Bleacher Report's 2017 MLB Award Predictions at Start of Spring Training
Major League Baseball just started spring training. So, it's just a little bit early to start talking about who's going to win awards for this season.
But just try to stop us.
Since there's actual baseball about to be played for the first time in 2017, we might as well get the ball rolling on predictions for things that matter. Awards are a good place to start.
We'll focus on the four big ones in the American and National League: Manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player. Going into our picks for each was a mix of logic, projections, analysis and, as usual, a bit of imagination to tie it all together.
We can't guarantee they'll all be right in the end, of course. But the beauty of this time of year is that they could be! So let's get to it.
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Girardi, New York Yankees
If you ask me, "Manager of the Year" is a bit of a misnomer. It often should be called "Manager Whose Team Surprisingly Didn't Suck."
And this brings us to Joe Girardi.
Girardi is preparing for his 10th season as skipper of the New York Yankees. It was generally expected in each of his previous nine seasons that his team would be, if not among the favorites, certainly among the contenders in the American League.
Not so much this year.
The Yankees committed to a rebuild in 2016, and the fallout from that is a younger and greener team than they're used to. To boot, Girardi will be guiding it as a lame-duck manager. It's understandable that his squad is being largely ignored as a possible contender.
However, the Yankees must not be mistaken for a bad team. They're projected to finish over .500 by Baseball Prospectus. A couple more wins could be added to their final tally if Girardi squeezes better-than-expected performances out of the team's youngsters.
It wouldn't be his first time. When he won the Manager of the Year in the National League in 2006, he did it by guiding the Florida Marlins, then the league's youngest team, to a surprisingly strong season.
A repeat of that effort would allow Girardi's work to stand out in this year's AL picture, resulting in a second Manager of the Year that's arguably overdue at this point.
Other Candidates: A.J. Hinch, John Farrell, Terry Francona, Kevin Cash, Ned Yost, Paul Molitor, Scott Servais, Mike Scioscia
NL Manager of the Year: Bud Black, Colorado Rockies
It's a tougher call in the National League this year. It figures to once again be a league of haves and have-nots, wherein there's not much room for surprises.
There's a surprise brewing in Denver, however.
The Colorado Rockies have a new manager in Bud Black. He already has a Manager of the Year award, having won it in 2010 with the San Diego Padres. To hear him say it, he's a wiser man now than he was then.
"You become an amalgam of everywhere you've been, basically," Black told Barry M. Bloom of MLB.com. "You take all of your experiences, but there's no doubt that the years of managing a Major League team give you great resources to draw from."
Of course, managing the Rockies is no picnic. Coors Field is their blessing and their curse, and they have the rotten luck of sharing the NL West with superpowers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Thing is, the 2017 Rockies are no joke.
With Ian Desmond joining Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story and DJ LeMahieu, the Rockies have a good lineup even by their standards. There's some solid pitching to go with it, with emerging ace Jon Gray anchoring the rotation and Greg Holland anchoring the bullpen.
At worst, the Rockies figure to be tons of fun to watch. At best, they'll outplay their modest projections and contend for a wild-card spot. That would result in Black's share of the credit.
Other Candidates: Dave Roberts, Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon, Mike Matheny, Clint Hurdle, Dusty Baker, Terry Collins
AL Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi, Boston Red Sox
I feel weak for making such a safe pick, and yet I regret nothing.
Consider Corey Seager, the runaway winner for the NL Rookie of the Year in 2016, for a moment. Before that, he was No. 1 on all the big prospect lists. Before that, he had an impressive breakthrough in 2015.
Andrew Benintendi has set off on a similar path to the AL Rookie of the Year for 2017.
The former No. 7 pick was already generating buzz when he debuted with the Boston Red Sox last August. He then hit .295 with an .835 OPS in 34 regular-season games and .333 with a homer in three playoff games.
Now, Benintendi is almost repeating Seager's trick of being everyone's favorite prospect. Baseball America, MLB.com and ESPN.com all rank him at No. 1. Baseball Prospectus is the lone dissenter, and even they have him ranked No. 3.
It's easy to believe the hype. The 22-year-old is arguably a 70-grade hitter, and he's now equipped for above-average power after putting on some bulk over the offseason. Despite that, he also figures to be more athletic than the typical left fielder.
Nobody will have to wait around for Benintendi to arrive. Like Seager at shortstop for the Dodgers last year, Benintendi will be in left field for the Red Sox on Opening Day. He can go wire-to-wire as the AL's best rookie.
Other Candidates: Aaron Judge, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Clint Frazier, Carson Fulmer
NL Rookie of the Year: Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves
This is also a safe pick, except there's an additional layer on what "safe" means in this context.
Truth be told, Dansby Swanson probably doesn't have the most upside among the top prospects in the National League. He's a star in the making but may not have superstar potential like a Tyler Glasnow or a Cody Bellinger. Or Alex Reyes when he's healthy again, for that matter.
But while Swanson may not have the highest ceiling, he may have the highest floor of any prospect.
The Vanderbilt product was regarded as a complete package when the Arizona Diamondbacks chose him at No. 1 overall back in 2015: a shortstop who could field, hit and run. That put him on a fast track to the majors, and he lived up to his billing when he arrived with the Atlanta Braves last year.
In 38 games, Swanson hit .302 with an .803 OPS at the plate. He also showed well on the bases and played a better shortstop than his pedestrian defensive metrics indicate.
