And so the first month of the 2009 baseball season comes to a close.
The Marlins opened the season hotter than Jessica Alba and Megan Fox combined, and have sputtered a bit since while hanging onto a slim division lead. The Padres, Blue Jays, Mariners, and Pirates have all pleasantly surprised their fans than being much better than the pundits claimed.
The Nationals and Giants opened colder than the Yukon in January, then remembered how to win a few ballgames. And the Red Sox suddenly remembered that they wanted another World Series ring, and began playing like it.
But this is not the place to talk over team accomplishments. No, no, no. This is about the individual awards, and who should be getting talked about; who's going to sustain their pace, and who won't.
First, the NATIONAL LEAGUE:
Getting the talk: Albert Pujols
What about these guys?: Adrian Gonzalez, Raul Ibanez
Dark horses: Andre Ethier, Carlos Beltran, Manny Ramirez
Pujols is having another monster season; there's no doubt about that. He will put up his 35-40 HR again this year, drive in 100-120 runs, and bat way over .300. That's just what he does.
But Gonzalez has quietly been one of the most underrated hitters of the last several years down in San Diego. And this year, he's off to a monster start, leading the league in home runs (9) and sitting third in slugging (.711, right behind Ibanez' .718 start) and OPS (1.150, .001 back of Ibanez).
You've noticed Ibanez' numbers appearing right beside Gonzalez', and that's because he's having the same sort of monster year.
The reason I'm leaning Gonzalez here is because the Padres were supposed to have no offense this year, and Gonzalez has been the primary reason that the pundits have been proven wrong so far. If the Padres are gonna make a run at the West title, Gonzalez will have to keep hitting.
Prediction: I'm staying safe: Albert Pujols. While I'd love to see Ethier or Manny pick up the award as a Dodger, and I think Gonzalez is highly deserving, I think all will cool off at some point during the season. But if the season ended today, I'd say Gonzalez.
Getting the talk: Johan Santana, Chad Billingsley
What about these guys?: Wandy Rodriguez, Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum
Dark horses: Zach Duke, Kyle Lohse, Johnny Cueto
Johna Santana has been a beast for the Mets, and somehow is still only 3-1. Johan is off to one of the better starts in recent memory, with an ERA a shade above 1. That said, it seems like there's nothing even he can do to make sure the Mets win games.
They've found all sorts of ways to blow games this year—even with their rebuilt bullpen—and sooner or later, the Mets will be exposed as the farce that they are when Johan's not pitching. They've already lost two of his six starts through no fault of his own, so we'll see how exactly the Mets play from here.
Wandy Rodriguez has been a silent killer this year, sixth in ERA (2.21) and with a tidy WHIP of 1.13. We've been waiting a couple of years for him to bust out his full potential, and it looks like he's done so at long last.
The big question now is, can he sustain this over 150-200 innings? He's never thrown that much in a season before. However, pitching for the woeful Astros, he's still only 2-2, and will be outshone by other great pitchers on bad teams--and on good teams.
Billlingsley is getting a lot of talk for the Dodgers, and he is off to a great start. One less walk by Jonathan Broxton this year, and he's 6-0 with a tidy ERA of about 2.00. As it is, he's still 5-0 with 2.13.
But I'm not sold yet; I need to see him keep this up all season. That said, the Dodgers needed a new ace when Lowe and Penny left, and Billingsley has proven he can sling it with the best of them.
Which brings us to the best of them. Dan Haren is pitching out of his mind, and just not getting any support-—at all. He got three runs from his offense in his first four games.
His 1.46 ERA is second only to Santana, and he's leading the league with ridiculous numbers in WHIP (0.74!!!!), walks/game, hits/game, and K/BB (6.7?!?), so his 3-3 record is very deceptive. He's doing all he can to prop up a club that's really hurting without Brandon Webb.
Prediction: Tough call. I'd love to see Bills win it, but he's going to have to step his game up another notch to join Haren and Santana. For now I'll stay safe as I did with Pujols and say Santana, but only because I know Haren's had health problems in the past that have derailed some good seasons. If Haren's healthy, at this rate, it's his.
Getting the talk: Kevin Youkilis, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez
What about these guys?: Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria
Dark horses: Aaron Hill, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones
Notice one thing about the dark horses here: They're all young guys with great offensive numbers the first month. Jones, Markakis, and Hill have all been said to be very good ballplayers, and may even make the All-Star team this year based on their strong starts. But I don't think any of them will be able to keep up this pace or a whole season.
Pena and Longoria both play for the Rays, and though the team has gotten off to a slow start, you can see the wheels beginning to turn after their sweep of the uber-hot Red Sox over the weekend. Pena is proving last year's power surge is no fluke, with eleven home runs already in the books, but is he a complete player?
Yes, but not as much as a couple of other guys on this list—like his aforementioned teammate, Longoria. The '08 Rookie of the Year is tied for seventh in the AL in home runs, leads the league in doubles, and is starting to realize that sometimes, this team will be looking to him to carry them.
