- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Is it too soon to mail Albert Pujols his National League MVP trophy right now?
Seriously. With all due respect to the fabulous work of Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Troy Tulowitzki, Chase Utley and many other upstanding NL citizens, what would have to happen in September for Pujols not to win another MVP award? Would he have to go 0-for-112? Hit into a double play every time up? Defect to Kyrgyzstan?
OK, maybe all of the above. And he'd still probably win this thing. So that concludes our discussion of the one major awards race with a clear-cut favorite as September looms. As for those other races?
Hoo boy. We'd have a better shot at predicting Michelle Wie's score in the Canadian Women's Open.
We have five races raging these days that are more unsettled than Lou Piniella's stomach. So let's take a look at how Those Other Award Races shape up heading into September:
American League Most Valuable Player
If the season ended right now : You'd have to be watching a different sport than we are to vote for anybody but Joe Mauer. He's hitting .373. His on-base percentage (.442) is ridiculous. He's leading the league in slugging (.622) by more than 40 points. And if the season ended today, he'd be only the fifth player since the 1930s with numbers that high in all three categories. (The others: Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Larry Walker and George Brett -- whoever they are.) Mauer (in case you hadn't noticed) is also a premier defensive player at a vital defensive position. And while the Twins may not be stampeding toward the postseason, don't impose any empty-number penalties on this guy's candidacy. His team is only 4½ games out of first place. So every stat he's compiled has been totally meaningful.
But : The Twins' pitching is in such disarray that they may not be able to hang in there -- not that it would be Mauer's fault. And if they finish, say, seven games out and below .500, many voters will start looking at the candidates whose teams might actually win something. If Miguel Cabrera, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist or Michael Young lug their teams into the postseason with huge Septembers, they belong in the argument. But the big debate could be between the prime Bronx contenders -- Derek Jeter versus Mark Teixeira. The number-crunchers mostly favor Jeter in that duel. The folks who view Teixeira's signing as the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox are pushing Teixeira. But nobody in this group is even in the same area code as Mauer in the off-the-chart historic-year portion of this discussion. So this is shaping up as one of those classic MVP debates: the clear-cut "best player" or the guy perceived to be most "valuable" on a team that wins. This, friends, is what MVP arguments are all about.
National League Cy Young
If the season ended right now : We'd still vote for Tim Lincecum. Barely. But boy is this tough, because Chris Carpenter now has more wins (14 to 12) and a lower ERA (2.16 to 2.43). On the other hand, Lincecum has the best opponent OPS in baseball (.559, to Carpenter's .582), more double-figure strikeout games (6-2), more quality starts (21-17) and 40 more innings pitched. He also has had more "dominating starts" -- six starts of seven innings or more with no runs allowed (to Carpenter's three) and nine starts with a game score of 75 or more (to Carpenter's three). "Lincecum has been ridiculous," one NL scout said. "He just keeps them in game after game where the score's 1-0 or 2-0. As great as Carpenter has been, Lincecum's stuff is like Wiffleball-in-the-back-yard filthy." So that's our vote. This week.
But : Carpenter has nine wins in his past 10 starts (with a blown save in the 10th), so there's no indication he's planning to ever lose again. And not only could he win this thing with a ferocious September, this could turn into about a six-man scrum if Lincecum and Carpenter come back to the pack at all. Cliff Lee won't get enough NL starts to make it into the argument. But Dan Haren, Matt Cain, Adam Wainwright and Josh Johnson have all had Cy Young-ish years. Now it's up to September to determine whether that wins them any Cy Young trophies.
American League Cy Young
If the season ended right now : This would be the ultimate test of the age-old Cy Young question: How much do wins matter? You may have lost track of Zack Greinke when the Royals hurtled off the AL cliff. But he still leads the league in ERA, in Baseball Prospectus' VORP (value over replacement player) stat and in Lee Sinins' runs saved above average (by a huge margin, by the way). So it's easy to argue that, in a win-free vacuum, he's been the best pitcher in the league. What crushes his chances, among traditional voters, is his atrocious team. He has won exactly two games since June. And his subversive team somehow has a losing record (12-14) when he's pitched. So if the season really did end today, and if we had a reasonably enlightened voter populace, he "should" win this thing. Which isn't the same as "will."
