With the start of baseball season less than two weeks away, conversation is heating up. People are making the case that their favorite team may win the World Series, or even that their teams could be favorites but have potential flaws. With optimism in the air, let’s look at the top National League MVP candidates for the 2016 season — why each might be the MVP and what would need to happen for them to hold the hardware at the end of the regular season.
5. Buster Posey
Buster Posey is the starting catcher and clubhouse leader for the San Francisco Giants. The Giants missed the playoffs last season with an 84-78 record, but they added several pieces to their roster this season to try to return to the playoffs — and the World Series.
Why he might win the MVP: Posey is 29 years old, which means he’s right in the middle of his prime. He hit .315/.381/.490 over the last four seasons, including hitting .318/.379/.470 in 2015 with 19 home runs in 623 plate appearances. He finished ninth in MVP voting last year and also has a sixth place finish in 2014 and an NL MVP win in 2012. If the “every other year” formula works for the Giants again — they’ve won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014 — there’s a decent chance Posey could win the MVP en route to another championship this season.
What would need to happen: Posey has been remarkably consistent, and he needs to continue that consistency. In each of the last four seasons, he played right around 150 games, which can be tough on a catcher. Any serious injury would take away his chance of winning the MVP as well as the Giants’ chances of making the playoffs in a tough division. Unless Posey’s numbers reach such a high level that the award cannot go to anyone else, a la Bryce Harper in 2015, the Giants will need to be serious contenders.
4. Andrew McCutchen
Similar to Posey, Andrew McCutchen is the leader and best player on one of the best teams in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates won 98 games in 2015 and made the playoffs as the lead wild card, earning a home game against the Chicago Cubs. Unfortunately, they ran into Jake Arrieta and were sent home after just one game.
Why he might win the MVP: Again, just like Posey, winning the MVP wouldn’t be unfamiliar territory for McCutchen. He won the 2013 National League MVP and finished in the top-five in voting for the award every year for the last four years. Over the course of that time, McCutchen has hit .313/.404/.523 and won four Silver Slugger awards and one Gold Glove in center field.
What would need to happen: Fair or not, the Pirates aren’t viewed as the best team in their own division anymore. For McCutchen to take away the MVP, which is an individual award, he will need some help from his teammates. Not only does he need to remain healthy and put up yet another monster season in 2016, but he will need his Pirates to overcome the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals in the division as well. If they can do that, ‘Cutch will be at the top of the discussion.
3. Kris Bryant
Kris Bryant, the second-year third baseman for the Chicago Cubs, is coming off a Rookie of the Year campaign and will look to help his young teammates take the leap forward in their collective development, after losing to the New York Mets in the NLCS last season.
Why he might win the MVP: Bryant, 24, began the 2015 season at Triple-A and stayed there for the first week or so before coming up and taking over the job at third base for the Cubs. He was one of the most valuable players in the National League last season, posting a 5.9 WAR with solid defense on a contending ballclub. Bryant hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI, showcasing the tremendous skills that the Cubs fell in love with prior to selecting him in the 2013 draft.
What would need to happen: For Bryant to win the NL MVP, he will need to do a few things. First, he’ll need to overcome the dreaded sophomore slump. Players frequently struggle in their second year in the major leagues as they make adjustments. Second, he’ll need to establish himself as the best player on a star-studded team, with Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward also potentially MVP-caliber players.
2. Paul Goldschmidt
One of the most overlooked offensive players in the game, Paul Goldschmidt is the powerful first baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The D-backs — one of the (potentially) most improved teams in the game this offseason — are looking to contend in the NL West after winning just 79 games in 2015.
Why he might win the MVP: Goldie has been an offensive force over the last three seasons, hitting .309/.412/.556 and finishing second in the MVP voting twice. He also won two Gold Gloves for his play at first base during that time, and likely only missed out on another Gold Glove and high-level finish in the MVP vote because of an injury in 2014 that limited him to just 109 games.
What would need to happen: In 2015, Goldschmidt likely lost out on the MVP because the D-backs did not compete for a playoff spot — despite having a tremendous year from their stud first baseman, not to mention from catcher Welington Castillo and outfielders A.J. Pollock and David Peralta. They retooled their roster in the offseason with pitchers Shelby Miller and Zack Grienke, so that could help. They also need Harper, who won the MVP last season, not to put up the kind of insane numbers that led to him winning despite playing on a team that was not much better than Arizona.
1. Bryce Harper
The aforementioned Harper has to be the favorite at this point. He’s the best player on the Washington Nationals and there could be an argument that he’s the best player in baseball. At just 23 years old and already with an MVP under his belt, it’ll be hard for the field to knock him off in 2016.
Why he might win the MVP: Harper led the National League in runs scored, home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging. That alone doesn’t tell the whole story; Harper slashed .330/.460/.649 last season, putting up what many describe as “video-game numbers.” His Nationals struggled throughout the season with many major injuries and an unsure situation with their manager, leading to a disappointing 83-79 finish, but most of that seems to be resolved heading into 2016.
What would need to happen: It’s not that complicated for Harper to play his way to another MVP in 2016; he needs to stay healthy, perform, and see the Nats win. If Harper, like any other player, loses a significant amount of time to injury, it’ll be difficult to see him winning any awards. The same goes for him not performing up to his capabilities. If he can stay healthy and perform, it’s hard to see the Nationals not competing in the National League East — where the Mets are really the only other realistic competition for winning the division.
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Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.