He'll have to continue to adjust to that kind of pressure, but by season's end, Longoria will have adjusted and built on his tremendous rookie season. Sophomore slump? I don't think so.
Which brings us to our front-runners. Martinez was a big question mark before the season, since he suffered a tremendous drop-off in his '08 numbers due to injury; he lost 30 points off his batting average and hit only two home runs last season (a year after he hit 25), all in only 73 games.
Well, folks, he's back, and in a big way. He's in the top ten in AVG, OBP, SLG, and OPS, and isn't looking like he'll be slowing down anytime soon. Martinez is definitely the front-runner for the AL Comeback Player of the Year right now, but he's gotta watch his back for Justin Verlander (more on him in a moment).
Kinsler has been ridiculous to start the year, a true spark for the Rangers offense. He's tied for second in HR with 9, and third in RBIS (behind Longoria and Pena) with 25. Now, for the love of Nolan Ryan's club, if he could just stay healthy for the whole season, he could stay in this discussion.
But for right now, Kevin Youkilis is in a league of his own. He leads the majors across the board in average, OBP, slugging, and OPS, and by significant margins in all those categories.
While the homers aren't coming at the same rate, he's getting on base, he's bringing in runs, and keeping that Boston offense motoring right along. If he keeps this up, he wins the award without much question.
Prediction: That's the trick, isn't it: Can Youkilis keep this up? Not at this rate, I don't think, but will he continue to be the motor behind this Sawx offense? Probably. Kinsler has also been brilliant all around, and both the Rangers and the Red Sox have other hitters who've stepped up every day, as well.
However, the Sawx win a lot more than the Rangers do, so I'm going to hand the award to Youk, since winning teams more often produce MVPs. However...watch out for Adam Jones and Nick Markakis from the Orioles. They, too, are feasting on the under-performing pitching in their division, and may get into the conversation.
Getting the talk: Zack Greinke, Zack Greinke, and Zack Greinke
What about these guys?: Kevin Millwood
Dark horses: Felix Hernandez, Eric Bedard, and (dare I say it) Justin Verlander
I only have those dark horses there because they deserve acknowledgement for the strong starts they've had this year. Bedard is back to being what we saw with the O's two years back.
King Felix is being his usual self, striking out many, keeping the runs down, and this year he's even getting some run support for his trouble. Even Kevin Millwood looks like his heyday as a Brave again—you know, when he'd pitch behind Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz and you still wished he were your team's ace.
But Greinke has been beyond sparkling. He's been unhittable. He finally gave up his first couple of earned runs of the season last week (after a 43-inning scoreless streak, the best we've seen in years), and as a result, his ERA is better than everyone else by a solid run and a half (0.50; second place is 2.10 for Oakland's Dallas Braden).
Greinke's allowing less than a base runner per inning to lead the AL; he, Roy Halladay, and Billingsley are the only 5-0 pitchers in the big leagues so far. To top it ALL off, the far-and-away winner is averaging 11 Ks per game, half a K behind the league leader.
That league leader is Justin Verlander. He's not really anywhere near the Cy Young conversation yet, but I have him in here just to beg the question: Is the former Tigers ace returning to form?
His last couple of games, he's been unstoppable on the mound for Detroit, though his ERA is still a sloppy 5.66 from two bad games in his first four starts. And yet, he pitched into the eighth before letting Seattle out four starts ago, and has allowed a total of one run in his last two starts while K'ing 20 over 14 innings against the Yankees and Indians, two teams with some potent offense. Could he be officially back? Only time will tell.
Prediction: Greinke's got a big lead, and the competition's not that stiff so far this year. Even if he has relatively normal months from May through October, he should take the trophy.
NL COMEBACK PLAYER: If he keeps up his recent pattern of quality starts... Barry Zito. There, I said it. Two 1-0 wins by the Giants that he gets no decision for, plus a win in between that he kept his team in by sheer force of will.
I'm beginning to believe in Barry again--which makes the Giants far more dangerous. It gives the Giants one fo the two best rotations in the NL, with Lincecum, Cain, Randy Johnson still being solid, and the budding Jonathan Sanchez. Watch. Out. Let's see how long he can keep it up.
AL COMEBACK PLAYER: Victor Martinez, but keep an eye on Justin Verlander and Eric Bedard, as well. No, I'm not gonna say Andruw Jones. He's still only playing part time.
NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Dexter Fowler for now.
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Too early to say; Matt Wieters and David Price are still in the minors. But for now, Dallas Braden of the A's, who's been sensational for a punchless team, particularly when you stop to think that he's been matched up against a lot of great AL number one starters.
NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Flip a coin, but it's either Tony La Russa of St. Louis or Joe Torre of the Dodgers. Both teams are playing some fantastic ball right now.
AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Cito Gaston, Toronto Blue Jays. 'Nuff said.
Disagree? Tell me about it.