From Chipper Jones to Dan Uggla, Milton Bradley to J.D. Drew, several offensive players deserve some serious consideration for their outstanding offensive production in the season's first 81 games, making the midway MVP selection in each league a difficult decision.
None of the aforementioned players, however, cracked the list.
So, without any more delay, here are my picks for the Mid-Season Awards.
MVP: Josh Hamilton, OF Texas Rangers—Hamilton's teammate, Milton Bradley, has a higher batting average, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS, but the former number one overall pick has been more valuable to his team. First of all, he adds value with his defense in the outfield, unlike Bradley, who is the Rangers' full-time designated hitter. Second, the sweet-swinging slugger has been able to remain on the field, which has been difficult for him ever since the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected him with the first overall pick, ahead of Josh Beckett, in the 1999 First-Year Draft. Hamilton, in fact, has played in 80 games, only 10 fewer than his season total in 2007, when he hit 19 home runs as a rookie for the Cincinnati Reds.
Plus, while Bradley only nearly has as many homers as his fellow slugger in nearly 100 fewer at-bats, Hamilton was one of the most productive hitters in the majors through in the first half in his own right. He posted a line of .312/.362/.565, for the sixth-highest OPS in the league. Not to mention, the 27-year-old is currently tied with Grady Sizemore for the circuit lead with 19 homers and is the majors' leader in RBIs. In fact, with 79 RBIs, he is on pace to drive in 157 runs this season. With Ian Kinsler and Michael Young batting in front of him, he will get plenty of RBI chances in the second half, making it likely that he will get close to that lofty total.
With his tremendous arm and athleticism, Hamilton has been invaluable to the Rangers, who, despite a relatively thin starting rotation, remain in contention in the West. Texas is a pretender for 2008. In the near future, though—with Hamilton and several up-and-coming prospects—the club has a strong chance to make its first appearance in the postseason since the Juan Gonzalez era in Arlington.
Cliff Lee (Associated Press)
Cy Young Award: Cliff Lee, Cleveland Indians—Scott Kazmir is ineligible because he missed all of April, though the Tampa Bay left-hander was the best pitcher in the league from May on. Kazmir, who posted the lowest opponents' OPS (.577) and a ridiculous ERA+ of 178 in the first half, has won seven of his 11 starts, guiding the Rays to the majors' best record at the season's halfway mark.
Lee, though, has come a long way in the past year, going from the minors to perhaps starting the last-ever All-Star game at Yankee Stadium in less than 10 months. While the Indians' anemic offense has prevented the club from making a first-half push in the wide-open AL Central division, Lee and the rest of his rotation mates have done their part to keep the team afloat. It is hard to argue with his numbers so far: he is 11-1 in 15 starts, having posted a 2.34 ERA, 177 ERA+ and .597 opponents' OPS in 103.7 innings pitched. Many writers were skeptical of Lee's torrid start in April, but he has silenced the critics, limiting opposing hitters to a line of .237/.267/.330 while compiling a 90-to-16 K/W ratio. His surprise pre-midpoint performance has been of the season's best stories..
Rookie of the Year: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays—Since his call up from Triple-A Durham on April 12, Longoria has been invaluable to the best-in-baseball Rays, batting .270/.342/.529 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs. A Gold Glove candidate and a regular on the highlight-reel, he has also upgraded the team's infield defense by playing an excellent third base.
With his production at the plate, he is showing why he was dubbed the top prospect in the minors in numerous offseason publications, as he is leading American League rookies in nearly every offensive statistical category—extra-base hits (37), homers, slugging percentage and OPS (.871). His call-up has coincided with the Rays' turnaround from a poor start. In fact, since the former first-round pick joined the club two weeks into the season, Tampa Bay is 44-27. This is not a coincidence, folks. Longoria, leading his team in homers and RBIs, has been one of the most productive hitters in a lineup that has struggled to score runs at times.
Outfielder David Murphy has gotten some publicity, as he is top among major league rookies with 52 RBIs. He has had numerous opportunities to drive in runs down in Texas, however, and needs to improve upon his .306 on-base percentage. Boston center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, an excellent defender, has swiped 34 bases in 38 attempts while hitting .272/.349/.389. He is leading AL newcomers with 54 runs scored, but the '07 World Series hero has not been as productive as Longoria.
Honorable Mention: Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox; Greg Smith, Oakland Athletics
MVP: Lance Berkman, Houston Astros—This was easily the most difficult award to pick. Chipper Jones is flirting with .400. A pair of second baseman in the NL East, Chase Ultey and Dan Uggla, have combined to hit 46 homers already. Utley is also playing stellar defense at the keystone for a first-place team. And then there is St. Louis stud Albert Pujols, who has 17 homers and a stellar 1.123 OPS.
Nonetheless, Berkman is the Mid-Season Most Valuable Player on the Senior Circuit, in my eyes.
