Starting today, and for the remainder of the regular season, I will take a weekly look at the competition for baseball's major awards by ranking the top five candidates in each league for Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year honors, taking on one award per week on a rotating basis (MVP today, Cy Young next week, Rookie of the Year the week after, repeat). To be sure, it's still early in the season but it's not unusual for candidates to announce themselves by now and in some cases -- like Zack Greinke did with the AL Cy Young last year -- put a stranglehold on a major award before the calendar officially turns to summer.
MVP is by far the most controversial of the awards due to conflicting definitions of the term "valuable." I'm among those who believe that player value is absolute and synonymous with runs created at the plate and prevented in the field (or on the mound), and that a team's failure to convert that value into wins is not the fault of the player in question. However, the majority of the voting pool (of which I'm not yet a part) tends to believe that player's value, as intended by the creators of the award, is reflected in team performance. It is a debate not unlike that concerning the interpretation of the Constitution (or even the Bible), a philosophical chasm few have been able to span.
Though I disagree with the majority of baseball's electorate with regards to the interpretation of "valuable," their beliefs will be reflected in my rankings, as I'm trying to figure out who will win the award, not necessarily who, in my opinion, most deserves to win it (though I'll certainly indicate the latter in my comments). Similarly, my MVP rankings will largely be limited to hitters unless a pitcher emerges later in the season with a season-long performance that demands MVP consideration. No pitcher has won a league MVP since Dennis Eckersley did so in 1992, 18 years ago. Given recent voting patterns, that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
NOTE: All stats through Monday, May 10;League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
1. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers
Season stats:.377/.465/.648, 7 HR, 33 RBI, 22.5 VORP
Last three weeks: .382/.460/.658, 4 HR, 19 RBI
Candidacy: Cabrera finished fourth in the voting last year and probably lost votes at the last minute after a wild night during the season's final week that included drinking with members of an opposing team, police involvement in a domestic dispute between Cabrera and his wife that got physical and being picked up from a police station by Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski the morning of an important game as Detroit was trying, ultimately in vain, to hold off the hard-charging Twins in the AL Central. Over the winter, Cabrera went to rehab for his alcoholism and has stepped up his offensive game considerably in 2010. That combination of a good story, great production and prior near-miss status, as well as the sense that Cabrera is a player who could easily hit his way to Cooperstown if he can stay on the wagon, puts him out front in the early going. Oh, and he leads the league in RBIs, the voters' favorite category.
2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees
Season stats: .353/.406/.647, 9 HR, 22 RBI, 19.5 VORP
Last three weeks: .361/.439/.625, 5 HR, 12 RBI
Candidacy: For all of their success, the Yankees have had just one player win the MVP since their return to glory in the mid-'90s: Alex Rodriguez in 2005 and 2007. Derek Jeter had deserving seasons in 1999 and 2006, but failed to garner enough votes both years. If Jeter couldn't win the award, what chance does Cano have? Consider the power of expectations. Jeter arrived as a star (and Rookie of the Year) on a championship team in 1996, and his best seasons were examples of him simply living up to his reputation. Cano, on the other hand, has had ups and downs on the way to stardom, but his great start combined with his being moved up into the fifth spot in the Yankees lineup seems to indicate the delayed arrival of a major talent as well as a young player rising to a challenge. Given his fine fielding at a middle infield position and the recent history of rival second baseman Dustin Pedroia winning in 2008, Cano has a strong candidacy.
3. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins
Season stats: .339/.471/.624, 7 HR, 21 RBI, 20.2 VORP
Last three weeks: .355/.474/.710, 5 HR, 13 RBI
Candidacy: Morneau beat Jeter by just four percent of the vote in 2006, a year in which not only Jeter, but two of Morneau's teammates (catcher Joe Mauer and ace Johan Santana) were more deserving. That and Morneau's similarly undeserved second-place finish in 2008 prove that the voters like him (and his flashy RBI totals). In the early going this year, Morneau has been far more productive than in either 2006 or 2008 (though his RBI pace is a bit behind those seasons), and the Twins have the third-best record in baseball. If both keep up, he's sure to finish in the top four.
4. Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays
Season stats: .328/.395/.641, 9 HR, 25 RBI, 20.3 VORP
Last three weeks: .321/.370/.560, 3 HR, 14 RBI
Candidacy: Wells was the AL leader in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) as recently as Monday, and while that stat may not move many voters, it does indicate that Wells has been among the most productive players in the league to this point in the season. He's also a former All-Star having a comeback season (a career year, in fact) for a team that has been greatly outperforming expectations in the early going (the third-place Blue Jays are a game and a half ahead of the Red Sox and have more wins than every team in the AL West and Central except the Twins).
5. Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox
Season stats: .273/.398/.717, 13 HR, 27 RBI, 17.8 VORP
Last three weeks: .316/.444/.860, 9 HR, 19 RBI
Candidacy: The major league home run leader went deep in his first two games and hasn't looked back, but he plays the same position as two superior candidates and does so for a losing team. Konerko's also an aging, second-tier star. The last MVP in either league to fit that description was Cardinals' third baseman Ken Boyer in 1964, and he was the captain of a pennant winner (and the NL's RBI leader).
