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Pujols back in thick of MVP race thanks to recent power surge

Every week I will rank the top five candidates in each league for one of baseball's three major awards. Today I return to the MVP races, which I last examined three weeks ago. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list (HM stands for honorable mention).

NOTE: All stats through Monday, May 31; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.

1. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins (3)

Season stats:.368/.488/.667, 11 HR, 36 RBI, 35.8 VORP

Last three weeks: .419/.519/.742, 4 HR, 15 RBI

Candidacy: Last year, Joe Mauer led the American League in all three slash-stat categories (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging), led the majors in the first two and was a nearly unanimous selection for AL MVP. On Sunday morning, Mauer's teammate Morneau was leading the AL in all three slash stats and the majors in the first two (Miguel Cabrera passed Morneau in slugging on Sunday). Morneau plays a position with a much higher average level of production and isn't as highly regarded defensively as Mauer even there, but the slash-stat triple crown should be enough to guarantee a hitter the MVP award. To put the accomplishment in context: Mauer was the first American Leaguer to accomplish the feat since George Brett in 1980; only four NL hitters have pulled it off since Stan Musial did it in 1948, the most recent being Barry Bonds in 2004. I'd be surprised to see Morneau regain and maintain the lead in all three categories, but given how close he is to that accomplishment at this point in the season, he has to be the favorite for AL MVP.

2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (1)

Season stats: .352/.427/.670, 14 HR, 48 RBI, 30.2 VORP

Last three weeks: .317/.368/.730, 7 HR, 15 RBI

Candidacy: Cabrera has been an all-or-nothing hitter since topping this list three weeks ago. Yes, he has hit seven home runs and driven in 15 men in those three weeks, but three of those home runs came in a single game this past Friday, all but three of those RBIs came via the long ball and he didn't drive in a single run in any of the 11 games in which he failed to go deep. Still, Cabrera is on pace for 163 RBIs, a total not reached since Manny Ramirez drove in 165 in 1999. Cabrera's batting average and on-base percentage have come down significantly over the past three weeks, but his hot start and recent power surge have kept him on the short list for MVP honors.

3. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays (HM)

Season stats: .325/.391/.577, 10 HR, 42 RBI, 10 SB, 26. 0 VORP

Last three weeks: .325/.384/.571, 3 HR, 19 RBI, 5 SB

Candidacy: After listing Longoria among the honorable mentions three weeks ago, I wrote, "The best hitter on the major's best team at the moment is a good bet to crack the top five moving forward." Well, here he is. While players such as Robinson Cano, Vernon Wells and Paul Konerko have slowed their pace, Longoria has remained a model of consistency. Note the similarity between his rate stats from the last three weeks and his season stats. Longoria is second in the league in doubles, third in RBIs and has already tied his career high for stolen bases, swiping ten at an 83-percent success rate. Just 24 years old and a stellar defensive third baseman, Longoria seems likely to win an MVP sooner or later. With the Rays still boasting the best record in baseball, this could be the consistent Longoria's year.

4. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (2)

Season stats: .362/.405/.607, 10 HR, 37 RBI, 30.8 VORP

Last three weeks: .375/.407/.538, 1 HR, 15 RBI

Candidacy: After going deep nine times in his first 24 games, Cano went homerless in his next 23 before finally snapping that drought with a grand slam on Friday. The rest of his game remained sharp, however; he's now second in the AL batting race and leading the majors in hits with 71 (a 230-hit pace). Consider him the anti-Cabrera -- just don't consider him out of the MVP race.

5. Nelson Cruz, RF, Rangers (N/A)

Season stats: .327/.405/.729, 10 HR, 35 RBI, 7 SB, 19.0 VORP

Last three weeks: .333/.385/.689, 3 HR, 17 RBI

Candidacy: When I took my first look at the MVP race three weeks ago, Cruz had been on the disabled list for two weeks due to a strained right hamstring. He was hitting .323./419/.758 with seven homers and 17 RBI when he hit the DL, but the time he missed was enough to keep him off my list. He was nearly as productive after returning to action on March 14, but after just two weeks of play, the hamstring put him back on the DL this past weekend. Cruz is expected to be out only the minimum 15 days, but by then he'll have missed a whole month's worth of games. Still, though he is already short of the required plate appearances to qualify for rate-stat titles (he'd trump Cabrera in slugging if he qualified), his overall production is comparable to the other players on this list. Mix in his strong defense and basestealing (seven bags at a 78-percent success rate) and the fact that his first DL stay failed to cool his bat, and he just squeaks into my top five.

