Ranking the 10 Most Valuable Players in the AL East
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As the MLB regular season comes to a close this week, the American League playoff picture is all but wrapped up. We know who will be there—including two teams from the AL East—just not what their seeding will be.
Per usual, the season has been full of surprises: the Baltimore Orioles shocked the baseball world by clawing their way through to the postseason, while the Boston Red Sox—a popular preseason World Series pick—have been nothing short of a disaster.
Individual players in the AL East have put forth surprising performances as well, and not all of them were on people’s radars early in the year. Here is a look at the 10 most valuable players in the division, based on how their individual performances benefited their teams this season.
10) J.J. Hardy, SS Baltimore
Hardy leads all AL shortstops with 22 home runs this season.
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By no means are the Orioles a pretty baseball team. As a squad, they’re nowhere near the top of the league in any major batting or pitching category, and they did not place a single position player on the AL’s starting All Star roster.
What no one will deny, however, is that Baltimore gets the job done, and shortstop J.J. Hardy defines that. He’s played in all but four games this season, anchoring his team’s infield and making more plate appearances than anyone in baseball, save Derek Jeter.
Hardy has a bit of pop in his bat, as well. His 22 home runs this season place him well above any other AL shortstop in that category. As a reward for his efforts, he’ll take Baltimore to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
9) Jim Johnson, RP Baltimore Orioles
Johnson leads the MLB with 50 saves.
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Speaking of getting the job done, Johnson has done just that…50 times.
While his ERA is much higher than the likes of Tampa Bay’s Fernando Rodney, Baltimore’s closer has earned a save in 50 ballgames this season—more than anyone else in baseball. He has blown just three leads, and the Orioles 28-9 record in games decided by one run is a big part of the reason they’ve made it to the playoffs.
Baltimore has thrived off of scrappy, tight baseball games, and that only works if a reliable closer can come in to preserve a small lead. Johnson has been the man for the Orioles this season, and it has paid dividends.
8) B.J. Upton, CF Tampa Bay Rays
Upton combines speed with power better than almost anyone in the majors.
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The Rays have built their franchise around young players whom they’ve groomed themselves, and Upton is one of those. A member of the Rays ever since his debut in 2004, Upton is just 28 years old.
What’s special about him is his combination of speed and power; his 31 stolen bases this year are second best in the AL East, and he combined them with 28 home runs. If he can smack two more over the Rays final two games this season, he’ll join Mike Trout as the only 2012 inductees to the American League 30/30 club.
7) Curtis Granderson, CF New York Yankees
Granderson has launched 41 home runs for the second consecutive season.
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Granderson has great range in center field, but he’s really making his impact at the plate. He currently has 41 home runs for the second year in a row, more than any American League outfielder not named Josh Hamilton.
At 31, Granderson’s .228 batting average is down from his career average of .262, but he has eclipsed 100 RBI for just the second time in his career and his power seems only to be increasing.
6) Adam Jones, CF Baltimore Orioles
Jones is one of just two players in the MLB to play in every game this season.
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It has been noted that the Orioles are not statistically impressive, but the fact is they own the second best record in the AL, so someone must be responsible. Look no farther than Jones.
His 32 home runs are third best in the AL East and easily best among his Baltimore teammates. He combines that power with a good .288 batting average, and his wins above replacement (WAR) of 5.3 is not even remotely challenged by any other member of the Orioles.
Baltimore could not do what it is doing without Jones, and they haven’t had to—through 160 games in 2012, he is the only player in the AL to have taken the field for every single one of them.
5) CC Sabathia, SP New York Yankees
An off year for Sabathia is a darn good year for just about anyone else.
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CC Sabathia’s year hasn’t been marvelous—in fact, his 3.38 ERA is his worst since his last year with the Cleveland Indians in 2008. There is not a lot of fantastic pitching in the AL East this year, however, so a slightly off year for Sabathia is a good one by most standards.
And, in fact, his year hasn’t been all that bad. His 15 wins make him second best among AL East pitchers, and he’s in the top four in terms of strikeouts and ERA. He has allowed fewer walks and hits this season than he did in any of his other years as a Yankee.
If this qualifies as an off year for Sabathia, most Yankees fans are probably fine with that.
4) Robinson Cano, 2B New York Yankees
Cano has missed just 12 games in his last 6 years with the Yankees.
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The Yankees second baseman has been the definition of solid over the past six years. Since 2007, Robinson Cano has missed just 12 games. He has batted better than .300 in all but one of those years, including this season’s mark of .308.
2012 has been a career year at the plate for Cano in terms of home runs (31) and walks (60), giving him the third best on-base percentage (.375) in the AL East.
Perhaps the most telling stat this season, however, is Cano’s WAR of 7.2. His is second best in baseball, outdone only by Mike Trout. In their tight race with Baltimore atop the AL East, the Yankees certainly could not do without Cano.
3) Edwin Encarnacion, 1B Blue Jays
Encarnacion has followed Jose Bautista's footsteps as a surprise power hitter for the Blue Jays.
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The Blue Jays seem to have developed a knack for finding players that are due for an offensive explosion.
First it was Jose Bautista, whose previous career high was 16 home runs before he smashed 54 in 2010 and 43 in 2011.
Now it’s Edwin Encarnacion, whose boom hasn’t been quite so dramatic—42 home runs this season when his previous career high was 26—but still good enough to make him top five in all of baseball and second best in the AL both in terms of home runs and RBI.
Encarnacion’s .280 batting average is solid for a power hitter, and he’s been one of few bright spots for Toronto this season.
2) Derek Jeter, SS New York Yankees
At 38 years old, Jeter has more hits than anyone in baseball in 2012.
At the start of the season, conversations about Derek Jeter focused mainly on his age, as opposed to what he could still do on the baseball diamond.
Well, as it turns out, the 38-year-old can still do quite a lot. Having missed just three games in this his eighteenth season (all with the Yankees, of course), Jeter is batting .316 and hanging out among the top five batters in the AL. His 213 hits this season are the most in baseball, and his 15 home runs place him third among AL shortstops.
With the loss of other veterans such as Mariano Rivera, you’re crazy if you don’t think Jeter’s leadership and experience is keeping the Yankees grounded through a wild race with Baltimore atop the AL East.
We all know Jeter’s body of work deserves our respect, but in the twilight of his career he has put together yet another single season that makes him one of the most valuable players in one of the toughest divisions in baseball.
1) David Price, SP Tampa Bay Rays
Price has emerged as a leading Cy Young candidate in 2012.
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As a top Cy Young Award candidate and easily the best pitcher in the division, David Price has been the most valuable player in the AL East this season. Though the Rays finished just outside the top of the division and failed to make the playoffs, Price started more than 30 games for the third consecutive year and was absolutely magnificent.
His 20 wins are tied for best in the AL, and his 2.56 ERA stands alone as the best in baseball. Price’s WAR of 6.4 is second only to Justin Verlander’s among pitchers, and blows the figures of his teammates and AL East competitors out of the water.
Price was the lynchpin of the Tampa Bay rotation, and the Rays would not have been nearly so competitive without him. ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor currently gives Price the edge in the AL—only time will tell if he wins the award, but he is certainly deserving and the most valuable pitcher in the AL East.