Awards Watch: Pre-season Favorites for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year

Awards Watch: Pre-season Favorites for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year
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I promised that, after wrestling with my conflicted thoughts about the 2020 season, I would try to focus on the game and make the best of it. So, with Opening Day upon us, let’s get really frivolous and fun and try to predict the winners of this year’s short-season Baseball Writers’ Association of American Awards.

For those who are unfamiliar, from 2010-16, I wrote the Awards Watch column for SI.com, revived briefly at The Athletic in 2018, tracking the awards races throughout the season. In doing so, I proved able to predict the winners at the end of the season with remarkable accuracy. That’s completely irrelevant to the dart-throwing exercise below, of course, as is the fact that I am a BBWAA member, but have never voted for an award (a side-effect of being in the very crowded New York chapter, it seems).

As you’re surely aware by now, the shortened season will yield tighter playoff races and an increased chance of a team reaching the postseason that might not have after 162 games. Because individual player awards reduce the sample even further (not only from 162 games to 60, but from a minimum of 26 players to one), the chance for fluke results in the awards is even greater.

That said, in a normal season, the 60th game usually falls in early June. Checking my past Awards Watch columns from around that point in the season reveals the usual suspects already in place atop the races. One month flukes maybe common, but two months of elite play represents more than a fluke, though it’s certainly true that a hot month could tip the race from one contender to another.

Thus, my pre-season favorites for the three major awards in each league—Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year—are largely populated by the usual suspects. Still, if there ever was a season to take the field against the favorites, this is the year.

Most Valuable Player

National League

1. Cody Bellinger, CF, Dodgers

1a. Mookie Betts, RF, Dodgers

The two best players in the National League reside in the Dodgers’ outfield. Both do it all: hit for average and power, get on base, run, field, and throw. It’s just a shame that only one of them can play centerfield. Bellinger is, of course, the defending NL MVP. Betts, the older of the two at 27, won the AL award in 2018 and finished a close second to Mike Trout in 2016. Last year was the first in which Bellinger was an All-Star and won both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. It was Betts’ third such season in the last four years. With Betts now under contract through his age-39 season, and Bellinger still four years away from free agency (well, three and a few months), these two could one day rank among the greatest teammate duos in the game’s history.

3. Christian Yelich, RF, Brewers

Yelich won the NL MVP in 2018 and was neck-and-neck with Bellinger last year before fracturing his kneecap. He has led the NL in batting average, slugging, OPS, and OPS+ in each of the last two seasons with an aggregate .327/.415/.631, 1.046 (171 OPS+) line, and he has stolen 52 bases in 58 attempts over that span. The only reason he’s third on this list is that he’s not nearly as valuable in the field as Bellinger and Betts, who have similar capabilities with the bat and on the bases.

4. Ronald Acuña Jr., RF, Braves

Like Bellinger and Betts, there’s nothing on the baseball diamond that Acuña doesn’t do well. He has the potential to do them all as well as the Dodgers’ duo, but he’s still just a 22-year-old with two major-league seasons under his belt, so the best is yet to come, which is a hell of a thing to say about a guy who missed a 40/40 season by three stolen bases last year.

5. Juan Soto, LF, Nationals

Soto is 10 months younger than Acuña, and already both a better hitter (.287/.403/.535, 140 OPS+, career after two major-league seasons) and the best player on the defending World Champions. He’s not the kind of elite all-around athlete that Acuña is, but Soto did steal 12 bases in 13 attempts last year and markedly improved his work in left field. In all likelihood, both of the NL East’s young studs have MVP awards in their future, and my guess is that at least one of them will win the award multiple times.

Also: Nolan Arenado, 3B, and Trevor Story, SS, Rockies

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels

In eight full major-league seasons, Mike Trout has won three MVPs and finished second four times (almost all of them seasons he deserved to win the award). The one year he got hurt, he finished fourth. He’s the same age as Yelich (28) and has compiled more wins above replacement in his career than many inner-circle Hall of Famers and each of this year’s three inductees. This is one place not to bet the field.

2. Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees

Judge finished second in the MVP voting as a rookie in 2018 but hasn’t had a fully healthy season since. This season would have continued that trend, but the delayed start gave him time to heal. Now, he’s ready to go and only has to survive 60 games to give Trout a run for it. Judge isn’t Trout’s equal, even in a smaller sample, no one is, but it’s worth remembering that, despite his giant frame, Judge is a tremendous athlete whose value extends to the field and the bases.

3. Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros

Bregman finished a close second to Trout in last year’s AL MVP voting and is just 26, but we have yet to see how the aftermath of the Astros sign-stealing scandal will impact their hitters. Was Bregman still getting some signs last year? Will he suffer for the lack of them this year? Will opposing pitchers make it so that the Astros big targets—of which Bregman, despite his short stature, is very much one—are unable to feel comfortable at the plate for fear of retribution? I believe in Bregman’s talent enough to keep him in this top five, but I think he’ll struggle to replicate his outstanding 2019 season, even if we’re never sure exactly why.

