If Albert Pujols was looking for more incentive to have a monster season in 2011, he may be about to find it.
He and the St. Louis Cardinals remain far apart on a contract extension, and Pujols said he would not discuss it beyond Feb. 19, when he reports for spring training.
If Pujols actually makes it to market, he will be the most sought-after free agent in baseball history. He might well earn in excess of $30 million per season, perhaps for as many as 10 seasons.
To maximize his potential free-agent value, though, Pujols might want to make it clear that he is still very much in his prime by winning what would be his fourth NL MVP award.
He is not alone in trying to make a big statement this season. Read on for five guys who could win each of MLB's major awards in 2011.
- Albert Pujols: Pujols is the only person a rational baseball person can project as the MVP favorite going into any given season, and going into what could be a walk year, it’s utterly inevitable that he should be the favorite again.
- Troy Tulowitzki: Given a full season of health, Tulowitzki is a 35-homer, 100-RBI shortstop who also fields the most important position on the diamond more smoothly and impressively than all but a handful of defensive specialists.
- Chase Utley: After Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won the award in 2006 and 2007, Utley seemed the best chance for the Phillies to three-peat. Unfortunately, he has had three straight seasons of nagging injuries instead. Still, Utley is an elite fielder at second base and a supremely well-rounded offensive threat.
- Hanley Ramirez: The essential principal here is the same as the one that propels Tulowitzki’s case: A shortstop with an elite offensive skill set is a highly valuable thing. Also working in Ramirez’s favor is the wealth of talent around him in the Marlins order, which should add up to plenty of the counting stats. He has a lot to overcome, however: Writers view him as lazy and selfish, and he is rightly seen as an average or worse fielder.
- Brian McCann: Here is the dark horse. McCann is a slugging backstop with a ton of experience already, but he turns just 27 this April. He may just now be reaching his prime, and if that is so, then the National League has much to fear from him, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman this season.
Kevin Youkilis: Writers love him. He hits the cover off the ball, runs the bases as though exerting himself entirely with every stride (he probably is, given his girth) and does whatever the team asks of him. Youkilis is the best combination of versatility, scrappiness and pure baseball skills in baseball, and this season, he could rack up monstrous numbers in that Boston lineup.
Adrian Gonzalez: Over the past two seasons, Gonzalez has 48 home runs outside the cavern in which he used to play his home games. Fenway may not be too much more inviting in right field than was PETCO Park, but Gonzalez is a monster and his new park will not hold him back from a terrific season.
Mark Teixeira: Alex Rodriguez is aging; Derek Jeter is, too. Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson are more than usually susceptible to platoon splits—even though Swisher is a switch-hitter. Even Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner profile more as regression toward the mean guys than as future superstars. Without Teixeira, the Yankees’ offense would likely rate little better than average on the vaunted junior circuit. Luckily for New York, they are not without Teixeira.
Joe Mauer: Mauer has one MVP under his belt already, and though his power has clearly been somewhat curtailed by the generous dimensions of Target Field, he remains one of the three or four best pure hitters in baseball. Only Pujols can match his combination of contact and patience, albeit with much more power. Of course, Mauer also plays catcher.
Dustin Pedroia: Pedroia also has one MVP already in his cabinet, and although injuries hampered him in 2010, he will bat leadoff in a nearly unstoppable batting order and plays a very deft second base. Those are two good ingredients in the recipe for another MVP award.
Tommy Hanson: This may seem a preposterous pick, but Hanson is the kind of pitcher who projects really well: The Braves have used him wisely, he is young but has a fair amount of big-league experience by now and he possesses a tremendous blend of strikeout stuff and command.
Roy Halladay: The ageless and indefatigable Halladay will probably eclipse 240 innings again in 2011. He will probably also win at least 16 or 17 games. Will he match his 2010 NL debut, when he pitched a perfect game in the regular season and a no-hitter in the playoffs? Of course not. But he does not necessarily need to do so in order to win another Cy Young.
Tim Lincecum: For all the talk about his diminished velocity over the past two years, Lincecum still led the NL in strikeouts per nine innings yet again in 2010. He is a workhorse and a true ace, and pitches for the defending champions, which does not hurt.
Ubaldo Jimenez: Pitching in Colorado is hard. To do it successfully, a hurler would be well-served to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible, strike out a lot of batters and throw about 100 miles per hour. Meet Ubaldo Jimenez.
Cliff Lee: The writers love Lee, and the eyes of the nation will be upon him. The command, the run support and the general hubbub around him will make Lee the winner if he gives the voters any excuse to crown him.
- Jered Weaver: Why Weaver has not gotten more positive attention over the past two seasons is anyone’s guess. Unequivocally, he has been one of the top five pitchers in the AL over that span. He should toss at least 220 innings again in 2011, striking out a ton of batters and walking very few. If the Angels bounce back enough for Weaver to win 19 or 20 games, he should get his day in the sun.
- Jon Lester: Lester walks more batters than the ideal left-hander, but he keeps the ball on the ground better than almost any southpaw in the business. He also ranks as perhaps the best left-handed strikeout pitcher in baseball, and now he pitches with an offensive and defensive juggernaut at his back.
- Justin Verlander: Verlander is another pitcher in the mold of Weaver, underappreciated workhorses who miss a lot of bats. Few starting pitchers in baseball have Verlander’s pure stuff, and he also seems virtually indestructible.
