seem to do every year. Just when people write them off, they rise and put together a solid campaign. That’s exactly what the team is doing in 2008, fresh off the trade of Johan Santana, continued struggles of Francisco Liriano, and an offence that lost Torii Hunter in the off-season. Young pitching, a top notch closer, and a timely offence have this team in the thick of the AL Central race.
Francona should probably be up here every year. The guy deals with the toughest market in the country and his squad has been riddled with injuries over the course of the season. Yet he's managed to regain the AL East lead with a mix of veteran leadership and youth. Putting Drew in the 3-hole during Ortiz's absence was brilliant. And the bullpen has been awful, but Francona has mixed and matched different combinations to make up for less than mediocre talent. Winning two World Series championships in four years is quite an accomplishment, and he's poised for another.
I think Guillen and Washington have both done a terrific job in leading their teams this first half, as well. The White Sox are atop the AL Central and the Rangers are over .500 and playing competitively. However, I don't think either team will make the playoffs and both will fade in the 2nd half, thus diminishing any chance of post-season honors for these two men. Both teams will suffer from a lack of consistent starting pitching, and the Rangers don't have a bona fide closer; C.J Wilson is one of those guys that exemplifies why the save statistic can be overrated.
My sleepers for the 2nd half are Girardi and Leyland because both managers saw their ball clubs get off to horrible starts. Yet both have seem their teams rebound nicely in June and July and I think they'll continue to do the same the rest of the way. The Yankees' offence has been torrid of late, and with Chamberlain solidifying that rotation and Mariano Rivera at the back end, look for this team to contend for the wild card spot. I'll be even more convinced if the Yankees snatch up a Brian Fuentes type reliever to add to the bullpen. The Tigers, meanwhile, are much like the Yankees in that it's a team with a scary offence. The starting pitching was awful to start the season, but Justin Verlander has turned it around and Kenny Rogers has been surprisingly effective. Although Jeremy Bonderman is done for the season, Armando Galarraga has been a nice addition. This team will need Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya to stay healthy and be the lights out, 1-2 tandem they were expected to be. Todd Jones sucks, but chances are he'll be protecting a lot of 3-run leads anyway.
Final prediction: The Rays will rebound from the 7-game slide and stay in the mix until the bitter end. Maddon wins a fairly competitive vote over Gardenhire.
The Marlins are 50-45 and only 1.5 games behind the Phillies for 1st in the NL East despite clearing the payroll during a fire sale last offseason. There are many nice stories in that Marlins clubhouse, including Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu, and Ricky Nolasco, but Ramirez is the guy that makes this offence so dynamic. His line of .311/23/45 is stunning from a leadoff hitter and he's most likely going to finish with a 40/40 season. And amazingly, A-Rod is making more than the entire Marlins roster this season. Keefe reminded me of this earlier then said, "That kills me." It kills me too.
While everyone has been clamoring for Utley to make it three Phillies' players in the last three seasons, I'm just not convinced Utley has MVP credibility. He's putting together a nice season, hitting .291 with 25 home runs and 69 RBI, but he's only hitting .261 over the last two and half months, and his power has dropped significantly. He hits in the middle of a potent lineup, but with Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard producing as much, if not more, I think Utley's resume takes a bit of a hit.
Pujols garners extra attention because of the Cardinals' surprising first half coupled with the fact that Albert is producing at a .350/18/50 clip. He's arguably the best hitter in the game and his presence in the middle of that lineup has always made it dangerous. But with the emergence of power threats Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick and the offseason trade for Troy Glaus, Pujols is only 3rd on the team in home runs and tied for third in RBI. If St. Louis makes the postseason as a wildcard, not only will Tony LaRussa be a favorite for manager of the year, but Pujols should be in the discussion as long as his production doesn't drop, which it shouldn't. If not, he'll just chalk it up as another great season.
Players to watch are Pat Burrell and David Wright. Both are putting together solid 2008 campaign. Burrell, an All-Star snug in my opinion, is in the midst of a contract year, and while his .275 average is rather pedestrian, his 23 homers and 57 RBI are exceptional. I think he'll turn it on after the All-Star break, but hitting behind Utley and Howard, he'll continue to do it rather quietly. If either of those guys start to falter and Burrell continues to produce, a Phillies' playoff berth may justify his consideration. Wright, meanwhile, is boasting a .282/17/70 line thus far. Unlike last year, the Mets will be playing from behind this 2nd half, and if the team makes a run, it will most likely be because of Wright in the middle of that lineup. With the firing of Willie Randolph and mediocre play to start the season, capturing a playoff berth would be substantial. I think Wright could be a dark horse if that happens.
Final prediction: The Mets make the playoffs thanks to a huge 2nd half from Wright, thus awarding him the MVP.