But : We know that Cy Young voters just can't keep their eyes off the often-misleading "wins" column. So are the win-oriented voters going to ignore Greinke and vote for the almost-as-deserving Felix Hernandez (12-5, 2.73)? Or the slightly-less-deserving CC Sabathia (15-7, 3.59) or Josh Beckett (14-5, 3.65)? Or can Roy Halladay (2-4, 4.40 in his last six starts), Justin Verlander (2-2, 4.59 in August) resurrect their candidacies with unhittable finishes? Or can a closer -- say, Mariano Rivera (0.61 ERA since June 7) or the relentlessly untouchable Joe Nathan (26 saves, with a 1.03 ERA, since May 21) -- steal this thing? For what it's worth, Hernandez has pulled into an essentially dead heat with Greinke in our Inside Edge player ratings. Of course, by October, that will matter about as much to the actual voters as the price of wheat-grain futures.
National League Rookie of the Year
If the season ended right now : We'd hand this trophy to Phillies left-hander J.A. Happ, who has made the biggest imprint on his team of any rookie in baseball. He's 10-2. He's fifth in the league in ERA (2.59). Hitters are batting .125 against him with runners in scoring position. And if the season ended today, which is highly unlikely, he'd finish with the lowest ERA by any rookie since Hideo Nomo in 1995, and the lowest by a Phillies since Eppa Rixey in 1912. Happ might not have the upside of Tommy Hanson, but "he's been the most impactful guy I've seen, as far as the way he's affected a club in a pennant chase," one scout said. "And he picked it up when they need him most."
But : If Happ doesn't finish off his sensational season with a big September, he might not even win the rookie pitcher of the year award. In Atlanta, Hanson is 9-2 and has given up two runs or fewer in eight of his 14 starts. The Cubs' Randy Wells, meanwhile, has a 2.81 ERA. He's also gone 9-3 since June 21 -- and his trusty bullpen has blown three saves for him. And right behind that group there's a tightly bunched position-player crop (Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones, Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler, Colby Rasmus, Chris Coghlan, Casey McGehee) that could still propel somebody into the winner's circle. There's no easy, runaway Pujols-ish kind of pick in this field. But that just makes this derby more fun, not less.
American League Rookie of the Year
If the season ended right now : We'd have a total free-for-all on our hands. But we'd cast our vote, narrowly, for A's closer Andrew Bailey, a guy who dropped out of the clouds to have a tremendous season that absolutely no one outside of the 510 area code appears to have caught on to. Bailey leads all AL closers in strikeouts (75, in 69 innings). Only Nathan and Rivera have a lower ERA than Bailey's 1.96. No reliever in the league has had more outings with multiple strikeouts (27). And this guy has allowed just four extra-base hits all year -- none of them homers, by the way -- to the 174 right-handed hitters he's faced. So he has been remarkably similar to the last A's reliever to win this award, Huston Street (2005).
But : Jeff Niemann, who leads the Rays in wins, could still win this thing. And Ricky Romero, who ripped off 24 straight shutout innings at one point, could still win this thing. And the onrushing Gordon Beckham (hitting .299/.377/.482 since his 2-for-28 start) could still win this thing. And don't rule out Elvis Andrus, Tommy Hunter, Nolan Reimold or Brad Bergesen, for that matter. This field really is that jumbled. "Nobody's come out of the pack like [Evan] Longoria did last year," one scout said. "It's a really tough call." But at crazy times like this, it's important to remember something: September is always the month that helps us make those tough calls. So we can advise Albert Pujols to carve out a little time this fall for his major-award news conference. As for everybody else, we can only say: Stay tuned.
Ready to rumble
• Get away for the Hollidays: Much as he clearly loves St. Louis, Matt Holliday continues to give the Cardinals no indication he's amenable to signing any discounted deals to stick around beyond this year. And if the Cardinals have to pay him free-agent-market dollars to hang onto him, let's sound the alarm right here: They might be putting the franchise in economic peril.
"The worst thing they could do is re-sign him," one American League exec said. "If you start thinking about their long-term payroll, what's the biggest payroll a city like St. Louis could absorb? Let's say it's $100 million. Now you have to give Holliday $15-16 million a year. Then you have to give Albert [Pujols] $25-30 million, and probably $30 million. So now you're paying two guys $45-50 million? That's a lot of money in that market.
"In 2010, it might not matter. In 2011, it might not matter. But when you get to 2014 and you've got half your payroll wrapped up in two 34-year-old guys, that's not a good place to be. Those are the kinds of contracts you can't get out of."
Tying up Holliday at market dollars, and then re-signing Pujols, would almost assure the Cardinals of not being able to keep Chris Carpenter and/or Adam Wainwright when their next big paydays roll around. While it seemed so logical, at the time they traded for Holliday, to forecast that they'd swoop in and sign him, it's not so logical when you start punching in all those dollar signs.
