Awards debates heat up as races shape focus
Conversations include Jeter vs. Mauer and more
Derek Jeter vs. Joe Mauer. Adam Wainwright vs. Chris Carpenter. Elvis Andrus vs. Rick Porcello.Value vs. performance. Winning vs. dominating. Intangibles vs. statistics. Team success vs. individual excellence. Shortstop apples vs. starting pitcher oranges. It's all in the mix now. The annual Baseball Awards Town Hall has begun, hitting a crescendo this week as the regular season concludes. The annual debates extend from the Most Valuable Player to the Cy Young Award, the Rookie of the Year Award and Manager of the Year Award, the four major awards presented by the Baseball Writers' Association of America for each league. And, in the end, the debates amount to just that, as the awards will be determined not by the discussion but by results from a polling of two voting BBWAA members in each city per league. That's 32 votes in the NL and 28 in the AL. Ballots will be submitted by the end of Sunday's games, and the awards will be presented in the two weeks following the conclusion of the World Series. As usual, the Most Valuable Player Award is the most volatile conversation -- well, in one league at least, since the Cardinals' Albert Pujols is looking like a possible unanimous pick for his third National League MVP. It's a different story in the American League. And as seems to be the case whenever he's in that conversation, Jeter is a lightning rod for MVP debate. Jeter's candidacy for MVP this year and in previous years, such as 2006, tends to elicit spirited discussion about exactly what being an MVP means. This year's no different, as Mauer of Minnesota has made a strong -- and some would say statistically unconquerable -- case for baseball's most prestigious annual award, despite missing all of April. Jeter, along with having one of his finest offensive seasons, has been a consistent and productive presence at the top of the order for the winningest (and highest-priced) team in baseball. The conversation also includes Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, Jeter's Yankees teammate Mark Teixeira and Tex's replacement at first base with the Angels, Kendry Morales. But there's something about Jeter vs. Mauer that sets the debate alight. Yankees manager Joe Girardi describes Jeter's assets: "Derek is doing everything for us. He's stealing bases, playing good defense and getting on base early in the game. The way he gets us started is incredible." Injured Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, who edged Jeter in 2006 with a 320-306 edge in the overall vote and 15-12 in first-place votes, puts it this way about his teammate: "I think you take Joe out of this lineup, off this team and I don't think we're still battling for a playoff spot right now. For me, I don't think there is anyone more valuable in the league -- the American League for sure -- let alone all of baseball." Putting the "V" in MVP Valuable is always the key word. It's a debate that has raged for years, perhaps no more so than in 1987, when Andre Dawson won the NL MVP while playing for the Cubs, who finished sixth in a six-team NL East. He led the league in homers and RBIs, and overall it was simply that good of a season. At least, that's the way Ryne Sandberg remembered it in his Hall of Fame speech. "I watched him win an MVP for a last-place team in 1987 [with the Chicago Cubs], and it was the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen in baseball," Sandberg said. Alex Rodriguez did it again in 2003 with a last-place team, the Rangers of the four-team AL West, in a widely split vote that saw him earn just six votes for first place on the 10-name ballot. This year's debate about "valuable" hits a different chord right on the sweet spot. This isn't about contender vs. non-contender. If it's about Jeter vs. Mauer, which of course it may or may not be in the end, it's much more about the definition of "valuable." Generally speaking, Jeter is framed as the leadership and reliability definition of valuable, whereas Mauer is portrayed as the statistical phenomenon, especially for his position. But to narrow it that far is to say that Jeter hasn't put up numbers, when he has more than 100 runs, 30 steals and an on-base percentage better than .400. And to imagine Mauer as some kind of stats-munching robot would be dismissing his maturity beyond his years and what he does as the leader of a pitching staff. Ultimately, it'll be up to the 28 AL MVP voters to have the final say on that. Always a debate MVP doesn't own the Awards Town Hall debate, and never does. That said, one thing that generally sets Cy Young apart from MVP is that a team's success doesn't appear to be as much of a factor. Neither Cy Young winner last year -- the Giants' Tim Lincecum in the NL and then-Indians lefty Cliff Lee in the AL -- came from a winning team, for instance. That appears as though it will be the case in the AL again this year.
With leading AL candidates Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay on teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention, team success isn't in the mix so much. In fact, if any of those hurlers win and fall short of 18 wins, that'll be the fewest wins in AL history for a Cy Young winner.After Greinke's stirring start to the season and a strong follow-through, Royals manager Trey Hillman goes so far as to acknowledge that his team's overall performance shouldn't be held against him. "For me, it's a no-brainer because to me he's the best pitcher, hands-down, in the American League," Hillman said earlier this month. "My hope is that they don't look at the fact that he's pitching for what right now is a last-place team. I hope they do look at the fact the team he pitches for has the fewest runs in the American League. He hasn't had a lot of run support." Meanwhile, the NL Cy Young could be an internal struggle between Cards aces Carpenter (NL-leading 2.30 ERA) and Wainwright (NL-leading 19 wins), who both have been magnificent. But has there been a better finishing touch than what Javier Vazquez (4-0, 0.84 ERA, 2 complete games in his last four starts) has delivered in helping push the Braves into final-week contention? And reigning winner Lincecum of the Giants is actually having as good a season or better than last year, and this time he helped his team contend deep into September. Other races are just as intriguing. The AL Rookie of the Year includes Detroit's stellar starter Porcello and Texas' superb shortstop Andrus, making for a difficult voting dilemma. The NL Manager of the Year discussion includes a manager who wasn't even in charge of his club the first two months of the season -- Colorado's Jim Tracy -- but the Cardinals' Tony La Russa and the Phillies' Charlie Manuel can't be ignored for what they've done in a full season. The debates rage on with the ballots still out. And it won't be until November until we all find out the answers.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.