As we saw again last year, with the American League Most Valuable Player Award winner coming from a 108-win Red Sox team and the National League Cy Young Award winner coming from a 77-win Mets team, an award-caliber season can emanate from just about anywhere.
With that in mind, let’s take our annual look at every Major League team’s most likely candidate for a Baseball Writers’ Association of America honor in 2019 -- be it the MVP Award, Cy Young Award or Rookie of the Year Award (sorry, skippers, but we’re leaving the Manager of the Year Award out of this).
On some clubs, it’s hard to find a clear-cut candidate for one of those awards. On others, it’s difficult to determine which of several candidates stands out, pitting elite teammates against each other. But with the help of the Steamer projections available at FanGraphs and my psychic intuition (aka total guesswork), here are my choices.
A’s: Matt Chapman, AL MVP Award
The Wins Above Replacement stat has taken on an increased prominence in MVP Award voting in recent years, and Chapman’s terrific defense at the hot corner gives him a high WAR floor. If he can replicate his .309/.371/.591 second-half slash from 2018 over a full season, the ceiling is pretty dang high.
Meanwhile, lefty Jesus Luzardo looms as an AL Rookie of the Year Award possibility.
Angels: Mike Trout, AL MVP Award
This doesn’t need an explanation, so I’m not really sure what to do with this space. Uh, let’s see … anybody have a zesty lemon pepper chicken recipe to share with the group?
Astros: Gerrit Cole, AL Cy Young Award
The Astros have AL MVP Award possibilities out the wazoo in Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. Justin Verlander finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting last year. Josh James, Kyle Tucker and perhaps Forrest Whitley are Rookie of the Year Award possibilities.
But if Year 1 of a revised approach can net Cole a 2.88 ERA, 140 ERA+, 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings and a fifth-place finish in the AL Cy Young Award vote, it’s not hard to imagine Year 2 (in advance of his free agency) being even better.
Blue Jays: Vlad Guerrero Jr., AL Rookie of the Year Award
So … back to that recipe. How long do you marinate the chicken?
Indians: Francisco Lindor, AL MVP Award
Another impossible choice here, because Jose Ramirez has been an AL MVP Award finalist the last two years, Corey Kluber is a two-time AL Cy Young Award winner who was a finalist again last year and Trevor Bauer was on a Cy Young Award-level trajectory before he was hit by a comebacker last August.
But even though he’s currently nursing a calf injury, Lindor is 25 years old, a game-changing defender, has posted consecutive 30-homer, 40-double seasons and is projected by Steamer to be the third-most valuable player in baseball (just ahead of Ramirez). If I only get one entry in this award lottery, I’m going with Lindor.
Mariners: Justus Sheffield, AL Rookie of the Year Award
For me, it was either Sheffield or Mitch Haniger in the AL MVP Award realm, but that would likely require a combination both of Haniger expanding upon his terrific 2018 output (.859 OPS, 26 homers, 38 doubles) and the Mariners contending.
So Sheffield, acquired in the James Paxton trade, seems the safer choice, now that he’s got an earnest chance to stick in a big league rotation.
Orioles: Austin Hays, AL Rookie of the Year Award
Top Orioles prospect Yusniel Diaz likely won’t be up until later in 2019, so let’s go with Hays. The outfielder was listed here a year ago but wound up dealing with shoulder and ankle injuries in ’18. There should be opportunity for him in the big league outfield this season.
Rangers: Yohander Mendez, AL Rookie of the Year Award
Mendez already took some lumps at the big league level in 27 2/3 innings last year. Perhaps he can learn and grow from that experience -- and get enough starts to reasonably qualify for this award.
Rays: Blake Snell, AL Cy Young Award
The AL has not had a back-to-back Cy Young Award winner since Pedro Martinez in 1999-2000. Whatever. Snell’s stuff is just silly, and what happened last year was no fluke.
Maybe Tommy Pham can put up an AL MVP Award-caliber year if his two-month track record with the Rays is extended over a full season.