The Phillies would have had a much better shot at re-signing Halladay than they will of keeping Lee.
Why? Because Halladay wanted to go to Philadelphia. He lives just up the road from the Phillies' spring training facility. And because he won't hit free agency until the winter before his age-34 season, he would have been more amenable (theoretically) to the kind of deal the Phillies gave Brad Lidge last season.
Had the Phillies offered Halladay a three-year extension next year, with a signing bonus and an option, that would have covered five seasons (counting the final year of his current deal) but not violated the Phillies' philosophy of only guaranteeing three-year contracts for pitchers.
Lee, however, will be a free agent heading into his 32-year-old season. And the buzz already is that his agent, Darek Braunecker, is looking for a deal beyond the Phillies' customary parameters.
"Darek Braunecker is going to try to kill it with this guy," said an official of one team that looked into Lee before the trade deadline. "There's no doubt in my mind. He'll be looking for $100 million. And I don't blame him.
"But you know what? From the Phillies' standpoint, if you get this guy for a year and a half and he's motivated as hell and he's absolutely dominant and then he leaves and you get two picks, wouldn't you rather be that team than the team that has to give him $100 million. I would. Maybe you'd rather have 2½ years than 1½ years. But you don't want six years, because those are the deals that get scary."
• A month to forget: Speaking of Halladay, August is shaping up to be his worst month as a big leaguer since he returned from the 2001 trip to the minor leagues that turned him into Cy Young.
In five starts since he stayed put at the trading deadline, he's 2-3 with a 4.50 ERA and a .320 opponent batting average. And he hasn't had any month, with four starts or more, with an ERA and an opponent average that high since 2000.
But beware the conventional theory that this is some kind of post-deadline hangover. Two different scouts told Rumblings they think Halladay is battling some kind of physical issue.
"He doesn't look right, physically," one said. "He's not finishing his pitches. It looked like it was almost painful for him to throw a pitch like he wanted to. And he was almost straight up in his delivery. It looked like he was protecting something in his back. It wasn't the same delivery."
"I didn't think the arm speed was quite as good," another scout said. "He seemed a little apprehensive. When you have some kind of injury, the last thing that comes back is the late movement on the fastball. And right now, that isn't there. The velocity is fine. The extension out front is not."
• Just feel better: It would be a stretch to say that people in baseball were predicting a Johan Santana elbow injury even before the Mets traded for him 18 months ago. But it's safe to say that clubs that looked into Santana's health in 2007, when it became apparent the Twins could deal him, aren't shocked, either.
"It's so hard to tell, because you're never going to get a lot of good medical information on a guy before you trade for him," said an official of one of those clubs. "But we spent so much time looking at pitch data and video you could see he really stopped throwing his slider in the second half. Again, you're never going to really know. But there were definitely red flags all over the place."
• Oye como va: After their messy medical history, the Mets are getting pounded in New York for not shutting down Santana much earlier. But assistant GM John Ricco told Rumblings the Mets are getting an unfair rap on that count.
Ricco said the Mets were monitoring Santana's health from the moment he first reported elbow discomfort, maintained a continuous dialogue with Santana and never felt Santana's long-term health was on the line. And while you can question the Mets' handling of numerous injury issues over the past couple of years, because Santana's diagnosis was "only" bone chips, they actually have a defensible case on this one.
"I don't personally feel like we put him in any jeopardy," Ricco said. "Knowing what we know now, I still don't think we would have made that call" to shut him down weeks ago.
The Mets are now up to $88 million in salaries on the disabled list -- more than the payrolls of the Cardinals, Rockies, Rangers or Rays. More, in fact, that the Padres and Marlins combined.
• K-Rod not A-OK? Meanwhile, opposing scouts and executives have been buzzing that it wouldn't shock them if Francisco Rodriguez added to the Mets' DL total. Clearly, something is up with K-Rod. His first-pitch strike percentage (just 49.4 percent, according to fangraphs.com) is the lowest of any closer in baseball. And it's been on a steady decline for two months.
"Fastball command has been an issue for him for a while," Ricco said. "But there's nothing, to my knowledge, that's physically wrong. If there is something wrong, it's not something I'm aware of."
• Closing shop: Even though only three Yankees position players are younger than 33, there are increasing indications that the Yankees don't plan to be serious shoppers in the free-agent position-player market this winter.
Scouts say they've been told by their Yankees scouting buddies that they don't envision the Bombers making a run at either Holliday, who turns 30 in January, or Jason Bay, who will hit 31 in September.
