Although the western hemisphere's Opening Day isn't for another week, the 2012 baseball season officially got underway in Japan on Wednesday morning when the A's and Mariners played the first of two games in Tokyo, which means it's high time that I update my 2012 awards predictions from November.
Actually, predictions is a bit of a misnomer. Predicting these awards is hard enough at season's end (though I'm 12-for-12 at doing so over the last two seasons). What follows is more of an attempt to handicap the three major player awards, listing the top three favorites in each league. These players are less the men I most expect to win these awards than the ones I would be least surprised to see do so. A year ago, just five of the 18 men I listed in these pre-season rankings actually finished in the top three for the given award, though I did correctly identify the eventual American League Rookie of the Year winner (Jeremy Hellickson), two of the top three NL Cy Young candidates (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) and had NL MVP Ryan Braun in my top three for that award as well. The last three of those men reappear below for obvious reasons.
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels
2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers
3. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays
I actually listed Prince Fielder among the favorites for AL MVP in November, two months before he signed with the Tigers, but Comerica Park is unfriendly to left-handed power hitters, which, in combination with the arrival of Pujols, bumps Fielder out of the top three. Pujols, whom I had as my NL favorite back in November before he switched leagues to sign with the Angels, hit .299/.366/.541 with 37 home runs and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting last year in what was amazingly his worst major league season. He has eight top-three MVP finishes in the last 10 years and stands a very good chance to lead the Angels back to the playoffs thanks to the addition of a second wild card spot.
As for Cabrera, I'm still cynical about his move to third base, but if he can make it work and hit up to his usual standard, which has earned him a top-five finish in each of the last three seasons as a first baseman, for a Tigers team that seems like a near lock to repeat as Central division champions, he could be hard to beat. The position switch jumps Cabrera ahead of Longoria, a perennial MVP threat as an all-around stud and by far the best hitter on a perennial contender.
1. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
2. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
3. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers
With Pujols gone, Votto is the best hitter in the National League, and the Reds are in good shape to rebound from a disappointing 2011 season. I had Votto and Braun listed behind Pujols in November, but Tulowitzki, who is comparable to Longoria as a young all-around stud who seems destined for MVP hardware one of these years, jumps ahead of Braun in part because of the controversy surrounding Braun's positive drug test this winter. Braun had his suspension overturned, but in a way that left many questions unanswered. Voters tend to shy away from repeat winners in close races to begin with, and I expect that, given the remaining suspicions surrounding Braun, that will be doubly true in this case.
1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
2. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
3. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees
1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies
2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
3. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies
These lists are unchanged from November. I expect Verlander to come back down to earth a bit after his big 2011 campaign for a variety of reasons, including his extreme luck on balls in play last year (.237 BABIP), heavy workload (271 1/3 innings between the regular and postseasons) and the simple fact that regression to the mean is one of the overriding laws of baseball. That opens the door for Hernandez (the 2010 winner) while Sabathia (the 2007 winner) has finished in the top four in the voting in each of the last four years, threw fewer innings last year than he had in any season since 2006 and slimmed down significantly over the winter.
In the NL, those are the top three finishers from 2011 in a slightly different order. Again, expect some regression from last year's winner, Kershaw, which could open the door for Halladay, a two-time Cy Young who has finished in the top five in his league in each of the last six seasons and in the top two three of the last four years. I wouldn't be surprised to see Cole Hamels, who finished fifth last year, sneak into the top three in his walk year, but Lee is the better bet.
1. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers
2. Matt Moore, LHP, Rays
3. Yoenis Cespedes, CF, A's
The arrival of two foreign-league superstars makes this the list that has changed the most since November. The AL Rookie of the Year race was already shaping up to be a memorable one with top prospects Moore, Jesus Montero and Mike Trout expected to compete for the honors, but Darvish and Cespedes give it even more star power.
I had Montero listed ahead of Moore in November because the Rays were still pretending that Moore might open the season in the minors, but he's now locked into the Opening Day rotation, and thus leapfrogs the Seattle slugger, who started at designated hitter, not catcher, in the Mariners' season opener. Trout, meanwhile, has been sidelined by the flu, which led to double-digit weight loss, and tendonitis in his throwing shoulder this spring, making him a lock to open the season at Triple-A and putting him well behind the other four as Opening Day approaches.
1. Bryce Harper, CF, Nationals
2. Drew Pomeranz, LHP, Rockies
3. Yonder Alonso, 1B, Padres
Harper will open the year at Triple-A, but I still have him ahead of Pomeranz, who will start the season in the Rockies' rotation. That's in part because Harper is the kind of big-impact hitter who can win an award like this in less than a full season, as Buster Posey did just two years ago, and in part because Pomeranz is likely to be on an innings limit given than he threw just 119 1/3 innings last year in his first professional season. As a result, both could actually be active for comparable periods of time this season.
Alonso was on this list as the Reds' leftfielder in November and remains there even after a trade and a position switch have made him the Padres' first baseman. The change in ballparks, however, will likely have a negative effect on his raw numbers but not his place in these rankings. That's because there are very few other National League rookies expected to open the season with a starting job. As a result, these three names are unchanged from November. Alonso's former Reds teammate, shortstop Zack Cozart, would rank fourth.