Phillies Finally Get Their Ace: Cliff Lee, Not Roy Halladay, Headed to Philadelphia

The Phillies hope Cliff Lee can help the capture another World Series.

The Phillies hope Cliff Lee can help them capture another World Series.

For a second straight year, the Cleveland Indians sent the reigning AL Cy Young award winner to a National League contender in a deadline deal. Last season the Indians shipped out C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers, this time around lefty Cliff Lee is packing his bags for Philadelphia after Wednesday morning’s trade. The Phillies had been part of the Roy Halladay sweepstakes over the past few days, but with the team at an impasse with Toronto and little progress being made, Philadelphia decided to shift its focus to Cleveland’s star southpaw. The Indians didn’t ask for any of the prospects that the Phillies were unwilling to part with in negotiations with the Blue Jays, and a deal was quickly struck that sent Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco to Philadelphia in return for minor leaguers Jason Knapp, Lou Marson, Carlos Carrasco and and Jason Donald. The trade will be finalized pending physical examinations (just turn your head and cough please).

The Indians had high hopes of competing for an AL Central title in 2009 but quickly fell out of contention, leading to speculation that the team would try and move Lee before the deadline. Lee stumbled out of the gate but improved with each passing month, and had posted a 3-0 record with a 1.44 ERA since the All-Star break. At the time of the trade Philadelphia was seven games ahead of the Florida Marlins in the NL East, but were only 13th in the league in ERA as a team, and had largely been carried by their modern day Murderer’s Row of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez. Last year’s World Series hero Cole Hamels has been inconsistent for Philly all season, and with #2 starter Brett Myers still on the DL, the team was anxious to bolster their starting rotation in hopes of capturing back-to-back Fall Classics. This move likely vaults Philadelphia above Los Angeles as the favorites to capture the NL pennant and the team was able to do so without forfeiting Kyle Drabek or Dominic Brown, two of the organizations best and most prized prospects. Like Halladay, Cliff Lee is controlled through next season, meaning that the lefty can help the Phillies in two pennant races and isn’t simply a two-to-three month rental as is the case in many deadline deals (like Sabathia last year). Philadelphia hopes that Lee is the final piece of the puzzle in their march towards becoming the first team to win two straight World Series since the Yankees ten years ago.

18-year-old Jason Knapp is thought to have the greatest potential of the players Cleveland acquired.

18-year-old Jason Knapp is believed to have the greatest potential of the players acquired by Cleveland.

For the Cleveland Indians this latest move is a historic, though not necessarily a good, as they become the first team in baseball to trade away Cy Young winners midseason in back-to-back years. The Lee deal is strangely similiar to last year’s Sabathia deal, as both seasons the Tribe was expected to push for the playoffs but struggled early and decided to move their best pitcher. Though they didn’t get Drabek or Brown, Cleveland still received 4 of the top 10 prospects in the Philadelphia organization, and stocked up for a run at the AL Central in 2010 or 2011. Lou Marson is a good-hitting catcher who is expected take over for Victor Martinez if the Indians trade Martinez before the deadline or in the offseason. Jason Donald is a fundamentally sound shortstop, Carlos Carrasco could be a middle of the rotation starter and 18-year-old Jason Knapp is rumored to have better stuff than Drabek. Some scouts are already criticizing this move, saying that Cleveland got too little in return for Lee, but the organization has a good track record in dealing star pitchers. After all, Cleveland pulled off one of the greatest heists in recent history, trading Bartolo Colon for a young Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips in 2002. If this group of prospects turns out anything like Lee, Sizemore and Phillips, the Indians could be contenders for the next decade in the Central.

Another day, another big deal in baseball as the trade deadline fast approaches. Philadelphia sets themselves up as the favorites in the NL and Cleveland stocks up for the future as they send yet another Cy Young to the Senior Circuit. Will Lee make the impact that Sabathia did for the Brewers? Does this move mean Halladay is staying put, or is their another destination for Toronto’s ace? Stay tuned, the baseball season is just heating up.

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The Pujols Protection Plan: Cardinals Acquire Matt Holliday from Athletics

Matt Holliday has gone 6 for 9 in his first two games with the Cardinals.