The Houston Astros are 10 games back in the NL central, perennially one of the weakest divisions in the weak National League. Thus, my selection may come as a surprise. Many people associate this award with winning. As a result, therefore, many writers fail to recognize the actual best performer—see Rollins, Jimmy, 2007. Berkman, however, had the strongest first half, as he put together one of the best 81-game performances baseball has seen in some time. The Houston first baseman, in fact, was an absolute monster during that stretch, batting .364/.444/.690 in 313 at-bats. He has also posted the majors' highest OPS (1.135), OPS+ (198) and slugging percentage, is second in the NL in batting average and RBIs and third in homers (23). If it was not for Jones, who is leading baseball with a .394 batting average, Berkman would have a legitimate shot at the circuit's Triple Crown, more so than Josh Hamilton in the other league.
Edison Volquez (Associated Press)
Cy Young Award: Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati Reds—Volquez, who came to the Reds in the Josh Hamilton deal, had a breakout first half, going 10-3 with the best ERA (2.08 ERA) and ERA+ (214) in the National League at the midpoint. In 16 starts, the 24-year-old right-hander has posted a stellar 113-to-43 K/W ratio (those Ks ranks second in the league) while limiting opposing hitters to a line of .202/.308/.281 and only four homers. With such a strong nucleus of young stars—Jay Bruce, Jonny Cueto, Volquez and Joey Votto—the Reds should be a force in the Central for years to come.
Tim Lincecum was stellar in the first half as well, going 9-1 with 2.38 ERA, league-best 114 Ks and a 1.24 WHIP. The San Francisco Giants received a good amount of grief for selecting the right-hander so early in the 2006 draft, because of the then-University of Washington star's unorthodox mechanics. But Lincecum, who led the nation in strikeouts his final season in college, has silenced the critics with his tremendous performance over the past two seasons, emerging as one of the premier young starting pitchers in the National League. In 40 career starts, he is 16-6 with 264 punchouts and a 3.30 ERA.
Rookie of the Year: Geovany Soto, Chicago Cubs—Odds are pretty high that this award will end up in Chicago at the end of the season, with Cub rookies Kousuke Fukudome and Soto the leading candidates in the race right now. Soto was better than his teammate in the first half, though, establishing himself as one of the majors' most promising young catchers. The Pacific Coast League MVP in '07, his success from his September call-up in '07 carried over in the spring. A late bloomer at 25, he finished the first half with a line of .281/.367/.513 for the first-place Cubbies. His .880 OPS is the highest rookie total in the majors, and he is second among the group, behind Longoria, with 13 home runs and 47 RBIs.
Fukudome has been a tremendous addition for Chicago, posting a .405 on-base percentage in the season's first 81 games while playing above-average defense in right field. A versatile player with tremendous athleticism, he is leading rookie-eligible players with 55 runs scored and ranks second with 83 hits. Just like Akinori Iwamura, however, his power has not translated to the American game as expected, with deeper ballparks and advanced pitching. Plus, at 31, he is hardly a true rookie. He had an excellent first half, but, as a decent defensive catcher with above-average arm strength, Soto is more deserving of the award at this juncture.
Atlanta Braves rookie starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens is enjoying an excellent season as well. Jurrjens, who was acquired by Atlanta in the deal that sent Edgar Renteria to Detroit, offered a huge boost to the Braves' rotation in the first half, going 8-3 with a 2.94 ERA in 16 starts. If he can continue to be effective the remainder of the summer, he will pose the biggest threat to the Cubs' chances of producing a Rookie of the Year for the first time since Kerry Wood earned the award back in 1998.
Honorable Mention: Kosuke Fukudome, Chicago Cubs; Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves
Major League Front Office of the Year: Tampa Bay Rays—While managers are important—Joe Maddon is a good match for the Tampa Bay clubhouse and has done a fine job guiding his team—personnel decisions make more of a direct impact in the standings and are far more important than any manager's "leader of men" qualities or abilities as an in-game strategist. With that being said, Andrew Friedman, Gerry Hunsicker, Matt Silverman and crew have done a tremendous job putting together a winning product on the field down in St. Petersburg, finding the right mix of young talent and quality veterans, such as closer Troy Percival.
No, I do not buy the "any team could be good if they got to pick early in the first-round for 11 straight years" mindset. First of all, look at the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have had the same luxury of picking early in the draft but are still miles away from relevance in the inferior league. Plus, in the Rays' 2008 starting lineup, Longoria and B.J. Upton are the only former first-round picks selected by Tampa Bay. Granted, the trade of Delmon Young, the first pick of the 2003 draft, brought the club's number three starter, Matt Garza, and starting shortstop, Jason Bartlett, to St. Petersburg. If anything, though, Friedman deserves credit for pulling the trigger on that risky deal, which has helped shore up Tampa Bay's infield defense and starting rotation.
Honorable Mention: Boston Red Sox
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