By Cliff Corcoran
April 11, 2011

It's far too early to make any meaningful projections for the leagues' Most Valuable Player awards, but we can at least sort through the league leaders to find the hitters who seem most capable of extending their hot starts into MVP-worthy seasons. This is similar to the approach that many use when choosing All-Stars, selecting candidates based on a combination of early season numbers and career accomplishments. Though some of the players listed below will disappear from the race completely, many are likely to continue building strong resumes as the weeks go by.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, April 10.

1. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds

Season Stats: .455/.548/.727, 2 HRs, 6 RBIs

The defending NL MVP is hitting like the winter never happened. He is tied with Shane Victorino and Alex Gordon for the major league lead in hits, with teammate Brandon Phillips for the lead in runs scored, and has also drawn eight walks, none of which have been intentional, against just three strikeouts.

2. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers

Season Stats: .353/.476/.735, 4 HRs, 8 RBIs

I bumped Votto from my preseason list of the top three NL MVP contenders in favor of Braun, who leads the NL in homers and also has eight walks, one of which was intentional. Braun struggled through the middle months of last season after being hit on the left elbow by a pitch, but he hit .364/.440/.583 over the season's final two months and has thus far carried that performance over to this season.

3. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers

Season Stats: .400/.488/.686, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs

Fielder is in his walk year for a Brewers team that can't afford to resign him but has instead loaded up on starting pitching to try to make one last playoff push with what they expect to be a big season from one of their most popular players. So, far so good, as Fielder, Braun, and second baseman Rickie Weeks are off to strong starts and, despite a short-term injury to Zack Greinke and a .500 record, Milwaukee is tied for second place in the NL Central, only a game and a half behind Votto's division-leading Reds. Fielder leads the majors in RBIs (tied with Ryan Howard and Paul Konerko) and has struck out just twice, not bad for a player who has averaged 130 K's over the last five seasons.

4. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers

Season Stats: .438/.514/.656, 1 HR, 4 RBIs, 6 SBs

I pegged Kemp as the Dodgers' X-factor in my NL West preview because he's a player with MVP talent coming off an ugly season. That makes this listing a very positive one for the Dodgers. The Bison barreled out of the gate, helping to lead his team to a season-opening series win over the defending champion and division-rival Giants. He currently leads the majors in stolen bases (tied with Arizona's Willie Bloomquist) and has yet to be caught.

5. Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies

Season Stats: .361/.390/.639, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs

Serious doubts about the Phillies' offense arose when Chase Utley was unable to answer the bell for the start of the season, but thus far the Phils -- without Utley, the departed Jayson Werth or injured rookie Domonic Brown -- have been outscored only by the Reds and Rangers and are off to a strong 7-2 start. Howard, the 2006 NL MVP, is far from the sole reason for that, but he's again leading the majors in RBIs and is a perennial favorite of the voters, consistently finishing higher on the ballot than he deserves. If he has a representative season and the Phillies win the NL East again, he should garner another high finish.

Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals: Zimmerman hasn't hit for much power yet this season, but he's batting .357 and getting on base at a .486 clip, which in addition to his Gold Glove-worthy defense, makes him one of the league's most valuable players, as he was last year.

Jason Heyward, RF, Braves: Heyward is hitting just .267 in the early going, but his on base percentage is .421 and he's slugging .567. Add in his status as a pre-season favorite and the likelihood of his team rising toward the top of the standings, and he's worth keeping an eye on.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies: Tulowitzki has just six hits this season, but five of them have gone for extra bases, and three have been home runs, putting him second in the league in the latter category. Throw in eight walks and he's 16th in the league in OPS despite a .214 batting average, which is enough to keep this pre-season favorite on the list.

Miguel Montero, C, Diamondbacks: Montero leads the NL in all three slash stats with a .500/.552/.846 line, which demands inclusion here, but a deep MVP run from the 27-year-old backstop is extremely unlikely.

Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals: Pujols is off to the worst start of his career, but I just can't leave him off this list. Not in his walk year. Not this early in the season.

1. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers

Season Stats: .355/.462/.774, 4 HRs, 9 RBIs

Cabrera finished second in last year's voting, but his off-season alcohol-related incident, half-hearted apology, and the Tigers' lack of transparency about how they are addressing Cabrera's alcoholism raised quite a number of red flags this spring. His off-field issues seem to have no bearing on his performance at the plate, however, which either means he and the Tigers are doing a better job handling them than we were led to believe, or it's only a matter of time before Cabrera does something off the field for which he can't apologize.

2. Nelson Cruz, RF, Rangers

Season Stats: .310/.400/.862, 5 HRs, 10 RBIs

Cruz is a monster when healthy, but he rarely is. In 2009, his first full major league season, he played through a broken ring finger only to sprain his ankle a month later. Last year, he hit .318/.374/.576, but played just 108 games due to a left hamstring that sent him to the disabled list on three separate occasions. This year, he homered in the Rangers' first four games and stands as the major league leader in both home runs and slugging percentage. In that lineup and that ballpark and on that team, he could stay on this list for as long as he remains healthy.

3. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees

Season Stats: .321/.441/.714, 3 HRs, 5 RBIs

With his surgically repaired hip finally fully healthy, Rodriguez was able to focus on his swing, as opposed to his physical therapy, for the first time in three years and looked as comfortable at the plate in camp as he has in at least that long. As I suspected he would, he has carried that strong spring training performance over into the regular season. The three-time AL MVP turns 36 in July, and hasn't played in 140 games since he last won the award in 2007, but he might just have one more great season left.

4. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox

Season Stats: .400/.447/.571, 1 HR, 5 RBIs

How early is it? On Friday morning, Pedroia was hitting .227/.261/.227. He then went 9-for-13 with three doubles and a home run against the Yankees over the weekend and is now hitting .400/.447/.571. Pedroia is one of the best fielders in the game, at a key position, and was having a season very much like his 2008 AL MVP campaign before he broke his foot late last June.

5. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers

Season Stats: .250/.385/.688, 4 HR, 7 RBIs

Like his teammate, Cruz, whom he matched homer-for-homer through the first three games of the season, health will be the key to Kinsler's campaign, as he has only once surpassed 130 games played in a season, and never played in 145. Despite his low batting average (which, could be fixed with a single 4-for-4 game), Kinsler is tied for second in the majors in home runs and has a four-digit OPS.

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox: The author of 368 career home runs, Konerko enjoyed his first top-five finish in the MVP voting last year at the age of 34. He then landed a new, three-year deal from the White Sox and has picked up right where he left off this season. Expecting him to repeat his 2010 season , when he hit .312/.393/.584 with 39 home runs and 111 RBIs, may be a stretch, though.

Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays: Bautista's two solo home runs are hardly proof that he's going to avoid the regression many expect for him this season, but 54 home runs a year ago and a .533 on-base percentage as of this writing demand inclusion on this list.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox: My pre-season pick for this award isn't off to a great start, but he's holding his own at .286/.375/.429. Meanwhile, my No. 2 choice, Evan Longoria, is on the disabled list with a quadriceps strain while his team is 1-8, and my third pick, Joe Mauer, is ice cold.

Howard Kendrick, 2B, Angels: Great things have long been expected of Kendrick, who is now in his peak-age 27 season. He's shown flashes of greatness in the early going with a .389/.488/.806 line, four homers, and six walks (a third and fifth, respectively, of his major league totals from 2006 to 2008, a span of 997 plate appearances), but he'll have to do it for quite a while longer to make me a believer.

Yunel Escobar, SS, Blue Jays: A concussion suffered on Wednesday has limited Escobar to 28 plate appearances, but he returned to the Toronto lineup on Sunday, singled, and walked twice, boosting his major league best on-base percentage to .556. He's unlikely to remain on this list three weeks from now, but that OBP merits inclusion.

Next week I'll take my first look at the Cy Young races in both leagues.

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