Matt Holliday has gone 6 for 9 in his first two games with the Cardinals.

In a move that they hope will propel them to a second World Series title in four years, the St. Louis Cardinals acquired coveted slugger Matt Holliday from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for three minor league prospects. St. Louis had been rumored as a destination for Toronto’s star hurler Roy Halladay, but the team decided getting a proven hitter like Holliday to follow Albert Pujols in their lineup was a more pressing need in their playoff push. Despite a subpar supporting cast around Pujols the Cardinals still find themselves leading the NL Central by 1/2 game over the Chicago Cubs. Playing in one of baseball’s most competitive divisions, (the NL Central boasts four teams with records over .500) St. Louis’ addition of Holliday should make them the favorite to capture the Central.

At the time of the trade, 2007’s MVP runner-up was hitting .286 with 10 HRs, 54 RBIs and 12 SBs for the last place A’s. Holliday landed in Oakland during the off-season in a trade from the Colorado Rockies, a surprising move given Billy Beane’s track record for shying away from veterans with big contracts. Holliday struggled early in Oakland and the team quickly fell out of contention in the AL West. It wasn’t long before his name started to come up in baseball circles as a perfect complement to Pujols in the Cardinals’ lineup. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa has long been a fan of Holliday from his days in Colorado, and the Red Birds were in desperate need of some offensive firepower to support their stellar pitching staff (3.72 team ERA ranks 3rd in NL). Holliday offers a rare blend of speed and power and the Cardinals hope their new slugger will make teams pay for pitching around Pujols who leads the league with 75 walks. Holliday will man leftfield opposite Ryan Ludwick, who continues to heat up after a slow start (.392-5 HR-24 RBI in July), forming a potent heart of the heart with Pujols. While this move makes the Cardinals the most talented team on paper in the NL Central, the Dodgers still remain the team to beat in the National League.

Oakland hopes Wallace becomes a mainstay in their lineup starting in 2010.

Oakland hopes new addition Brett Wallace can become a mainstay in their lineup as soon as 2010.

On the flip side of the deal, the constantly rebuilding Athletics acquire one of the best third-base prospects in baseball, 22-year-old Brett Wallace. The left-handed slugger out of Arizona State was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft and had already reached Triple-A in the Cardinals organization. Wallace makes good contact at the plate, has plus-power for a corner infielder and hits left-handed pitching well. He is a below-average defensive third baseman and may be shifted to first base or DH, but his bat should have him playing full-time in Oakland by next season. The A’s also acquired Shane Peterson, a likely 4th outfielder in the majors unless he improves his plate discipline, and right-hander Clayton Mortenson, a groundball pitcher who projects as a fourth or fifth starter. On the surface it appears that Oakland  received a better haul of prospects than they gave up for Holliday, and the move probably saved the team a  bundle of money. Holliday is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and if Oakland had offered him arbitration and he accepted, it would have cost them in the neighborhood of $17-18 million. However, if they declined to offer Holliday arbitration they would not have recieved two first-round compensatory picks in the 2010 draft, leaving Billy Beane little choice but to deal the slugger. As always, the A’s keen GM made the best of the situation, stockpiling the Oakland farm system with talented young players who could make an impact as early as next season.

Baseball’s first big trade of 2009 should set off a domino effect as teams in both leagues to seek to keep pace with St. Louis’ acquisition of Matt Holliday. The move puts pressure on the Phillies to up their offer for Roy Halladay and the Cubs almost certainly need to do something if they want to recapture the NL Central crown. The most nerve-wracking week in baseball just got more interesting, as the Cardinals take a major step forward, and the trade deadline continues to bear down on general managers with each passing minute.

New York Sinks to New Depths: Beloved Mascot Mr. Met Dealt to Cleveland

Once the happiest mascot in baseball, Mr. Met was a shell of his former self as the Mets' losses mounted.

Once the happiest mascot in baseball, Mr. Met was a shell of his former self as the Mets' losses continued to mount.

