Guerrero's September clinches his MVP case

ON BASEBALL

October 03, 2004|By JOE CHRISTENSEN

This is why the ballots aren't cast until the season ends. This is why the voters wait, absorbing the action, until the final out is recorded and the postseason seeds have been set.

One week ago, Gary Sheffield looked as if he might have the best case to win the American League's Most Valuable Player award.

The New York Yankees haven't had an MVP in the Joe Torre era, but Sheffield carried that team to another AL East title this season, despite battling constant pain in his left shoulder.

With Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada having subpar years, and Jason Giambi nowhere near full strength, Sheffield put on an impressive display this summer. During June, July and August, he hit .307 with 28 home runs and 70 RBIs.

Sheffield seemed a better pick for MVP than the two monsters in the Boston Red Sox's lineup: Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. From a distance they looked almost interchangeable, as both entered the final weekend batting at least .300, with at least 40 home runs and 130 RBIs.

Ramirez led the league in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) at 1.016, and Ortiz was fifth at .977.

But this award is about more than numbers. The MVP ballot specifically asks voters to pick the player most valuable to his team.

Polling the Orioles, they privately said they thought Ortiz was more valuable to Boston's success this season, noting how much Ramirez benefits by hitting in front of the big, left-handed-hitting Ortiz.

Almost every such discussion with an Orioles player, coach or team official quickly turned into a debate about why Miguel Tejada wasn't getting more consideration for MVP. None of the players mentioned above plays a position as demanding as shortstop, and Tejada plays it every game, bringing an energy and passion that is transforming the Orioles into believers.

Conventional wisdom says the MVP should come from a playoff team, and that thinking probably helped Tejada when he won the 2002 award for the Oakland Athletics, as he aced out Rodriguez, who was then the shortstop for the last-place Texas Rangers. Now the same thinking hurts Tejada, though he deserves top-three consideration.

So, a week ago, the MVP ballot could have started like this: Sheffield, Ortiz, Tejada and Ramirez. But anyone who sealed the envelope made a big mistake. Because along came Vladimir Guerrero with a pennant push for the ages.

The Anaheim Angels spent most of the summer lingering just behind Texas and Oakland for the AL West lead. They were always within striking distance, despite early season injuries to Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad and Garret Anderson.

Much of the credit went to Guerrero, who was quietly having a nice year in the first season since he left the Montreal Expos as a free agent, shunned the Orioles and signed his five-year, $70 million contract in Anaheim.

Still, it was nothing extraordinary. Until recently.

On Sept. 9, Guerrero went on a 21-game tear in which he hit .400 (30-for-75) with 10 home runs and 21 RBIs. Last week against Texas, he looked like a man on a mission, as he delivered a pair of two-homer games and used his cannon-like arm from right field to throw out a key runner at home plate.

The Angels climbed back into a first-place tie with Oakland last week and then knocked the A's out yesterday to win the division title. Suddenly, Guerrero's numbers measure up pretty well with those of Sheffield, Ramirez and Ortiz.

Guerrero entered the weekend batting .338 with 38 home runs and 124 RBIs. His .990 OPS ranked third behind Ramirez and Cleveland's Travis Hafner. And after helping the Angels eliminate Oakland this weekend, he looks as if he'd be the right choice for MVP.

Other envelopes, please ...

Fortunately, because of space limitations in this column, the other awards are a little more cut and dried.

National League MVP: Barry Bonds. Think of the praise we just heaped on those AL sluggers and then consider that Bonds' OPS is 1.422. The NL's two other top MVP candidates -- Adrian Beltre (1.024) and Albert Pujols (1.070) -- don't even come close. Beltre's value to the Los Angeles Dodgers has been undeniable this season, but Bonds is on another planet.

AL Cy Young: Johan Santana. Boston's Curt Schilling had a great season, going 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA. But Santana (20-6, 2.61 ERA) was wizard-like for the Minnesota Twins. He led the league with 265 strikeouts, compared to Schilling's 203, and held opponents to a .192 batting average, compared to Schilling's .239.

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