After all that, the 23-year-old is basically the NL's Benintendi. He's rated as the Senior Circuit's top prospect by Baseball America, MLB.com and ESPN.com. Baseball Prospectus is technically the lone dissenter once again, but their top prospect (Reyes) is out for the year.
Also like Benintendi, another thing Swanson has is a job. He'll be manning shortstop for the Braves on Opening Day, giving him his own chance to go wire-to-wire as his league's top rookie.
Other Candidates: Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Cody Bellinger, Manny Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Albert Almora
AL Cy Young: Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
Max Scherzer wasn't an established ace before winning the AL Cy Young in 2013. Ditto Corey Kluber in 2014, Dallas Keuchel in 2015 and Rick Porcello in 2016.
I'm sensing a trend here. It's of pitchers with strong ability putting it all together and being awesome.
Meanwhile, there's Marcus Stroman.
The Toronto Blue Jays right-hander has had an interesting career. He had a promising debut with a 3.65 ERA in 2014. Then he missed most of 2015 after tearing his ACL. He then had a 1.67 ERA in four starts after coming back, putting the hype train back on the track. Then came more disappointment, as he managed just a 4.37 ERA in his first full season in 2016.
But as I've already discussed elsewhere, the underlying numbers in Stroman's 2016 season were actually quite good. And he finished the year stronger than he started it with a 3.68 ERA after the All-Star break.
Stroman made adjustments in that second half that he can carry over into 2017. Chief among them is not relying on his sinker so much, instead using his arsenal of excellent pitches to give hitters different looks.
That helped lead to more strikeouts down the stretch last year and can do so again throughout 2017. In addition, Stroman can also induce ground balls in bunches and avoid issuing free passes.
These are valuable skills for a pitcher to have, and the combination of them should be more than enough for the 25-year-old to achieve ace status this season.
Other Candidates: Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Yu Darvish, Chris Archer, Masahiro Tanaka
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
On the one hand, this is another easy pick that maybe I should feel ashamed of.
On the other hand, it's Clayton freakin' Kershaw.
The Dodgers ace is in the midst of one of the most dominant pitching runs the sport has ever seen. Since 2011, his average season has included a 2.06 ERA and a 5.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 213 innings.
And when last we saw Kershaw, he was better than ever. The left-hander put up a career-best 1.69 ERA in 149 innings in 2016 and also pulled off the ridiculous feat of striking out 161 more batters than he walked. His command of his lethal fastball-slider-curveball combo had never been better.
The one kernel of doubt right now is not related to Kershaw's ability but his durability. A bad back limited him to just 21 starts last year and marked his second injury-marred season out of three.
On the bright side, Kershaw is still south of 30. He's also making a point of not getting sidelined again.
“I want to make every start,” he told Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to make that next start. I’ll worry about the next year when I need to. If it costs me somewhere down the road, it does. But I’m here to make every start this year. I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
To be sure, the kernel of doubt remains. But even Kershaw with a kernel of doubt is a better Cy Young bet than any other pitcher in baseball.
Other Candidates: Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks
AL MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Yup, here we go from Clayton freakin' Kershaw for NL Cy Young to Mike freakin' Trout for AL MVP.
Seems like a natural next step, right? As Kershaw has been baseball's best pitcher, Trout has been baseball's best player. All he's done since 2012 is average a .975 OPS, 33 home runs, 28 stolen bases and 9.6 wins above replacement per season.
And just as Kershaw peaked in 2016, Trout may have done the same.
The Los Angeles Angels stud actually had weaknesses in prior years, most notably a strikeout habit that stemmed from a weakness against high heat. But then he cleaned that up in a big way last season.
The 25-year-old's reward was the second MVP of his career. And if that could happen despite playing on a losing team, imagine his support if he did it all over again for a winning team in 2017.
New additions Cameron Maybin, Danny Espinosa and Luis Valbuena have added much-needed depth around Trout in the Angels lineup. They also figure to help the club's run prevention, which FanGraphs' Corinne Landrey outlined as a real strength.
Without Trout, the Angels still wouldn't be much to look at. But with him, a strong season is well within the realm of possibility. That would only make it easier for him to claim a third MVP.
Other Candidates: Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Francisco Lindor
NL MVP: Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
I wouldn't call it a trend just yet, but the last two NL MVPs (Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant) were won by young players who put it all together.
Nolan Arenado has next.
Arenado already has some experience as an MVP candidate, finishing eighth in the voting in 2015 and fifth in the voting last year. He put up numbers that couldn't be ignored in both cases, including NL-best figures in home runs, RBI and total bases.
Some of this is Coors Field at work, to be sure. But Arenado's bat is legit and getting better every year. Power comes from making hard contact and getting the ball airborne. Lo and behold, his GB/FB and hard-hit rates won't stop improving.
Arguably the 25-year-old's biggest feat in 2016, however, was improving his discipline and taking many more free passes. Assuming that ability continues to improve alongside his power, his best offensive season yet could be just around the corner.
Don't forget, this is also a guy who's won four straight Gold Gloves at third base. Per the metrics, each of them was well-earned.
Add it all up and Arenado appears headed toward a season that even Coors Field nitpickers will have a hard time downplaying. If the Rockies do indeed end up being a surprise contender, that would elevate him above the rest of the field.
Other Candidates: Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Corey Seager, Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton