MLB

Here's the pitch: Justin Verlander for AL MVP?

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NEW YORK (AP)

What an incredible finish to the regular season: blown saves, big collapses and extra-inning thrillers to decide the two wild cards.

So with the playoffs set to begin, there's just enough time to take a deep breath and make a few picks for baseball's individual awards. Not an easy task, though, because the MVP derby in both leagues came down to the wire as well.

Let's start in the AL, where Justin Verlander's spectacular season has recharged a familiar debate: Should a pitcher be voted Most Valuable Player?

Nobody disputes Verlander's excellence. The Detroit Tigers' ace won the pitching version of the Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (24-5), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250) - not to mention innings (251). He threw a no-hitter and came close a couple other times, helping his team win the AL Central in a runaway for its first division title since 1987.

Cy Young Award, for sure. Probably a unanimous selection.

But some say he merits more. Some say he's been more valuable than anyone else in the league.

Here's the crux of the argument: Great as he was, Verlander made 34 starts this year, which leaves 128 games that he didn't appear in. And there's your answer, the detractors say.

''That question's asked every year and I say no every year,'' Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. ''Mostly, MVPs are for the guys that are out there every day carrying your ballclub. That's why they have separate pitchers' awards and players' awards. It's like, do I think a shortstop should win the Cy Young? No.''

Like it or not, pitchers are eligible for the MVP - though voters have taken it upon themselves to challenge that before.

In 1999, Pedro Martinez had a phenomenal season for the Boston Red Sox and finished with the most first-place votes in AL MVP balloting. But two voters left him off their 10-player ballots and he finished second, 13 points behind Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

Of course, that was four years before ''Moneyball'' came out (the book, not the Brad Pitt movie), and sabermetrics had not yet been embraced by many writers covering the game.

Comparing pitchers to position players is obviously difficult because their stats are not the same. But that's precisely a purpose of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), one of baseball's most popular new-age valuations.

According to baseball-reference.com, Verlander ranked second in the AL in WAR this year, just behind Toronto slugger Jose Bautista, whose team finished fourth in the AL East at 81-81.

Still, players and managers don't sound convinced.

''The MVP is for the guy who goes out there every day and helps his team win, however that may be,'' said Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton, last year's AL MVP. ''Pitchers don't go out there every day. I think pitchers and position players are separate.''

Voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America usually agree. The last pitcher to win an MVP award was Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley in 1992. The last starter was Roger Clemens in 1986.

Besides the WAR number that ranks Verlander ahead of other top contenders such as teammate Miguel Cabrera, New York Yankees sluggers Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano, and Boston Red Sox stars Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez, perhaps the right-hander's best argument is that he won 12 straight starts from July 21 to Sept. 18 as Detroit pulled away from its competition.

Plus, his ability to consistently pitch deep into games protected the bullpen, helping the Tigers win on days before and after Verlander started.

No doubt, he's a huge reason they open the playoffs Friday night at Yankee Stadium.

''It'd be hard to argue if he was to be the MVP, no question,'' Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. ''It'd be tough to find a more valuable guy than that.''

Yet in a small sampling of big league players and managers, six of the eight who were asked thought an AL position player should beat out Verlander, who finished with the most wins in the majors since Randy Johnson also racked up 24 for Arizona in 2002.

-Angels outfielder Torii Hunter: ''I just can't see a pitcher winning the MVP. I mean, they pitch in, what, 34 games? There's a guy out there playing every day, and he's (determining) the outcome of the game, whether you win or lose. Those are the guys who should get it.''

-Rangers designated hitter Michael Young: ''I don't have a problem with pitchers getting votes. I mean, there are pitchers who a lot of times have a huge impact on the pennant race and on a team's success. But I think that 99 percent of the time, position players should get the MVP. Every now and then, if there is a rare exception, then, OK, you can go for a pitcher. If there is a glaring void among position players, I have no problem with it going to a pitcher. But this year, I don't think that's the case at all. I think there are plenty of good candidates in our league.''

-Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker: ''Not taking anything away from Verlander. This guy is - he's a monster. But I think the pitcher's MVP is the Cy Young. ... Anybody who's ever played every day knows that every day is, whew, that's a job.''

OK, so those guys are (or were) position players, and they're probably biased. But then there's Angels ace Jered Weaver, who appears likely to finish a distant second to Verlander for the Cy Young.

''I think what he's doing is definitely worthy of MVP votes. He's obviously had a year as a pitcher that hasn't been seen in a while, and I think there should be a little bit of consideration,'' Weaver said. ''But the Cy Young Award is a pretty honorable award as well. So if you keep it to a pitcher's award and the MVP goes to a position player, I think it all evens out.''

Ouch. Even a fellow pitcher.

The unkindest cut fastball of all.

Michael Young is right about one thing, for sure: There are about half a dozen worthy MVP candidates in the AL who might have won easily in a different year.

Cabrera took home the batting title at .344 and finished second in OPS to Bautista, who led the league with 43 homers and 132 walks.

Ellsbury and Gonzalez might end up stained by the monumental September meltdown that kept Boston out of the playoffs, though poor pitching was truly the culprit.