Vladimir Guerrero, DH, Rangers (N/A): Guerrero, a beloved veteran making a strong Hall of Fame case, is staging a big comeback season for a division leader. He's also a designated hitter and has drawn just six unintentional walks all season.

Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox (N/A): A bad start and powerful division have masked the fact that the Red Sox have gone 17-9 since May 3, good for a .654 winning percentage (and a 106-win pace) over that span. Youkilis, the major league leader in walks and runs scored and a fine defensive first baseman, has been Boston's best hitter over that span, hitting .325/.527/.662 with six homers and 15 RBIs.

Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays (4): Wells hit four home runs in the first three games of the season, but has been gradually cooling off since. He hit just .232/.250/.493 over the last three weeks, but, like Cabrera, his hot start and surviving power stroke are keeping him in my top 10.

Alex Rios, CF, White Sox (N/A): Wherever he is now, J.P. Ricciardi must be banging his head against a wall. Roy Halladay just pitched a perfect game for the Phillies, and the players (Wells and Rios) signed to the two disasterous contracts that got Ricciardi canned are in the discussion for AL MVP. Rios, who was such an albatross that Ricciardi let the White Sox claim him off waivers late last year, was a disappointing right fielder under Riccardi and is now having a career year as a center fielder in Chicago at age 29. Like Wells, however, Rios is actually cooling off after a hot start. Does that count as vindication for Ricciardi, or further proof of how badly he overvalued those two players?

Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (N/A): Sticking with the Blue Jays theme: Three weeks ago, Jays shortstop Alex Gonzalez was second in the AL in homers and RBIs and an honorable mention that I said "screams fluke." Gonzalez has had one homer and five RBIs since. Now, 29-year-old career utility man Bautista leads the majors in homers, ranks fourth in RBIs -- and is screaming "fluke" at me. Bautista's 16 homers tie his full-season career high, and his 41 RBIs are more than he had in 404 plate appearances last year. Bautista's fly balls are leaving the yard at more than twice his career rate and more than three times the league average. That won't continue, and he won't be on this list three weeks from now.

Off the list:Paul Konerko (5), Alex Gonzalez (HM), Ty Wigginton (HM), Nick Swisher (HM), Andruw Jones (HM).

1. Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers (1)

Season stats: .392/.457/.744, 11 HR, 38 RBI, 26.6 VORP

Last three weeks: .444/.524/.889, 1 HR, 6 RBI (4 G)

Candidacy: Three weeks ago, Ethier was leading the NL in all three triple-crown categories, but a broken pinky sent him to the DL just four days later. Yet despite missing more than two weeks, he is just one home run and three RBIs behind the NL leaders, remains the NL leader in the cumulative total-offense statistic VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and would still be leading the majors in batting average and slugging and the NL in on-base percentage if he hadn't fallen below the minimum plate-appearance requirement. Ethier is expected to come off the DL Monday night, and while we'll have to wait to see if the time off and hand injury put more than a pause on his torrid pace, he's still been the most productive man in the senior circuit to this point.

2. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (4)

Season stats: .310/.422/.572, 12 HR, 38 RBI, 25.1 VORP

Last three weeks: .303/.434/.576, 5 HR, 13 RBI

Candidacy: Pujols jumped up from the four-spot thanks to a huge Sunday performance against Ryan Dempster and the Cubs in which he reached base five times on three home runs and two walks (one intentional). That performance also gave him a share of the NL lead in homers (along with Corey Hart, Kelly Johnson, Mark Reynolds and Dan Uggla, none of whom made this list as all four trail Pujols in the other five categories listed above). Bet against two-time defending MVP Pujols in this race at your own peril.

3. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (HM)

Season stats: .301/.421/.596, 10 HR, 38 RBI, 19.5 VORP

Last three weeks: .314/.435/.571, 2 HR, 12 RBI

Candidacy: Even with golden boy Stephen Strasburg due to make his major league debut next week, Heyward already has the NL Rookie of the Year award sewn up (barring injury, of course). Now he's setting his sights on the MVP, a two-fer never accomplished in the National League (and only by Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki in the AL). Listing him as an honorable mention last time, I said all Heyward needed was "his groin to heal and the Braves to start winning." Done and done. Though he also missed some time with a thumb injury, Heyward is healthy and raking, and the surging Braves (15-4, .789, over the last three weeks) enter Monday's action just a half game behind the Phillies in the NL East.

4. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (5)

Season stats: .312/.408/.553, 10 HR, 33 RBI, 6 SB, 19.8 VORP

Last three weeks: .305/.373/.525, 3 HR, 13 RBI

Candidacy: Like Heyward, Votto is the leading hitter on a surging team. The Reds have gone 16-6 (.727) since May 8, slipping past Pujols' Cardinals into first place in the NL Central. Over that stretch, Votto hit .303/.383/.591 with five homers and 18 RBIs before being sidelined late last week due to a stiff neck. Right fielder Jay Bruce has actually out-performed Votto slightly since May 8, but unlike Bruce, Votto was hitting before the Reds caught fire. Votto finished in the top ten in VORP in the NL in 2009 and got some low-ballot MVP votes despite the fact that Cincinnati finished in fourth place, 13 games out and six games below .500. Unless his neck injury is worse than reported, Votto should get more attention with the Reds in the race this year.

5. Josh Willingham, LF, Nationals (N/A)

Season stats: .275/.429/.529, 10 HR, 34 RBI, 4 SB, 21.2 VORP

Last three weeks: .302/.472/.585, 4 HR, 14 RBI

Candidacy: In his first four full major league seasons (ages 27 to 30) Willingham hit .265/.362/.481 with annual rates very close to those three marks. The big change this year is his walk rate. After drawing an unintentional walk once every 9.4 plate appearances over the last four years, he is suddenly drawing an unintentional walk once every 5.7 PA and leading the senior circuit with 37 free passes. Those extra walks, coupled with the injury to Ethier, have pushed him to the top of the league in on-base percentage. That, combined with 10 extra points of batting average and a bit more lift in his swing -- generating more fly balls and sending more of them over fences -- has pushed him into the MVP race.

Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (2): The day my last MVP column ran, Ryan Braun was hit in the left elbow by a pitch from the Braves' Tommy Hanson. He missed the next three games and hasn't been the same since, hitting just .232/.264/.391 with two homers and four RBIs since returning to the lineup.

Casey McGehee, 3B, Brewers (N/A): Leading the NL in the voters' favorite category with 41 RBIs, McGehee is actually surpassing his breakout rookie season of a year ago at age 27. An underappreciated facet of McGehee's game: He rarely strikes out, doing so only eight more times than he's walked this year -- or, to put it another way, just twice more than Albert Pujols.

Jayson Werth, RF, Phillies (3): The major league leader in doubles (22), Werth is surpassing his breakout 2009 season at age 31, but after stealing 40 bags in 44 attempts over the last two years, he has swiped just two in a mere three tries thus far this year.

Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies (HM): Utley missed two games with the flu in the middle of the month and has hit just .184/.311/.316 in 11 games since. Over his last six games he is 2-for-23, both hits being singles. Despite all of that, his season averages are right around his career marks, keeping him in the MVP hunt.

Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (HM): As I pointed out last time, no pitcher has won an MVP award since Dennis Eckersley did so in 1992, 18 years ago. If not for that anti-pitcher history, Jimenez would be in my top five, as he is off to one of the best starts ever for a starting pitcher. As the Baseball Reference Blog pointed out last week, only one pitcher has ever gone deeper into a season with fewer earned runs allowed than games started (Jimenez has allowed seven earned runs in 10 starts thus far). That was Red Sox lefty Dutch Leonard, who set the modern ERA record in 1914, finishing the season with a 0.96 mark.

Off the list:Colby Rasmus (HM), David Wright (HM).

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