2011 MLB Awards Part II: NL Awards

Posted on September 29, 2011

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By Geoff Ratliff

National League Manager of the Year

I am a hard-core Dodgers fan, and have been for most of my life. I very vividly remember Kirk Gibson’s home run during the 1988 World Series, the last time my boys would take home the trophy (well at least I think I do. It’s very possible that, like many of you, I’ve seen the replay on ESPN so many times that it just seems like I remember it). And though Gibby is now at the helm of a rival NL West squad, it brings me great pleasure to present him with the 2011 National League Manager of the Year Award.

There are some other great candidates for this award this year. Tony LaRussa earns a nod for leading the Cardinals to the wild card playoff spot with a makeshift rotation and a myriad of injuries to key members of the everyday lineup, including Albert Pujols. Freddie Gonzalez did an excellent job in his first season as Bobby Cox’s replacement, managing through inexperience at seemingly every position and significant drop offs in performance from key players such as Derek Lowe, Martin Prado, and Jason Heyward. In the end, the September collapse, perhaps inevitable for a team this young, cost Gonzalez any shot he had at winning this thing. Even Don Mattingly deserves a nod for keeping the Dodgers around .500 given the circus that has surrounded that club’s ownership situation for more than a year.

But at the end of the day, of all of the National League playoff contenders, Gibson has undoubtedly done more with less, and did not let his club succumb to a sub par start to the season.

National League Rookie of the Year

For a majority of the season, this was a legitimate two-man race, and a good one at that, but since late June, it’s been a foregone conclusion that this award was going to a member of the Atlanta Braves.

Up until a month ago, it appeared that my main man “Freeway” Freddie Freeman was going to walk off with this hardware. Funny story about Freeman. I made a trade that included him fairly early in the fantasy baseball season, fully expecting that I wouldn’t start reaping the full benefits of his potential until 2012. I was pleasantly surprised when he helped me overcome some pretty significant injuries and secure a three seed in the playoffs. Freeman has battled nagging injuries down the stretch, along with the expected rigor of a 21-year old rookie playing his first full season at the major league level. That hasn’t stopped him from putting up some pretty solid numbers at the plate, along with playing Gold Glove caliber defense, however, it did leave the door wide open for…

Craig Kimbrel. Forget the fact that this kid is a rookie for a second, he has put up one of the best seasons for a closer in recent memory, period! Kimbrel has posted a microscopic era and WHIP while striking out batters at an insane pace. In fact, Kimbrel 2011 season is probably the best season by a National League closer since Eric Gagne’s PED-aided 2004 masterpiece. Kimbrel has hit the wall a little over the past week or so, and his late season swoon was capped off by last night’s blown save which ultimately led to the end of the Braves’ season, but this kid was arguably the biggest reason the Braces performed as well as they did for so much of the season. He clearly distanced himself from his teammate Freeman in this award discussion, and I am certain that he will get his shot at post-season glory very soon.

National League Cy Young

Like the Rookie of the Year award, this seemed to be a pretty tight contest throughout the season between Philadelphia’s Big Three and Clayton Kershaw. No disrespect to two-time winner Tim Lincecum, but frankly with four others guys putting up comparable numbers with the wins to match, he never really had a shot at number three this season. However, three things have happened to make this thing all but wrapped up with one week to go.

First, Cole Hamels got hurt. Maybe it was the fact that he no longer had to live up to the pressure of being the staff ace after setting expectations so high with his World Series MVP performance in 2009, or maybe this type of bounce back was expected from the super talented Hamels after a rough 2010, but this is the year that he finally put it all together and was pitching like the legitimate number one that people long thought he could be, and giving Philly arguably the best starting rotation in baseball history. Hamels might have even been the favorite for this award before injuries sent him to the disabled list, and he frankly hasn’t been the same sense.

Secondly, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, the other two Phillies’ stalwarts, have simply “stumbled” a bit of late with a couple of pedestrian starts on their records. These guys have demonstrated such greatness over the past several season that we probably hold them to an unfairly high standard of performance. I can understand if these guys are trying to dial it back a little in anticipation of a long post-season run, but, when I’m evaluating Cy Young candidacy, I can’t give mulligans. Leading us to…

Clayton Kershaw simply stealing this award. In a year where the Dodgers have been out of contention seemingly since May, Kershaw has simply been fantastic. He led the National League or was tied in all three triple crown categories and led the NL in WHIP, and as we all know, every pitcher that has pulled off the pitching Triple Crown in either league has won the Cy Young that same year. And lest you think he’s simply put up numbers in garbage time against other non-contenders, you should read this ESPN piece about his Cy Young qualifications. Don’t even bother coming at me with accusations of being biased as a Dodger’s fan, because Kershaw’s performance this year clearly stands on its own merit.

