Monday July 19th, 2010

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).

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, July 18, except VORP, which is through July 17; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list (HM stands for honorable mention).

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

Season Stats: .337/.415/.629, 22 HR, 79 RBI, 46.0 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .368/.433/.618, 3 HR, 19 RBI

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 Josh Hamilton. Cabrera's worst month was June, when he hit .323/.400/.576 with six homers and 20 RBIs, and he's picked the pace back up thus far in July. With Justin Morneau a question mark following a pre-break concussion, Robinson Cano cooling off, Hamilton sure to do the same eventually, and the Tigers hanging tight in the AL Central's three-team race, this award looks like Cabrera's to lose.

2. Josh Hamilton, LF, Rangers (5)

Season Stats: .347/.391/.625, 22 HR, 66 RBI, 7 SB, 50.3 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .379/.419/.701, 6 HR, 14 RBI

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 month and a half, Hamilton has hit .429, with a ton of power (mix in 16 doubles and a triple with those 13 taters). His .379/.419/.701 line from the last four weeks is actually evidence of him cooling off a bit from that pace. That's insane. Pile on his seven steals in eight attempts on the season and strong defense in left field, and Hamilton is Mr. Universe right now and a large reason why the Rangers are running away with the AL West. However, Hamilton wasn't even on the MVP radar on May 30 (.281/.335/.500, 9 HR, 27 RBI), which is why Cabrera, who has been doing it all season, still has the edge over him.

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

Season Stats: .345/.437/.618, 18 HR, 56 RBI, 45.8 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .362/.383/.603, 3 HR, 9 RBI

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.

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

Season Stats: .336/.389/.565, 17 HR, 62 RBI, 43.5 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .238/.303/.438, 3 HR, 12 RBI

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.

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

Season Stats: .302/.387/.514, 13 HR, 62 RBI, 13 SB, 36.9 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .294/.402/.435, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 3 SB

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.

Carl Crawford, LF, Rays (N/A): Crawford's UZR is strong and his major league-leading 33 steals have come at a typically excellent 80 percent success rate (his career rate is 82 percent). The main reason he's here, however, is that he has been raking over the past five weeks (.373/.439/.627 with six of his season total 11 homers since June 12), initiating not only the Rays' playoff drive, but his own salary drive, as Crawford stands to become one of the most aggressively-courted free agents this offseason.

Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox (4): Youkilis, who has finished in the top six in the MVP voting each of the last two years, is having his finest season for a Red Sox team that very much needs it, hitting .301/.409/.579. Yet he has still been only the third-most-productive first baseman in the league, and the banged up BoSox, though through no fault of Youkilis's, are once again slipping in the standings.

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (HM): Before losing three-straight to the Twins over the weekend, the White Sox had won 26 of their previous 31 games to surge into first place in the AL Central and finally catch up with Konerko, who slugged .784 with 11 home runs in April. Konerko has only added 10 homers since that big first month but has hit .331 since the start of his team's big surge and remains in the top four in the league in homers and RBIs and in the top seven in slugging and OPS.

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Red Sox (HM): Replacing what was a barely-above-replacement-level contribution from Mike Lowell in 2009 (if you factor in his brutal defense and the sub-replacement production of the first basemen that filled in for Youkilis when Youkilis moved over to third to cover for Lowell), Beltre's 31.7 VORP (with 10 VORP roughly equivalent to one team win) has been almost all upgrade, and VORP doesn't even factor in Beltre's stellar fielding.

Vladimir Guerrero, DH, Rangers (HM): Guerrero is second in the AL in RBIs (the voters' favorite category), is having his finest season since 2007, and is doing it for the team with the second-largest division lead in baseball, but he's also doing it primarily as a designated hitter (he has made just 11 starts in the outfield this year), and no player has ever won the MVP award in a season in which he started the majority of his games at DH. That Josh Hamilton has passed Guerrero as the Rangers' most productive hitter is another strike against Vlad's candidacy.

Off the list: Alex Rios, CF, White Sox (HM)

1. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (3)

Season Stats: .310/.419/.580, 22 HR, 60 RBI, 7 SB, 38.8 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .309/.446/.679, 8 HR, 17 RBI

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

Season Stats: .307/.413/.567, 21 HR, 64 RBI, 9 SB, 40.6 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .310/.371/.621, 6 HR, 14 RBI, 3 SB

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.

3. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres (1)

Season Stats: .302/.398/.544, 20 HR, 60 RBI, 36.3 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .278/.360/.519, 5 HR, 13 RBI

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 Average, a total-offense rate stat by Baseball Prospectus on the same scale as batting average that corrects for park effects: Votto: .336; Pujols: .330; Gonzalez: .328.

4. David Wright, 3B, Mets (5)

Season Stats: .309/.385/.526, 15 HR, 67 RBI, 15 SB, 36.5 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .382/.426/.584, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 3 SB

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.

5. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins (N/A)

Season Stats: .298/.379/.476, 13 HR, 53 RBI, 18 SB, 34.8 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .333/.406/.429, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 6 SB

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.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF, Giants (N/A)

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.

Adam Dunn, 1B, Nationals (N/A)

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.

Corey Hart, RF, Brewers (N/A)

Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies (N/A)

Martin Prado, 2B, Braves (N/A)

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 Jason Heyward's thumb injury, he has been the best hitter on the team with the largest division lead in baseball, and an underdog team at that. Prado also gets a boost for providing his production (.323/.365/.487) from the keystone while the average major league second baseman has hit .265/.332/.390.

Off the list: Andre Ethier (4), Scott Rolen (HM), Troy Glaus (HM), Ubaldo Jimenez (HM), Ryan Zimmerman (HM), Andrew McCutchen (HM)

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