Red Sox: Mookie Betts, AL MVP Award
I could just as easily go with Chris Sale’s AL Cy Young Award bid, as he’s in the Cy Young conversation literally every year. But there’s no shame in wagering on Betts. He amassed 32 homers, 47 doubles and 30 steals in 136 games last year, so imagine what the counting numbers would have looked like without the midseason left oblique injury.
Royals: Danny Duffy, AL Cy Young Award
Adalberto Mondesi exceeded his rookie limits, which makes this really tough. Duffy had a terrible 2018, but he was 20 percent better than league average over 2016-17 and rededicated himself over the offseason. So … maybe?
Tigers: Michael Fulmer, AL Cy Young Award
The track record is all over the place, the right knee is coming off surgery, but the stuff -- high-90s fastball, sharp slider and disarming changeup -- is elite.
Twins: Jose Berrios, AL Cy Young Award
Maybe an AL MVP Award-caliber year is still in there for Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano. But we’ve seen enough flashes from Berrios to know he can be the real deal if he can start commanding that berserk breaking ball of his with more consistency.
White Sox: Eloy Jimenez, AL Rookie of the Year Award
If anybody has the skillset to give Guerrero a run for his money in the AL Rookie of the Year Award race this year, it’s this guy. In addition to having massive raw power, he doesn’t have major holes in his swing or approach. Between Double-A and Triple-A last year, Jimenez slashed .337/.384/.577 with 22 homers, 28 doubles and just 69 strikeouts.
Yankees: Aaron Judge, AL MVP Award
Even if Giancarlo Stanton has a more comfortable year in his second season in pinstripes, getting the bulk of his at-bats as a DH can and will be used against him. While Luis Severino could be an AL Cy Young Award type this year, go big or go home. If Judge stays healthy, he could clearly have an AL MVP Award-caliber year.
Braves: Ronald Acuna Jr., NL MVP Award
The Braves have former AL MVP Award winner Josh Donaldson on a pillow contract and Freddie Freeman coming off a year in which he finished fourth in the voting.
But after an early settling-in period last season, Acuna was one of the five best players in baseball (by WAR and by weighted runs created plus) in the second half last season.
Brewers: Christian Yelich, NL MVP Award
Yelich occupied this space in this column a year ago, because a lot of us suspected Yelich was capable of expanding upon his already excellent track record, especially with the move from Marlins Park to Miller Park. Little did we know he’d go all Barry Bonds on us in the second half of 2018. Given the growth in Yelich's power game, there’s little reason to think he can’t win this award again.
Cardinals: Paul Goldschmidt, NL MVP Award
Goldschmidt finished in the top three of the NL vote three times and was sixth in 2018. Goldy’s getting older, and he’ll have to get comfortable in a new home. But if the Cards surge in the NL Central standings, you’d have to figure he would be a pretty big part of that.
Cubs: Kris Bryant, NL MVP Award
What does it say about Bryant that on the heels of a season in which he battled a left shoulder issue, saw his OPS dip more than 100 points and saw his WAR cut by two-thirds, he’s still projected by Steamer to be one of the two most valuable players in the NL this season?
(It says he’s good, that’s what.)
D-backs: Zack Greinke, NL Cy Young Award
I'm not ruling out a Robbie Ray resurgence this season, but Greinke has managed to post an ERA+ that is 41 percent better than league average over the last two seasons and, despite entering his age-35 season, remains a master of location and a beacon of durability.
Dodgers: Walker Buehler, NL Cy Young Award
Remember when I said Bryant was projected by Steamer to be one of the two most valuable players in the NL? Corey Seager was the other guy (both of them were projected at 5.6 WAR). But because Seager missed virtually the entirety of 2018 with Tommy John and left hip surgery, and because of Clayton Kershaw’s struggles to stay healthy the last few seasons, I’m going off the grid with Buehler, who was so good in the regular season (finishing third in the Rookie of the Year Award vote) and tough as nails in the World Series.
Of course, because it’s been two whole years since a Dodger won an NL Rookie of the Year Award (an eternity for that particular franchise), I guess look out for Alex Verdugo, if he can finally squeeze his way into the lineup.
