With all of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards having been handed out for the 2014 season, we here at Awards Watch believe it’s never too early to begin wild speculation as to who might win the 2015 awards. I’ve actually had a fair amount of success with this. Over the last two years I have correctly identified five of last 12 winners a year in advance (a .417 batting average) and in November 2011 I correctly named six of the 18 finalists for the 2012 awards (a .333 mark). Last year, I correctly named five of this year’s 18 finalists by making Clayton Kershaw my National League Cy Young pick, Jose Abreu my American League Rookie of the Year choice and listing Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Chris Sale among my finalists for the AL and NL MVP and AL Cy Young, respectively. Spoiler alert: You’re going to see all of those names below, as well.
Note: Rookies are players who, prior to the season in question, had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on Sept. 1.
Most Valuable Player
1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
Trout has finished in the top two of the voting for this award in all three of his qualifying season. This year, he was the fifth-youngest player ever to win it. The other three hitters on that list -- Stan Musial (NL, 1943), Johnny Bench (NL, 1970) and Cal Ripken (AL, 1983) -- all did so in their age-22 season and all went on to win the MVP again later in their careers. None of those three won again in their age-23 season, but Bench won again at 24 and Musial, who lost his age-24 season to World War II, won again for his age-25 campaign. Trout’s strikeout rate in 2014 gives me a small measure of pause here, but then I remember that he was SI.com’s unanimous pick to win the AL MVP in March and the BBWAA’s unanimous pick as the AL MVP in September and I realize how silly it is to doubt him.
Remember him? The 2012 and '13 AL MVP finished a distant ninth in this year’s voting after hitting for less power than in any other season since his 87-game debut as a 20-year-old in 2003. Look a little closer, however, and you see Cabrera set career highs with a major league-leading 11 sacrifice flies and an American League leading 52 doubles and finished the season hitting .377/.410/.711 with nine home runs in 122 plate appearances between September and the postseason. It says here those extra doubles and sac flies turn back into home runs in 2015 and Cabrera, who had seven top-five finishes in his league’s MVP voting over a nine-year span from 2005-13, gets back in the mix in his age-32 season.
3. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Abreu’s rookie of the year campaign was comprised of two very different but still tremendously impressive halves. In the first half, he hit 29 home runs in 82 games, a 57-homer pace over a full 162-game schedule, while batting .292 and posting a .342 on-base percentage. In the second half, he hit seven home runs in 63 games, but he also batted .350 with a .435 OBP and had a notable improvement in his strikeout-to-walk ratio (from 3.73 to 1.69). What if, having now acclimated to major league pitching, he is able to combine his first-half power with his second-half plate discipline? After all, this is a player who once hit .453/.597/.986 over a 293-plate-appearance season in Cuba and will be just 28 on Opening Day.
Inspired by a tweet by O.G. baseball blogger Aaron Gleeman, here are the top 10 OPS+ marks among righthanded hitters with 2,000 or more plate appearances through their age-24 season:
The only man on that list who has yet to win an MVP is Stanton. The other nine have combined for 18 MVP awards with all Aaron, Allen and Trout winning multiple times (and there are strong arguments that Trout and Allen both deserved at least one more). Earlier this week I made the case that Stanton deserved the award this year, and eight of the 30 NL voters agreed with me, as he finished a close second in the voting. With Stanton having just turned 25 last weekend, expect him to be a fixture on these lists for years to come.
2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates
McCutchen has now finished in the top-three in the NL MVP voting three years in a row, hitting .320/.405/.534 (162 OPS+) during that time. As a slick-fielding centerfielder who will swipe 20 bases a season in addition to all that hitting, he is in the discussion about the best all-around player in the game and he is still just 28.
Goldschmidt finished second to McCutchen in the 2013 NL MVP voting and was putting up very similar numbers this year before a pitch from Pittsburgh's Ernesto Frieri broke his left hand on Aug. 1, ending his season. Goldschmidt hit .302/.399/.548 (159 OPS+) over the last two years is also a fine defender who has averaged 14 steals a year the past three seasons, and he is entering his age-27 campaign.
1. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox
Sale has finished in the top six in the Cy Young voting in all three of his seasons as a starting pitcher and has been slowly advancing on the top spot, improving from sixth in 2012 to fifth in '11 to third this year One could argue that if not for the month he lost to a flexor strain in his pitching elbow early this season, he might have won the award, given that he posted career-bests in ERA (2.17), ERA+ (178), fielding independent pitching (2.57) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.33) while leading the AL in ERA+ and strikeouts per nine innings (10.8). It’s frightening to think that he might continue to improve in his age-26 season next year, but even if he can stay healthy and merely repeats his dominance from 2014, the award is his.
Hernandez arguably deserved the award this year, won it in 2010 and has finished in the top eight in the voting in five of the last six years with three top-two finishes. Since 2009, he has averaged 226 strikeouts in 232 innings with a 141 ERA+ and his strikeout-to-walk ratio has been on a steady upward trajectory since '08 by virtue of both a rising strikeout rate and falling walk rate. That is to say that King Felix continues to get better, and he won’t turn 29 until April.
3. David Price, LHP, Tigers
Price had a fascinating season in 2014. He led the majors in innings pitched (248 1/3) and strikeouts (271) with outstanding peripherals (7.13 K/BB), but he struggled to get his ERA to match the quality of his pitching. An early-season spike in his home run rate, bad luck on balls in play and poor defensive support after being traded to the Tigers all played a role. If you look at his fielding independent pitching, however, his mark improved in each of his seasons since his 2012 Cy Young campaign, from 3.05 that year to 3.03 in '13 to 2.78 in '14. With Price entering his walk year at the age of 29, I’m guessing he works out the kinks and gets his results to match his performance in 2015.
