The Twin Cities baseball writers voted for Harmon Killebrew as the Twins’ Most Valuable Player for 1961, the team’s first season in Minnesota. They added the pitcher of the year (Camilo Pascual) and rookie of the year (Bernie Allen) in 1962. And in 1963, there was another addition: Most Improved Twin (Lee Stange).
The Twins have not been short of candidates in the prime categories — MVP and pitcher of the year — in this successful decade. And as ball writers, we have not stretched the imagination in making the choices since the first Central Division title was claimed in 2002.
Torii Hunter was voted as the MVP that season and again in 2007. The others have been Shannon Stewart , Johan Santana [2004-05], Justin Morneau [2006, 2008] and Joe Mauer .
The pitcher of the year plaque has belonged to either a closer or Johan Santana. Eddie Guardado won the vote in 2002, followed by Santana from 2003 through 2007, and then Joe Nathan in 2008-09.
There will be an interesting quandary when the MVP vote takes place after this season. Morneau is out of the picture with his post-concussion problem. Mauer has produced a solid total of 143 runs (scored and driven in), yet his total numbers are modest compared with a spectacular 2009.
The term “Most Valuable” is vague enough to make it a personal choice. As a team honor, you can go strictly by production or look for a player that filled a gap or became a difference-maker in a somewhat unexpected fashion.
There’s an outstanding example in Twins history of a gap-filler. In 1971, Killebrew hit 28 home runs and drove in 119, yet the Twin Cities writers went with shortstop Leo Cardenas as the MVP. He had arrived in 1969 to fill a position that had been a problem for several seasons.
Stewart was an example of a difference-maker. The left fielder was acquired from Toronto during the 2003 All-Star break. He batted .322 in 65 games and led a charge to the second division title in a row.
The leading candidates to be the 2010 MVP come from those categories. Michael Cuddyer has been the gap-filler, and Jim Thome has been the difference-maker.
Manager Ron Gardenhire described Cuddyer as his team’s MVP back in late July, when he was in his third week of filling in for Morneau at first base.
On Tuesday, Cuddyer made his 55th consecutive start at first since Morneau’s injury. He has 60 total starts at both first base and right field, along with 13 at third base, one at second and one in center field.
Cuddyer has been both an ironman and versatile — plus, his hitting has improved as the Twins have made a 36-15 run since the All-Star break.
Gardenhire’s point on Cuddyer is well-made, but there’s also the question of how the Twins could have overcome the Morneau loss without Thome making a major difference?
The Twins signed Thome on the cheap. He turned 40 in August and was supposed to be an extra player, DHing two or three times a week and pinch hitting.
Thome made his 66th start as the DH on Tuesday. He hit his 22nd home run Tuesday night and has 52 RBI in 241 at-bats. That’s already 10 more bombs and 15 more RBI than could have been anticipated.
Another veteran, Carl Pavano, has control of the pitcher of the year award. He was tied for second in the American League with 16 victories and was third in innings pitched with 197 entering Tuesday night’s games.
There also has been an unexpected star in reliever Jesse Crain, 29 and in his seventh season with the Twins.
On May 18, Crain got one out and allowed two runs in an 11-2 loss to Toronto. His ERA was 7.31, and there were hints — including from the manager’s office — that Crain could be on the way out. He survived with a few fair outings, and then starting June 13, these have been his numbers: Of 37 appearances, 34 have been scoreless, with an 0.79 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 34 u2153 innings.
Pavano’s presence means Crain will have to settle for Most Improved Twin, but, guaranteed, the team’s history includes less worthy pitchers of the year than the bullpen savior of 2010.
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • firstname.lastname@example.org