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Thursday, August 8
Updated: August 9, 10:47 AM ET
 
Smoltz in position to win MVP Award

By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com

It never sounds like a great idea to give a Most Valuable Player Award to a relief pitcher. Perhaps that's why it hasn't happened since 1950 in the National League, which hasn't honored any pitcher as its MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968.

But it's time for the writers who will vote on the NL MVP to reexamine the relative value provided by an ultra-dependable stopper versus a starting pitcher or a run-producing hitter. John Smoltz and Eric Gagne are very much in the MVP mix as teams head into the season's final turn.

Assuming there is no strike, the remaining seven weeks will determine whether Barry Bonds gets his fifth MVP Award or if it goes to someone else. There is no clear-cut frontrunner at this point, creating the possibility that it could wind up as split as the American League was in 1999, when seven players received first-place votes.

Three relievers have won MVP Awards in the AL and Jim Konstanty with the 1950 Phillies was the only NL reliever to win. They were all on playoff teams and took advantage of the fact that no hitters had dominant performances that year.

In the case of Oakland's Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and Detroit's Willie Hernandez in 1984, they were on their league's winningest teams. Milwaukee's Rollie Fingers was on the AL's second-winningest team in 1981, which remains the quirkiest season to analyze because of the split-season format that was instituted after a midseason strike.

During the 15-season span from 1977 through '92, AL voters obviously put a high value on relievers. Four won Cy Youngs, with Sparky Lyle joining Fingers, Hernandez and Eckersley. The last NL reliever to win a Cy Young was San Diego's Mark Davis in 1989.

Mark Davis?

Maybe he's why NL voters are slow to recognize relievers. Whatever the reason, it's time to start thinking about whether Smoltz or Gagne -- especially Smoltz -- just might have had the league's biggest impact this season.

Here's a look at the NL's top candidates:

John Smoltz
The case for: Pitching is the reason Atlanta is on track to lead the majors with 106 wins, and nobody -- including Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux -- has been more responsible than Smoltz. His 39 saves have been the anchor for a staff that had a 2.92 ERA through Wednesday. That's the lowest for any team since the 1988 Mets. He's ahead of Bobby Thigpen's record 57-save pace from 1990.

The case against: That 4.01 ERA ain't very purdy, to put it the way a Braves' fan might. It's also misleading, however. Those following closely will remember the outing in the first week when Smoltz took one for the team, allowing eight runs in two-thirds of an inning against the Mets. The impressive part was he came back to work a scoreless inning the next night and earned his first save two nights later. Take away the eight-run inning and his ERA would drop to 3.16.

The verdict: He's the best choice at the moment. An MVP Award would look nice next to the Cy Young he won in 1996.

Barry Bonds
The case for: Bonds isn't hitting as many homers but is having almost as big of a season as he did in 2001. He's hitting .356 despite being walked at a record pace -- including 43 intentional walks, which is only two away from Willie McCovey's season record -- and has compiled a .564 on-base percentage, which would break Ted Williams' record of .551. Imagine doing that one year after breaking Babe Ruth's season slugging record. He's some great hitter.

The case against: Barring a late surge, the Giants once again will fall short of reaching the playoffs. That is hard to overlook in terms of being most valuable in an era when 25 percent of NL teams qualify for the postseason. Then there's the question of health. Hamstring problems have made Bonds a station-to-station runner and a defensive liability. An extended absence from the lineup won't be a shock.

The verdict: It may have taken all Bonds has to get the Giants positioned to fall just short again. This doesn't seem like his year, although he could change that with September dramatics.

Lance Berkman
The case for: Berkman has broken from the shadows of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, becoming the most productive of Houston's Killer Bs. He's leading the league in RBIs and ranks behind only Sammy Sosa and Bonds in homers while hitting .286 with more walks (80) than strikeouts (78). He's not a prototype center fielder but has done a decent job there. Houston would have been dead without his 81 RBIs at the All-Star break, but have climbed back into the pennant race.