Giants: Madison Bumgarner, NL Cy Young Award
A catcher north of 30 years old hasn’t won an MVP since Elston Howard way back in 1963, so that doesn’t serve as great historical precedent for Buster Posey as he comes off right hip surgery.
The Giants don’t give us much to work with in this conversation at this stage of the game, and Bumgarner’s stuff isn’t what it once was. But with free agency nearing and his competitive instinct well established, let’s not put it past Bumgarner to bounce back in a big way.
Marlins: Sandy Alcantara, NL Rookie of the Year Award
A year ago, we picked Lewis Brinson’s NL Rookie of the Year Award bid in this spot and, uh, that didn’t turn out so well. Perhaps surprisingly, Brian Anderson was Miami's best rookie. That’s the thing with young players: You never know.
So maybe Monte Harrison or Isan Diaz or Nick Niedert or Sixto Sanchez or somebody else should be listed here. But Alcantara figures to be in the Opening Day rotation and has high-90s sink. He gets my nod.
Mets: Jacob deGrom, NL Cy Young Award
The Mets have a potential NL Rookie of the Year Award candidate in Pete Alonso, but this is an easy choice after one of the best pitching seasons any of us has ever seen. Let’s just hope deGrom gets a little more run support this time.
Nationals: Max Scherzer, NL Cy Young Award
With all due respect to the NL MVP Award potential of Anthony Rendon or Juan Soto or the possibility that Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin vie for the NL Cy Young Award, to me this was a really difficult choice between Scherzer’s NL Cy Young Award chances and Victor Robles’ NL Rookie of the Year Award chances. The latter is the “easier” award to win, and Robles is ultra-talented, while Scherzer is 34 with more than 2,000 innings to his name.
But you try to tell Mad Max he’s not one of the early favorites for the NL Cy Young Award. Go on, I’ll wait here.
Padres: Fernando Tatis Jr., NL Rookie of the Year Award
At some point this summer, the Padres’ starting lineup is going to read like a recent top prospects list, and Francisco Mejia and Luis Urias – both of whom are going to have more immediate opportunity than Tatis – are both capable of winning this award in 2019. But Tatis is coming soon after tearing up winter ball, and MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 overall prospect is the best bet here.
Phillies: Aaron Nola, NL Cy Young Award
We touted Nola in this space a year ago, and he backed up our optimism by finishing third in the NL vote. No reason not to salute him here again after he put up a 2.37 ERA and 0.98 WHIP last year.
That said, if the Phillies are as dynamic as they expect to be, perhaps J.T. Realmuto or Rhys Hoskins or some other as-yet-unsigned position player (wink wink) makes an NL MVP Award bid.
Pirates: Jameson Taillon, NL Cy Young Award
From this underrated Pirates rotation, we could just as easily go with Trevor Williams in this spot after his 1.38 ERA in the second half of 2018. But Taillon, a former No. 2 overall pick, could be poised for a full-on breakout into ace status after increasing his slider usage in late May last year and putting up a 2.71 ERA after the repertoire change.
Reds: Nick Senzel, NL Rookie of the Year Award
When the voters wrongly robbed Joey Votto of his rightful NL MVP Award in 2017 (nope, still not over it), they might have deprived the now-35-year-old of his last, best chance to win that honor a second time. For all we know, an interesting Reds team might have another NL MVP Award candidate in Eugenio Suarez, or what if Yasiel Puig finally puts it all together ahead of free agency?
Anyway, I’m sticking with last year’s pick of Senzel, MLB Pipeline’s No. 6 overall prospect, in the rookie realm. In 2018, he was hampered by a right index finger injury, but he’s healthy now, and there’s opportunity for him in center field if he can stick.
Rockies: Nolan Arenado, NL MVP Award
Rockies manager Bud Black had it right last year; if guys like Arenado are going to have their NL MVP Award cases docked by playing home games in Coors Field, then guys like Kyle Freeland and German Marquez ought to have their cases amplified by the same.
Anyway, all things considered, Arenado getting over the hump after three straight top-five finishes in the NL MVP Award vote is the best option here.