1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
Last year in this space I wrote that the last three pitchers to finish in the top two in the Cy Young award voting three years in a row while winning the award twice all won the award again in year four. Kershaw followed the pattern with his Cy Young win this year. None of those first three pitchers -- Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson -- won the award again in year five, however. In fact, none of them ever won another Cy Young award at all. However, the youngest of that trio was Pedro Martinez who turned 29 just before his last Cy Young award win was announced in 2000. Kershaw won’t be 27 until March. Odds are this award goes to someone else next year, but there’s no way I’m picking someone other than Kershaw here.
Zimmermann finished seventh in the Cy Young voting in 2013 and fifth this year. In 2014 he posted career-bests in ERA (2.66), ERA+ (144), FIP (2.68), strikeouts (182), K/9 (8.2), BB/9 (1.3, best in the NL) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.28). He'll turn 29 next May, and -- unless the Nationals wise up and sign him to an extension this winter -- he'll be pitching in his walk year. Zimmermann, not Stephen Strasburg, is the true ace of Washington's rotation. He has carried the underrated label for at least three seasons now. In 2015, he’ll shed it.
The 2014 runner up for this award, Cueto pitched well enough to win it in almost any other year. He racked up career-bests in wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, innings, K/9 and K/BB. His 155 ERA+ over the last four seasons is second only to Kershaw’s absurd 172 among pitchers with 600 or more innings over that span. The only thing preventing Cueto from being a perennial Cy Young candidate (he also finished fourth in 2012) has been a spotty injury history, often due to issues with his pitching shoulder, but the NL-leading 243 2/3 innings he threw this year helped convince me that those troubles are behind him. He's entering his age-29 season and his walk year in 2015.
Rookie of the Year
1. Rusney Castillo, CF, Red Sox
Despite not playing competitively at any level in 2013, Castillo signed a $72.5 million, seven-year contract -- the largest ever given to a Cuban defector -- with the Red Sox in late August. He made his major league debut on Sept. 17 and went 12-for-36 (.333) with a double, two home runs and three stolen bases in as many attempts in 10 games. He then went 10-for-38 (.278) with three doubles in eight games in the Arizona Fall League before suffering a thumb injury, and he is now playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. His contract and small-sample success guarantees him Boston's centerfield job in 2015 and the power and speed contained in his 5-foot-8 frame make him the favorite in what looks to be a weak AL rookie class.
2. Brandon Finnegan, LHP, Royals
The 17th overall pick in this year’s draft, Finnegan was thrown right into the fire with a September call-up and a spot on Kansas City's postseason roster. He proved his mettle by coming up big in some high-pressure situations in October before a lousy final outing in the World Series left him with a 10.50 ERA in six postseason innings. That experience sets him up for a chance at the Royals’ rotation in the spring coming off a season in which he threw 145 2/3 innings between college, the minors and the majors.
3. Alex Meyer, RHP, Twins
Meyer was rated the sixth-best pitching prospect in baseball and the sixth best American League prospect at any position on Baseball Prospectus’ mid-season top 50 list this year. The 6-foot-9 former first-round pick struck out 10.6 men per nine innings at Triple A in 2014, albeit with an inflated walk rate and middling results (7-7, 3.52 ERA). Still, a promotion into Target Field would seem to favor him and give him a leg up on the Blue Jays' Alex Sanchez and Daniel Norris, two other contenders for this award who may have to battle for a lone rotation spot in the spring.
The second overall pick in the 2013 draft has put up some absurd numbers in the process of rocketing up the Cubs’ minor league ladder, hitting .327/.428/.666 in 740 plate appearances with 52 home runs and 142 RBIs. This year, he hit .325/.438/.661 in 594 PA split between Double and Triple A with 43 homers, 110 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. Included in that was a .295/.418/.619 line with 21 home runs in 297 PA in Triple A. Did I mention Bryant was promoted to that level barely more than 12 months after being drafted out of the University of San Diego? Bryant’s major league debut is one of the things most worth looking forward to in the 2015 season.
2. Yasmany Tomas, OF/3B, TBD
Cuban defector Tomas, 24, is rumored to be closing in on a major league contract, with some suggesting he could sign as early as this weekend. We don’t know which league he’s eventually going to land in, but he’s likely to be a factor in the Rookie of the Year race in either one, and given that the Phillies, Padres and Giants have reportedly observed his workouts in the Dominican Republic more than any other teams, while the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are also rumored to be interested, I’m going to list him here.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before about a highly sought-after Cuban hitter: Tomas has big-time power but there are doubts about ability to hit major league pitching. He is certainly not the polished hitter that Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes were when they arrived in the major leagues, but he’s also younger than either of those two were when they came to the U.S. I pegged Tomas as a likely major leaguer after he hit .376/.412/.813 as a 22-year-old in the 2013 World Baseball Classic and his offensive upside is clearly that of an impact bat. He may not put up Abreu-type numbers, but between Tomas and Castillo the odds seem good that we will have a recent Cuban defector among the finalists for the Rookie of the Year award for a fourth straight season (following Cespedes in 2012, Yasiel Puig in 2013 and Abreu this year).
3. Jorge Soler, RF, Cubs
Did somebody say something about 6-foot-4 Cuban outfielders? Jorge Soler signed with the Cubs in June 2012, worked his way up through the minors by hitting .307/.383/.551 in 621 plate appearances over parts of three seasons and made his major league debut in August, hitting .292/.330/.573 with five home runs in 97 plate appearances. That performance for Chicago was heavily front-loaded (he went 10-for-19 with three home runs in his first five games), but he’s already installed as the Cubs’ rightfielder. Expect him to make the necessary adjustments in what will be his first full major league season at age 23.