BOSTON -- So, who wins the American League Most Valuable Player Award now that it is clear that Texas Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton, the odds-on favorite, has been sidelined by bruised ribs that could cost him most of September?
My ESPN colleague Jayson Stark recently noted that no position player in history has won an MVP in a non-strike year without playing at least 10 games from Sept. 1 on. And only one, Dick Groat, played fewer than 15 games.
Hamilton could still win the award, given that the Rangers had such a comfortable lead entering the season's final month -- 8½ games, the same edge they had held three weeks earlier. He leads the league in hitting and OPS (on-base plus slugging), is second in on-base percentage and is fourth in home runs.
But it's hardly an open-and-shut decision, and cases have been made for Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko and Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, who leads the majors with 47 home runs, also has been mentioned as belonging on the ballot, as has Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who hasn't hit home runs like he did last season but is third in the league in hitting and on-base percentage.
There's another player who definitely has earned a place in the conversation, and, depending on whether the Red Sox make an improbable, last-gasp run at a playoff spot in their final 16 games, he could fight his way toward the top of the ballot for the 28 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who will be casting votes. (For the record: I have an MVP vote this season).
And if it was based on which candidate had the best finishing kick, Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre and Konerko would be neck-and-neck for the award.
Beltre goes into Friday night's game against the Toronto Blue Jays batting .385 in September, with 5 home runs and 9 RBIs. His OPS is 1.225, which was leading all contenders until Konerko homered again Thursday night, lifting his OPS to 1.247.
But while the White Sox were swept by the Twins this week and knocked from postseason contention, Beltre's Red Sox still have a sliver of a chance (2.9 percent, according to coolstandings.com), their prospects helped by the fact they have six games left against the Yankees, one of the two teams in the AL East they're chasing.
Beltre's qualifications go far beyond what he has done in 52 September at-bats. Let's look at his overall line:
" BA -- .328 (4th)
" OBP -- .373 (11th)
" SLG -- .568 (5th)
" OPS -- .941 (5th)
" HR -- 28 (7th)
" RBI -- 97 (10th)
" 2B -- 42 (3rd)
If the award was based solely on the numbers, the Tigers' Cabrera should win: 1st in OBP, 1st in OPS, 2nd in BA, 3rd in HRs. But the MVP award typically goes to a player on a contender, and the Tigers relinquished first place in the AL Central on July 12, three weeks later were eight games behind, and haven't gotten closer since. They enter the weekend two games under .500 (72-74) and 16 games behind the Twins.
Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg makes the argument for Cabrera here. But with other players on contending teams having outstanding seasons, Cabrera's chances diminish, even if Cabrera had nothing to do with the Tigers' freefall, just as Felix Hernandez's 11-11 record is no reflection on how well he has pitched for the Seattle Mariners.
One important distinction: The Cy Young is an award rewarding best performance, period. Because it is "Most Valuable" and not "Player of the Year," there's more room for interpretation and subjective factors.
Which brings us back to Beltre. His consistency this season reinforces his case that he is MVP material:
" He is batting .327 versus lefties, .329 versus righties.
" He hit .330 with a .907 OPS before the All-Star break; it's .326 and .993 since.
" At home, he is batting .322 with 13 HRs, 48 RBIs and an .894 OPS.
" On the road, he is batting .335, second in the AL, with 15 HRs, 49 RBIs and an OPS of .985, also second in the league.
Beltre's overall performance is remarkably similar to the Yankees' Cano, who regularly gets mentioned as one of the top three candidates:
" BA -- .322 (6th)
" OBP -- .382 (9th)
" SLG -- .544 (6th)
" OPS -- .927 (6th)
" HR -- 27 (8th)
" RBI -- 99 (8th)
And that's where a finishing kick should come into play: While Beltre has sizzled, Cano has cooled off considerably in September, batting .291 with 1 home run and 9 RBIs. His OPS is .698, .527 behind Beltre. There is still time for him to heat up, and Beltre to cool off, but if the gap between the Sox and Yankees narrow, and Beltre continues to play well, Beltre's case becomes that much stronger.
Ironically, defense -- the very quality that made Beltre so desirable to the Red Sox -- would appear to give Cano a distinct advantage. He has made just three errors at second base, fewest in the AL. Beltre has 16 errors at third base for the Sox. But then you dig a little deeper, and you reach a different conclusion. By one sabermetric measure, UZR150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games), Beltre has been the better fielder by far, with a 15.1 rating, compared with 1.2 for Cano.
There is one other notable sabermetric stat that cinches the case for Beltre as a worthy MVP candidate: WAR, or wins above replacement. Hamilton leads the majors with an 8.0 WAR rating. Beltre is second at 7.1.
So while it may be a long shot for Beltre to win, it shouldn't be. And it won't be if the Red Sox pull off the improbable.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.