You probably would have been dismissed as delirious had you predicted, one year ago, that the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani would be the 2021 American League Most Valuable Player. Or that the Blue Jays’ Robbie Ray would be the AL Cy Young winner. Or that the Giants’ Gabe Kapler would be the National League Manager of the Year.
All of those opinions would have been impugned because of what we knew to be true at the time -- namely, that injury concerns had prevented Ohtani from reaching his two-way ceiling, that Ray’s walk-prone ways had compromised his electric repertoire and that Kapler’s Giants were third in the NL West pecking order.
So good luck nailing next year’s Baseball Writers’ Association of America honors with what limited knowledge we have at our disposal today. But there’s no harm in trying. And if any of us goes 8-for-8 in predicting this stuff, well, that person ought to win an award of his or her own.
Here are my personal picks. What could possibly go wrong?
AMERICAN LEAGUE MVP: Wander Franco, SS, Rays
The odds would seem to be stacked against Ohtani repeating his historic 2021, but you never know. The favorite at this stage might be the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. after he broke out with the bat. I’ve got my eye on Carlos Correa, with the mild inconvenience that, um, we don’t even know if he’ll be in the AL next year. There are established players like Aaron Judge, José Ramírez and Rafael Devers (to name but a few) who are eminently capable of an MVP year. And of course, Mike Trout will return to action with the Angels to hopefully resume his almost-annual MVP bid.
But Franco is The Future. I put him second on my AL Rookie of the Year ballot (behind teammate Randy Arozarena) this year even though he only played 70 games, because his performance within that small sample was extraordinary enough to leave a lasting impression on the 2021 season. He had that 43-game on-base streak in which he had more hits (55) than swinging strikes (48). His hit tool and discipline are real, sustainable strengths that, when combined with his playing a premium position for what should be a good Rays team, can put him in the MVP conversation even at this crazy early stage of his career (he’ll be just 21 next season, so he’d be the youngest MVP ever).
The concerns here are the obvious sophomore adjustments and the question as to whether Franco would provide enough power to be a legit MVP. But I think the voters are getting wily enough to recognize the total package when they see it, and the young Franco has it.
NATIONAL LEAGUE MVP: Juan Soto, OF, Nationals
The NL has three stratospheric young talents in Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr., each of whom ought to win an MVP at some point. But with Acuña coming off a terrible ACL injury and Tatis not having surgery to address his bothersome left shoulder, I’m playing it safe and taking the dude who just finished second in the 2021 voting and had a legitimate argument to finish first.
If Soto had not gotten off to a sluggish start (by his high standards) in 2021, there would be no question about his MVP case. He’s not exactly peak Barry Bonds, but, like Bonds, nobody wants to pitch to this guy (Soto’s 145 walks this past season were the most since Bonds set a record with 232 in 2004). And like Bonds, he’ll do enough damage when actually given pitches to hit to put up MVP-caliber numbers. Soto had a .465 on-base percentage. He could have made an out in his last 22 plate appearances and still led MLB in OBP. He uncorked his power after appearing in the Home Run Derby (.639 SLG in the second half, versus a .445 mark in the first), and there’s no reason to think that can’t carry over.
Soto came up short Thursday night, but give him a year. His day is coming.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CY YOUNG: Dylan Cease, RHP, White Sox
Will Gerrit Cole, who has now finished second in the voting two of the last three years and in the top five each of the last four, finally get over the hump? Hard to say. Cole had a 4.15 ERA after word got around about MLB policing sticky substances, so, while a late-season hamstring issue also didn’t help his cause, that is a situation worth monitoring.
Now, to be clear, that’s a question faced by a lot of guys at the moment. Including Cease. Like so many others, he saw the spin rates on his primary pitches (in his case, four-seam, slider and curve) decrease immediately after enforcement.
