Upheaval in NL MVP race as trio of first basemen chase honor
The top contenders continue to separate from the pack in my fourth look at the Most Valuable Player races. Yet, while the lower-ballot contenders in the American League simply shuffle positions, there is again massive turnover in the National League, where the field of honorable-mention candidates includes roughly 20 players, all of whom could wind up receiving votes in October (30 men received votes for NL MVP in 2009).
This is my fourth look at the AL MVP race since early May, and Cabrera has never ranked lower than second, taking the top spot three times. That consistency, along with his voter-pleasing, major league-leading RBI total, is what is keeping him ahead of the impossibly hot
Hamilton can't keep this up for another two and a half months, can he? Since June 1, he has hit .429/.462/.783 with 13 home runs and 39 RBIs. Let me repeat that: Over the last
Morneau took a knee to the head when trying to break up a double play against the Blue Jays on July 7 and has since been placed on the disabled list due to the resulting concussion and aftereffects. That's a scary injury, particularly because this is the second time in his career Morneau has hit the DL due to a concussion (the first came following a hit-by-pitch in 2005). The move was retroactively dated to that July 7 game, which means Morneau will be eligible to return later this week. If he does and picks up where he left off at the time of the injury, he could salvage his MVP candidacy, but if the effects of the concussion linger, one of the top contenders for this year's AL MVP will be effectively eliminated from the race.
Cano has cooled off since having a 10-game hitting streak snapped on June 18 (he was hitting .372/.416/.617 entering that day's action), but it's evidence of the kind of season Cano is having that, even in a month-long slump, he has gotten a hit in 18 of his last 24 games and enters the week with an active seven-game hitting streak. Cano has been a great second-half performer over the course of his career, boosting his production after the All-Star break in every one of his first five seasons, so expect him to keep things interesting.
There's nothing Longoria doesn't do well. Power, patience, speed, defense: he's a 24-year-old five-tool stud who hits third for the team with the second-best record in baseball and is one of the game's most marketable young stars. His 13 steals have come in just 15 attempts (an outstanding 87 percent success rate), and though UZR doesn't like his fielding as much this season as in past years, one shouldn't put that much stock in a half-season's worth of defensive statistics. The crazy thing is that Longoria isn't having an out-of-his mind season and is actually hitting for less power than he did in either of his first two seasons, yet he's still fifth on this list. It's already a cliché to say that Longoria will win an MVP one year, but it seems like a lock that he will, though I don't expect it will be this year.
As things stand today, the NL MVP and NL Central races are intertwined. If either Votto or Albert Pujols breaks away in the MVP race, it could be enough to make the difference in the Central, and whichever team wins the Central could well put its first baseman over the top in the MVP race, especially if it's Votto's underdog Reds, who trail Pujols' Cardinals by a half game entering this weeks' action. Pujols is a 30-year-old three-time MVP and future Hall of Famer in his 10th season. Votto is a 26-year-old in his third full season who needed the Final Vote to make the All-Star team. Pujols is a Dominican righty, Votto a Canadian lefty. Their performances this season, however, couldn't be much more similar. The only significant differences are that Votto strikes out a bit more often, while Pujols has benefited from 23 intentional walks to Votto's two.
Speaking of underdog teams lifting their star hitters into the MVP discussion, the shocking first-place Padres have done that for Gonzalez, who has never finished higher than 12th in the voting. Not that Gonzalez or Votto hasn't done enough on his own to earn his rank, but being the key producer on a surprising first-place team can give a candidacy that extra boost. If you correct for Gonzalez's offense-stifling home ballpark, he's just a hair behind Votto and Pujols. We can see this in True
Wright's basestealing has been a roughly break-even proposition -- he has been caught seven times, and his 68 percent success rate is the worst of his career -- but his defense at third base gives him a nice boost, not that he really needs one. Wright had a monstrous June, hitting .404/.447/.683 with six homers and 29 RBIs while the Mets went 18-8 (.692). Both he and his team have cooled off a bit in July, but it seems safe to say that after an injury-marred 2009, Wright has returned to form, which means the 27-year-old is once again one of the best players in the Senior Circuit.
Flipping the script on Wright, Ramirez keeps his head above water on the bases (18 for 24, 75 percent), but UZR doesn't think much of his fielding. With the average major league shortstop hitting .262/.320/.370, Ramirez's fielding would have to be far worse than it is to negate the tremendous offensive advantage he provides at the position. After finishing second in the MVP voting last year, Ramirez is actually having his weakest season since his rookie year of 2006, but his production, particularly in the context of his position, is still enough to keep him in the discussion.
At .302 with 17 home runs and 54 RBIs, the well-traveled Huff is not only having the best offensive season in his bizarre up-and-down career, but his defensive versatility has been a boon to the Giants as they have been able to shuffle him between first base and both corner outfield spots.
Dunn's consistency stands in stark contrast to Huff's, but while Dunn's last six seasons were all of a piece, his 2010 has been a bit different. Dunn is batting .288/.373/.579 and is drawing fewer walks but hitting for a higher average, mixing in not only more singles, but more doubles. As a result, he's second in the league in total bases, and posting a career-high slugging percentage without losing much off his typically high on-base percentage. Also, with the rest of the league having come back to earth somewhat, Dunn's 40-homer pace is leading the league (in a four-way tie with 22 dingers). On the downside, Dunn is the closest thing the NL has to a DH, the voters hate his strikeouts, and he plays for a last-place team.
The National League is positively jam packed with fringe, bottom-of-the ballot MVP candidates. Hart, Howard, and Prado are here merely as representatives of a group of another dozen players, any of whom could be considered similarly deserving of an honorable mention in this space. I've gone with Hart and Howard because I think their home run and RBI totals (21 homers and a league-leading 73 RBIs for Howard, 70 RBIs and a league-leading 22 taters for Hart) will draw votes in this crowded field. I chose Prado because, in the wake of
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