Welcome to the second season of Awards Watch. This column was conceived last May with the idea of using the races for the three major player awards (Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year) in each league as a way to track some of the season's finest performances as well as to examine just what sort of performances typically win those awards. Appearing weekly and focusing on a different award each week on a rotating basis, Awards Watch lists the top candidates in each league for the award at hand, basing the rankings on who is most likely to win, not necessarily who is most deserving, though the latter is identified in the text when the inevitable fission occurs.
In my final regular season column of 2010, I predicted the top three finishers in each of the six races. Of those nine men, eight of them finished exactly where I said they would. The lone exception was the third place finisher in the American League Rookie of the Year race. I had the Rays' Wade Davis finishing third, but the Twins Danny Valencia, who I had in that spot the previous week, finished one point ahead of Davis despite appearing on one fewer ballot. That makes last year's column a tough act to follow in terms of accuracy, but Awards Watch, like everything else about the 162-game baseball season, is as much about the journey as the destination, no matter what Derek Jeter might say.
With that in mind, here's a quick look at where our journey begins. Around Thanksgiving, I made a rough attempt to handicap the top three spots for this year's awards. Then as now, that's a fool's errand, but being foolish can be fun, and since a few things have changed since November, a little more foolishness seems in order. Awards Watch will begin in earnest on Monday with a look at the fields in the Rookie of the Year races, but until then, here are the preseason favorites for all three awards.
1. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox
2. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays
3. Joe Mauer, C, Twins
Last year, Gonzalez played with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and finished fourth in the National League MVP voting. He has since had the shoulder repaired, via an October surgery, and shifted his home games from the offense-stifling PETCO Park to the hitter-friendly Fenway Park via a December trade. In part to compensate for his weakened shoulder, Gonzalez used an opposite-field approach in 2010. That makes him a particularly good fit for Fenway and could spike his home run total, which has reached 30 in each of the last four seasons. Gonzalez hit .307/.381/.579 on the road in his five seasons with the Padres and .311/.402/.610 on the road over the past two years. Mix in his solid play in the field and the likelihood of the Red Sox winning their division, and Gonzalez jumps to the top of the AL pack pushing Miguel Cabrera, whose off-field issues made headlines in spring training, out of the top three.
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals
2. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
3. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers
Braun was hitting .359/.443/.594 when he was hit on the left elbow by a pitch on May 10 of last year. After missing three games, he hit just .235/.269/.400 from his return through the end of July before finally rediscovering his stroke and hitting .364/.440/.583 over the season's final two months. Take away the elbow injury and put the Brewers back in the NL Central race, and Braun, who is entering his age-27 season and is also a solid defender who will steal roughly 15 bases at a high rate of success, should be right in the thick of the race. He bumps reigning NL MVP Joey Votto from my November list only because I suspect the voters will resist a repeat winner and the Brewers' challenge to the Reds in the Central could guide their gaze to Braun, even if Milwaukee falls short. Of course, that's all likely moot given that Braun, Votto, and company are up against Albert Pujols in his walk year.
1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
2. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees
3. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox
Cliff Lee's defection to the National League opened a spot on this list that could easily have been filled by Lester or the Tigers' Justin Verlander. I'm going with Lester here in large part because of the improvements the Red Sox have made around him. Lester finished fourth in the voting last year and this year, assuming the Red Sox can stay healthy, will benefit from improvements to the offense, defense and bullpen.
1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies
2. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants
3. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies
Adam Wainwright was my third pick in November, but Tommy John surgery has wiped out his season, thus making room for Lee, who will spend an entire season with one team for the first time since he won the AL Cy Young in 2008 and will enjoy his first full season in the weaker league.
1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays
2. Kyle Drabek, RHP, Blue Jays
3. Zach Britton, LHP, Orioles
My November list followed Hellickson with a pair of high-ceiling sluggers in Yankees catcher Jesus Montero and A's first baseman-turned-left fielder Chris Carter, but both were blocked by free agent additions over the winter and will be remanded to Triple-A to work on their defense to start the year. Drabek, the top prospect acquired in the Roy Halladay trade with Philadelphia from December 2009, is the only other rookie to open the season in an American League rotation. Britton won't open the season in the Orioles' rotation but could join it by the end of April. The lefty groundballer has been dominant this spring and is considered a better prospect than his soon-to-be rotation-mate Brian Matusz, who was a popular preseason pick for this award last year.
1. Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants
2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
3. Domonic Brown, RF, Phillies
Of the six listed above, this is the only one to include the same three names now as in November, but I've shuffled the order. Brown topped my November list, but a broken hamate bone in his right hand robbed him of most of spring training and will keep him out through April. Belt, meanwhile, went from a player who could force his way onto the roster by mid-season to a final-weekend cut who could make his major league debut around the time of Brown's return from the disabled list. That sets up an NL Rookie of the Year race that could greatly resemble last year's, with a Giant who started the year in Triple-A (Buster Posey) sneaking past a Brave who was in the majors since Opening Day (Jason Heyward).