With the Baseball Writers Association of America awards as well as the first season of my Awards Watch column in the books, it's time to take a (very) early look at who might be the favorites for these awards in 2011. In stark contrast to the accuracy of my final Awards Watch of the regular season -- I correctly identified 17 of the 18 top-three finishers in the six player awards, missing only the third-place finisher for American League Rookie of the Year -- what follows makes no presumption of being a perfect projection of next year's voting. In fact, it is about as close to picking names out of a hat as you can get, but if you're looking for the odds-on favorites going into the 2011 season, these should be the top three candidates for the three major awards in each league.
1. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: The AL Rookie of the Year in 2008, Longoria has received MVP votes in each of his three major league seasons, peaking with a sixth-place finish in 2010. Not only is he clearly the best hitter on a perennial contender, but he's an outstanding fielder at the hot corner and can steal bases as well (15 of 20 this year, 31 of 36 in his three years in the majors). He has improved in each of his last two seasons and his skills should continue to mature entering his age-25 season.
2. Joe Mauer, C, Twins: The 2009 winner probably should have won in 2006 as well (he finished sixth in the voting), and has two other top-10 finishes in the last three years. Target Field will hurt his power numbers, but he plays a key defensive position on a perennial contender, has won three of the last five AL batting titles, and is in the midst of his peak heading into his age-28 season.
3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers: Cabrera has received MVP votes in all eight of his major league seasons, peaking at second this year after getting sober last offseason. He was fourth in 2009 and had a pair of fifth-place finishes in the National League in 2005 and 2006. No other player finished in the AL's top four in each of the last two seasons. Cabrera has to out-hit his poor defense and lack of speed and was hurt by his team's performance in 2010, but with the Tigers spending big money on players such as Victor Martinez this winter, he could get the boost he needs from a much improved Tigers team in 2011.
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals: Pujols is the best player in baseball. He won this award in 2008 and 2009 and finished second to Joey Votto in 2010 not because Votto out-produced him, but because Votto's Reds upset Pujols' Cardinals in the NL Central. Pujols has never finished lower than ninth on the MVP ballot in his 10 major league seasons and his second-worst finish was fourth, which came when he was busy winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2001. Listing anyone else first on a list like this would be absurd.
2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds: The biggest difference between Votto's 2009 and MVP-winning 2010 seasons was that, in the latter, he played an extra 19 games and his team won the division. The Reds aren't going away, and Votto is entering his peak age-27 season, so he should be right in the thick of the race for MVP again next year.
3. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies: Tulowitzki has finished fifth in the voting each of the last two seasons. This year a broken left wrist cost him more than a month of the season. He's a monster bat who adds speed on the bases and is an outstanding fielder at shortstop. If he can stay healthy in what will be his age-26 season, he could provide a tempting alternative to Pujols.
1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners: Hernandez finished second in 2009 and won the award in 2010, he'll be 25 in April and he plays in a pitchers park and in an era in which the voters have shown they are willing to look past team-dependent wins and losses in evaluating the candidates for this award. He's very close to becoming the Albert Pujols of the AL Cy Young.
2. Cliff Lee, LHP, TBD: Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young winner, has pitched for four teams in the past two seasons and could be headed for a fifth next year as he is the top free-agent pitcher available. In the first year of a big new free agent contract in 2011, he'll pitch the entire season for a contender, likely one of the two 2010 ALCS contestants, the Rangers or Yankees, and will be a major contender for this award as something like the junior circuit's answer to the 2010 version of Roy Halladay.
3. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees: Sabathia won this award in 2007 and has finished in the top-five in each year since. His fifth-place finish in 2008 was for the NL award after he was traded mid-season then went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and seven complete games to help the Brewers into the postseason for the first time since 1982. Since then he has won 40 games in two seasons for the Yankees, finishing fourth and third in the voting, achieving the latter despite a torn meniscus in his right knee that was repaired earlier this month. Back on two good legs in 2011, he will very likely battle his former and possibly future teammate Lee for the chance to overthrow King Felix.
1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies: Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball. Period. He didn't received the expected run support from the Phillies in 2010 and still won this award, his second Cy Young, unanimously. That after finishing in the top five in the AL in each of the previous four seasons. Don't expect another perfect game in 2011, but Halladay is the prohibitive favorite in this race just as Pujols is for MVP.
2. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants: Lincecum won this award in 2008 and 2009, and though he finished a distant 10th in '10, he again led the league in strikeouts and actually surpassed his win total from '09. Take out his four bad starts in August of this year and replace them with his five postseason turns and you get a 20-7 record with a 2.82 ERA.
3. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals: Wainwright's last two seasons were nearly identical and saw him finish third in the voting in 2009 and second this year. If he can approximate 20 wins with a 2.50 ERA and 210 strikeouts again in 2011 at age 29, he should be in the top three once again.
1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays: In two partial seasons with the Triple-A Durham Bulls, Hellickson has gone 18-4 with a 2.47 ERA and 193 strikeouts in 175 innings against just 50 walks and nine homers. In four August starts for the Rays in 2010, his first four major league games, he went 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings against four walks and two homers. The Rays are a good defensive team that plays in a pitching-friendly ballpark and they know how to develop young pitchers.
2. Jesus Montero, C, Yankees: There are a lot of questions about Montero's defense, but none about his bat. Yankee general manager Brian Cashman has already told All-Star backstop Jorge Posada to plan on spending most of his time as a designated hitter in 2011. Montero, who hit .289/.353/.517 with 21 homers and 75 RBIs as a 20-year-old in Triple-A this year, including a .351/.396/.684 performance with 14 homers in 44 games after the All-Star break, will get the first chance to claim the starting job behind the plate and has the potential to make a Jason Heyward-like impact on the league.
3. Chris Carter, LF, A's: Acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren deal in 2007, Carter is a monstrous power prospect who has been pushed from first base to left field by Daric Barton's combination of on-base and fielding skills. Speedy Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings is more likely to have a starting job on Opening Day, but Carter, a career .284/.380/.540 hitter in the minor leagues who has averaged 33 home runs and 104 RBIs in the five-month minor league season over the past three years, has the ability to make a bigger impact in a shorter span of time.
1. Domonic Brown, RF, Phillies: Brown hit .327/.391/.589 with 20 homers and 17 stolen bases in 93 games split between Double- and Triple-A this year, and if Jayson Werth signs elsewhere, he'll be the Phillies' 23-year-old rightfielder in 2011 having already had a taste of both the majors and the postseason this year.
2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves: Freeman hit .319/.378/.521 as a 20-year-old in his Triple-A debut this year and got a cup of coffee in the Show in September. He's not a prospect on par with fellow Brave Jason Heyward (who is?), but he has a classic big first baseman's power build, moves well around the bag, and is expected to be the Braves' Opening Day first baseman in 2011 and develop into a middle-of-the-order hitter.
3. Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants: Yes, the Giants just re-signed Aubrey Huff, but the 22-year-old Belt hit .352/.455/.620 with 23 homers, 112 RBIs and 22 stolen bases across three levels in his first professional season this year, drawing 93 walks against 99 strikeouts and wrapping things up with a .956 OPS in 13 Triple-A games. At that pace, he'll push Huff to leftfield by June if not before, particularly given how desperate the Giants are for productive bats.