In the past month, I've looked at the candidates for the MVP and Cy Young awards. It's fun for fans and analysts to debate the merits of various candidates as the season moves along, but developments in recent weeks have demonstrated why we can't make premature conclusions. As I've said in the past, we always need to take a wait-and-see approach -- especially, we need to wait until the end of the season!
But we're so close to the end, it's hard to resist some further discussion. So let's revisit the awards races before the photo finish. Here are my thoughts...
Posada for AL MVP
A month ago, I said that I would split my American League MVP vote between Jason Giambi and Ichiro Suzuki, with Bret Boone close behind.
Now, with less than two weeks left in the season, two candidates have surfaced who didn't even merit a mention last month: New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada and Oakland Athletics shortstop Miguel Tejada.
Jorge Posada | .280 | 28 HRs | 95 RBI | .404 OBP
Posada slumped in May (.229) and June (.216) but has been swinging a hot bat in August (.326) and September (.341). As a catcher, he plays the toughest position while contributing regularly on offense. Catchers usually wear down and contribute less offensively at the end of the season. Not so for Posada this year.
The Yankees have reached the postseason seven straight years and won four of five World Series from 1996-2000. But in that time, no Yankee won the MVP. If I had a vote -- which I don't -- and if the season ended today, that would change. I would give the nod to Posada.
Miguel Tejada | .276 | 27 HRs | 101 RBI | .335 OBP
Tejada, who won last year's AL MVP, has led the surging A's again this season. Oakland has won eight of the past nine games and holds a 4½-game lead over the Seattle Mariners in the AL West.
Tejada got off to a slow start, batting .161 in April. He got going again in May, and since Aug. 1 he's batting .327 (raising his average from .257 to .277).
Tejada's fellow shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, has good numbers again (.297, 44 HRs, 112 RBI, .395 OBP). But because A-Rod plays for the last-place Texas Rangers, those numbers aren't good enough to displace Posada or Tejada, who play for teams that have virtually locked up postseason spots.
Give Bonds slight edge for NL MVP
In the National League MVP race, three outstanding left fielders continue to lead the pack. San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds still has the edge -- but that edge is much smaller than it was a month ago. Gary Sheffield of the Atlanta Braves and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals are stronger candidates now.
Barry Bonds | .340 | 43 HRs | 86 RBI | .532 OBP
Bonds has won five NL MVPs (in 1990, 1992, 1993, 2001 and 2002). He also finished second in 1991 and 2000.
Bonds' importance to the Giants is evident. San Francisco struggled when he missed time recently both before and after to his father's death. Without Bonds, the Giants would be a .500 ballclub.
His 43 homers lead the league, and his lower RBI total reflects the fact that opponents rarely pitch to him in crucial RBI situations. He leads the league in five key offensive categories -- including that amazing .532 on-base percentage. Plus, he's third in batting and fifth in runs.
Albert Pujols | .367 | 42 HRs | 123 RBI | .443 OBP
The winner of the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, Pujols leads the NL in batting and is tied for second (with Jim Thome) in homers. Pujols is also second in RBI, but his chase for the Triple Crown has become tougher because of the recent RBI surge of Colorado Rockies outfielder Preston Wilson (136 RBI).
Overall, Pujols ranks first or second in the NL in six key categories (and he's third in OBP). As with Bonds and the Giants, the value of Pujols to the Cardinals is clear.
Gary Sheffield | .331 | 36 HR | 122 RBI | .423 OBP
The closest Sheffield has come to the MVP is third (in 1992 with the San Diego Padres). He's in the top five in the league in six key offensive categories. He too has proved his value in the Braves' lineup.
Stay tuned. The NL MVP race likely will come down to the season's last weekend.
MVP Criteria: Individual vs. Team
When I consider players for the MVP award, I look first at individual accomplishments and production, but I also factor in the team's performance.
In some ways, I use the team's performance -- whether a team challenges for or reaches the postseason -- as a tiebreaker. After all, the more a star player produces for his team, the better chance his team has at the playoffs.
In other words, I don't see the MVP as a player-of-the-year award. And neither do most sportswriters who actually vote for the MVP (if they did, A-Rod would have nabbed the MVP last year).
What about pitchers winning the MVP? To me, it has to be an unusual situation. Everyday players are involved in 150-plus games versus 30-35 starts for a pitcher (or maybe 75 brief appearances for a reliever).
