We have come to the final two weeks of a season in which five of the 14 teams in the American League will go to the playoffs and yet the two leading Most Valuable Player candidates at this point are in no position to be playing on. Mike Trout of the Angels (three games back in the second wild card race) and Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers (three games out in the Central) could well be watching the postseason on TV. If they don't make the postseason, is the door open for Josh Hamilton or Adrian Beltre of the Rangers or Derek Jeter of the Yankees? And if postseason qualification doesn't matter, which one is the better candidate?
First of all, let's enjoy great races for the major awards without deciding on the winners in August. One thing to keep in mind is this slash line: .289/.421/.644. That's the final 14 games of the 1999 season for Chipper Jones. The Braves went 11-3. Jones took 29 of the 32 first-place votes to win the MVP. There is still time for Trout or Cabrera to make an impact that pushes one of them to the obvious lead.
On the subject of MVPs needing to play for a postseason team -- especially in this age of expanded playoffs -- it can be a preference but shouldn't be a requirement for any voter. (Each AL city is represented by two members of the Baseball Writers Association of America in the voting for the major awards.) Look at it this way: Trout and Cabrera have played meaningful games the entire season. It's not as if the Angels and Tigers are the Cubs and Astros. Trout has nothing to do with Dan Haren and Ervin Santana having off years and Cabrera has nothing to do with the back end of the Detroit lineup.
The bottom line is Trout and Cabrera remain the two best candidates, though Hamilton, Beltre and Jeter are in the conversation depending on how these last two weeks play out. Nobody has outright clinched it. With that in mind, here's a look at where they stand:
The case for: The Angels wasted their first 20 games with Trout in the minor leagues and went 6-14. They are 72-52 since then when Trout plays. Trout is the best player in baseball because he plays premier defense in the middle of the field, is the best baserunner in baseball and is an impact hitter -- basically, he's Rickey Henderson if Rickey played centerfield more than he did left.
"I saw him score on a hard single to left at Fenway and it wasn't even close at the plate," said one AL manager. "I mean, nobody else in baseball does that."
Trout has taken the extra base on a hit (advancing two bases on a hit; three bases on a double) 63 percent of the time. The guy is a weapon at bat, on the bases and in the field.
Forget that he's a rookie. Forget that he recently turned 21. Just measure what Trout has done against everybody in the history of baseball regardless of experience and age and he has put up a historic season.
With two weeks to play, Trout is hitting .329 with 27 home runs and 45 stolen bases. Only five other players hit .300 with that many homers and steals: Hanley Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Henderson and Joe Morgan (the last three were MVPs in the year they did so).
And keep in mind that Trout steals bases virtually at will. He has been caught just four times. Since 1930 only two players ever stole so many bases while being caught less often: Ichiro Suzuki and Jimmy Rollins.
The case against: In August and September as the Angels have faded, Trout has put up a slash line of .286/.368/.474. That's impressive, but it's not the strong finish that impresses voters.
The case for: He's the best hitter in baseball. He leads the league in batting average (.330), RBIs (123), slugging (.598) and on-base percentage (.394), while standing four home runs short of the Triple Crown. He is a monster with runners in scoring position (.360) and has stayed hot in September (.346). Since a slow 30-game start (.263), he almost never goes back-to-back games without a hit (just two hitless streaks of two or more).
To accommodate the signing of Prince Fielder, Cabrera signed off on a move to third base, a position he had not played regularly in five years. He lacks range but has played the position adequately and almost never takes a day off.
The case against: He doesn't impact a game in as many ways as Trout. Cabrera trails Trout by miles in WAR (10.2-6.1) and taking the extra base (63 percent to 35 percent). And while Cabrera is the better pure hitter, Trout actually holds the edge in adjusted OPS, an indication how much Angel Stadium has played as a pitcher's park this year. Cabrera also leads the league in grounding into double plays.
The case for: Hamilton has all the trappings of a traditional lock-down MVP: leading the league in home runs and RBIs for a first-place team. It's an impressive resume, considering he hits as well on the road (.287, 21 home runs) as he does at home (.287, 21 home runs). No one is better at carrying a team, and Hamilton did it in April and May.
He has started 75 games in centerfield (50 in leftfield and 10 at DH), where he also can impact a game. And if Trout and Cabrera go cold for teams that finish out of the postseason, Hamilton will get bonus points from some voters.
The case against: His WAR (4.1) is nowhere near those of Trout and Cabrera.
From June 1 through August 6 -- a 57-game stretch, or just about a third of the season -- Hamilton hit .203/.278/.381 with eight home runs. The Rangers still went 32-25 (.561) when he went cold. But remember, this is what you get with Hamilton. He is a streaky hitter prone to strikeouts and bouts of chasing pitches -- periods of calm worth waiting out before the severe storm damage from his bat.
The case for: Starting with his three-homer game on Aug. 22, Beltre posted this 24-game slash line: .391/.434/.957 with 14 home runs. That's ridiculously hot down the stretch while Oakland pushed Texas for the AL West lead. He also could win his fourth Gold Glove at third base.
Moreover, he might wind up with the best WAR (6.0) of any player from a postseason team, depending on what happens with Trout's Angels, Cabrera's Tigers and Robinson Cano's Yankees.
The case against: Beltre is an average hitter in run-scoring spots, batting .259 with runners in scoring position and .234 in such spots with two outs. He's not the best hitter on his own team, though he has batted with more runners in scoring position than Hamilton (196-186).
The case for: With his next hit, Jeter will become only the fifth player to get 200 hits at age 38 or older, but the first middle infielder ever to do it (Paul Molitor, Pete Rose, Sam Rice and Jake Daubert are the others). Jeter leads the league in hits and is third in batting average, third in times on base and fifth in runs.
If you value intangibles and reliability while playing a premier position, this is your man. The Yankee captain has been a constant source of positive energy for a team wrecked by injuries, even if it means playing hurt through September on a badly bruised ankle. Corny as it sounds, it is true that Jeter provides important ballast to the team.
The case against: His teammate, Cano, is having a better season. Only J.J. Hardy and Ian Kinsler have made more outs. And Jeter ranks 30th in OPS and 32nd in adjusted OPS.
Here's one last category to consider when you weigh the candidates: how good are they at getting runners in? It's difficult to compare RBIs when, for instance, Cabrera has batted with 130 more runners on base than has Trout. But if you take out home runs -- the times they drive in themselves -- you can get a glimpse of how often they bring runners home. Try this:
This exercise confirms the skill of Cabrera and actually enhances Trout, a leadoff hitter who is "better" at driving in runners than Beltre, a cleanup hitter. It doesn't solve the question, though, of who is the MVP. For that we have two more weeks. Give Trout the edge for now, but with Cabrera closing the gap.