National League MVP

If you read our earlier piece about the merits of adding an Offensive Player of the Year Award to baseball’s annual hardware, you should already guess that unlike many awards voters, I actually put a premium on the word “Valuable” when evaluating a candidate’s qualifications. Fortunately for me, this year’s top five candidates are all actually really important to their teams and are not just posting gaudy numbers in meaningless games (well one candidate is but I’ll explain why his numbers aren’t exactly meaningless).

Although he missed 16 games this season, it would be unfair to simply dismiss Albert Pujols’ candidacy, especially given how amazing he’s was late in the season as the Cardinals completed an amazing September comeback to snatch the Wild Card spot from the Braves’ grasp. As much as I personally love “El Hombre”, the MVP has to be considered a full season award, and I can’t simply ignore the fact that a large part of the Cardinals’ success was linked to the resurgence of Lance Berkman and the steady performance of Matt Holliday while he was healthy. Pujols’ numbers weren’t quite good enough to ignore all that.

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder both put up arguably their best seasons in their young careers – definitely true in the case of Braun – but this is simply a case of two great guys on a really good team canceling each other out. I can’t, in good faith, say that one has been more valuable than the other, especially when they got a great year from Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks was continuing his career salvation prior to his ankle injury, and the pitching was everything they thought it would be when they went all-in on the Greinke trade this off-season (it’s worth noting that had he not had such a bad first half, Greinke would have himself squarely in the center of the NL Cy Young conversation). Given all those factors, I can’t pick one of the Brew Crew for this award.

This leaves me with basically two legitimate candidates in Justin Upton and Matt Kemp, and before you throw your hands up, incredulous that I would put Kemp in the top two when his team barely played .500 ball, hear me out.

I will start by fully admitting that Matt Kemp is my favorite player in the game right now. I always root for comeback stories, and seeing Kemp cleanse himself of the stench of Rihanna and bounce back from an atrocious 2010 to emerge as arguably the games best player has been refreshing to me. But that has nothing to do with why I consider him a viable MVP candidate. The Dodgers ownership fiasco has been one of the saddest stories in recent sport’s memory. The National League’s premier franchise has become a laughing-stock simply because their owner is delusional and selfish and has no respect for the game or its history; he simply wants to win this pissing match with the Commissioner’s Office.

Kemp gets my MVP consideration because he is the only reason to come out and support the Dodgers on a daily basis (as a starting pitcher, Kershaw simply isn’t taking the field everyday), and thus is literally carrying the weight of a franchise on his back. That is a burden that no other candidate had to bare. Attendance at Dodger games suffered a historic drop off this season, and there’s no question that if it weren’t for the prospect of seeing Kemp work his magic between the lines 81 times a year, and making a fantastic late-season run at the Triple Crown, the numbers would have been considerably worse. Look at it this way, if I’m Mark Cuban and I’m considering making a bid for this team, I don’t even think about it twice if Kemp isn’t in a Dodgers uniform. However…

MVP awards aren’t about saving franchises from awful owners, it’s about the effect that your performance has on your team’s results on the field. There is no doubt that the Dodgers would be a 100-loss team without the efforts of Kemp, and Justin Upton has meant as much if not more to Arizona’s worst to first turnaround as the stability of their starting pitching. Arizona’s lineup without Upton is about as awful as the Dodgers’ is without Kemp and both teams have solid rotations. While Kemp’s batting average, RBI, and stolen base numbers dwarf those of Upton, I can’t ignore the impact that Upton’s maturity and emergence as a leader has had on the Diamondbacks’ lineup. He has finally lived up to the enormous expectations that accompanied him as the number one pick in the 2006 draft.

With that said, Kemp’s very legitimate run at the first NL Triple Crown since 1937 is simply too much to ignore. Though not a playoff team, the Dodgers had one of the NL’s best records since the all-star break and Kemp has given Dodger fans plenty to be excited about in 2012 even amid the uncertain ownership situation. Justin, I have no doubt that your day will come, but the 2011 National League MVP is going to Mr. Matthew Ryan Kemp!

Posted in: MLB