In a move that sent shockwaves throughout the world of baseball, the New York Mets sent longtime mascot Mr. Met to the Cleveland Indians in return for a pair of minor league mascots. Mr. Met, a part of the organization since 1963, had a closed-door meeting with GM Omar Minaya over the weekend in which the upset mascot revealed his frustrations with the team’s lack of direction, questionable off-season moves, hotdog prices at Citi Field, and David Wright’s mysterious lack of extra-base hits. Mr. Met then proceeded to call Minaya “less competent than the captain of the Titantic” and “quite possibly the worst GM since Isaiah Thomas”. After insulting the rest of the Mets organization and destroying Minaya’s prized ceramic egg collection, the mascot demanded a trade, stating that he “had a better shot of winning a World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates”. Minaya, already on the hotseat for New York’s mediocre play, saw no choice but to deal the face of the franchise. The team inquired about Colorado’s Dinger and the Mariner Moose before ultimately settling for a package from Cleveland that included the Akron Aeros mascot, Orbit the Cat, and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers dog-like mascot, Scrappy.

Can Orbit replace Mr. Met as the face of the franchise?

Can Orbit replace Mr. Met as the face of the franchise? Fans hope so, but he sure has a big head to fill.

At the time of the trade the Mets were 44-49 and mired in a long losing stretch that left them 10 games behind Philadelphia in the NL East. Injuries to key players had decimated the team, the pitching staff was in shambles and the Phillies 10-game winning streak had all but eliminated New York from contention; Mr. Met clearly was not amused. Fans had noticed a change in Mr. Met as the season progressed, the once omnipresent smile had been replaced with frowns, grimaces and looks of utter bewilderment. The mascot ignored requests to hold babies, stopped throwing t-shirts to fans and even refused to celebrate when the Mets captured a rare win. Queens resident Joseph Dahmer said he had seen a different Mr. Met then in season’s past. “Yeah, that big-headed doofus just wasn’t the same after Jose Reyes went to the DL,” commented Dahmer, “he seemed depressed all the time, but I can’t really blame him, the Mets stink”. Another long-time Mets’ fan, Cindy Goriglia, agreed with Dahmer saying that “he really looked like a mascot on the edge…he didn’t seem to enjoy what he was doing, and I even heard rumors of a suicide attempt.” Mr. Met recently failed a random drug test, but denied the rumors of a suicide attempt through his publicist, stating the the copious amounts of narcotics in his system helped to numb the pain of working for a dead-in-the-water franchise.

Hernandez was hit hard by the loss of his best friend.

Hernandez was hit hard by the loss of his only friend on the Mets.

Reaction to the move throughout the Mets organization was mixed. Star 3B David Wright seemed glad to be rid of Mr. Met, saying “that (bleeping) mascot wore out his welcome in the Big Apple a long time ago…he had been riding me all season long for not hitting homeruns and wouldn’t stop making passes at my girlfriend…I hope that (bleep) rots in Cleveland.” Starting pitcher Livan Hernandez was seen leaving the stadium in tears upon hearing the news, but between sobs mentioned that “Mr. Met was my best friend on the team. He was the only one who really got me, and he was always there to comfort me after another bad outing.” The Mets’ minor league mascots, including the Buffalo Bison and Savannah Sand Gnat, were sad to see their mentor leave, but excited to have a chance to perform at the major league level. It is unclear at the time whether the Mets plan to call up a mascot from their farm system or use one of the newly acquired ones to fill the void left by the departure of Mr. Met.

When confronted by reporters, Omar Minaya refused to comment about his tumultuous relationship with Mr. Met but did release the following statement about the mascots acquired in the trade:

       “We are really excited about what Orbit and Scrappy bring to this organization. They are two of the most talented mascots in all of minor league baseball and we feel that they both have the ability to contribute at the the big league level. Scrappy is full of energy, great with kids and loves being scratched behind the ears. Orbit has tremendous potential, is great with a T-shirt gun and can even do cartwheels! The city of New York has plenty of stray dogs and cats, you’ve all seen Oliver and Company haven’t you, so it makes sense to bring them here to the Big Apple. I can’t wait to see Orbit and Scrappy in action, this is an exciting day for the Mets’ franchise.”

With the trade of their mascot, Mr. Met, a strange season has gotten even stranger for the New York Mets. A team that came into the year with World Series aspirations finds itself unlikely to make the playoffs and forced to move on without one of the city’s biggest icons. The organization was clearly in need of some change, but critics of the move wonder if it should have been Minaya or Jerry Manuel who got the boot, not Mr. Met. Many loyal fans are already calling this the darkest day in New York since the blackout of 2003. The difference between the blackout and the trade of their beloved mascot? While the power came back the next day, Mr. Met may never return to the city he called home for over 45 years. The Mets continue to play limbo as a franchise, and after this latest move, many wonder: how low can they go?

Ben Zobrist: Baseball’s Swiss Army Knife

Zobrist is ten feet all, weighs a ton, and breathes fire.

Zobrist is ten feet tall, weighs a ton, invented electricty and breathes fire.

Tampa Bay All-Star second baseman Ben Zobrist came into 2009 with little fanfare and even less chance of getting steady at-bats. After all, the Rays already had two solid middle-infielders in Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura and an outfield that featured B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and the Gabes (Kapler and Gross) platooning in right-field. Zobrist had shown good pop in a limited trial during 2008 (12 HRs in 198 ABs), but the utility man didn’t figure to play more than a few times a week for the reigning AL champs.

Yet despite all these hurdles, Zobrist kept hitting whenever he got the chance, and as luck would have it the Gods of Baseball decided to give the former Astros farmhand a chance to shine. When Iwamura went down with a knee injury in late May, Zobrist became the Rays’ everyday second baseman and quickly proved that he had deserved a starting role all along; the legend of “Zorilla” was finally born.

The 28-year-old, who once got more recognition for his wife than his play on the field, is now one of the game’s rising stars and a favorite in fantasy baseball circles. Zobrist is capable of playing second and shortstop as well as any of the three outfield positions, making this jack-of-all-trades nearly indispensable to Tampa Bay. In addition to his versatility, Killer-Z also wields a mean stick at the dish.

Coming into the All-Star break Zobrist was hitting .297 with 17 HRs and 52 RBIs in only 246 ABs. The switch-hitter also shows a keen eye at the plate, drawing 49 walks against 55 Ks, leading to his robust .414 OBP. Zobrist has even developed as a base-stealer, swiping 11 bags while only getting caught three times. The pride of Eureka, Illinois is second in the league in SLG (.598), third in OBP and second in OPS (1.012). Is there anything on a baseball diamond this guy can’t do?

The grass is always greener on the other side, unless Zorilla has been there. In that case the grass is most likely soaked in blood and tears.

The grass is always greener on the other side, unless Zorilla has been there. In that case the grass is most likely soaked in blood and tears.

As the season progresses, this former 6th-round pick continues to develop into one of the best all-around talents in the game. The addition of Zobrist to the everyday lineup has reignited the Rays, helping them recover from a slow start and stay in contention in the brutal AL East. At 48-41, Tampa Bay is only 6 1/2 games back in the division and 3 1/2 games behind New York in the wild card race.

The Rays, already one of baseball’s deepest teams, continue to show that they have one of the best farm systems and scouting departments in the game today. Last year’s World Series runner-ups are even better this season with baseball’s biggest surprise leading the charge.

If Zobrist can prove that the first half of the season was no fluke and return the Rays to the post-season he will likely find himself in the AL MVP discussion at the end of the year. Not bad for a guy that once got traded for Aubrey Huff and came into the season with a career .222 average.

The Zorilla strikes again.

 

 

Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back: Should the Mariners Buy or Sell?

Bedard has pitched brilliantly all season, making him a prime trade target.

Bedard has pitched well all year, making him a prime trade target.

Breezing into the All-Star break with a record of 46-42 the Seattle Mariners have outperformed even the most optimistic of predictions for their 2009 season. Despite a lackluster offense (2nd to last in the American League in runs) the Mariners find themselves only four games out of first in the AL West after taking three of four from Texas over the weekend. The team has thrived in one-run games and has gotten clutch contributions from every spot in the order (Chris Shelton today, Rob Johnson yesterday, etc). Seattle’s pitching has been the linchpin to success, with a fantastic 3.74 ERA as a team (1st in AL). The pitching staff also leads the league in saves, WHIP and batting average against (.246). This season is beginning to look like 2007 for the Mariners, a year in which they scored less runs than they allowed, yet still finished with a record of 88-75. Even though they beat the odds in 2007 to finish on the winning side of the ledger, Seattle still missed the playoffs and fell to 61-101 last year. The L.A. Angels have heated up after a slow start, winning 7 of their last 10 games, and it will likely take 90+ wins to capture the division. As good as the Mariners have been, they probably can’t be expected to win more than 84-85 games. So, do the Mariners gamble that they can overtake the Angels and try to acquire some offensive firepower, or does Seattle trade some of their veterans and start building towards next season?

