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Former winners, top prospects are awards favorites for 2013

Now that the 2012 Baseball Writers of America Association awards have been announced, let's take a stab at guessing who might win the three major player awards in 2013.

It is, of course, hard enough to figure out who is going to win these awards in October (though I've correctly predicted all 18 winners since 2010 and where 50 of the 54 top-three vote getters would finish over that same span), let alone the previous November when past winners such as Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke don't even have teams for the coming season. Still, when I wrote this column a year ago, I correctly guessed one of the finalists for each of the six awards, so there is some method behind the madness here.

1. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers

Cabrera, who will turn 30 in April, has finished in the top five in the AL MVP voting in each of the last four years and had two other fifth-place finishes in the NL with the Marlins. Over the last three seasons he has hit .334/.420/.604 while averaging 37 home runs and 123 RBIs. He's arguably the best hitter in baseball. With the Tigers already looking stronger for 2013 with the return of designated hitter Victor Martinez and the addition of free-agent rightfielder Torii Hunter, it would be a bigger surprise if Cabrera isn't in the top three in next year's MVP voting than if he is.

2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees

Cano has finished in the top six in the AL MVP voting in each of the last three seasons. Over the last four he has hit .314/.365/.534 while averaging 29 home runs and 102 RBIs and winning a pair of Gold Gloves. He's the best second baseman in baseball, and he just turned 30 in October. The Yankees have a lot of work to do this offseason, but they're perennial contenders, and Cano is their best player.

3. Mike Trout, CF, Angels

Trout can't possibly be better in 2013 than he was in 2012, can he? Normal aging curves would say he's a very good bet to be better at 21 next year than he was at 20 this year, but what more can he do? Well, he'll get to play in April, and he might hit for more power. Trout slugged .590 with 22 home runs over his final 83 games in 2012. Is a 40/40 season, the fifth ever in major league history, out of the question? What about the first-ever 40/50 season in major league history? Trout's 2012 season has set expectations sky-high, but the fact of the matter is that Trout could suffer some regression in 2013 and still be a deserving top-three finisher for the MVP award.

1. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers

Braun finished third for this award in 2008, won it in 2011 and was the runner-up to Buster Posey this year. Over the course of his six-year career he has hit .313/.374/.568 while averaging 34 home runs and 107 RBIs, and in the last two seasons he has stolen 63 bases at an 83 percent success rate, going 30/30 both years. Braun turns 29 on Saturday and as with Cabrera, it would be a surprise if he's not an MVP finalist again next year.

2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds

In early July of this past season, Votto tore the meniscus in his left knee sliding into third base and eventually missed 48 games due to the injury. When he returned, he failed to hit a home run in 127 plate appearances between the regular and postseasons. He did, however, hit .330 with a .488 on-base percentage in those 127 PA, and he was hitting .342/.465/.604 on the season and leading the MVP discussion when he was forced to the disabled list. He also led the league in on-base percentage for the third-straight year despite falling well short of the required number of plate appearances (adding the necessary number of empty plate appearances to his line didn't drop him below second-place Buster Posey, whose raw OBP was 66 points lower).

Votto, who just turned 29, is a career .316/.415/.553 hitter, won the 2010 NL MVP and finished sixth in 2011 while also picking up a Gold Glove for his play at first base. After returning from his knee surgery, Votto realized his back side wasn't strong enough to allow him to hit for power, so he choked up and focused on singles and walks. Assuming his knee will be able to heal fully over the winter, his power should return, and he should be right back in the thick of the MVP race next year.

3. Bryce Harper, CF, Nationals

Hey, no pressure, kid, but you're coming off the best age-19 season by a hitter in major league history and playing for a Nationals team that should contend again in 2013. Looking at the leap Trout made from his age-19 to age-20 seasons, it's hard not to expect big things from Harper in 2013. After all, big things have been expected from him for years and he continually lives up to those expectations. Harper hit .341/.407/.690 with 10 home runs and five stolen bases (in six attempts) in his final 34 games of the 2012 season. He's a five-tool talent and has emerged as an excellent defensive centerfielder despite being drafted as a catcher in 2010 and only recently moving to his current position. If he's not in the top three of the MVP voting in 2013, chances are he'll still be on this list again next November.

