Three Nationals are finalists for the prestigious end-of-season awards, led by Davey Johnson, a leading candidate to earn the National League Manager of the Year distinction. Gio Gonzalez, who led the major league with 21 wins, is a finalist for the NL Cy Young Award and Bryce Harper, the Nationals’ young phenom who smashed 22 home runs as a teenager, is a finalist for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. The Nationals enjoyed a banner season, in large part because of the contributions of these three figures.
The Baseball Writers Association of America announced finalists for the honors on Wednesday, for the first time, ahead of their presentation next week. The awards will be announced daily at 6 p.m. on MLB Network beginning next Monday, starting with the Rookie of the Year awards for both leagues. The Manager of the Year Award will be announced Tuesday and Cy Young on Wednesday, and finally, the Most Valuable Player on Thursday.
Of the three Nationals finalists, Johnson seems like the surest bet to win his respective award. The 69-year-old leader with a swashbuckling style injected confidence and a wealth of sharp baseball acumen into a young, first-time-contending roster. He trusted his slumping players and was patient, and they rewarded him with hard play. He guided the Nationals to their first-ever playoff berth and NL East title, and a major league-best 98 regular season wins. He deftly handled the pressure of a pennant race, a multitude of injuries and the much-debated shutdown of Stephen Strasburg.
While he still lacks a managerial contract for the 2013 season, Johnson has expressed his firm interest in returning to the Nationals dugout. Asked late in the season about potentially winning a manager of the year award, Johnson jokingly brushed off the notion, saying that being awarded it “will get you fired.” Johnson last won the award in 1997 with the Baltimore Orioles, the same day he was forced out because of a dispute with owner Peter Angelos.
Johnson was already voted the Sporting News NL Manager of the Year two weeks ago, a distinction voted on by a panel of 17 major league managers. He is up against Dusty Baker of the Cincinnati Reds and Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants for the award.
Gonzalez faces stiff competition for the Cy Young Award. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets, whose personal story and mastery of a difficult pitch captured national attention, seems like the front runner for the award with a 2.73 ERA (second best in the NL), 233 1/3 innings (best in the NL) and 230 strikeouts (again, best in the NL). Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers is also a candidate for the award.
In his first season with the Nationals after being acquired from the Oakland Athletics in an offseason trade, Gonzalez produced the finest year of his career, earning his second straight all-star selection. He led the majors with 21 wins, 199 1/3 innings, and was near the top in many major pitching categories, and finished fourth in majors among pitchers with a 5.4 WAR (Fangraphs version).
In games that Gonzalez started, the Nationals were 24-8, the most wins of any starting pitcher in the majors. He finished among the NL leaders in many of the major pitching categories: sixth-best earned run average (2.89 ERA), lowest batting average against (.206), tops in lowest on-base plus slugging percentage against (.582), second in hits allowed per nine innings (6.72) and third in strikeouts (207). But, Dickey has the edge in innings, ERA and strikeouts, three of the most popular statistics. Dickey was also voted by his peers as the NL’s best pitcher in the Players Choice Awards earlier this week.
Harper seems like leading contender for the award given his scorching finish to the season. Despite missing the first month of the season and struggling through a vicious mid-season slump, the rookie played in 139 games, helped spark a then-struggling Nationals offense and finished atop many major categories among NL rookies. At 19, he was second among NL rookies in home runs (22), fourth in RBI (59), tops in runs scored (98), second in stolen bases (18), fourth in OPS (.817), third in slugging percentage (.477) and first in triples (9).
According to Fangraphs.com, because of his strong defense and range at a demanding position in center field, Harper led all NL rookies with a 4.9 WAR – much more than Norichika Aoki of the Milwaukee Brewers who had a second-best 2.9 WAR. His season was among the all-time greats for a teenager. Utility man Todd Frazier of the Cincinnati Reds was voted the league’s best rookie in the Players Choice Awards earlier this week. Frazier, who posted a third-best 2.8 WAR, has a strong case with a slash line of .273/.331/.498 with 19 home runs and 67 RBI. Harper is among three finalists, along with Frazier and starter Wade Miley of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
No Nationals were among the MVP finalists, though don’t be surprised if Adam LaRoche, or even Ian Desmond, win up with a vote or two when the final results come out.
AWARD SCHEDULE (all shows at 6 p.m. on MLB Network next week)
Monday: Rookie of the Year (NL: Bryce Harper, Wade Miley and Todd Frazier; AL: Mike Trout, Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish.)
Tuesday: Manager of the Year (NL: Davey Johnson, Bruce Bochy and Dusty Baker; AL: Bob Melvin, Buck Showalter and Robin Ventura.)
Wednesday: Cy Young (NL: Gio Gonzalez, R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw; AL: Justin Verlander, David Price and Jered Weaver.)
Thursday: MVP (NL: Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Chase Headley, Andrew McCutchen and Yadier Molina; AL: Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera.)