NL Cy Young
Frontrunner: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
In contention: Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati Reds
Lincecum and Volquez have been out of this world, and at this point, it's hard to believe that either guy will slow down, barring injury. This could very well be a two horse race to the finish with a cluster of guys not far behind in the second pack. Their stats are more or less comparable, their WHIP exactly the same. Lincecum has one less win, but one less loss. Volquez has a slightly lower ERA, but less innings pitched, thus less strikeouts. Both guys play on bad teams, neither of which will make the playoffs.
The National League is loaded with great pitchers, any of whom could probably make a case for Cy Young at the end of the season. If Dan Haren, Brandon Webb or Santana pitch their respective teams into the playoffs, there may be a case there. But I think along with Zambrano, Cole Hamels and even a guy like Ricky Nolasco, it'll just be a bunch of terrific seasons that were outdone by two other guys. The fact that Sheets and Zambrano have C.C. Sabathia and Rich Harden, respectively, joining them at the top of the rotation makes them less attractive options to me in terms of standing out.
It'll be hard to determine until the very end, but unless one of those guys in the second tier of pitchers runs the table and single handedly leads his team to the playoffs, I think it'll be either Lincecum or Volquez.
Final prediction: Volquez is in the tougher division and Lincecum benefits from the lowly NL West to win the Cy Young.
NL Rookie of the Year
In contention : Kosuke Fukudome, OF, Chicago Cubs
Lurking behind : Jair Jurrjens, P, Atlanta Braves
The cast of characters isn't as impressive to me as the AL group of newbies. Soto seems to be the leading guy right now, as he leads in every major statistical offensive category except OBP, an honor which goes to Cubs teammate Fukudome. Bruce was the big story when he first arrived in Cincinnati, and teammate Votto got off to a nice start as well. Votto's longer tenure is most likely the reason he sits at 13 homers and 40 RBI compared to Bruce's 6 and 21. But neither has done much of anything the last two months, and the honeymoon seems to be over.
My preseason pick was Fukudome, but he's hit a snag over the last few weeks particularly, then dropping his stock. I think he’ll rebound nicely and finish around .290 with 15 homers and 65-70 RBI, but Soto already has 16 bombs and 56 RBI. Unless Soto goes 0 for the world over the next month or so, which I don’t expect to happen, I think he’ll continue his steady play and take the prize.
The interesting guy to watch is Jurrjens over in Atlanta. Pitchers aren't usually the popular pick for ROY awards, which is why my Joba pick likely won't pan out. He's 9-4 with a 3.00 ERA and 10 quality starts in 16 appearances. With John Smoltz and Tom Glavine on the shelf due to injury and the return of Mike Hampton still on hold, he's been terrific all season and quite a surprise staple in that rotation. Don't sleep on him.
Final prediction: Soto wins NL ROY.
NL Manager of the Year
Frontrunner: Fredi Gonzalez, Florida Marlins
In contention : Charlie Manuel, Philadelphia Phillies
Lurking behind : Jerry Manuel, New York Mets;
What Gonzalez and the Marlins have done so far this year is remarkable, sitting only 1.5 games behind the Phillies in the tight NL East race. If his team can finish with 80+ wins, I think he deserves it regardless of where the Marlins finish in the standings. Even if they go sub 80 in wins, he should still get a ton of consideration. This team was a joke heading into the season, yet I don't think there's anyone who wants to face them. He seems to be pulling all the right strings, and there's a lot of young talent in that lineup and rotation that could see them legitimately contending in a year or two before another fire sale.
Manuel has done a great job with that Phillies team, and if he gets some reinforcements in his pitching staff, it'll be a formidable contender heading down the stretch. Do I think he can win it? Sure. Do I think he will? No. But if the Phillies win the NL East, he’ll be in the conversation, especially if they pull away.
Jerry Manuel has won nine straight and the Mets are right back in it. I'm not sure how managers who take over mid-season fare in the topic of conversation, but I think he's the dark horse here. Especially if David Wright takes over and leads the Mets to the postseason, which was my prediction in the NL MVP discussion.
Joe Torre was my preseason pick, and while the Dodgers could very well win the NL West, the division sucks. I could probably manage Chico's Bail Bonds to the division title and I still wouldn’t be up for consideration. It’s a lose/lose over there. If you win, it’s not impressive because the level of play has been so poor. And if you lose, you start to wonder if your team should be exiled to the Pacific Coast League.
Keefe made a valid argument saying that if either the Cubs or Brewers finish with the best record, then Lou Piniella and Ned Yost will be discussed. I agree, but to me these other guys warrant more consideration.
Final Prediction: Gonzalez and the Marlins finish at .500 and he takes the award for his troubles.