If no everyday player distinguishes himself and a pitcher has a phenomenal year, I would defer to the pitcher. For instance, I expect that Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne will get some MVP votes this year -- and deservedly, because his value to L.A. is immense (though he won't come close to winning).
But the Cy Young is a different story. Just as unusual circumstances would be required for me to consider a pitcher for the MVP, it would take unusual circumstances for me to consider a closer for the Cy Young. Still, both scenarios have occurred in the past, and they will occur again.
Cy Young Criteria: Closing Arguments
My Cy Young formula starts with wins and then looks at pitching stats in this order: innings pitched, ERA, losses and strikeouts/walks. If the wins are close, I factor in other stats as tiebreakers, starting with innings pitched (and no, I don't have an actual vote for Cy Young, either).
This isn't just my opinion -- talk to other pitchers, from Greg Maddux to ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe, and they'll tell you the same thing. The number of innings pitched is an underrated statistic. It's far more important than many fans realize, but pitchers and managers realize how much it eases the burden on a bullpen.
For the Cy Young award, I don't factor in a team's performance, because I see it as a best pitcher or pitcher-of-the-year award.
What about closers winning the Cy Young? I addressed this in a recent column, but I'll explain again. While closers are important, I would consider a closer for the award only if a starter fails to emerge and a closer has a superb year.
In fact, I see Gagne as just such a special case this season. If my top starting-pitcher candidates (see below) falter, I'd vote for Gagne despite my reservations. And Atlanta Braves closer John Smoltz was at the same level until he went on the disabled list in late August.
The thing is, you can't give a save nearly as much credence as a win, because a starter must pitch at least five innings to get a win whereas a closer needs only one out to get a save. Plenty of pitchers can get three outs with a three-run lead and record a save. To consider a closer for the Cy Young, I would look at how many one-run saves and how many four-out saves (or more) he had.
I absolutely appreciate what Gagne (51 saves, 1.30 ERA) and Smoltz (44 saves, 0.89 ERA) have done this season. I've watched them pitch, and when they enter a game, it's virtually automatic. But while Gagne has no blown saves, he's lost three times when he entered a tie game; Smoltz has two losses and three blown saves.
Remember, this is just my criteria, based on my involvement in major-league baseball as a player and broadcaster for 40 years. But that doesn't mean it's the only way to evaluate the Cy Young -- it's just the way I view it. As a former player, I tend to see baseball from a player's perspective (not a sportswriter's perspective).
AL Cy Young: Halladay's Time
Until recently, I didn't have a definitive choice for AL Cy Young. But I do now: Toronto Blue Jays starter Roy Halladay.
Roy Halladay | 21-6 | 252 IP | 3.18 ERA
Halladay won his MLB-leading 21st game Wednesday, throwing a complete-game shutout vs. the Detroit Tigers. Halladay leads the league not only in wins but also in innings pitched. He's second in the AL in strikeouts (187) and complete games (8). He's been a mainstay for the Jays all season long.
Esteban Loaiza | 19-8 | 207 IP | 2.87 ERA
Chicago White Sox starter Esteban Loaiza is second on my current AL Cy Young list. Loaiza stumbled in his past two attempts to win his 20th game, with both losses coming to the AL Central rival Twins. Naturally, that's hurt his chances. But he's in the league's top five in five key pitching categories.
Unlike the NL, no AL closer merits Cy Young consideration this year.
NL Cy Young: Schmidt's To Win
Besides Gagne (mentioned above), three starters merit Cy consideration. Again, it will depend on who produces down the stretch.
Jason Schmidt | 16-5 | 200.2 IP | 2.33 ERA
The Giants' ace leads the NL in ERA and is second in wins. Schmidt, who started All-Star Game, is ranked first or second in four other key categories.
Mark Prior | 16-6 | 197 IP | 2.47 ERA
Prior is in the league's top five in five key categories and has been a dominant force for the Chicago Cubs.
Russ Ortiz | 19-7 | 198.1 IP | 4.08 ERA
Earlier, I favored Ortiz, the Braves' starter. On Aug. 24, he was 18-5 with a 3.56 ERA. He's faltered lately, though.
Chat Reminder: I'll answer your questions in an ESPN.com chat Friday at 10:45 a.m. ET.
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76.