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers

Verlander, the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP, was the best pitcher in baseball in each of the last two seasons, and over the past four has averaged a 20-8 record, 2.95 ERA, 244 strikeouts and 238 innings pitched. He has finished in the top three in the Cy Young voting in three of the last four years, will be 30 in February and should be back in the top three next November.

2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels

Weaver, who just turned 30 in October, has finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting in each of the last three years and might have ranked higher than his third-place finish this year had he not missed a handful of starts due to a minor back injury. That his strikeout rate has declined in each of the last two years while his luck on balls in play has improved points to a regression via a correction in the latter trend or a continuation of the former one. Still, he has been good enough for long enough now that until that regression happens, he has to be considered a preseason favorite for this award.

3. David Price, LHP, Rays

Choosing between Price, this year's winner, and Felix Hernandez, the 2010 winner, for this last spot was tough. Price gets the nod because Hernandez hasn't actually finished in the top three in the Cy Young voting since he won it. Also, while Hernandez is roughly seven months younger than the 27-year-old Price, he also has a lot more mileage on his pitching arm, 1,620 1/3 major league innings to be exact, more than twice Price's 786 1/3. Price, the top draft pick in the nation in 2007, has finished in the top two in the voting in two of the last three years, and while he didn't deserve to win over Verlander this year, he did belong in the top two.

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers

Kershaw turns 25 in March and has finished in the top two in the Cy Young voting in each of the last two seasons. Hard adherence to the statistics might have switched his finishes, with Roy Halladay winning in 2011 but Kershaw winning this year, but Kershaw belonged in the top two either way.

In his four full seasons in the Dodgers' rotation, he has averaged 218 strikeouts and a 2.60 ERA. In the last two he his average line has been 18-7, 2.40 ERA, 238 Ks, 230 IP, 1.00 WHIP 4.08 K/BB. Its fair to say that Verlander has succeeded Halladay as the best pitcher in baseball, but Kershaw has succeeded him as the best pitcher in the National League, at least for now.

2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals

That qualifier on Kershaw's status as the best pitcher in the NL is due to the presence of this man. Strasburg's innings limit was a major story this season, but it will be history in 2013, which should be his first season with 30 starts and 200 innings. Finally, we'll get to see Strasburg in all his glory, and given his performance in 2012, his first full season following Tommy John surgery, the results could be staggering. Despite pitching around that elbow injury, Strasburg has struck out 11.2 men per nine innings in his young career while posting a 2.94 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 4.67 K/BB.

As he continues to get strength back in his pitching elbow and continues to mature and adjust to the major league level we could actually see those numbers improve. Before struggling in two of his last three starts in 2012, which may have been the result of fatigue, the distraction created by his impending shut-down or both, Strasburg went 15-5 with a 2.85 ERA. Strasburg is just four months younger than Kershaw, but in terms of his major league development, he's right about where Kershaw was prior to the 2010 season.

3. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies

Hamels has a few mid-ballot Cy Young finishes on his resume -- sixth in 2007, fifth in 2011 and eighth this year -- but with age and injury encroaching on his more decorated rotation mates, Halladay and Cliff Lee, and with Tim Lincecum having jumped the tracks in 2012, there's room for him to move up.

One shouldn't necessarily expect a significant change in performance from Hamels, who turns 29 in late December and has been very consistent over the last three years, but with the field thinned a bit, it would only take a small up-tick to get him into the top three. In the past three seasons he has averaged a 2.97 ERA, 213 innings, 207 strikeouts and a 3.96 K/BB.

Hamels gets this last spot just ahead of the Reds' Johnny Cueto, who turns 27 in February, has taken a couple of steps forward in the last two seasons and deserved a top-three finish in the NL Cy Young voting this year.