4. Matt Chapman, 3B, A’s

Chapman is the weakest hitter I’ve listed thus far, but only Betts and Bellinger can approach his value in the field. Chapman is also a career .500 slugger with a rising walk rate who, if he flukes into something closer to a .300 average over this abbreviated season, could sneak off with this award.

5. Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland

Don’t sleep on Lindor and the man to his right in the Cleveland infield, José Ramírez. They both came down from their 2018 heights last year, but Ramírez finished third in the MVP voting in both 2017 and ’18, and Lindor is a perennial MVP contender on an early Hall of Fame track. Both excel in every facet of the game. I’ve listed Lindor ahead of Ramírez here only because he’s a year younger and has been more consistent thus far in his career.

Also: José Ramírez, 3B, Cleveland; Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH, Angels; Joey Gallo, RF, Rangers

Cy Young

National League

1. Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets

The winner of the last two NL Cy Young awards, deGrom tentatively holds the title of Best Pitcher in Baseball. As with Trout, it would be malpractice not to list him first here.

2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals

Like Judge, Strasburg is an impossibly talented player with durability problems. From 2015-18, he qualified for the ERA title just once and failed to make 30 starts in four straight seasons. He snapped that unfortunate streak last year with 33 starts, 209 innings, career-highs in wins (18) and strikeouts (251), a championship, and the World Series MVP award. He then opted out and re-signed with Washington through 2026. With that, he has a zoo full of monkeys off his back. So what can he do now in a 60-game season? I’m excited to find out.

3. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals

By all rights, Scherzer should be no lower than second on this list. He has finished in the top five of his league’s Cy Young voting in each of the last seven years, winning thrice, and in the top three each of the last four, winning twice. He is also now 35 and was limited by a sore shoulder down the stretch last year. It could well be that this shortened season has come at exactly the right time for Scherzer, giving him a much-needed late-career breather, but I’m not as confident about the condition as his arm as I was a year ago.

4. Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals

5. Walker Buehler, RHP, Dodgers

Flaherty and Buehler are the vanguard of the next generation of great NL pitchers, but with the 25-year-old Buehler behind coming into the season, I think the 24-year-old Flaherty has the edge right now.

Also: Luis Castillo, RHP, Reds; Sonny Gray, RHP, Reds; Yu Darvish, RHP, Cubs

[Follow Sports Illustrated’s Inside the Dodgers on Twitter.]

American League

1. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees

Cole was the best pitcher who didn’t win a Cy Young award last year. He led the league in ERA, ERA+, and fielding independent pitching and struck out 326 men at a rate of 13.8 per nine innings, then went 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA in five postseason starts, all of them lasting at least seven innings. He finished 10th in the MVP voting, just ahead of teammate Justin Verlander, but lost a close race for the Cy Young to Verlander. By all rights, Cole should win the award this year, but anything can happen in a short season.

2. Justin Verlander, RHP, Astros

Verlander arguably deserved three of the last four AL Cy Young awards, but he only won one of them, finishing a close second in 2016 and ’18 (he was a “mere” fifth in 2017). That kind of consistency and dominance would normally place a player at the top of my pre-season rankings, but Cole’s ascendancy and Verlander’s age (he turned 37 in February) push this future Hall of Famer into that overly familiar runner-up position.

3. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Blue Jays

Ryu looked like he might win the NL award last year, but he got hurt and finished second. Ryu hasn’t had a fully healthy season since coming to the majors in 2013. Still, over the last two years he has posted a 2.21 ERA (184 ERA+) and 6.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 44 starts. He only needs 12 consecutive healthy starts this year to be in the mix for this award.

4. Mike Clevinger, RHP, Indians

Clevinger posted a 147 ERA+ in his first full season in 2017 and improved in each of the two years since. You might not have noticed, because he was only healthy enough to make 21 starts last year, and has surpassed that figure just once in the last three years, but, when healthy, he is one of the best pitchers in the American League.

5. Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Rays

Speaking of only needing 12 healthy starts, here’s what Glasnow did in his only 12 healthy starts last year: 1.78 ERA (250 ERA+), 2.26 FIP, 0.89 WHIP, 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, 5.43 strikeouts per walk. He’s unlikely to repeat that, but there’s room between that and the kind of performance that could put him in the awards mix this year.

Also: Lucas Giolito, RHP, White Sox; Charlie Morton, RHP, Rays; Corey Kluber, RHP, Rangers

Rookie of the Year

National League

1. Gavin Lux, 2B, Dodgers

Lux has already been optioned to the Alternative Training Site (pandemic speak for “minors”), but he isn’t expected to remain there for long. A late arrival to camp and service time concerns appear to have collaborated to delay the proper start to the 22-year-old’s major-league career. Provided the Dodgers call him up close to the start of August, he’ll remain the favorite for this award.

