The American League Most Valuable Player has been the subject of debate the past two years. Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout clearly has been the game’s best player each season, but Miguel Cabrera‘s triple crown and terrific follow-up performance on a playoff team won over the voters — twice.
In assessing the top candidates for the award this season, I will ignore the voter aspect, since I cannot read the minds of the BBWAA, nor do I recognize them, as a group, as any kind of authority on who the most valuable players truly are in Major League Baseball, despite many of the members clearly being more than competent and qualified to do so.
I will not include pitchers here. They have their own award, which Adam H. Wong covered here.
1. Mike Trout, CF — Los Angeles Angels
Trout could actually be better for the third year in a row — which, after one glance at his performance and value over his first two campaigns in the big leagues, sounds preposterous and impossible — and he’ll now be stepping back into center field after GM Jerry DiPoto dealt Peter Bourjos to St. Louis.
The Angels, however, still appear to be the third-best team in the American League West, which could again hurt Trout’s chances to win over the voters. Regardless of the way the award is interpreted by the Baseball Writers Association of America, Trout is the favorite heading into 2014. A .330/.430/.550 triple-slash is more than plausible, and his defensive value will again be sky high, suggesting a 10-plus fWAR is within reach for a third time.
Trout is the best all-around player I have seen in my lifetime, including Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, and at just 22 years of age is likely to continue to get better, which almost seems silly to consider.
2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B — Detroit Tigers
Cabrera will be just 31 in April and isn’t likely to slow down, either. Cabrera will now move across the diamond to first base, which reduces his value some, and the Detroit Tigers traded away his lineup protection in Prince Fielder, who is now in Texas. Since I don’t believe in lineup protection the way some traditional analysts do, I don’t believe Cabrera’s numbers take much of a hit, if at all.
There’s a chance the athleticism and production of an Ian Kinsler batting in front of Cabrera is even better for Cabrera than Fielder had been, and Victor Martinez figures to start the season healthy and capable of hitting cleanup. Expect another huge year from Cabrera and don’t be surprised if his fWAR isn’t better in 2014 than the 7.7 he posted in 2013, even with a move to first base.
3. Robinson Cano, 2B — Seattle Mariners
Yes, Cano is moving from a decent lineup to a mediocre one at best, plus the change in ballparks that overall suggest Safeco is more difficult in which to hit. Cano, however, should be able to take advantage of the right-center field and right field gaps that have played neutrally since Safeco’s inception and aren’t as susceptible to the marine air turning into biting wind.
Power, however, isn’t going to be the reason Cano finishes fairly high in the MVP voting. The Mariners will have to be respectable In terms of value — over impressing voters — Cano’s plus defense and ability to carry the Mariners out of the doldrums and into respectability could go a long way. His line drive swing should lead to 40-plus doubles and there is no reason why his long balls totals should suffer much. Teammate Kyle Seager, also a left-handed hitter, has tallied 20 and 22 home runs the past two seasons respectively. Cano’s swing is picture perfect for Safeco and while I expect more intentional walks and more unintentional-intentional walks, I still see a .320/.380/.500 triple-slash and at least a repeat of his 6.0 fWAR of 2013.
4. Evan Longoria, 3B — Tampa Bay Rays
I’m not a huge a fan of Longoria as many, but he’s entering his prime, is a premium glove at third base and could easily hit .280/.360/500 this season, perhaps leading the Rays to a divisional title.
5. Dustin Pedroia, 2B — Boston Red Sox
Pedroia’s MVP candidacy, in terms of the voting, may depend on how much more power he shows in 2014 than he has the past two years. When he won the MVP in 2008, which ironically is his second-best season (2011 is No. 1), Pedroia slugged .493 and his career mark sits at .454. He plays above-average-to-plus defense at second base and is a leader for a legitimate World Series contender. Pedroia’s ability to get one base and sprinkle in power consistently is remarkable and the right circumstances, some luck and a little more Laser Show could mean a second MVP for The Muddy Chicken.
6. Jason Kipnis, 2B — Cleveland Indians
Kipnis, a converted outfielder, had a terrific 2013 at .284/.366/.452 and one more step of progress at the plate and in the field puts him in near-Pedroia territory. He’ll have a shot to win some games with a much-improved Indians club and is developing into one Terry Francona‘s leaders, too. Sound familiar?
7. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF — New York Yankees
Ellsbury, if healthy — always the caveat — is one of the 10 best players in the junior circuit and will garner all the necessary attention to catch the eye on the voter if he has another strong year and especially if the Yankees win the American League East. Ellsbury nearly won the award in 2011 and appears to in near-MVP form entering 2014.
8. Adrian Beltre, 3B — Texas Rangers
Beltre continues to produce huge numbers, both at the plate and in the field, and with Fielder in the lineup will have plenty of support. It doesn’t hurt that the Rangers could win the division, but Beltre will again it for average, get on base and hit for power, while offering elite defense and average or better value on the bases.
9. Manny Machado, 3B — Baltimore Orioles
Machado’s return to the field after a knee injury obviously is key to his candidacy, but otherwise he’s ripe for a big breakout year in the power department, and he showed signs in 2013 of marked progress at the plate in terms of consistent contact and driving the ball. It would not surprise me if Machado batted .290 with 30-40 more points on his OBP, which was .314 a year ago, and a doubles-to-homer exchange that resulted in another 65-70 extra-base hit season, but with 20-25 home runs. That, plus elite defense at third base suggests top-tier value.
10. Chris Davis, 1B — Baltimore Orioles
Davis is coming off a 53-homer season in 2013, and a top-5 finish in the MVP voting. The most impressive numbers for Davis, however, weren’t the long ball totals or the gaudy slugging percentage, it was the .286 batting average and resulting .421 wOBA. I don’t see Davis repeating any of that, but he’s hit .266 or better three seasons in a row, has always been able to work a count and take a walk and now he’s doing more damage when he does make contact. The 30 percent strikeout rate suggests 2013 was a slight fluke, but .270/.350/.550 with 40 home runs is within reach, placing him in the top 10.
Carlos Santana, 1B/3B/C — Cleveland Indians
Alex Gordon, LF — Kansas City Royals
Jose Bautista, RF — Toronto Blue Jays
Ben Zobrist, 2B/RF — Tampa Bay Rays
Josh Donaldson, 3B — Oakland Athletics