While the Yankees don't see their top outfield prospect, Austin Jackson, as being ready to move into a regular gig next April, they also don't want to throw a big-buck free agent in his path for the next few seasons. So if you're wondering why you're suddenly hearing so much talk about their interest in bringing back Johnny Damon on a short-term deal, that would explain it.
• Stake that claim: Sources say the Red Sox were the only team that claimed Billy Wagner. And that's no surprise, considering that they're now on the hook for about $3.5 million (in salary and buyout) -- a bill most teams weren't interested in paying. But the Red Sox were also the one team out there that had those dollars in the budget, because they'd just saved about $2.5 million in incentive payouts -- Wagner's salary for the rest of the season -- by axing John Smoltz in mid-August.
Boston also was motivated to keep Wagner away from the Angels and Rays. And by claiming him, the Red Sox essentially eliminated all of the Mets' leverage in trying to get any players of significance in return. So, assuming Wagner doesn't head for Boston and pull an Eric Gagne on them, that claim has a chance to look awfully shrewd by October.
• Put your Sox on: An executive of one NL club says he still can't figure out why Wagner thought he'd be better off in any way by sticking around the Mets -- especially his concerns that he might be jeopardizing his health by going to a team that was still playing for something.
Wagner has told friends he remembered how hard the Brewers rode CC Sabathia after trading for him last year, and was worried about being ridden that hard. But it never made sense to envision the Red Sox abusing a guy they'd just emptied the checking account to add.
"That team's investing a lot of money in that guy," the exec said. "Did he think they wanted him so he could go out there two or three times and then break down? They're going to do everything they can to maximize the investment."
• Trevor's time? Now that Wagner has been dealt, could Trevor Hoffman be next? Hoffman's trade waivers were scheduled to expire Thursday. And while Brewers GM Doug Melvin said this week his club still doesn't consider itself to be "sellers," it will be interesting to see if any of the half-dozen clubs that were hoping Wagner would clear waivers will take a run at Hoffman.
One AL executive predicted there would be very little interest from American League clubs because Hoffman is considered "a National League guy."
"Don't get me wrong," the exec said. "This guy's had a great career. But I just think he'd have a hard time in the American League. At this point in his career, he really tricks people. And that's hard to do in this league. I'd be very interested to see what happened if he came to an American League team."
• Alert the customs officers: Clubs that have spoken with the Blue Jays say they've sent signals that one of their first orders of business this winter is to deal Edwin Encarnacion, the enigmatic third baseman they got from Cincinnati in the Scott Rolen deal.
"They didn't want him in the first place," one AL executive said. "They only did that deal to get the pitching prospects, and to get out from under Rolen's money next year."
But Encarnacion is signed for next year at $4.75 million. And he's a monumental disappointment who has piled up all of six homers, 19 RBIs and a .298 on-base percentage in 228 trips to the plate this year. So good luck.
• Life on the Lidge: Is Brad Lidge pretty much guaranteed to be the Phillies' closer for the last month and a half of the season? Yes. But is he guaranteed to be the Phillies' closer if he still has an ERA in the 7.00s when he gets to October? No.
Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. told Rumblings that "Brad Lidge is our closer," and that "we believe in Brad Lidge as a world-championship closer," and that "we know Brad Lidge can pitch and close games and win a World Series, and that goes a long way." So that message is clear: The Phillies like their closer. They believe in their closer. And they want this to work.
But if they get to October and their closer is still shaking like the San Andreas Fault, then the manager, Mr. Charlie Manuel, has a tough call on his hands.
"It's our job to win games," Amaro said. "And if we feel like there's a better alternative, that's a decision Charlie has to make. We think we're a better team with Brad Lidge as our closer. But if any player -- whether it's Brad or Cole Hamels or Jimmy Rollins or anyone else -- is not doing the job when [October] comes, then it will be up to Charlie whether he thinks somebody else can do a better job. But the bottom line is, we're here to win baseball games."
So does that sound like an October guarantee to you? It doesn't to us.
• Sliding along: After Lidge threw his killer slider just once en route to his blown save in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, one NL scout observed: "You should find out how many times he's thrown a whole bunch of sliders in a row or a whole bunch of fastballs in a row. Some nights, it's all fastballs. Other times, it's just the reverse."
So we took a look. And what did we find in Lidge's previous blown save, back on Aug. 15? That once he got in trouble, he went slider-slider-slider. His final five pitches that day, and seven of his last nine, were all sliders.
After that, though, there was a pronounced increase in the number of fastballs Lidge threw.
"I believe," the scout said, "he was told to throw more fastballs. And he did."