Alex Gonzalez, SS, Blue Jays: Gonzalez is second in the AL in homers (10) and RBIs (27) and is a fine defensive shortstop, but his performance screams fluke and his .306 on-base percentage is the opposite of valuable.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: The best hitter on the major's best team at the moment is a good bet to crack the top five moving forward.
Ty Wigginton, 2B, Orioles: Filling in for an injured Brian Roberts, Wigginton has been one of the AL's hottest hitters, but he's sure to fade and ultimately return to a bench role.
Nick Swisher, RF, Yankees: A visible and popular player due to his outsized personality, Swisher has hit .366/.423/.690 with six homers and 20 RBIs over the last three weeks.
Andruw Jones, OF, White Sox: Though he's still not the same afield, Jones suddenly looks like the vintage Braves version at the plate and is getting credit for his clubhouse leadership from fellow veterans such as Konerko.
1. Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers
Season stats:.393/.452/.732, 10 HR, 34 RBI, 23.0 VORP
Last three weeks: .395/.452/.763, 7 HR, 22 RBI
Candidacy: The Dodgers have been a disappointment thus far, but Ethier currently leads the NL in all three triple crown categories. There hasn't been a triple crown winner in the majors since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and there hasn't been an NL winner since the Cardinals' Ducky Medwick in 1937. The next man to accomplish the feat will win the MVP in his league, guaranteed. Ethier is unlikely to be that man, but if he can come close to that honor he'll have a good chance at this one.
2. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers
Season stats: .359/.443/.594, 6 HR, 28 RBI, 8 SB, 23.6 VORP
Last three weeks: .354/.463/.595, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 7 SB
Candidacy: The Hebrew Hammer leads the majors in runs, the NL in hits, is second in total bases and batting average, and third in RBIs. He's also the major league leader in VORP and has stolen eight bases without being caught. If Ethier wasn't flirting with the triple crown, Braun would be the clear choice as the most productive player in the senior circuit. If only his Brewers could poke their heads above .500 and join the race in the NL Central, we'd have a heck of a debate on our hands.
3. Jayson Werth, RF, Phillies
Season stats: .348/.424/.688, 7 HR, 26 RBI, 18.9 VORP
Last three weeks: .352/.415/.761, 6 HR, 20 RBI
Candidacy: After Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won back-to-back MVPs in 2006 and 2007, Chase Utley was supposed to be next, but though the Phillies won pennants the next two years, none of their players could measure up to Albert Pujols. With Pujols having a relatively weak season thus far, and the Phillies seemingly destined for another pennant, the door is back open, but while Utley is in the mix, Werth has been the most productive Phillie in the early going, following up his breakout 2009 season with a walk year that could pay huge dividends this winter when he becomes a free agent.
4. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals
Season stats: .314/.415/.570, 7 HR, 25 RBI, 16.6 VORP
Last three weeks: .306/.412/.486, 2 HR, 10 RBI
Candidacy: Pujols won the NL MVP each of the last two seasons as well as in 2005 and finished in the top four in five of his other six seasons. He's off to a comparatively slow start this year but is still on pace for 36 homers and 130 RBIs and has already been intentionally walked 11 times. Only a serious injury is likely to knock him off this list, but a strong second half as well as another NL Central title for his Cardinals could move him up it.
5. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
Season stats: .304/.413/.548, 7 HR, 20 RBI, 14.2 VORP
Last three weeks: .319/.442/.638, 6 HR, 17 RBI
Candidacy: When I went out on a limb and picked the Reds to win the NL Central in March, one reason for my pick was Votto. Indeed, Votto is one of the biggest reasons that the Reds are currently two games over .500 and in second place in the Central, three games behind Pujols' Cardinals. Unlike most of the other players on these lists, Votto's 2010 production is right in line with his 2009 performance, which means he's less likely to fade than the rest. Don't be surprised if he sticks around on this list, and if the Reds do slip past the Cardinals, Votto could be a winner as well.
Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies: Utley actually has better numbers than Votto, save for the all-important RBI column, but he has a far stronger supporting staff and has been outplayed by Werth on his own team.
Jason Heyward, RF, Braves: One of the most exciting players in the early going, this 20-year-old rookie just needs his groin to heal and the Braves to start winning.
Colby Rasmus, CF, Cardinals: Rasmus actually has better on-base and slugging percentages than Pujols and is thus the Cardinals' leader in OPS and OPS+, but he has 10 fewer RBIs and seems less likely to sustain his performance.
David Wright, 3B, Mets: Left for dead, the Mets have shown some life of late and Wright's return to form has led the way at the plate.
Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Rockies: Jimenez is having that other-worldly pitching season thus far (6-1, 0.93 ERA, no homers allowed, a no-hitter), but the Rockies, a popular pre-season pick, have been disappointing, and Jimenez won't be able to keep his ERA below 1.00 all year.