The Mariners' off-season addition of Gutierrez has them challenging for the division crown. Are there more moves ahead?

The Mariners' off-season addition of Gutierrez has them challenging for the division crown. Are there more moves ahead before the deadline?

New general manager Jack Zdrunciek has shown himself to be a shrewd evaluator of talent, bringing in key players like David Aardsma, Russell Branyan and Franklin Gutierrez through free agency and trades. Zdrunciek seems intent on keeping Seattle competitive this season, already acquiring Ryan Langerhans and Jack Hannahan in trades as well as shipping Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals. However, the Mariners sent most of their best minor league players (Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, etc.) to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard deal last year and injuries to starters like Adrian Beltre, Endy Chavez and the since-departed Betancourt have exposed the lack of depth in the club’s farm system. Zdrunciek finds himself at a crossroads in the first year as Seattle’s GM, balancing the need to compete this season against the need to build a team that can challenge for the playoffs perennially. While Zdrunciek was with Milwaukee the team had a track record for shying away from big trades (except for C.C. Sabathia last season) and building one of baseball’s best farm systems (Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, JJ Hardy, etc.). Will Zdrunciek stick to this formula with the Mariners?

If Seattle does decide that they want to move some pieces before the July 31st trading deadline they have plenty of players that would attract interest throughout baseball. Pitcher Erik Bedard would likely be the most coveted Mariner, a left-handed pitcher with the potential to be a true staff ace. Bedard has struggled to stay healthy in his career with Seattle, but has been phenomenal in 2009 with a 2.63 ERA and 79 Ks in 75 innings. The Mariners would be wise to shop him around while he is healthy, as Bedard is a free-agent at the end of the year and unlikely to resign with Seattle. Another sell-high candidate for the M’s is surprising slugger Russell Branyan. Given a full-time role for the first time in his career, Branyan has responded by hitting .280 with 22 HRs and 49 RBIs. The power numbers are for real, but his high strikeout rate points to a continued dip in batting average as he is only a .237 hitter in over 2,200 lifetime at-bats. Rounding out the Mariner’s trading chips is the resurgent Jarrod Washburn. Finally pitching like the player Seattle thought they signed in 2006, Washburn’s new splitter has given him the ability to drastically cut down the number of hits he allows, and at the break he sports a 6-6 record with a 2.96 ERA. Like Bedard, Washburn will be a free-agent at the end of the season, and if he signed with another team would only net the Mariners one compensatory draft pick.

Reid Brignac would sure look good in Mariner blue.

Shortstop Reid Brignac would sure look good in Mariner blue.

On the other hand, if Seattle wants to make a run at the AL West title, there are a number of moves that the team needs to make in order to keep pace with the Angels and Rangers. One position that has long been a headache for the Mariners is shortstop. Betancourt was a disappointment before his trade and replacement Ronny Cedeno may play great defense, but he is hitting just .168 on the year. An intriguing option for the Mariners is Tampa Bay minor league shortstop Reid Brignac. Buried behind Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist in the Rays organization, Brignac is a top-tier prospect, and if the M’s can pry him away from Tampa he could become Seattle’s shortstop of the future while helping them contend for the playoffs this year. The addition of Langerhans has provided a temporary spark to the Mariners’ offense, but the team still has a glaring need for an outfielder with some pop. Most teams don’t like to trade within the division, but Seattle would greatly benefit from the power and speed combination of Oakland leftfield Matt Holliday. After a slow start to the season, Holliday has regained the form that made him a runner for up NL MVP in 2007, and with the Athletics firmly entrenched in the division cellar would be available for the right price. If Seattle doesn’t want to meet Billy Beane’s demands for Holliday, the Mariners might want to think about pursuing Washington Nationals OF Josh Willingham (.304 BA, 12 HRs, .419 OBP) who is having a career year at age 30 and would come with a much smaller price tag.