- Felix Hernandez: Speaking of indestructible, the Mariners are clearly banking on the premise that Hernandez is just that. Though he is not yet 25, he faced over 1,000 batters last season and has pitched nearly 480 innings since the start of 2009. Hernandez might just be the exception to the age-old rules about heavy usage of young pitchers, but if he isn’t, Seattle is going to look very stupid very soon for having so rode him over an utterly non-competitive arc of seasons.
- CC Sabathia: If the Yankees are going to make it interesting with a Red Sox team that is by far their superior this season, it will take another huge effort from the huge Sabathia. Being a southpaw helps an awful lot against Carl Crawford, Gonzalez, David Ortiz and other left-handed sluggers in the division, so Sabathia has that (and a great repertoire of pitches he commands beautifully) going for him.
- Fredi Gonzalez: In Manager of the Year voting, the most important thing is to manage a winning club. The second-most important thing is to do so for a club that is not expected to win, at least not as much as they do. Gonzalez will manage the Braves this year, a team expected to win 85-90 games but assumed to be second fiddle yet again to Philadelphia. If Atlanta wins the division, Gonzalez will win the award.
- Tony La Russa: If the best person at every job won the award for that job, La Russa would be the perennial Manager of the Year. He is a master tactician, has managed to hang onto pitching coach Dave Duncan for years and has learned to manage many different personalities to succeed to the best of their ability.
- Charlie Manuel: Manuel has won before, but he deserves to win again if he can guide Philadelphia to its fifth straight division title in 2011. As good as their rotation looks, it is one injury away from looking more accessible, and the lineup’s key cogs are aging.
- Bruce Bochy: Bochy proved himself an excellent distributor of opportunities and playing time during the postseason, and if he can manage the same balancing act of his bullpen and outfield in 2011, the Giants might well return to the playoffs.
- Mike Quade: The Cubs certainly will not expect much more than the 75 wins they got in 2010, so if Quade—who has a lot of young and underachieving talent with which to work—can captain the team to more like 90 wins and a division title in the weak NL Central, he will get a long look at this hardware.
- Joe Maddon: Maddon is already a fondly regarded mad scientist, and when (not if) he guides the emaciated Rays to 85 wins or more in 2011, he will command even more respect.
- John Farrell: After years as Boston’s pitching coach, Farrell now will tackle his first big-league managerial job in 2011, and he steps into a situation rife with chances to play the hero. The Jays made several astute trades this winter, but nearly all were aimed at success in 2012 or beyond. Farrell’s success in 2011 will be measured favorably against a very generous expectation.
- Mike Scioscia: His miserable misuse of catchers aside, Scioscia is the La Russa of the American League. He should be a perennial candidate for this prize, and in a year when the Angels are poised to move back toward the front of the AL West, he has an even better chance.
- Buck Showalter: If the early returns from a half-season of work are any indication, Showalter is a shoo-in for the award. Of course, the Orioles will likely lose more games than they win this year, effectively knocking Showalter out of the running. Still, he has an impressive resume and a strong reputation for motivating players.
- Ron Gardenhire: Minnesota’s sturdy manager is perfectly suited to his organization, which emphasized the long haul and a patient approach. He won in 2010, and assuming the Twins hang on to repeat their title in 2011, he could win again.
- Domonic Brown: The Phillies will almost certainly start the season with Brown as the permanent replacement for Jayson Werth in right field, and while he does little to add balance to a lineup that is too left-handed, Brown does add both power and speed. By the end of the season, he may be the full-time answer in the fifth spot in Philadelphia’s order.
- Freddie Freeman: Atlanta brought up Jason Heyward as the Opening Day right-fielder in 2010, and after Heyward got robbed of the Rookie of the Year by Buster Posey in the fall, the team slated Freeman for the vacant first base gig in 2011. Freeman is not the superb talent that Heyward is, but he still could well win the award.
- Aroldis Chapman: After all the hypethat came Chapman's way after he came up and threw fire in the big leagues late last year, few may remember that he still qualifies as a rookie. He does, though, and he could win a la Neftali Feliz.
- Bryce Harper: There aren't a lot of things keeping Harper in the minor leagues. The Nats might want to play it very safe with him, but if he comes up mid-season and belts 20-25 homers the way Mike Stanton did last season, Harper could win the award going away.
- Brett Jackson: The Cubs would need to trade outfielder Kosuke Fukudome or lose some people to injury for Jackson to step into a big role in 2011, but once he does, this guy has all five tools, plus good patience at the plate.
- Jeremy Hellickson: With Matt Garza gone, Hellickson has a sizable gap to fill in the Rays’ rotation. Fortunately, then, he is an excellent pitcher who has already (at least in a very limited sample) proved capable of getting out big-league hitters.
- Mike Moustakas: The Royals’ slashing third baseman will almost certainly remain in Triple-A to start the season, but he could still make a major impact before the All-Star break.
- Kyle Drabek: Drabek actually made four starts in 2010, but he has almost as high a ceiling as Hellickson and may actually be more polished.
- Jesus Montero: The Yanks have to give Montero a chance sometime; this is as good a year as any, with the team in need of an infusion of youth for the middle of its order. Montero is not much of a catcher, but he hits the cover off the ball.
- Desmond Jennings: Johnny Damon's arrival puts a large cramp in his style, but Jennings still could be the breakout rookie of the new baseball year. He has been compared to a more raw Carl Crawford, which is not a bad goal to shoot for.