The Phillies clearly believe Lidge's biggest issue is that he's lost command of his fastball, and needs to get that back. And historically, that's always been his biggest challenge.
"For him, it's all about command of the fastball, to get people to chase the slider," another scout said. "His good slider is never a strike. It's a chase pitch. So when he can't command the fastball, there's no reason to swing at the breaking ball."
• Left-handed and Breathing Dept.: The Royals are still hoping to trade left-hander Ron Mahay, whom they designated for assignment this week. But they'll have a tough time finding a taker for a guy with a 6.58 ERA since the 2008 trading deadline, when the Royals had interest but balked at dealing him.
"I told our team no on him," one scout said. "I saw him a couple of weeks ago. His fastball was straight as an arrow, and he didn't have that real sharp breaking ball he used to have. But I bet he gets a job some place. He's still left-handed. And at least he's got experience."
• Keep on rockin': Folks who think the Rockies are just a team on a nice little hot streak in a bad division are severely underestimating this club, according to scouts who have been watching them. Listen to some of these reviews of the Rockies:
Ubaldo Jimenez: "Best stuff in baseball. Really. There might be five starters in the big leagues who even have similar type stuff."
Huston Street: "Might be the best reliever in the game right now."
Troy Tulowitzki: "I enjoy watching him more than any player in the National League, just because of the presence he has on the field. I think he's a real good player, not a great player. But just the way he carries himself. He gives you almost a Jeter-like impression."
Jim Tracy: "The manager has made a huge difference. These guys know their roles now. The batting order doesn't change every night. He's brought a stability they definitely needed."'
• Mr. Underrated: Finally, the most loyal Orioles fan we know, Norma Bernstein (our own personal mother-in-law), keeps telling us that Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts doesn't get nearly enough acclaim.
"And you know what?" one scout said. "She's right. I love the guy. He's such an unselfish player. He's as good a baserunner as I've seen in the American League, as far as pure baserunning instincts. And nothing against guys like [Ben] Zobrist or [Aaron] Hill or [Robinson] Cano. But none of them have the dimension this guy has. He can beat you in such a variety of ways. So your mother-in-law is right. Brian Roberts has to get some notoriety sooner or later."
OK, how's this for notoriety: He's two away from reaching 50 doubles for the third time in his career. And how many other players in history have had three 50-double seasons? Just the Hall of Fame trio of Stan Musial, Tris Speaker and Paul Waner. Pretty cool group.
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
Once again this week, let's gather the thoughts of America's finest scouting minds.
• On Matt Wieters: "He's not driving the ball. He's not using his legs in his swing as much as you'd like to see him. But he's only 22 years old, and he hasn't played much. He still should be a quality regular for many years. But I never thought he was Joe Mauer. Mauer is way more athletic, has a shorter swing and a better arm."
• On Garrett Jones: "I think this guy's for real. The first thing that stands out is, he's a better athlete than you'd think because he runs pretty well for a big kid. And while he's got some holes, what he's shown me is that he hits good velocity over the heart of the plate, middle-up. He handles the breaking ball. And it's hard to bust him in. I think he might be one of those guys, like a Ryan Ludwick, who found his swing, found a chance and is looking like he's capable of maintaining a solid career."
• On Andy Marte: "He looks better, physically. But it's still the same approach. He's still got that fastball approach, and he just doesn't make adjustments. But I'll say this: Somebody got to him about conditioning and commitment. He's in much better shape. So I wouldn't sell him short yet."
Late-Nighter of the Week
From David Letterman:
"The New York Yankees' Mark Teixeira is on the program. This guy is having an incredible year. They are saying he may get the MVP -- and he also may get Kate Hudson."
Tweets of the Week
Relentlessly brilliant "Saturday Night Live" anchor Seth Myers got the old AL-NL debate cooking this week with this series of Twitter posts:
• "When a National Leaguer gets traded to the AL is it cool to say they got 'called up'?"
• "Want to apologize to NL fans. You guys are definitely one of the top two leagues in baseball today."
• "And no, I don't know who won the WS last year. Everytime I turned it on it was raining."
Headliner of the Week
This just in from the always-amusing cynics at Sportspickle.com: "Nats advise Strasburg to wait a few weeks to cash that bonus check."
Shameless Book-Plug Dept.
Finally, the book tour for "Worth the Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," resumes Friday in Reading, Pa. You can find me at Reading's awesome First Energy Stadium, before Friday's Reading Phillies-Bowie Baysox game, from 5 p.m. until whenever you all get tired of asking me to sign books. See ya there.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.