The case against: Since the All-Star break, his average has been just .253 and he has eight RBI. He has to pick that up. Some voters might hold a permanent residence at Minute Maid Field against him but they shouldn't. He's never been a product of Houston's hitter-friendly ballpark, always hitting as well or better on the road than at home (18 of his 31 homers are on the road).

The verdict: Berkman's case would be helped if the Astros can continue their rally and win the Central title. He will be hard to overlook if they reach the playoffs while he leads the league in both homers and RBIs, which is possible.

Curt Schilling
The case for: A 20-win season is all but certain for Arizona's right-handed workhorse, who is on pace to finish 26-6. At the moment, he and teammate Randy Johnson are 1-2 in the NL in wins (18-16), innings (185 1/3-181 1/3) and strikeouts (230-226), with Schilling narrowly leading in all three categories. They are an obvious reason why the Diamondbacks are positioned to win a second consecutive West title.

The case against: While Schilling has pitched great, he is also in the right place at the right time. He's supported by the most productive lineup in the NL and ranks fifth overall in run support (against ranking slightly ahead of Johnson).

The verdict: While Schilling and Johnson are Cy Young frontrunners, it's highly unlikely either can win an MVP while playing together. They will split the votes of anyone willing to vote for a dominant starter.

Albert Pujols
The case for: While the focus always seems to be somewhere else in St. Louis, it has been Pujols' consistent hitting that has kept the Cardinals at the top of the Central. He's on pace to follow his Rookie of the Year performance by hitting .289-34-115 with more walks than strikeouts. His defensive versatility is invaluable to Tony La Russa. While he's now anchored in left field, he's started 32 games at third and eight at first. He's played everywhere except catcher, center field and second base.

The case against: There's no buzz about Pujols, who plays in a lineup loaded with hitters who have high upsides. He's had only two homers in 92 at-bats since the All-Star break, contributing somewhat to St. Louis' 12-13 record in the second half.

The verdict: Pujols had 10 homers and 50 RBIs from Aug. 8 until the end of the season a year ago. If he can repeat that performance, he'll finish with 31 homers and 128 RBIs. That would give him a shot, assuming St. Louis holds off Houston and Cincinnati.

Eric Gagne
The case for: Before Smoltz surged, Gagne was the guy on track to challenge Thigpen's save record. A starter as late as spring training, Gagne had 27 saves through the Dodgers' first 75 games. He was the biggest reason Los Angeles was leading the West by 2 1/2 games at the All-Star break.

The case against: The heavy first-half workload has perhaps caught up to Gagne. He's had a 4.91 ERA since the All-Star break, getting scored on in four of 11 second-half appearances, after finishing the first half at 1.39. His chances vanish if the Dodgers don't make the playoffs.

The verdict: Gagne's fading hopes aren't likely to be revitalized. For him to be a top candidate, he must lead the league in saves and Los Angeles must reach the playoffs. That's an unlikely, but not impossible, parlay.

Gary Sheffield
The case for: His arrival gave the Braves the firepower they had lacked in recent years. His presence has lessened the loaded on Chipper Jones in particular and allowed Bobby Cox to stick with a platoon of Franco and Franco at first base rather than having to trade pitching to improve the lineup. He's remained focused to the task at hand and fit into a by-the-books clubhouse. He's on pace to hit .291-27-93, which isn't a lot these days but is better than Kirk Gibson's MVP totals (.290-25-76) with the 1988 Dodgers.

The case against: The offensive totals simply aren't high enough. He should be up for supporting actor, not best actor.

The verdict: Sheffield's only chance to win is if the Braves win 110-plus games and he rallies for 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs.

Finally, with all that said, here's how my 10-player ballot would look if the season ended on August 8:

1. John Smoltz
2. Barry Bonds
3. Lance Berkman
4. Curt Schilling
5. Albert Pujols
6 Eric Gagne
7. Gary Sheffield
8. Junior Spivey
9. Vlad Guerrero
10. Pat Burrell

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.






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