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Handicapping the stretch drive


With just four weeks left in the regular season, Awards Watch is moving into the lightning round. Instead of looking at one award per week on a rotating basis, I will now examine all three awards every Monday. In order to do that, I'm trimming my leader lists from the top five to the top three. With the possible exception of the American League Cy Young, where there has been considerable turnover in just the last two weeks, there seems to be little chance of an award winner emerging from beyond the current top three in each category. Our focus now becomes the week-to-week surges and slumps that could give one of the three players an edge over the others. Hold on tight, here we go ...

NOTE:All stats are through Sunday, August 28. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. Rookies are players who, before the current season, have had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings-pitched in the majors or have spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster before rosters expand on September 1.

1) Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers (2)

Season stats: .359/.411/.639, 31 HR, 95 RBI, 8 SB, 78.9 VORP

Miguel Cabrera has the better numbers, but Hamilton is the total package for MVP voters: an all-around player with a compelling back story who can play all three outfield positions, is a strong defender in left, has stolen eight bases in nine tries, and is the best hitter on a runaway first place team in a division that didn't seem to have a clear favorite in March. Hamilton has also hit .409/.459/.728 over the last three months, which is just crazy.

2) Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (1)

Season stats: .342/.437/.647, 33 HR, 107 RBI, 75.6 VORP

In my last full-sized MVP column, I explained that the Tigers' fall from the AL Central race should not have a negative impact on Cabrera's candidacy, but there is a sense that it has anyway. Of course, the real problem for Cabrera is his one-dimensional play relative to Hamilton's five tools. Despite Hamilton's three crazy months, Cabrera has still been the more valuable hitter over the course of the season, but the numbers are close enough that Hamilton's glove, legs, and contending team give him the edge.

3) Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (3)

Season stats: .322/.385/.556, 25 HR, 87 RBI, 60.3 VORP

With apologies to Jose Bautista, the major league home-run leader, Cano has been the third-most valuable American Leaguer this year, though there is a huge gap between him and the two men above him on this list. Cano gets the edge over Bautista because of the position he plays and how well he plays it. He has also been the best hitter on a Yankees team full of underperforming stars that still boasts the best record in baseball.

1) Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (1)

Season stats: .325/.421/.601, 32 HR, 93 RBI, 12 SB, 62.0 VORP

1A) Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (2)

Season stats: .320/.413/.606, 35 HR, 95 RBI, 12 SB, 67.3 VORP

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This was a great race before both players were serious candidates to win the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Pujols and Votto rank first and second in both home runs and RBIs and third and second in batting average behind Carlos Gonzalez's very-much-in-reach .326. They also boast the top two on-base and slugging percentages in the league, giving each player a serious shot at the slash-stat triple crown as well.

I'm still convinced that this race is so tight that, unless one of these two players does win the traditional Triple Crown, the NL Central standings will decide the award. With the Reds opening up the biggest lead that division race has seen since early May, that makes Votto No. 1 on this list. I also think Pujols is close to Michael Jordan territory, in which the voters will take any excuse to pick an alternate candidate given Pujols' domination of the league (he has won the last two NL MVPs, and three of the last five, and should have won a fourth in that span). Still, I can't list Pujols at No. 2. He's 1A.

3) Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies (5)

Season stats: . 326/.360/.595, 29 RBI, 90 RBI, 20 SB, 52.3 VORP

Don't look now, but the NL batting leader isn't that far behind Votto and Pujols in anything other than on-base percentage. The 24-year-old has been on fire since the beginning of July, hitting .367/.409/.755 with 17 home runs over that span (including a 5-for-7, three homer performance this past weekend). He has an additional dose of speed (Votto and Pujols are opportunistic base stealers, but Gonzalez is fast) and defensive versatility (he's started 51 games in center, 60 in the corners). I don't think Gonzalez has any real chance of overtaking the top two here, but it's worth noting that, while his Rockies are out of the NL West race, they're just 4-1/2 games behind the Wild Card leader and just 1-1/2 games behind Pujols' Cardinals.

1) CC Sabathia, RHP, Yankees (4)

Season stats:18-5, 3.14 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.58 K/BB, 2 CG

The voters who were impressed when looking past the win column handed last year's AL Cy Young to a deserving Zack Greinke, but no one has dominated the league this year the way he did. That opens the door for Sabathia, who hasn't been the league's best pitcher this season, but is on the way to becoming its first 20-game winner since 2008. He has opened up a three-win lead on the rest of his competition and is getting a lot of run support from the Yankees' offense (6.23 runs per game). Before his last turn, Sabathia had peeled off 16 straight quality starts, and over his last 17 he is 14-2 with a 2.55 ERA.

2) Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners

Season stats: 10-10, 2.47 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.43 K/BB, 5 CG

Cliff Lee missed most of April with an abdominal strain and has gone 1-4 with a 6.20 ERA in August. That leaves Hernandez as the AL's most consistently dominant pitcher of 2010. Unfortunately, he plays for the team with the worst offense in baseball and has received just 3.15 runs per game of support (barely more than half of what the Yankees have scored for Sabathia). Hernandez doesn't lead the league in any major category, is struggling to keep his record near .500, and does have 14 unearned runs on his ledger, but he's also leading the majors in quality starts (25 in 28 turns) and quality start percentage (89 percent), and he ranks second in the league in strikeouts and complete games, and third in ERA.

Since his last non-quality start on June 8, Hernandez has posted a 1.52 ERA and 4.70 K/BB in 15 starts, including four complete games. Yet, he has won just seven games over that stretch while losing five. According to Baseball Prospectus's support-neutral wins, he would have 17 or 18 wins right now had he had received merely league-average run support. (Sabathia would have 16.) If that had been the case, King Feliz would be the hands-down favorite to win this award.

3) Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox (5)

Season stats: 15-5, 2.21 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 1.84 K/BB, 1 CG

David Price has topped this list for most of the season, but has posted a 4.38 ERA since the All-Star break. His slump has pushed his season mark above 3.00 for the first time since April, and, due to poor run support, he picked up just one win in August. That leaves Buchholz with the best combination of wins and ERA in the league. He hasn't been particularly impressive in the strike zone, has been aided by an abnormally low .258 opponents' average on balls in play, and missed almost a month with a hamstring injury. Yet he is 5-0 with a 1.07 ERA in his last seven starts, which accounts for all but one of his turns since he came off the disabled list. He has allowed just one earned run in 28-1/3 innings over his last four starts, so don't count him out. This race is still pretty wide open.

1) Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (2)

Season stats: 16-9, 2.22 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 7.44 K/BB, 8 CG, 3 SHO

Continuing our theme of run support, lack of it has kept Halladay from being the clear favorite for this award. From May 12 through June 18, he posted a 2.94 ERA and completed four games, but his record over those 13 starts was just 4-7 as the slumping and injury-depleted Phillies offense scored just 2.85 runs per game for him. In his seven starts since, the Phillies have averaged 4.57 for their ace and he has gone 6-1. That's still not much support relative to the capabilities of the Phillies' lineup, but it's plenty for a pitcher who has posted a 1.70 ERA over that span.

2) Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (1)

Season stats:17-9, 2.30 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.56 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO

Though he hasn't been hit all that hard, Wainwright has lost his last three starts, and his five-inning, four-run outing against the Nationals on Sunday inflated his ERA dipped above Halladay's. Coming down the stretch, this is shaping up as a great two-man race, with both pitchers trying to hurl their teams into the postseason, potentially at their rival's expense.

3) Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (4)

Season stats:17-5, 2.71 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.32 K/BB, 3 CG, 2 SHO

Things got ugly in June and July, but Jimenez has recovered nicely. His last six starts have all been quality as he had a 2.57 ERA and lasted at least seven innings in five of them. Unfortunately, the Rockies' offense (other than Gonzalez) has gone missing, leaving Jimenez winless in his last four starts. His incredible first 14 starts (13-1, 1.15 ERA) were strong enough that, with a month left in the season, there's still time for him to rally and claim this award, but he'll need both Halladay and Wainwright to slip a bit for that to happen.

1) Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers (1)

Season stats: 3.38 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.63 K/BB, 32 SV

Feliz has four weeks to pick up the six saves that would give him the all-time rookie record. He has a solid shot -- Feliz has averaged more than six per month -- but saves are an opportunity-dependent stat. He's only had four opportunities (one of which he blew) in August. If he doesn't set the record, some voters might notice that an above-average centerfielder is more valuable than a closer who throws fewer than 70 innings a season, no matter how talented that closer might be.

2) Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (2)

Season stats: .307/.360/.410, 2 HR, 29 RBI, 21 SB, 29.3 VORP

The early favorite after his red-hot start (.371/.420/.508 through May 9), Jackson fell hard, but since June 26 he's hit .314/.372/.415 with five of his league-leading eight triples. Compare that production to the average major league center fielder's (.260/.325/.404) and combine it with Jackson's high-percentage base stealing (81 percen) and solid defense. It's clear that he poses a serious threat to Feliz.

3) John Jaso, C, Rays (5)

Season stats: .278/.387/.395, 4 HR, 42 RBI, 18.8 VORP

Rightfielder Brennan Boesch of the Tigers has hit a woeful .153/.220/.227 since the All-Star break, making the Rays' on-base machine backstop the third-most valuable rookie in the junior circuit. Despite his ranking by default here, Jaso is not really a contender for the award.

1) Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals (1)

Season stats: 12-6, 2.33 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.03 K/BB

Garcia's biggest threat in this race is his own endurance. He's thrown 146-2/3 innings thus far, a workload he has surpassed just once as a pro -- back in 2006, when he threw 155 between low and high A-ball as a 19-year-old. Last year, he worked just 37-2/3 minor league innings while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals will skip the 23-year-old lefty's next start, but given their position in their division and the Wild Card race, one wonders how often they'll really be willing to hand Garcia's starts to the likes of Jeff Suppan and Kyle Lohse, particularly with so little of the season remaining. Fortunately for the Cards, Garcia has yet to show signs of fatigue. He hasn't allowed an earned run in his last three starts, covering 20 1/3 innings, and the second was one of the best pitching performances in a year full of them.

2) Buster Posey, C, Giants (3)

Season stats: .329/.372/.505, 10 HR, 49 RBI, 26.0 VORP

His Rookie of the Year candidacy is really built on just one red-hot month. Posey hit .417/.466/.699 with seven of his 10 home runs in July and that, particularly in combination with his position on the field, has been enough to thrust him toward the front of a very deep rookie class. Barring a collapse by Garcia, Posey will need an equally torrid September to have a real shot at the award.

3) Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (4)

Season stats: .272/.385/.464, 15 HR, 58 RBI, 9 SB, 24.5 VORP

The Marlins' Gaby Sanchez, the rookie RBI leader with 70, is neck-and-neck with the achy, streaky Heyward in this race, but Heyward is a more well-rounded player whose contributions on defense make the difference here. He is also a more explosive hitter (.484/.590/.871 in his last eight games with a third of his hits for extra bases) and thus is more capable of making a big September push for the award.