2. Edwin Ríos, DH/1B, Dodgers

Ríos is a hitting machine, as he proved in his brief major-league exposure last year. Don’t be surprised if, this year, the 26-year-old lefty grabs a substantial share of the Dodgers’ designated hitter at-bats and makes the kind of mature-slugger run for the Rookie of the Year that the combination of the NL DH and the short season seem likely to favor.

3. Nico Hoerner, 2B, Cubs

Hoerner appears set to open the season as the short side of a keystone platoon with Jason Kipnis. Given Kipnis’s dismal performances over the last three seasons (86 OPS+ combined), the Cleveland castoff doesn’t seem like that large of an obstacle to greater playing time for this 23-year-old, particularly given that the Cubs have fast-tracked Hoerner since drafting him 24th overall in 2018.

4. Carter Kieboom, 3B, Nationals

Kieboom is similarly slotted into a job share to start the season, splitting third-base duties with Asdrubal Cabrera. However, both Kieboom and Cabrera are righties, and Cabrera could also get work at second base, particularly now that the DH has created a home for Howie Kendrick. My guess is that, if Kieboom gets off to a good start, he’ll claim the bulk of the job at the hot corner, and if he does that, the 22-year-old former first-rounder will be right in the mix for this award.

5. Shogo Akiyama, OF, Reds

Reds manager David Bell has said that Nippon Professional Baseball veteran Akiyama will lead off when he plays, which means the 31-year-old should have a prominent role in the Reds’ offense ahead of the likes of Joey Votto, Eugenio Suárez, Mike Moustakas, and Nicholas Castellanos. Given that Akiyama is a lefty who can play center, and that the Reds guaranteed him $21 million over the next three years in January, he’s likely to play fairly often. He likely won’t replicate his .304/.379/.457 career line in Japan, but there’s a good chance that, with MLB’s rabbit ball, he’ll hit for more power in Cincinnati than he did back home.

Also: Kwang-hyun Kim, LHP, Cardinals

American League

1. Luis Robert, CF, White Sox

The White Sox signed Robert to a six-year, $50 million deal in January so that they wouldn’t have to mess around with service time concerns this year. Instead, the 22-year-old Cuban defector will start in center for Chicago on Opening Day on Friday and has the clearest path to November hardware of anyone this side of Mike Trout. Robert hit .297/.341/.634 in his first Triple-A exposure last year, part of a season that included 32 home runs and 36 stolen bases, and he’s a career .312/.381/.551 hitter in the minors. He doesn’t walk much, but he does everything else well, and his arrival is one of the things about this bastardized season which has me most unreservedly excited.

2. Sean Murphy, C, A’s

Murphy took over as the A’s primary catcher last September and showed some nice pop. This year, the 25-year-old will have the job from the jump, which is often enough on its own to make a rookie top-five material going into the season. Murphy is in that position for a reason, however. He’s a good defensive catcher with enough bat to forecast some All-Star appearances in his future given the dismal state of catching around the league. The biggest question is health. The delayed start to the season gave him extra time to recover from the minor knee surgery he had in October, which is good, but not the sort of thing you want to have to think about with your intended Catcher of the Future.

3. Jesus Luzardo, LHP, A’s

A positive COVID-19 test put Luzardo just behind enough in camp that he won’t be fully stretched out to start the season. Yet, unlike fellow lefty A’s rotation prospect A.J. Puk, Luzardo will be on the A’s roster and could move into the rotation in short order. The 22-year-old Peruvian’s talent is unquestioned. Ranked the ninth-best prospect in baseball coming into the season by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, Luzardo can hit triple digits from the left side with two excellent offspeed pitches (curve and change) and an upper-90s two-seamer, and he knows what to do with all of them. The question is if he can avoid injury and throw enough innings to make a run at Robert.

4. Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, OF, Rays

Given that Tsutsugo is a new arrival from NPB and the Rays are an organization that seems to hate using the same lineup two days in a row, I have no idea how often Tsutsugo is going to play, but I’m a big fan of his from past World Baseball Classics. He’s a three-true-outcome lefty who can also hit for average with big-time power that should play up in the homer-happy majors. He can spot at the infield corners, and he’s just 28, relatively young for a Japanese import. The trick is that the Rays also have Austin Meadows, Hunter Renfroe, Ji-Man Choi, Nate Lowe, José Martinez, Yandy Díaz, and Joey Wendle to compete for playing time in the corners and at DH, and Meadows, Choi, Lowe, and Wendle are also left-handed hitters.

5. Evan White, 1B, Mariners

The 17th overall pick in the 2017 draft, White topped out at Double-A last year, hitting a solid, but not breathtaking .293/.350/.488 with 18 homers in 92 games. Still, the Mariners signed him to a six-year, $24 million deal (with three club options!) in November, in part so they could install him at first base this year without service-time concerns. Fair enough, the job alone gets him on the list, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pushed out of the top five should the season actually reach its scheduled end.

Also: Nick Solak, UT, Rangers; Patrick Sandoval, LHP, Angels; Austin Hays, CF, Orioles; Shun Yamaguchi, RHP, Blue Jays

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.