The calendar has flipped, we’ve all celebrated that strange Mexican holiday by cramming fruit in our beers, and power bills around the country are preparing for the arduous climb that will face them in the coming months. Clearly, it’s time to prematurely hand out (a split infinitive… for the people!) awards for the 2004 season. Here’s my hardware for the season’s first checkpoint. For my criteria, I’m using the dread “If the season ended today…” qualifier that leads to so much analytical white noise. Five months from now, these picks may be as relevant as Justin Guarini circa 2007, but, nevertheless, here they are:

NL MVP – Barry Bonds, Giants

The sublime has become the mundane. Honestly, by this point I find Bonds’ statistical ridiculousness a bit tiresome. It’s staggering in its breadth and magnitude, what he’s done in recent seasons, but I’m numb to it by now. That said, at the first turn it’s not even a remotely close race in the senior circuit. He’s hitting .463/.704/1.111 and has 44 walks. When your OPS beats Woolner’s SATs you’re having a season nonpareil. Because of the dreck that surrounds him in San Fran, the writers will probably find a way to give the MVP to someone else, but if you use the only sensible standard–who the best player is–it’s another one for Bonds. Yawn.

AL MVP – Mike Young, Rangers

This one won’t hold up, but a batting line of .377/.417/.615 as a shortstop for a surprise first-place team will garner you top honors in the Bonds-free AL. His home-road splits are fairly severe, and this sort of season certainly doesn’t follow from his performance heretofore. That’s why the two other strong contenders in the AL at this juncture, Carlos Beltran and Jorge Posada, have far more legitimate designs on the award. Even so, it’s Young in the here and now. If I say this in October, I’ll eat my kitchen garbage.

NL Cy Young – Ben Sheets, Brewers

I’m a sucker for strikeout-to-walk ratios, and Sheets’ mark of 44/7 certainly gets my attention. He also sports a runs-per-nine of 3.64, and he’s second in the NL in innings pitched. Five of his seven starts have come against the Astros, Cardinals and Diamondbacks–all of whom rank among the top four offenses in the National League. Sheets also recently went five consecutive starts without walking a batter, fanning 31 over that same span. The Brewers, according to our defensive efficiency rankings, grade out as a below average fielding unit, which isn’t helping Sheets’ numbers.

AL Cy Young – Curt Schilling, Red Sox

It’s a tough call. Here are the four I consider to be board-certified contenders at this writing, and what their garden-variety opposing batter looks like (thanks to the exceedingly bitchin’ pitchers’ quality of opposing batters report):

                 Opposing Batters
Pitcher          Avg. Batting Line
C. Schilling      .266/.346/.409
J. Vazquez        .262/.340/.436
R. Halladay       .270/.343/.407
K. Brown          .253/.324/.397

As you can see, Vazquez has had a tougher go of it than the others, but I’m going with Schilling’s modest advantage in innings over Vazquez, league-leading 45 whiffs and sparkling 6.4 K/BB ratio.

NL Fireman – Billy Wagner, Phillies

You can muster a case for Armando Benitez, John Smoltz, Eric Gagne or, heck, Brian Meadows, but I’m going with Wags. Wagner has been exactly what the Phillies were hoping he’d be: in 14 innings, he’s allowed only two runs, only two extra-base hits, struck out 20 and walked not a single batter. It’ll be interesting to see how long he goes before surrendering a free pass (they face the Giants next week). Philly on a team level has been disappointing, but they at long last have a top-shelf closer in the fold.

AL Fireman – Francisco Rodriguez, Angels

With all due props to Mariano Rivera and Rafael Betancourt, it’s K-Rod. The digits: 14.2 IP, 0 ER, 23 K, 3 BB, .200 Opponents’ SLG. And he hasn’t been rolling up these numbers against weak sticks, as evinced by an average opposing batters’ line of .279/.346/.446. With Brendan Donnelly poised to return, the Halos will once again boast a veritable Panzer division in the pen.

NL Rookie – Khalil Greene, Padres

Greene plays one of the most demanding defensive positions on the diamond and, by most accounts, plays it quite well. But he’s also hitting the ball in the early going. At present, he has the second-highest VORP of any NL shortstop and is hitting .292/.358/.458 on the season. That’s well above his PECOTA forecast of .252/.308/.400, so it won’t surprise if there’s some healthy regression as the season deepens. What’s encouraging is the modest uptick in his walk rate compared to recent seasons (eight unintentional in 101 plate appearances this season versus 51 in 847 minor league PAs). It’s entirely possible that Kazuo Matsui of the Mets will wind up with this award at season’s end, but Greene is the easy winner at the one-month marker.

AL Rookie – Lew Ford, Twins

A timely injury to Torii Hunter foisted more playing time upon Ford. With a line of .380/.432/.633, you can credibly make an MVP case for him, but the real matter is whether even this enough to keep him in the lineup once Hunter is able to man center with regularity. The Twins say they’ll make Ford the DH once that comes to pass, but it could take very little for that unfortunate infatuation with Jose Offerman to blossom anew. In any event, I’ll save my tears for Justin Morneau, who apparently needs to take a hostage or find something insidious in the darkened haunts of Terry Ryan’s hard drive to merit a call-up. In any event, the Twins would do well to ride this hot streak of Ford’s for all it’s worth.

Ford showed promising on-base skills coming up through the minors (.296 AVG/.368 OBP), but his power seemed to be mostly of the gap variety (.456 SLG). As you may know, in recent weeks, I’ve been monkeying around with something I call the “Hidden Hitter.” In summary, it’s a hitter whose minor league numbers on balance don’t show a great deal of power potential, but, delving further, we find that he makes strides in percentage terms in peripheral power indicators like Isolated Slugging Percentage (ISO, or AVG minus SLG) and extra-base hit percentage (XB%, or extra-base hits as a percentage of total hits) when he hits the upper levels of the minor leagues (i.e., Double- and Triple-A). Interestingly enough, that somewhat describes Ford:

                        AVG/SLG/ISO, XBH%
Low Minors            .302/.453/.151, 32.8%
High Minors           .291/.459/.168, 34.8%

Those aren’t drastic strides, but there is cause to believe Ford’s power at the highest level may exceed his numbers in the minors. That .633 SLG won’t be around for long, but you can lop 100 points off of it, and Ford will still be a highly useful regular.