MVP voters emphasize two things: Players on playoff teams and players who put up big home run and RBI totals. They've gotten a little better in recent years at paying attention to things like WAR, but the first two categories still triumph. See Miguel Cabrera winning two MVP trophies over Mike Trout or down-the-ballot results like Nelson Cruz finishing seventh in last year's American League vote over several players with higher WAR. The last MVP winner from a non-playoff team was Albert Pujols in 2008. The interesting twist in recent years has been Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw winning MVP honors in 2011 and 2014; before that, a starting pitcher hadn't won since 1986.
Here are my top 10 AL MVP candidates, which is different from a list of the 10 best players in the league. Emphasis will be on players on teams I'll be predicting to reach the postseason.
Michael Brantley was last year's big breakout performer in Cleveland, and while I think he'll have another good year, my gut says Santana has a big season in him. Of course, I've thought that for several years. But freed from catching and that experiment at third base, he'll move to first base and be able to focus just on his hitting. He hit 27 home runs last year, drove in 85 runs and led the AL with 113 walks, but hit just .231 after hitting .159 through May. With a more consistent season, I can see 30-plus homers, 100-plus RBIs and a better average to go with his high OBP.
Did we mention the voters like offense? Bautista is 34 and you worry about the injuries after he missed time in 2012 and 2013, but he hit 35 bombs last year and finished sixth in the MVP voting. He anchors what should be a powerful middle of the lineup, which means a lot of RBIs and a lot of runs.
Yes, he's going to be this good. The injury to Rusney Castillo guaranteed Betts the Opening Day job in center field, and his big spring training just cemented his potential -- he's hitting .451 with 12 of his 23 hits going for extra bases. None of the projection systems I've seen have him hitting .300. He's going to hit .300, maybe hit 15 home runs, bash out a lot of doubles, steal 25 bases and score a ton of runs.
He's one of the most consistent performers in the league, hitting between .280 and .287 each of the past five years and hitting 32, 33 and 29 home runs the past three. While he probably hasn't deserved the Gold Gloves he's won the past three years, defensive reputation is all that matters in MVP voting. Amazingly, even though he never walks, pitchers haven't figured out a way to exploit his aggressiveness. I like Baltimore's chances to return to the postseason and that makes Jones a down-the-ballot MVP candidate.
I don't have the White Sox making the playoffs; if they do, Abreu is going to finish higher than sixth in the voting, because it likely means he had a monster season.
I called him the most underrated player in the game, so I better back that up by including him here. I think he's got a little more in him after a .268/.334/.454 line that included 25 home runs, 96 RBIs and a Gold Glove. He needs to remain strong throughout the season since he's tired down the stretch each of the past two seasons. If he does that, he could approach 30 home runs and slug close to .500, impressive numbers for Safeco Field.
I love that 25 home runs, 52 doubles and a .313 average constituted an off year. He had surgery after the season to remove bone spurs in his ankle and repair a stress fracture in his foot. If healthy, I'm guessing some of those doubles turn back into home runs. The big question: Are the Tigers a playoff team?
3. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
OK, I'll buy the Donaldson MVP talk. That's not exactly going out on a limb considering he's finished eighth and fourth in the voting the past two seasons. Moving to Toronto should help his numbers as he plays in a better hitters' park. His defensive metrics are terrific, which helps his WAR, a category he's ranked second in behind Mike Trout each of the past two seasons. If he hits closer to the .301 he hit in 2013 than the .255 he hit last year, he's got a chance to surge past Trout in the voting if Toronto makes the playoffs.
2. Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners
Cano is starting to climb that list of best players never to win an MVP award. He's finished no lower than sixth in the voting the past five seasons. His power numbers were down last year, in part because he had trouble turning on balls early in the season (he had just two home runs through May), in part because he moved away from the cozier ballparks of the AL East to Safeco Field and the other hitters' parks in the West. But I expect those power numbers to go back up a bit and the Mariners should have more runners on in front of him, which means more RBI opportunities. In fact, the Mariners were last in the majors in on-base percentage from both their leadoff hitters and No. 2 hitters. Everybody talks about Cruz providing protection for Cano, but it's actually more about getting guys on base in front of him.
He's not a lock. The Angels could miss the playoffs, part of the reason he didn't win in 2012 or 2013. Maybe pitchers continue to exploit his weakness on high fastballs. Or maybe he adjusts, hits 40 home runs, cuts down on his strikeouts, hits .300 again, steals a few more bases and wins his second straight unanimous MVP trophy.
Of course, we're likely to see some dark horses crack the top 10. After all, Brantley finished third in the voting last year and Victor Martinez second and nobody would have predicted that. Some longer shots would include Evan Longoria (bounce-back year, Rays surprise), Brett Lawrie (A's shock everyone and return to the playoffs), Jacoby Ellsbury (maybe he has another 2011 in him), Jason Kipnis (love the Indians), George Springer (40 home runs?), Dustin Pedroia (not washed up yet), Russell Martin (gets credit for Blue Jays' success), Hanley Ramirez (has to stay healthy), Albert Pujols (remember him?), Alex Gordon (fifth among AL position players in WAR last year), Chris Davis (hits 50 again!), Manny Machado (stay healthy, Manny) and any of the stellar pitchers.