Joey Votto is your best bet for NL MVP

Since the wild-card era began in 1995, there have been 34 MVPs -- 29 of them played on playoff teams, the exceptions being Albert Pujols in 2008, Ryan Howard in 2006, Barry Bonds in 2004 and 2001, Alex Rodriguez in 2003 and Larry Walker in 1997. Not including Justin Verlander, 31 of the 33 MVPs hit .300, the exceptions being Jimmy Rollins in 2007 (.296) and Rodriguez in 2003 (.298).

So that basically leaves two criteria for establishing MVP candidacy:

1. Play for a playoff team.

2. Hit .300.

Why didn't Matt Kemp win the NL MVP Award in 2011? The Dodgers didn't make the playoffs. Why didn't Curtis Granderson win the AL MVP Award? He didn't hit .300.

Those who contribute to ESPN's baseball coverage were just asked to make our 2012 predictions, including award winners. My first thought when it came to picking the NL MVP: Giancarlo Stanton. After hitting 34 home runs as a 21-year-old, he could explode. With Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez in front of him and a new potentially more hitter-friendly park, 40 to 45 home runs with 120-plus RBIs isn't out of the question.

Then I realized: Stanton probably isn't going to hit .300, not after hitting .262 a season ago. With 166 strikeouts, he would likely have to cut way down on the whiffs to come closer to .300. It could happen, but it isn't likely to happen in 2012. Plus, the Marlins aren't a lock for the postseason.

So who does that leave? Let's get back to our original theory.

Here's the list of NL position players who hit .300 each of the past two seasons: Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Starlin Castro. That's it. Matt Holliday and Carlos Gonzalez hit over .300 in 2010, but were at .296 and .295, respectively, in 2011.

Now, that's not the entire list of MVP candidates, of course. You have Kemp and Justin Upton, both popular picks. Upton has the advantage on playing for a team more likely to make the playoffs. And while Upton hasn't hit .300 either of the past two seasons, he did hit .300 in 2009. Tulowitzki and Gonzalez are strong choices, but I'm not high on the Rockies' playoff chances. Ramirez was once an MVP candidate. Ryan Zimmerman hit .307 in 2010 and could be on a playoff contender.

But I think we clearly have three top choices: Votto, Braun and Upton. I'm not saying those are the three best players in the National League. I'm saying those are the three guys most likely to win the MVP Award. Votto and Braun are better candidates to hit .300, so that leaves Upton No. 3 on my list. So we have the last two NL MVP winners. Braun has the advantage that -- minus Prince Fielder -- if the Brewers do make the playoffs he'll get credit for "carrying the team" and "overcoming adversity." On the other hand, Votto will have to carry a lineup with two rookies and not a lot of support outside of Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips.

Most people seem to believe the Reds have a better chance of making the playoffs. If that's the case, the edge goes to Votto. So my preseason NL MVP ballot would go like this:

1. Joey Votto

2. Ryan Braun

3. Justin Upton

4. Matt Kemp

5. Troy Tulowitzki

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.