Granderson and Cano could split some votes, costing both a higher point total.

''MVP doesn't necessarily mean the guy with the best stats either, sometimes. You've got defense, you've got baserunning, you've got all phases of the game,'' Baker said. ''Granted you've got to have some super numbers to even be considered. But you've got guys over in that American League ... they have some bad boys over there.''

Sorry, Mr. Verlander. The pick here in a very close call is Ellsbury, just ahead of Granderson.

The Red Sox center fielder scored 119 runs and knocked in 105 - from the leadoff spot. He provided power and speed: 32 homers, 39 steals. He stayed healthy, played outstanding defense and did all he could to stop Boston's slide, batting .358 with eight homers, 11 doubles, 21 RBIs and an OPS of 1.067 in September.

Not his fault the Red Sox didn't get enough outs from Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jonathan Papelbon down the stretch.

With the walls crumbling around him, Ellsbury was as valuable a player as any team could ask for. He just needed some help on the mound.

NL MVP: Some seem to think this is a real close race pitting Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers against Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp.

Not that close.

Braun and Fielder have both enjoyed exceptional seasons and deserve all sorts of accolades for leading Milwaukee to the NL Central championship, its first division crown since 1982. But they hit back-to-back in a powerful lineup, while Kemp has little help in Los Angeles.

Kemp finished second to Braun in OPS but was tops in WAR by a comfortable margin. He led the league in homers (39), RBIs (126), runs (115) and total bases (353). He also had 40 steals and went into last weekend with a legitimate shot at becoming the first hitter in 44 years to win a Triple Crown - and the first in the NL since 1937. Kemp finished third in the batting race at .324.

''The only thing he hasn't done is win 20 games,'' Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said.

All while playing a premium defensive position on an 82-79 team.

''What Kemp is doing, whew, it's just crazy,'' said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 NL MVP. ''You can't penalize him for not being on a winning team.''

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, the 1985 AL MVP, said Kemp has supplied more than big numbers.

''He's been a leader. He's been everything we've looked for. There are a lot of intangibles when it comes to Matt. Not everything shows up in the stats,'' Mattingly said. ''You talk about a guy that's kind of the total package and done it all, he's been doing that for us all season. I think he's been the best player in baseball or at the very least, the best player in the National League.''

Braun and Fielder get a trip to the playoffs. Kemp takes home the hardware.

AL Cy Young: Verlander. See above.

NL Cy Young: Despite their mediocre season, the Dodgers are double winners when it comes to the big awards. Clayton Kershaw (21-5) also claimed the pitching Triple Crown, tying Arizona right-hander Ian Kennedy for the lead in wins while compiling a league-best 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts in 233 1-3 innings.

And it didn't come easy. Without the benefit of a big offense to back him, Kershaw went 5-0 against the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Four of those wins came against two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, with Kershaw allowing one earned run in those games. Three of the victories were by scores of 2-1, and the other was 1-0.

''If he doesn't win the Cy Young, then I don't know what someone would have to do to win,'' Kemp said. ''If he doesn't win, it's not right.''

AL Rookie of the Year: Tampa Bay pitcher Jeremy Hellickson was 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA in 189 innings. That's good enough to beat out Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.70) and Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo (29 HRs, 87 RBIs, .291 OBP).

NL Rookie of the Year: Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel had a tough finish to a stellar campaign, blowing a save in the season-ending loss to Philadelphia that eliminated the Braves from wild-card contention. But he saved 46 games, a major league record for rookies, and compiled a 2.10 ERA with 127 strikeouts in 77 innings. He's the clear choice. Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and Phillies pitcher Vance Worley also impressed.

AL Manager of the Year: It would be hard to overstate Joe Maddon's importance to the Rays. His eternal, contagious optimism helped them overcome a nine-game deficit in September - not to mention a 7-0 hole in the eighth inning Wednesday night - to capture the AL wild card. Truly, two of baseball's most improbable comebacks.

After losing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and just about the entire bullpen in free agency last offseason, Tampa Bay started 1-8. Manny Ramirez retired rather than face a 100-game drug suspension. But through it all, Maddon stayed the course and led this club to its third playoff berth in four years despite an opening-day payroll of $42 million, second-lowest in the majors. Is there a better manager in the majors?

NL Manager of the Year: While Tony La Russa warrants consideration for guiding the Cardinals to their wild-card comeback, the choice here is Kirk Gibson. He raised surprising Arizona from last place to the top of the NL West in his first full season at the helm. Gibson can join Joe Torre, Don Baylor and Frank Robinson as former MVPs to win Manager of the Year.

---

AP Baseball Writers Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis and Janie McCauley in San Francisco, AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis and AP freelance writer Kevin Scattareggia in San Diego contributed to this report.

Tagged: Red Sox, Angels, Tigers, Brewers, Twins, Yankees, Rangers, Braves, Dodgers, Phillies, Giants, Diamondbacks, Rays, Michael Young, Michael Cuddyer, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander, Matt Kemp, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Braun, Ian Kennedy, Clayton Kershaw

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