1. Wil Myers, OF, Royals

The Royals haven't cleared a spot for converted catcher Myers in their outfield yet, but if Lorenzo Cain can't stay healthy in center or Jeff Francoeur, who is owed $6.75 million for 2013, the last year of his contract, can't bounce back from a miserable 2012 campaign, one will open up soon enough. As it is, the Royals would be well advised to give Myers, who will be 22 in December, a chance to beat out Francoeur for the rightfield job in spring training. Myers, the last of the top hitting prospects that made the Royals' farm system one of the best in baseball history a couple of years ago, rebounded from a poor 2011 season with a monster 2012 in which he hit .314/.387/.600 with 37 home runs and 109 RBIs in 134 games split between Double-A and Triple-A. He's ready.

2. Travis d'Arnaud, C, Blue Jays

The top player acquired in the Roy Halladay trade three years ago, d'Arnaud hit .320/.375/.563 over the last two years, the first in Double-A and the second in Triple-A. The only trouble is that he can't seem to stay healthy. In 2010 it was his back. In 2011 he tore a ligament in his thumb. This year he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his knee, ending his season in late June.

The Jays will likely want d'Arnaud, who turns 24 in February, to start the year in Triple-A to make sure his knees are healthy and to get his bat hot, but once he passes that test, they should call him up and insert him in the lineup before he breaks again.

3. Dan Straily, RHP, A's

Straily was not a prospect coming in to the 2012 season, but he took a huge step forward in Double- and Triple-A, posting a 2.02 ERA with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings in the Pacific Coast League in 11 starts at the latter stop. That earned him a call-up to Oakland in early August. Four of Straily's seven big league starts were quality, but the fly-ball pitcher proved homer prone and his strikeout dipped to league average.

Still, he features a low-90s fastball, and plus slider and change. With some big league experience under his belt, a friendly home ballpark, good outfield defense and an organization that has shown a knack for breaking in quality pitching, the 24-year-old could be a regular part of my Rookie of the Year rankings in the coming season.

1. Jedd Gyorko, 2B, Padres

In working his way from High-A to Triple-A over the last two seasons, Gyorko, which is unfortunately pronounced "JER-ko," hit .323/.388/.550 while averaging 28 home runs and 107 RBIs in an average of 133 games. The problem is he's a third baseman and Padres incumbent Chase Headley just finished fifth in the National League MVP voting. The solution appears to be to move the Gyorko, 24, to second base, where he played 47 games this year, giving him a clear path to the Opening Day lineup. Petco Park will suppress his numbers, but as Headley and Adrian Gonzalez have proven, it's still possible to mash in San Diego, and Gyorko is a masher.

2. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates

The top pick in the 2011 draft made quick work of High-A and Double-A in his first professional season, finishing things off with a strong start at Triple-A. Altogether, he posted a 2.80 ERA and struck out more than a man per inning across 132 frames. Cole can get his fastball into triple-digits, has a wipeout slider and an above average changeup. The 22-year-old will start 2013 in the minors due to some concerns about his mechanics and command, but Cole has ace potential, and after two years of mid-season contention, the Pirates seem unlikely to wait any longer than necessary to put him in the big-league rotation.

3. Wily Peralta, RHP, Brewers

Like Straily in the AL, Peralta is something of a lower-ceiling pick, but one with a clearer path to big league opportunities. The Brewers' top prospect, Peralta will turn 24 in May and pitched well in five major league starts in September (2.25 ERA, no home runs allowed). Peralta has good stuff, a pair of mid-90s fastballs (two- and four-seam), a featured slider and the occasional changeup, but he can get wild. If throws strikes, however, he should be in this race all year.

The Diamondbacks and Cardinals both have a pair of impressive starting pitching prospects: Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs for Arizona and Shleby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal for St. Louis. All four saw big-league action in 2012 and could very well factor heavily in this race in 2013. However, the fact that they will serve as competition for one another for whatever opportunities become available on their respective teams prompted me to leave all four out of the above list simply because it's unclear at this distance which of the four will get that chance. Gyorko, Cole and Peralta have a clearer path and will go as far as their own performance takes them in 2013.

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