The Mariners and GM Jack Zdrunciek have some very important decisions to make over the next few weeks. Do they owe it to their fans to go out and trade for a big bat and help at third base or shortstop? Or should they move some soon-to-be free agents in order to build for the future? Needless to say, Zdrunciek and Co. will have many a sleepless night between now and July 31st.

What do you think? Should the Mariners buy or sell at the trade deadline?

Mets Acquire Jeff Francoeur, Still Suck

A struggling Francoeur wore out his welcome in Atlanta.

Thank goodness Sports Illustrated didn't jump the gun on this cover.

In one of those classic “well, what the heck it’s Thursday” trades, NL East rivals the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves swapped right-fielders, with Jeff Francoeur (plus a giant stack of cash–$270,218 to be exact–pinned to his chest) headed to the Big Apple and Ryan Church going to the ATL. Both teams have struggled in a weak division (Atlanta 42-44, New York 40-45) and were looking for something to kick start their lineups (they probably should have given steroids a chance before trying something this desperate). The Mets are in the midst of a free-fall, losing 7 of 10 and falling 6.5 games out of first place while their star players (Delgado, Reyes, Beltran) deal with various injuries and overall ineptitude. Atlanta has been overwhelmingly mediocre all season long and decided that if they wanted to finish above the Nationals, they had to get rid of The Natural fan-favorite Francoeur.

For Franceour, this move signaled rock bottom. He was long regarded as the crown jewel of the Atlanta farm system, bursting onto the scene in 2005 by hitting .300-14 HRs-45 RBIs in only 257 at-bats. He struggled the following season but bounced back in 2007, winning a Gold Glove in right-field in addition to hitting .293 with 105 RBIs. Francoeur then decided that he had accomplished all that was possible in baseball, and regressed to his free-swinging ways last season, hitting only .239 in a year that included a demotion to Double-A and an embarrassing bed-wetting incident. The Braves hoped for some improved plate disclipine from Francoeur in 2009 but at the time of the trade he was hitting a pedestrian .250 with 46 strikeouts against 12 walks. Still only 25, the Mets hope that a change of scenery (has that ever worked before) will get the once talented slugger back on track. At the very least, Francoeur is a good fielder with a plus arm who should help the Mets’ defense in the spacious Citi Field (which would basically make him the outfield version of Rey Ordonez).   

The Braves hope Church can save their souls season.

The Braves hope Church can save their season (souls).

Atlanta has a bevy of good outfield prospects, and Francoeur’s continued struggles made him expendable. Church gives the Braves a strong left-handed bat (and a much keener batter eye than Francoeur) who will likely platoon with Charlie Sheen Matt Diaz in right. Church got out to a strong start for the Mets last season before suffering a concussion and struggling with post-concussion syndrome for the rest of the year. He was hitting .280 with 2 HRs and 22 RBIs at the time of the trade and is controlled through 2011.

This move does nothing to change the fact that the Phillies are going to run away with the NL East. For the Braves, they get rid of a headache at the plate and acquire a solid-if-unspectacular replacement. For the Mets, they give up a steady run producer and gamble that Francoeur can live up to his enormous potential in a new setting. Treading water is a good thing to do if you can’t swim, but not if you’re trying to win championships…

Glass Half Full: Baseball’s Midseason Stars

Last year's Cy Young winner has been even better in 2009.

Last year's Cy Young winner has been even better in 2009.

