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AL MVP debate highlights top storylines for awards week

Baseball kicks off its award week today -- the list of finalists and announcement times can be found on the BBWAA's website -- and it features many of the game's boldest-face names in Miguel Cabrera, Buster Posey, Justin Verlander, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Here's a primer with some context to consider for this superlative awards week.

Most hotly contested race:American League MVP (of course)

The Cabrera-vs.-Trout debate ignited a passion and at times a firestorm amongst most every baseball fan and writer. It has been as polarizing as any discussion in the game, on par with major changes in the schedule, such as the merits of the new one-game wild-card playoff game.

The difference in opinion for the award has incorrectly been portrayed as old-school stats boosting Triple Crown-winning Cabrera against sabermetrics supporting the all-around play of Wins Above Replacement leader Trout, but that of course is not quite right. Trout has plenty of old-school stats in his corner -- he led the league in runs and steals while ranking in the top three in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and triples -- and certainly there is little sabermetric love lost for Cabrera, who finished in the top five in WAR on both of the popular leaderboards, FanGraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com.

The frame of the debate really ought to be best offensive player against best all-around player. No one produced more than Cabrera when standing in the batter's box, and no one produced more when standing (or running) anywhere on the field than Trout, whose baserunning and fielding were exemplary in addition to his offense.

It'd be simpler if only this were the NFL, which awards both an MVP and an Offensive Player of the Year, and both players could go home with hardware. And it'd be simpler if only Cabrera and Trout had enjoyed these transcendent seasons in different years. The MVP standards in most years are lower than what either of these men accomplished in 2012.

Absent the luxury of a split-award, the vote here would be for Trout, but the expectation is that Cabrera, fresh off his historic Triple Crown season, will be the winner. Both are deserving, but only one can win.

(Almost) oldest first-time winner:R.A. Dickey, Mets

If Dickey wins the National League Cy Young -- he led the league in innings, complete games, shutouts and strikeouts while ranking second in ERA, making him the favorite -- he will be the oldest first-time winner of a Cy Young in either league since the 1950s.

Dickey pitched all season as a 37-year-old before turning 38 in late October, and he would be only the third first-time winner who was at least 36 in the award's history: Warren Spahn was 36 when he won in 1957 and Early Wynn was 39 when he won two years later.

The caveat, of course, is that the Cy Young was only incorporated as an award in 1956, so it didn't exist for most of Wynn's or Spahn's career, or those of the legendary pitchers from the game's first half-century, many of whom may well have won the award at an advanced age if only it had been around.

Best context for Verlander's run:

Though the Rays' David Price and the Angels' Jered Weaver both had excellent years, the American League Cy Young ought to belong to Verlander for the second straight season, which would make him the AL's first repeat winner since Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000. What really sets Verlander apart is this: He is the first pitcher in big league history to lead the majors in innings, strikeouts and adjusted ERA (ERA+) in consecutive years. In 2011 he threw 251 innings with 250 strikeouts and a 172 ERA+; in '12 he threw 238 1/3 innings with 239 strikeouts and a 160 ERA+.

Rarest MVP position:

If Posey wins the NL MVP award, he'll be the first Senior Circuit catcher to do so since a three-year reign for the position four decades ago when Johnny Bench won in 1970 and '72. In the meantime, all seven other positions on the diamond have each had at least two different winners. (For comparison's sake, three AL catchers have won the award since an NL catcher did: Joe Mauer in 2009, Ivan Rodriguez in 1999 and Thurman Munson in 1976.) Posey won't be entirely alone on the ballot box either -- count on Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina snagging a first-place vote or two.

Most lofty expectations:

Trout will win AL Rookie of the Year. Bryce Harper may win NL Rookie of the Year. If one indulges the considerable hype of the game's consensus two top offensive prospects of the past couple years -- insert disclaimer here about how Trout is 21 years old and Harper is now 20 -- consider the rarefied company they could keep.

The Rookie of the Year honors, first incepted in 1947 and first awarded to both leagues in 1949, are no sure predictor of successful big league careers. For every Jeff Bagwell, there's a Bob Hamelin.

But there are four seasons that stand above the rest. There have been three years in which both recipients were eventual Hall of Famers -- Frank Robinson and Luis Aparicio in 1956; Tom Seaver and Rod Carew in 1967; Andre Dawson and Eddie Murray in 1977 -- and a fourth year in which both are slam-dunk future Hall of Famers, when Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki both won in 2001. Perhaps we'll look back at 2012 as the fifth such year.

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