Sleeper MVP candidates: National League

Can Bryce Harper make the jump to MVP in just his second year in the league? Andrew Innerarity/Reuters

It's that time of year when everyone is starting to make their predictions: division winners, playoff teams, World Series champion, number of wins under .500 for the Yankees.

Of course, we're also making Most Valuable Player picks. I sent in my selections to our editors the other day and went with Mike Trout (AL) and Joey Votto (NL). Not exactly going out on a limb there. I suspect most picks you'll see will be similar, players culled from the game's recognized elite: Past winners like Miguel Cabrera, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Votto, or stars like Trout, Matt Kemp, Robinson Cano, Andrew McCutchen, Prince Fielder and so on.

It wouldn't be a surprise if any of those players ultimately takes home MVP honors in 2013. What may surprise you, however, is how often the MVP winner is a surprise, at least when looking back at prediction time in March.

Since 1980, there have been 66 MVP winners -- 19 of them were players who had never previously finished in the top 15 in MVP voting. That's 29 percent. Twelve of those 19 had never received any MVP points, not even a 10th-place vote. That means there's a pretty good chance one of this year's MVP winners will be a choice nobody really expects right now.

I'm going to present my top-five stealth MVP candidates in each league. First, however, keep in mind two primary de facto rules for MVP voting:

1. Your team has to reach the postseason. Nearly every MVP winner in recent years has come from a playoff team. In cases where two players have a solid claim, the award always goes to the guy heading to the postseason (Cabrera over Trout in 2012, Braun over Kemp in 2011, Votto over Pujols in 2010, etc.).

2. It helps to be an RBI guy. Voters still love RBIs.

OK, let's review the previous 19 surprise MVP winners since 1980 to see what we can learn (with each player's previous high in MVP voting listed):

  • Joey Votto, 2010 NL (22nd in 2009) -- Added power, Reds made the playoffs.

  • Dustin Pedroia, 2008 AL (none) -- Led league in runs, hits and doubles.

  • Ryan Howard, 2006 NL (none) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.

  • Justin Morneau, 2006 AL (none) -- RBI guy (130) in weak group of candidates.

  • Miguel Tejada, 2002 AL (16th in 2000) -- RBI guy (131) on team that won 103 games.

  • Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 AL (none) -- Led league in hits, steals, average (.350).

  • Ken Caminiti, 1996, NL (none) -- Veteran had all-time fluke season.

  • Mo Vaughn, 1995 AL (17th in 1994) -- Led league in RBIs.

  • Jeff Bagwell, 1994 NL (19th in 1992) -- Led league in runs, RBIs, slugging, hit .368.

  • Terry Pendleton, 1991 NL (none) -- Veteran had career year at the plate, leadership.

  • Barry Bonds, 1990 NL (none) -- Young player who took big leap.

  • Kevin Mitchell, 1989 NL (none) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.

  • Jose Canseco, 1988 AL (20th in 1986) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.

  • Roger Clemens, 1986 AL (none) -- Went 24-4 in first full season.

  • Willie McGee, 1985 NL (none) -- Hit .353, only year to receive MVP votes.

  • Ryne Sandberg, 1984 NL (none) -- Future Hall of Famer in breakout season.

  • Willie Hernandez, 1984 AL (none) -- Reliever was one of unlikeliest MVPs ever.

  • Cal Ripken, 1983 AL (30th in 1982) -- Second-year shortstop led O's to World Series.

  • Robin Yount, 1982 -- (17th in 1980, 1981) -- Got better and Brewers won division.

What are the lessons here? Not surprisingly, 18 of the 19 were on playoff teams, the exception being Howard on the 2006 Phillies. As you can see from the notes, many of them were RBI leaders or guys like Morneau, Tejada and Caminiti, who each drove in at least 130. There are younger players (Pedroia and Ripken were in their second seasons, while Votto, Morneau, Canseco, Clemens and Sandberg were in their third). There are younger veterans hitting their peaks (Tejada, Bagwell, Bonds, Yount). There are complete surprises (Caminiti, Pendleton, McGee, Hernandez). And Ichiro, who is kind of in his own category.

With that in mind, I'm going to focus on younger players on playoff contenders. Thus, no Giancarlo Stanton, Starlin Castro or Anthony Rizzo, since the Marlins and Cubs are unlikely playoff contenders. So here are five stealth MVP candidates for the National League, guys who have never finished in the top 15 of the MVP voting.

5. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves. Best MVP finish: 20th in 2010. Heyward's all-around game is beloved by sabermetricians, and at 23 he could be ready for that monster season after hitting .269 with 27 home runs last year while winning a Gold Glove. The key may be that batting average: Since 1990, the only non-pitcher MVP not to hit .300 was Jimmy Rollins in 2007 (he hit .296).

4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals. Best MVP finish: 16th in 2010. Admittedly, this doesn't feel much like a stealth selection since Zimmerman finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2006 and has been an outstanding player since. But he's never placed high in the MVP voting, so he qualifies as a sleeper. He's had some injury issues in the past, but in the second half of last year he hit .319 AVG/.381 OBP/.564 SLG with 17 home runs. Do that over a full season on a team that could be the best in baseball, and you're in the MVP debate.

3. Allen Craig, 1B, Cardinals. Best MVP finish: 19th in 2012. Craig fits a lot of the parameters above. While he's entering his age-28 season, he's also had just one full season in the majors (and even then, he played just 119 games last year). He can hit -- .307/.354/.522 in 2012 -- and drove in 92 runs in those 119 games. That prorates to 116 over 150 games. His biggest obstacles are that the Cardinals could have other MVP candidates, such as Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday, and Craig has to stay healthy.

2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks. Best MVP finish: None. Go through the checklist. Young player who could make the leap? Check. (He's entering his second full season.) On a playoff contender? Check. (I like Arizona's chances to win the West.) RBI guy? Check. (Hitting in the middle of the Arizona order, he drove in 82 last year.) Obviously, he'll have to improve on his .286/.359/.490 line, but if he turns some of his 43 doubles into home runs and raises that average 20-25 points, he could drive in 120. Plus, he stole 18 bases in 21 attempts and plays a solid first base. Teammate Miguel Montero is another sleeper, but Goldschmidt is the better bet for a breakout season.

1. Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals. Best MVP finish: 30th in 2012. Too young? Maybe so, but he hit .270/.340/.477 as a 19-year-old rookie, improving down the stretch, and young players can show huge year-to-year improvement. Consider also that Pedroia, Howard and Ripken went from Rookie of the Year to MVP in their sophomore seasons (Canseco and Sandberg did it in their third years), so there's precedent there as well. Harper hit 22 home runs and swiped 18 bases last year in 139 games; 30-30 isn't out of reach. As with Heyward, Harper will have to show improvement in his batting average, and his RBI total will depend on a large degree to where he hits in the Nationals order, but if he does end up hitting third, I won't be surprised if he puts up the numbers to impress the MVP voters.

You may think the following players are stealth, but they've finished in the top 15 of the MVP voting: Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval, Clayton Kershaw, Martin Prado, Jay Bruce, Justin Upton.