It may be hard to believe, but the the MLB season is already halfway over. As the month of July rolls along most teams have played 80 to 81 games and about two-thirds of those teams are still in the playoff hunt (apologies to the Pirates, Indians, Athletics, Nationals, etc–start looking forward to the new Harry Potter movie next year) The season has been full of highs (Randy Johnson’s 300th win, Gary Sheffield’s 500th HR), lows (Manny Ramirez steroid scandal) and bizzare celebrity deaths (Michael Jackson and Billy Mays) and undoubtedly there are plenty more of each ahead (is anyone in Hollywood safe these days?) The 162-game marathon has reached the midway point and though there is still plenty of baseball left to play, certain players are worthy of recognition for their contributions thus far. Let’s examine the best from both leagues in the first half:

NL MVP (Albert Pujols-St. Louis): Not much of a debate on this one, Pujols leads the league in nearly every offensive category (HR, RBI, R, BB, SLG, OBP, OPS) and might capture the NL’s first Triple Crown since 1937. Phat Albert has almost single-handedly lead a mediocre Cardinals squad to the top of the NL Central and if St. Louis decides to get some protection for him in the lineup (cough Matt Holliday cough), Pujols will have a season for the ages. No doubt about, 2009 will mark the third time Albert takes home the MVP award. How in the world was this guy only a 13th round pick?

NL Cy Young (Tim Lincecum-San Francisco): There are a plethora of quality young pitchers in the NL (Dan Haren, Johnny Cueto, Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Jair Jurrjens) but the best of the bunch so far has been the Giants’ Tim Lincecum. The defending Cy Young award winner has gotten even better this season, posting a record of 9-2 with a 2.23 ERA and 141 Ks in 121 innings. Lincecum has made major strides with his command, dramatically lowering his walk rate while still striking out more than a batter an inning (which helps to explain his current 23-inning scoreless streak). At only 25, “the Freak” is firmly establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

Rasmus is starting to look like a star for the Redbirds.

Rasmus is starting to look like a star for the Redbirds.

NL Rookie of the Year (Colby Rasmus-St. Louis): After a slow start to the year, Rasmus has rewarded the Cardinals’ faith in him by hitting for average and power in the #2 hole of St. Louis’ lineup. Rasmus is only 22 and came into the year with zero big league experience so a bit of a learning curve was expected. He only hit .254 in April and .212 in May, but has rebounded to .333 in June and .462 so far in July. It’s a good sign that he didn’t lose his confidence during the early season struggles and it looks like he could team up with Pujols to keep the Cardinals contending for years to come.

AL MVP (Justin Morneau-Minnesota): The AL MVP race isn’t nearly the runaway that it is in the NL, but if the season ended today the junior circuit’s MVP would be Twins 1B Justin Morneau. Although he already captured the award in 2006 (suck on that Derek Jeter), Morneau has continued to fly under the radar as one of the game’s best sluggers. Halfway through the season, Morneau is hitting .323 with 21 HRs and 69 RBIs, putting him on pace for career highs in each. The Canadian Crusher is 4th in the league in batting and 2nd in HRs, RBIs, OPS and SLG. If Morneau can lead the Twins to the division crown, the award should be his.

The Royals stink, but don't blame Grienke.

The Royals stink, but don't blame Grienke.

AL Cy Young (Zack Grienke-Kansas City): Although the Royals’ hurler has come back to earth after an unbelievable start, Grienke stills leads the AL in most major pitching categories. After 17 starts, he is 10-4 with a 2.00 ERA and 120 Ks against only 19 walks, putting him on pace for the pitching triple crown. Even though Kansas City has fallen out of contention (who would have ever thought?), if Grienke can keep pitching like it’s the dead-ball era, the young star could become the Royals’ first Cy Young winner since David Cone in 1994. His only major hurdle will be getting enough wins; Grienke may have been able to overcome social anxiety disorder, but the woeful Kansas City lineup and defense are another story. Look for Roy Halladay to snatch the award if Zach Attack can’t close the deal in the second half.

AL Rookie of the Year (Andrew Bailey-Oakland): There aren’t too many rookies that are difference makers in the AL currently as many hot shot prospects (Elvis Andrus, Matt Weiters, Matt LaPorta) struggle to adjust to the major leagues; the best thus far has been a reliever–Oakland A’s pitcher Andrew Bailey. Bailey came into the season with little hype, but has put a stranglehold on the A’s closer position after Brad Ziegler missed time early on. The rookie reliever has gone 4-1 with a 2.03 ERA and 57 Ks in 48 innings and has also saved 9 games. For his stellar first half work, Bailey was selected to represent Oakland (narrowly beating out Jack Hannahan) in the All-Star game on July 14th.