But in the second half, the spin rates on all three pitches rose back toward Cease’s norms. He made the adjustment. And when you combine that adjustment with a dramatic improvement in strikeout rate (from 17.3 percent in 2020 to 31.9 percent) and walk rate (from 13.3 percent in 2020 to 9.6 percent), Cease, who has always had an exciting arsenal that just needed refinement in terms of command, will be a good candidate to make The Leap in his age-26 season. The last two AL Cy Young winners -- Robbie Ray and Shane Bieber -- were not exactly easy preseason picks. So let’s take another chance here. Also, three of the last four Cy Young winners in the AL and NL have come from a Central squad, so this would keep that trend going.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CY YOUNG: Walker Buehler, RHP, Dodgers
With apologies to the great Jacob deGrom, who has an iffy elbow, and Max Scherzer, who is 37, I’m going with a younger gun here.
This really shouldn’t require much explanation. Buehler finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting this year and ninth in 2019. In the last four seasons, he has a 2.82 ERA, which ranks third among qualifiers in that span, and 144 ERA+, which ranks fifth. He’s a workhorse (which used to matter) who led MLB this season in quality starts (27) by four. He has Cy competition on his own team in the form of Julio Urías, but Buehler’s track record insists he’ll be up for this honor again.
AMERICAN LEAGUE MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Scott Servais, Mariners
Manager of the Year often goes to the skippers of surprise squads. So to guess who is going to win these awards a year from now is to make a prediction within a prediction. If the Mariners have as good an offseason as they ought to have, they might not qualify as a major surprise. But this is a team with the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports, and winning the AL West would require taking down the mighty Astros. So, yes, Servais, who finished third in the voting and had a real argument to win in 2021 after bringing the M’s darn close to October in a year that was not without organizational controversy, is a great candidate to go the distance.
Servais has been the manager in Seattle for six seasons. In that span, the Mariners have outperformed their Pythagorean win expectation (which is based on run differential) by 25 wins. I’m not smart enough to know how best to mathematically assess a skipper, but that sounds pretty good to me.
NATIONAL LEAGUE MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Bob Melvin, Padres
I don’t want to reveal too much about which teams I think could surprise in 2021 (mostly because I have not decided which teams I want to be wrong about yet). But the Padres are way too talented not to turn things around and vie for the postseason in 2022, and Melvin is way too good at his job not to get some credit when they do.
This would be awarding The Narrative that Melvin came in and kicked butt, and we sportswriters love The Narrative. We also love Melvin, as evidenced by the fact that he has already won this award three times total in two different leagues. If he wins a fourth, he would tie Hall of Famers Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox for the most all time (albeit in an award that only dates back to 1983). Go get ‘em, Bob.
AMERICAN LEAGUE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Riley Greene, OF, Tigers
This is shaping up as a great rookie class in the AL, because each of MLB Pipeline’s top four prospects -- catcher Adley Rutschman of the Orioles, outfielder Julio Rodríguez of the Mariners, shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. of the Royals and first baseman Spencer Torkelson of the Tigers -- has a real shot at making an impact next season. And let’s not forget someone like Rays right-hander Shane Baz, whose rookie status is still intact after posting a ridiculous 0.68 WHIP in 13 1/3 innings this past season.
But I’m going further down Pipeline’s Top 100 rankings … yep, all the way to No. 7. That’s the 21-year-old Greene, who could potentially break camp with the big league club on a Tigers team that will be looking to storm up the AL Central standings. I think they can do it, and I think Greene can do it as a potential everyday center fielder with an explosive left-handed bat and a strong arm.
NATIONAL LEAGUE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Camilo Doval, RHP, Giants
As would be the case had I taken Baz in the AL, I’m kind of cheating here, because we’ve already seen what Doval can do before exceeding his rookie limits. He has a filthy slider-fastball mix that he used to hold opponents to a .192 average while striking out 33.9 percent of batters faced in 27 innings this past season. His fastball release point and velocity are reminiscent of deGrom, and his slider has crazy movement.
At 24 years old, Doval has already been trusted with save opportunities on a 107-win Giants team. So we can have faith that he’ll continue to get high-leverage assignments -- and perhaps retain the full-time closer role -- throughout 2022. It’s not easy for a reliever to crack the top spot on this ballot (Emmanuel Clase had an incredible 2021 for Cleveland, yet I personally had him fourth behind Arozarena, Franco and the Astros’ Luis Garcia). But Devin Williams won it in the NL in 2020 and five other relievers have won it this century.