Note: The All-Star break is upon us and The Stew is using the downtime on the MLB schedule to size up the current contenders for baseball's year-end awards. We've already looked at Rookie of the Year candidates. Now we turn our attention to AL and NL MVP contenders.
We can only say one thing for certain about the races for American League and National League MVP: No matter what happens there will be arguing. That's not a grand prediction, just the reality we've come to accept after the past few years.
On the AL side of things, familiar faces are leading the way again, though 2014 so far looks like it might bring a different result. On the NL side, there are a number of worthwhile but not exactly sure-fire candidates who all have to be hoping a certain ace in L.A. doesn't keep up what he's been doing lately.
We're here to examine four MVP candidates in each league: the frontrunner, the guy also in the conversation, the player with a question mark over his head and the dark horse.
The Frontrunner: Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels)
It's gotten harder to deny Trout's MVP case. This is looking like it's finally his year. While statheads will tell you that Trout should be a two-time reigning MVP right now, voters have chosen Miguel Cabrera over Trout two years running. This year, Trout has two important things going for him: He's a better offensive force than Miggy, and the Angels have a better record than the Tigers. Like it or not, that counts to many voters. Trout is hitting .310/.400/.606 with 22 homers, 73 RBIs, 65 runs and an MLB-high 5.5 WAR, according to Fangraphs. The only one of those categories in which Cabrera tops Trout is RBIs, by just two.
In the conversation: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers)
He's Miguel Cabrera, so he's always in the conversation. He could have one arm and he'd still be in the conversation. Cabrera has had a slow-by-his-standards first half. He's only hitting .306/.364/.534 with 14 homers, 75 RBIs and 57 runs. He's beat up a bit, and you could make a case that Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez have been just as valuable to the Tigers offensively. But Miggy's a two-time reigning MVP, so there's gotta be more coming from him this season. (Others in the conversation: Felix Hernandez, Jose Bautista, Alex Gordon, Josh Donaldson)
The Question Mark: Nelson Cruz (Baltimore Orioles)
Cruz has been a steal for the Orioles, plain and simple. They signed him for $8 million, essentially couch change by MLB standards, and he's cranked 28 homers with 74 RBIs, both second in the MLB. Beyond that, he's helped fuel the Orioles to first place in the AL East while Chris Davis and Manny Machado have struggled. Adam Jones deserves credit too, of course, but there's no doubt Cruz had been super valuable to the Orioles. There are two question marks for Cruz in the conversation: (1) Can the Orioles win the AL East? Had the Blue Jays not fallen a bit, we'd be spending more words on Jose Bautista than Cruz. (2) Will voters actually consider him? Remember, these are the same voters who have taken a hard stance against PED users in the past.
The Dark Horse: Michael Brantley (Cleveland Indians)
If you're saying, "Who?" that's why he's a dark horse. Brantley has been far and away Cleveland's best player this season, leading the team in homers and RBIs while hitting .322. Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana are barely hitting .200, so Brantley's production has kept the Indians afloat. If they can make a run at a playoff spot, you'll hear his name more in these conversations.
The Frontrunner: Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado Rockies)
If this award were given today, there's a good chance it would go to Tulo. He's been insane at the plate, leading the NL in batting average (.345) and homers (21). He leads MLB in OPS, better even than Trout. The problem is, his spot is fragile. The Rockies were good early on, but have turned into a bad team again. As some of the NL contenders get going toward the postseason, it's very possibly that Tulo is going to get leap-frogged by someone making more of an impact in the standings.
In the conversation: Andrew McCutchen (Pittsburgh Pirates)
He's across-the-board good. It won him an MVP last season and it keeps him in the conversation this season. He's second in WAR to Tulo, according to Fangraphs, and his team has a better chance of getting into the playoffs. Four teams can still win the NL Central and the Pirates are one of them. They're not going to do it without a big couple of months from Cutch. (Others in the conversation: Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Wainwright).
The Question Mark: Carlos Lucroy (Milwaukee Brewers)
I know, I know, Carlos Lucroy is not a real person. He's the mash-up of Milwaukee Brewers players Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy, both of whom have been great so far in 2014, propelling the Brew Crew to first place. The big question is whether the Brewers will continue to be contenders after a rough July. If they do, Gomez (.304, 14 homers, 48 RBIs, great defense) is the more legitimate MVP candidate but Lucroy's a great story too. He's having a breakout year at age 28 (hitting .315 with 44 RBIs as a catcher). His WAR of 3.7 has already surpassed his WAR the past two seasons.
The Dark Horse: Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers)
It seems weird to call Kershaw a dark-horse anything, but when it comes to pitchers winning the MVP award, it's understandable. A pitcher has won the award only three times in the past 30 years and it hasn't happened in the NL since Bob Gibson in 1968. There are factors against Kershaw's award candidacy this season, whether we're talking this or the Cy Young. Because of an injury, Kershaw's not going to throw as many innings as the other top-tier pitchers in the NL. But if he keeps pitching like he did in June (6-0, 0.82 ERA, 61Ks) it'll be hard to deny him the Cy Young, and it'll vault him right into MVP talk, too.
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