Baseball laurels 2009

Forever and a day, which seems to have been as long as baseball has handed out its annual merit badges, the voting has been done at the end of the regular season with all votes being cast before the post-season begins. The suspicion holds that otherwise the stars of the World Series would end up as the MVP and Cy Young honorees nine years out of ten.

That notion has legitimate merit and remains a concern. But the expansion of the post-season in terms of length, stress and impact along with the relative diminishing of the regular season which has been watered down by slimmer divisions, less competitive races, and the devilish wild-card combine to make it more untenable for a legitimate winner of one of the major awards to have been someone who bombed big-time when the chips were really on the line. You might call it the “A-Rod syndrome.”

As for the occasional nominee who excels all season but is saddled with a lousy team that doesn’t qualify for the playoffs it becomes a challenge to the sophistication of the voters to weigh such factors with considerable care. That’s the way it’s always been and the burden increases. On the other hand, if a chap plays a key role in leading his team to the post-season he deserves extra credit for that. The efficacy of this highly subjective process will be tested anew and perhaps severely in the dispersing of the American League prizes this year.

Here’s one man’s hunch on how the annual distribution of the bon-bons, laurel wreaths, and hosannas might go with emphasis on the fact that the chap with the hunches has no vote.

AL MVP

This is far and away the most interesting of the races for individual honors and the one most likely to spark controversy. The choice here is Derek Jeter and it is not entirely sentimental. Call it “a lifetime achievement award” if you will, and some already have. But, if so, it is deserved, which is all that matters. Moreover, “lifetime” considerations are hardly invalid and what’s good enough for Hollywood ought to be for baseball.

Three years ago when he hit a snappy .343 while ranking high in offensive categories across the board and leading his team into the post-season Jeter got rooked out of an MVP. The prize instead went to the Twins young slugger Justin Morneau who led the league only in sac-flys on a team that finished out of the money. Many chalked that obvious injustice up to an acute anti-New York bias which, be assured, does exist.

It could happen again only this time it would be rather more reasonable. The Twins Joe Mauer combines a .363 batting average and noteworthy surge in power with his first-rate catching skills. He is having one of the finest seasons any catcher has had in all of baseball history. He’s a gem. Mauer will probably win it. The perception that too many riches befall the Yankees is widely held and Jeter is burdened by that, even if he is universally admired and daily receiving rave notices.

In a matter of some small irony Jeter may also lose votes to his teammate Mark Teixeira who indeed deserves such recognition for having cemented the Yankee lineup and who is en route to leading the league in both homers and ribbies which, more often than not, would be enough to win the thing in a bit of a breeze. But not this year.

Still, Teixeira deserves votes. So should Ichiro Suzuki, hitting .355 (as of this writing) while compiling more than 200 hits for the ninth consecutive season. Also meriting acknowledgement are Miguel Cabrera, Michael Young, Kevin Youkilis, and Chone Figgins who led their teams to the post-season.

But in the end it will be Jeter vs. Mauer and it will be fascinating to see who prevails.

NL MVP

It’s no contest. The Phillies’ Ryan Howard is posting monstrous numbers for the fourth year in a row. The Brewers’ Prince Fielder is slugging apace. Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins is hitting .359, although his own teammates have called into question his character. Such kids as Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies and Pablo Sandoval of the Giants have bullied their teams into contention.

None of any of this matters. Albert Pujols of the Cards, who is likely to lead his league in six important offensive categories, is the runaway winner. Nor is it likely to be close.

AL Cy Young

It’s the second most interesting competition. There are nearly a dozen worthy contenders and there ought to be little quibbling no matter who wins in perhaps the most crowded field ever. The Jays Roy Halladay, the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez, the Angels’ Jared Weaver, the Rangers Scott Feldman, and the Red Sox Josh Beckett won’t win but will draw votes. That would leave the winner to be drawn from the ranks of three intriguing starters and/or a legendary reliever.

Of the starters, Justin Verlander has the best shot. He’s widely perceived to have carried the Tigers. But it may be that C.C. Sabathia deserves it more. He started slow but since the first of July he’s been 9-1 with an ERA of 2.75 while the Yanks have won 11 of his 12 starts. That’s called coming up huge when it matters most. Sabathia may end up the only 20 game winner but his massive contract will be held against him as will the perception that the mighty Yankee lineup deserves much of the credit, which ain’t necessarily so.

All of which may pave the way for the Royals Zack Greinke, the overwhelming sentimental choice. He has only 13 wins but posting a 2.22 e.ra. for the league’s worst team is a noble achievement. Plus the kid is a great story.

The betting here is on Greinke unless in a burst of mighty sentiment the voters decide to reward the Yankees’ peerless closer Mariano Rivera for his entire splendid career. In such a crowded field that could well happen.

NL Cy Young

There are four prime candidates: Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain of the Giants, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals. You could flip coins and come down with the right choice. I’ll go with Wainwright, if only because Carpenter and Lincecum have won it before.

AL Manager of the Year

The Yanks Girardi won’t win it for reasons already suggested. Francona of the Red Sox ought to win it someday but it won’t be this year. Having overcome so much adversity, Maestro Scioscia of the Angels probably should win it. But the pick here is Ron Washington of the eternally star-crossed Rangers who has his plucky team chasing the Red Sox for the last playoff berth with three very green rookies in the starting rotation.

NL Manager of the Year

It probably should be Jim Tracy of Colorado but he only managed half the season. The Cards Tony LaRussa is the likely pick although some would argue he’s won the thing enough. Anyone but Joe Torre.

Rookies of the year

Easily the thinnest, least meaningful of the baubles. Rarely is the rookie who proves to be the best player over the long haul the winner of this thing. You should look it up. So my picks will be two kids who won’t win but will eventually be regarded as the best to debut this season.

In the AL, it’s Elvis Andrus, the Rangers shortstop. He made the huge leap from Double A ball almost effortlessly. A very exciting prospect. As noted he has three rookie colleagues on the pitching staff equally exciting. Beware of Texas.

In the NL, it’s the Pirates Andrew McCutchen, a fleet outfielder with skills that eerily remind some of a young Clemente. He has promise so strong that only the Pirates could mess him up.

Executives of the Year

In the NL, Dan O’Dowd of Colorado. The Cards’ John Mozeliak might seem as worthy but it’s widely assumed LaRussa calls all the shots.

In the AL, it’s Brian Cashman, straw-boss of your favorite adversary. And to those who say he only did it with money, may I suggest, “Get a Life!”

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