The field for all of the awards this season is wide open. Over the next two days, I’m going to look at some of the top contenders for each of the three major awards in both leagues. Right now: the AL MVP award. Last season, Justin Verlander won the AL MVP (as well as the Cy Young award), a rare win for a pitcher. Verlander’s 7 win season (which actually, isn’t the highest WAR total in a year of his career) was highlighed by a sterling 24-5 record, a career high 251 innings pitched, 250 strikeouts, a 2.40 ERA, and just for the hell of it, his second career no-hitter. You can’t get much better of a season than that, but there were still some rumblings that a hitter (Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista to name a pair) should have won the award.
Favorites: Albert Pujols is now in the American League, and the three-time NL MVP is looking to add some hardware from the junior circuit as well. Pujols’s 2011 season was the worst of his career, but it was still a five win season. From 2003 to 2009, Pujols averaged more than eight wins a year. If he can regain that form in Los Angeles, he could easily win the AL MVP award. Miguel Cabrera has some help in the Tigers lineup in free agent signing Prince Fielder (who himself is a contender for the award), and he’s so good that he’s bordering on underrated right now due to fans getting accustomed to his dominance with the stick. 2011 was the first seven win season of Cabrera’s career, and he isn’t even 30 yet.
Last Year’s Favorites: Justin Verlander won the award last year, but he’d be hard-pressed to repeat his 2011 season this year. Though with that Tigers offense helping him out, Verlander could win 26 games. But then again, with that Tigers defense behind him, his ERA will probably jump. Since coming to Toronto, Jose Bautista has been one of the best hitters in the league, combining for over 15 wins in the last two seasons. He’s hit over 40 homers, scored 100 runs, and driven in 100 in each of the last two seasons, and after a walk rate north of 20% last season, there are signs that he’s becoming even more of a complete player. Jacoby Ellsbury came out of nowhere last season, more than doubling his career WAR after a nine win year. Once thought to be a light hitter, Ellsbury had a 30/30 season while also providing amazing defense in center field for the Red Sox.
AL East Studs: in his first season as a Yankee, Curtis Granderson just kind of piddled along and had a typical Granderson year. In his second season, he hit 41 homers, stole 25 bases, and scored 136 runs. As a Yankee, he gets a lot more attention than he did in Detroit, and his shedding his label as an underrated star and is becoming one of the league’s top faces. Evan Longoria of the Rays has done nothing but be awesome since making his major league debut in 2008, with four straight five win seasons before turning 26. Even last season, when a low BABIP killed his batting average, Longoria still homered 31 times and provided fantastic defense at the hot corner. Adrian Gonzalez of the Red Sox had the finest year of his career in his Beantown debut, finally breaking free of the offensive hellhole that is Petco Park. Going back to New York for a minute, Robinson Cano is poised for a 30 homer season after falling just short the last two years, and is part of the lifeblood of the Yankees offense.
Dark Horses: Josh Hamilton gets all of the attention in Texas, but focus on a pair of infielders: Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler. There’s a slight stink on Beltre (still) after his disappointing tenure in Seattle, but after a pair of great seasons since leaving the Pacific northwest, he’s regaining some of his luster. He’s in that top tier of third basemen along with Longoria. As for Kinsler, last season was the first of his career with over 150 games played. He rewarded Texas’s patience in him by going 30/30, walking more than he struck out, and providing fantastic defense at second base. Him and Dustin Pedroia are the top second basemen in the game. Speaking of Pedroia, he had an eight win season last year after missing half of 2010. Unfortunately, it was lost in the Gonzalez/Ellsbury breakout years. Another guy to consider is Alex Gordon of the Royals, who broke out in a major way last year, and will anchor the Royals offense for the next few seasons. Gordon has a fantastic pedigree, and at only 28, he’s entering his prime and could make some noise.
Longshots: while much ado was made about Pujols coming to the Angels, the return to the lineup of Kendrys Morales is flying under the radar. In the one full season of his career (2009), Morales hit 34 homers and had a .924 OPS. As the team’s DH, he won’t have a negative defensive contribution on the team, which helped hamper some of his value in 2009. When healthy, Joe Mauer of the Twins has no issues hitting .330, and he’s got that “former MVP” pedigree. Joining Gordon in Kansas City is Eric Hosmer, who hit 19 homers in 128 games last year at age 21, and was absolutely dominant in the minors.
The Verdict: with no clear “best team” in the AL this year, I think the old “best player from the best team” adage is going to fall true again this season. If the Angels win 95 games, Pujols is probably going to win the award. If the Yankees continue to dominate in the regular season, I could see Granderson or Cano drumming up a lot of support. Hell, if the Blue Jays shock the world and topple one of the dominant trio in the AL East, Bautista might finally get his due. All that being said though, my pick is Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays.