After the major player awards were handed out each of the last two years, I made an early attempt to project the winners of the Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year honors for the following season. The awards are hard enough to predict at the end of the season just completed (though I'm 24-for-24 in that regard since 2010), never mind the previous November. Still, I correctly identified six of the 18 finalists for 2012 in November 2011, and got three of the 2013 winners right at this time last year: Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw and Wil Myers, even though Myers was still in the Royals' organization at the time. Here, then, are my early projections for the 2014 awards.
Note: Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, 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. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers
Cabrera has finished in the top five in the MVP voting in each of the last five seasons, winning each of the last two years and finishing second in 2010. He's the best hitter in baseball, hitting .337/.425/.612 (177 OPS+) over the last two seasons while averaging 39 homers and 127 RBIs and he won't be 31 until April 18. And though it shouldn't matter but does to too many voters, his team contends every year and should do so again next season. Mike Trout might have the better year in 2014, but he had the better year in 2012 and '13 as well and Cabrera still won the MVP both times. It's foolish to project anyone else to win it at this point.
2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
Trout has played two full seasons in the major leagues, been MLB's best player in both of them and finished second in the AL MVP voting in both of them. At 22, he is still very low on the aging/learning curve, which is to say, he could be even better next year. This list would be incomplete without him, but given the Angels' poor outlook and the last two AL votes, he seems likely to remain stuck behind Cabrera.
3. Robinson Cano, 2B, TBD
We don't even know for sure that Cano, currently a free agent, will be in the American League in 2014, but the chances are good that he remains a Yankee. He has finished in the top six in the AL voting in each of the last four years, hitting .312/.373/.533 in that time while averaging 29 home runs and 107 RBIs and playing an outstanding second base. Expect more of the same next year in his age-31 season, wherever he winds up.
McCutchen has finished in the top three in the NL MVP voting in each of the last two years, winning this year, and that was in a down year compared to how he did in 2012. He's not as good as Trout, but he's close, and there is no Miguel Cabrera to keep him from winning this award. I don't actually think he'll win two in a row, but there's no one else in the league that I can predict to finish in the top three with more confidence than McCutchen heading into his age-27 season.
Molina is the game's premier catcher defensively and he is coming off his two best offensive seasons, which helped him finish fourth in the voting in 2012 and third in 2013. Given the manner in which some credit him with the performance of the Cardinals' pitching staff, the maturation of young hurlers like Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez will only strengthen his candidacy, whether it should or not.
Despite a variety of injuries, some self-inflicted, including knee bursitis that shelved him for all of June and required postseason surgery, Harper was indeed better in 2013 than in 2012, at least at the plate, and he only turned 21 last month. If he can avoid running into walls, he could have a breakout season in 2014. If he does that, he'll be in the running for MVP.
Darvish was good as a rookie in 2012, but he was great in 2013, finishing second in the Cy Young voting while doing all sorts of things with strikeouts that hadn't been done in a decade or more. As I wrote on Tuesday when previewing this year's Cy Young finalists, his 277 Ks were the most by a pitcher in either league since Randy Johnson struck out 290 in 2004. Only three pitchers in major league history have ever posted a higher rate of strikeouts per nine innings in a qualified season (Kerry Wood in 1998, Pedro Martinez in 1999 and Randy Johnson six times), and only Martinez (in ’99), Johnson and Nolan Ryan (twice each) have had more games in a single season with 14 or more strikeouts than Darvish’s five this year. Don't be surprised if he's even better next year at the age of 27.
2. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
Verlander was the best pitcher in the AL in 2011 (when he won the Cy Young award and MVP) and 2012 (when he should have won the Cy Young again but finished second to David Price). Verlander was not at that level in the first half of 2013, as he went 10-8 with a 3.73 ERA, an inflated walk rate and diminished velocity through his first 22 starts. Down the stretch, however, he recovered his lost velocity, lowered his walk rate and appeared to be back to his previous form by the postseason. Once there, he allowed only one run in 23 innings while walking three and striking out 31.
