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2011 AL MVP Contenders

Justin Verlander is starting to get a little publicity not just as a Cy Young candidate but as a MVP candidate in the American League. Verlander is far from a lock for the Cy Young and certainly a long shot for the MVP however. Here is a look at the AL MVP race with just about six weeks to go in the season and five candidates that should have the best chance for the award.

Jose Bautista, RF, Toronto Blue Jays: The case for Bautista is a strong one, but recall that he did not win last year despite 54 home runs and 124 RBI. The big difference this season is that Bautista is no longer hitting .260, rather a robust .314. It is very unlikely that Bautista will match the HR and RBI numbers from last season but if he can hit over .300 while leading the league in home runs and OPS as he does now, it will be hard to leave him out of the conversation. The big strike against Bautista is the irrelevancy of the Jays in the playoff chase but Toronto has a winning record and has been competitive. Giving credit to players from the AL Central teams in the playoff chase seems a bit unfair considering that Toronto could be in the thick of that race if they were in that division. He will almost certainly lead baseball in walks which adds tremendous value to his profile and he has emerged as the most feared hitter in the league.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Boston Red Sox:
The MVP award discussion will likely start with Gonzalez who leads the league in batting average and is second in RBI. His epic month of June when he hit .404 carried the Red Sox back to the top of AL East and while he has slowed down a bit so far in August he will end up with incredibly productive numbers on a team with one of the best records in baseball. He is also third in OBP and currently leads the AL in hits. The case can certainly be made that Gonzalez benefits from Fenway Park and a quality lineup ahead of him as Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia could also enter the MVP conversation. If his average cools down he will open the door for other candidates especially with his limited power numbers, hitting just one home run so far since the All Star break.

Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers: Playing in pitching friendly Comerica Park likely hurts Cabrera’s case as his numbers surely would be stronger if he switched roles with some of the other players on this list. Cabrera is on pace to have a very similar season to last year when he finished second in MVP voting although he will likely fall just short of his 2010 numbers in most major areas, although his on-base numbers have improved with more walks than strikeouts at this point in the year. Detroit’s rise in the AL Central and a strong stretch run to clinch a playoff spot could certainly help his cause although he will likely need to pass Gonzalez in batting average to make a really strong case.

Curtis Granderson, CF, New York Yankees: Trailing only Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds in strikeouts is not the distinction of a MVP but Granderson is producing serious power numbers with 34 home runs and 95 RBI. He has been on a hot streak in August and if he keeps it going he could chase down the AL Lead in both categories. His average at just .277 leaves something to be desired for traditional voters but if he can inch closer to .300 he will have a good chance, especially with the attention he will get in New York on a playoff bound team. Granderson adds 22 stolen bases and some highlight reel defensive plays which could help him standout among this group of players. Ultimately the strikeouts and his inability to draw walks consistently should penalize him in the voting but there is an opportunity with a strong finish to the season.

Paul Konerko, 1B, Chicago White Sox: Konerko couldn’t even make the All Star team initially so it may be tough for him to garner MVP support but if Chicago can finally make a run in the very winnable AL Central, there may be a case to be made for the often overlooked veteran with a sweet swing. Konerko is having a fine all around season batting .314 with 27 home runs and 83 RBI, putting him in the top seven in all three categories, the only player on this list that can say so. Konerko has struck out just 70 times this season and while he does not walk enough to have the glowing OBP statistics like Bautista he has delivered a very complete season. The weakness of the Chicago offense will hurt his cause as he has scored just 55 runs and his RBI numbers likely would be much higher in the middle of a stronger lineup. Still in a field with no clear choice, a great final month for Chicago could get some attention to the south side.

Others worth mention: Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Michael Young, Asdrubal Cabrera

The case for Justin Verlander: Not since Roger Clemens in 1986 has a starting pitcher won the AL MVP award and Verlander will have a hard time getting close to the 24-wins that Clemens posted. Verlander’s 2.35 ERA is in the conversation but getting six more wins will be a big challenge in likely 8-9 starts remaining. He will likely pass Clemens in strikeouts but keep in mind Clemens lost just four times, simply an eye-popping number.

Verlander has lost five times already and realistically he is likely to lose a few more times. Clemens beat Don Mattingly soundly in the voting even though Mattingly had a season similar to what some of this year’s candidates could post so Verlander has a chance to get some momentum. The current Dodgers manager hit .352 with 31 home runs and 113 RBI. Boston beat out the Yankees to win the AL East that season, which likely gave Clemens a slight edge in the head-to-head voting, an advantage Verlander won’t enjoy with a mediocre record from the Tigers even if they win the AL Central. Clemens was also in his first full year as a starter and really caught the nation by storm with his 20-strikeout game in April of that season. Verlander did throw a no-hitter but he also looked like an idiot for his skirmish with Erick Aybar so he is not likely to get the intangible vote.

Many want to dismiss Jered Weaver after his last outing but Weaver still leads Verlander significantly in ERA. Clemens led the AL in wins and ERA by wide margins in 1986 and was just seven strikeouts short of the conventional pitching triple crown (Mark Langston). Clemens also had ten complete games, Verlander has four. Though wins have been proven to be a fairly meaningless statistic its does sway voters, so if Verlander can get to 24 he has a serious chance to earn MVP votes. Bob Welch, the last player to top 24-wins, finished ninth in MVP voting in 1990 however, behind four other pitchers including two that were on his own team.

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