<
>

Predictions: National League MVP

Here are my top 10 National League MVP candidates. Remember, this isn't necessarily a list of the 10 best players in the league but players I'm projecting to fare well in the MVP voting. Playing on a winning team is key to winning the MVP award; as mentioned in the AL list, Albert Pujols in 2008 was the last MVP on a non-playoff team. The last MVP who played on a losing team was Alex Rodriguez on the 2003 Rangers.

10. Jason Heyward, St. Louis Cardinals

With his spectacular, Gold Glove defense in right field, Heyward actually ranked fifth in WAR among NL position players last year. Of course, MVP voters tend to reward offense more than defense, so Heyward will have to boost his .271/.351/.384 batting line. If he can hit 20 home runs and boost that slugging more to the .450 range, playing on a likely postseason team should get him plenty of top-10 votes.

9. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

The 2012 MVP finished sixth last year when he hit .311 with 22 home runs and 89 RBIs, fueled by a hot final two months. Starting 30 games or so at first base should again help him play 145 to 150 games to give him more playing time than most catchers. He should be a strong MVP candidate again, although I don't project the Giants as a playoff team.

8. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

He'll have monster numbers, but on a bad team. When he finished second in the voting to Andrew McCutchen two years ago, the Diamondbacks finished 81-81. Arizona won't come close to that record in 2015, leaving Goldschmidt to pick up some down-ballot votes.

7. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

He's only 22 and still learning and last October's performance could be a prelude to 30-something home runs. He needs to stay healthy and stay more consistent -- but he also needs to improve. As a rookie in 2012, he had a 9.4 percent walk rate and 20.1 percent strikeout rate. Last year, those percentages were 9.6 and 26.3. Not a good trend line for a young player. He isn't chasing more pitches out of the zone, but simply swinging and missing more often. "Soft" stuff, in particular, gave him trouble in 2014. After hitting .257/.302/.464 against soft pitches in 2012 with a swing-and-miss rate of 31.9 percent, he hit just .212/.265/.277 against soft stuff in 2014 with a miss rate of 39.6 percent. What's interesting is that he received a steady diet of breaking pitches as a rookie (44 percent of pitches seen labeled as soft) compared to 24 percent last year. By seeing fewer off-speed pitches, Harper has apparently become less effective against them. Anyway, he's on the best team in the league and I think he has a big year.

6. Matt Kemp, San Diego Padres

If everything comes together for Kemp and the Padres, he's going to receive a lot of the credit if they make the playoffs. He's looked healthy in spring training, hitting .370 with four home runs. Not that he wasn't motivated before, but you know he's going to be motivated to have a big season and prove to the Dodgers they made a mistake. Defensive metrics? Yes, not good, but not a big concern for most MVP voters.

5. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

He finished 10th in the voting last year for a bad Cubs team -- kind of a strange result because he was a first baseman who drove in just 78 runs and MVP voters still love their RBI guys. I suspect the Cubs will be much better, Rizzo will drive in more runs and if the Cubs can pull off a wild card or division title, don't be surprised if he wins the hardware.

4. Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers

He's probably destined to fall into the Manny Ramirez category: No matter the numbers he puts up, he probably never wins an MVP award because of the perception he's not a leader and the "Puig being Puig" stuff. Of course, he's not a bad defensive player -- unlike Manny -- and he did cut down on the mental lapses in the second half last year. I think he played through some injuries last year, which sapped his power after a hot start. Look for close to 25 home runs, a high OBP, a lot of runs scored and RBIs batting second or third ... and solid defense in right field.

3. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

The fact that Kershaw won MVP honors as a pitcher -- the first in the NL since Bob Gibson in 1968 -- while making only 27 starts and throwing fewer than 200 innings is a testament to his greatness: He was the most valuable player in the league. So, assuming he makes 33 starts, why won't he win again? Primarily because he probably won't go 21-3 again. He could pitch just as well and go 18-7 and that's not as sexy as 21-3. Or maybe he pitches nearly as well but with a 2.25 ERA instead of 1.77. But mostly it's hard for pitchers to win; it's extra hard to win two years in a row (last: Hal Newhouser, 1944-45).

2. Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

He received eight first-place votes last year and finished second in the balloting despite missing much of September after the beaning. If I projected the Marlins to make the playoffs, I'd have him first on this list, but I don't, so he isn't.

1. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

He's finished third, first and third in the voting the past three seasons. He's a great leader and one of the most respected players in the league. He's an all-around player with a .400 OBP the past three seasons who plays an important defensive position. The metrics don't love his defense, but his reputation among the writers probably supersedes what the metrics say. Either way, playing center field gives him an edge as Posey is the only other player listed here who plays an up-the-middle position. I like the Pirates to make the playoffs. The biggest knock against him winning is the Pirates have talked about resting their starters more often this year, so maybe McCutchen plays only 145 games (like last year, when he had a DL stint), which will hold down his overall numbers a bit.

Other possibilities: Troy Tulowitzki (has to stay on the field), Joey Votto (nobody is predicting the Reds to do much), Jonathan Lucroy (fourth in the voting last year), Yadier Molina (third in the voting in 2013), Carlos Gomez (Brewers have to do better), Ryan Braun (if they do better, it probably means he had a big year), Max Scherzer (should have monster season), Ian Desmond (potential to have a big season in his free-agent campaign), Starling Marte (really wanted to put him in my top 10), Justin Upton (has hit well at Petco in his career), Matt Carpenter (fourth two years ago), Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna (deep sleepers), David Wright (Mets need an MVP-type season from him), Kris Bryant (gets called up, hits 35 home runs, Cubs shock the world).