Sale finished sixth and fifth, respectively, in the Cy Young voting in his first two seasons as a major league starter, and it's not hard to argue that he should have ranked even higher. He was the best pitcher in the AL for much of 2013 despite coming off a 2012 season in which he saw his innings total increase by 121 frames. Having now had consecutive seasons with similar workloads, reaching 214 1/3 innings this past year, Sale could be ready for a monster age-25 season in 2014.
Kershaw has won this award in two of the last three seasons and finished second in the other while leading the majors in ERA all three seasons. Over those three years combined, he has posted a 2.21 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 697 innings (232 per season) while striking out more than a batter per inning. Three previous pitchers finished in the top two spots in the Cy Young voting in three consecutive years while winning it twice: Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. All three won it again in the fourth year.
This past season, at the age of 20, Fernandez jumped to the majors without ever having pitched above High-A. After just two months of adjustment, he went 10-3 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 135 strikeouts in 120 1/3 innings over his final 18 starts. He doesn't need to be that good to give Kershaw a serious run for his money next year.
3. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates
The top pick in the 2011 draft, Cole made his major league debut this past June at the age of 22 and, in a smaller way, replicated Fernandez's success. It took him two months to adapt to the majors, after which he went 7-3 with a 2.31 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 4.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio and more than a strikeout per inning over his final 10 starts, two of which came against the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals in the postseason. Expect big things from Cole in 2014.
Rookie of the Year
1. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Abreu, a Cuban defector, has been referred to as "the Cuban Barry Bonds" and some have suggested he could hit like Miguel Cabrera in the major leagues. That seems unlikely, to say the least, but it's worth remembering that Cuban hitters have made an immediate impact each of the past two seasons. In fact, only historic campaigns by Mike Trout in 2012 and Jose Fernandez in 2013 prevented fellow Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig from winning this award in their respective leagues the past two seasons. Also, for all the hyperbole, Abreu did put up better numbers than Cespedes in Cuba and is coming over for his age-27 season.
Baseball Prospectus rated Bogaerts the third-best prospect in baseball in late June, before he made his major league debut and hit .296/.412/.481 in the postseason. He's a 21-year-old shortstop who can rake, has already earned a starting job next season and will get to play his home games in Fenway Park. I'd be more surprised if he's not in the top three in the Rookie of the Year voting than if he is.
One of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball (second to Archie Bradley per that mid-season Baseball Prospectus list), the 21-year-old Walker made three starts at the end of the 2013 season and seems likely to spend all of 2014 in the Mariners' rotation, pending an innings-limit, of course. He just edges 24-year-old Astros centerfielder George Springer, who had a monster season split between in Double and Triple A in 2013 (.303/.411/.600, 37 HR, 108 RBI, 45 SB), but whose high strikeout rate (3.7 PA/K) was a cause for concern.
1. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, TBD
We have no idea which league the 25-year-old Japanese ace will wind up in next year or even if he's still going to be coming to the U.S., but if he does, he's a good bet to challenge for the Rookie of the Year award. He went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in the Japan Pacific League in 2013 and is listed here simply because my AL list was more crowded.
2. Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals
If Tanaka lands in the AL or stays in Japan, Taveras will be the favorite in the Senior Circuit. Considered the best pure hitting prospect in baseball, Taveras hit .310/.348/.471 in his Triple A debut last year and that was thought by some to be a disappointment.
The expectation was that Taveras would make his major league debut at some point during the season and ascend to a starting job by the postseason, just as Bogaerts did for Boston. Instead, he injured his ankle on a slide in May and failed to crack 200 plate appearances on the season. So he'll try to reach the bigs in 2014, and given that he seemed to handle Triple A just fine before the injury, if he's healthy and productive in Memphis in April and May, he could be in St. Louis before his 22nd birthday in June.