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Friday, August 26, 2011

Who Will Win The National League MVP

The National League MVP race is coming down to a thrilling conclusion, similar to what is happening in the junior circuit. Most exciting is that most of the frontrunners are young players, just coming into their primes. These players have each made compelling cases as to why they should have a new trophy on their mantel after the season is over. Although it is a difficult task, I believe that after evaluating all the stats and evidence, I have been unable to uncover who will win the National League MVP.

The Case for Justin Upton: Upton is the best player on the surprising first place Arizona Diamondbacks. Even though it seems like he has been playing forever, the outfielder is still just 24 years old, and seemingly improving with each passing season. He has anchored the young Arizona offense, which besides Willie Bloomquist, has no regulars over the age of 30.

Upton leads Arizona in batting average, hits, runs, home runs, RBI, steals, OPS, and just about every other offensive category one can imagine. He has developed the maturity as a player that many are still waiting on from his brother BJ. Justin also leads the National League in WAR, showing that his value is not just to Arizona, but that he truly is one of the best players in baseball.

The Case for Matt Kemp: It is interesting to note that Kemp closely mirrors Upton in the way he has matured as a player. Last year Kemp put up disappointing numbers, and received the most recognition for dating Rihanna. He seemed to be on the verge of becoming a break-out star, but was never able to quite put it all together until 2011.

This season, Kemp has finally exploded into a superstar. He is hitting .322, and is on pace to possibly become baseball’s fifth ever 40-40 player. He plays good defense in the outfield, and has finally become the complete package that so many envisioned when he first debuted with the Dodgers in 2006. 

Known for his distractions, it is thus with irony that Kemp has achieved what he has this season in Los Angeles. The contentious McCourt divorce has made baseball anything but the focus in Dodger-land. Although the Dodgers are not in serious playoff contention this year, the way that Kemp has produced and held the team together, while keeping them respectably competitive is worthy of serious MVP consideration.

The Case for Ryan Braun: It seems like Braun makes an annual case for the most under-appreciated player in baseball. Every year he has been in the majors, he has consistently put up MVP numbers, while going relatively unnoticed in Milwaukee. This year has been no different, as he is on pace for 31 home runs and 36 stolen bases, to go along with his .330 batting average.

Braun will never be accused of being a Gold Glove defender, but his sub par defense is hidden in left field by the Brewers, who have coasted through the second half of the season in first place in the Central Division. He is as consistent a player that exists in baseball, and is a major reason why the Brewers are looking to make some noise in the upcoming playoffs.

The Case for Prince Fielder: In his contract year, Fielder has done his best to convince possible suitors that he will provide a lot of bang for the buck. Although they may not be able to re-sign him, the Brewers have benefited this season from Fielder proving his value. He has kept his batting average in the neighborhood of .300 all year, and is on pace to end the year with 34 home runs and 123 RBI.

Like Braun, Fielder is a below average defender, at first base. He uses his offense as a way to mask that deficiency, and so far this year, it has worked, given the Brewer’s commanding lead. It is likely the Fielder will lose MVP votes to Braun, as they have both been leaders on a first place team. Regardless, the season Fielder is having deserves to be part of this discussion.

The Case for Brian McCann: Before I go any further, I will unequivocally state that McCann will not win the MVP. That being said, he definitely deserves to be part of the conversation about the frontrunners for the award. The Atlanta catcher has been the foundation of the team’s offense this year, on pace for a .292 batting average and 27 home runs; numbers that make him the best catcher in baseball.

The Braves hold a commanding lead in the National League wild card despite Chipper Jones’ ongoing frailty, and the unexpected regression of Jason Heyward. Dan Uggla has probably been the Atlanta hitter in the news the most because of his 33 game hitting streak and 30 home runs, but he is still only hitting .231 with a .302 OPB on the year. 

McCann has improved over his career to become a slightly below average defensive catcher, but his true value to the Braves has been in becoming the veteran influence that has been so important for previous teams. Symbolically, the baton has been passed from Jones to McCann within the past year or so, and McCann has helped the team keep pace with its winning ways, as another playoff season seems sure to be on the horizon.

Honorable Mention: Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Roy Halladay, and Troy Tulowitzki.

Final Decision: Originally I was leaning towards Ryan Braun for the MVP, but after reviewing all the evidence, my selection for the National League frontrunner turns out to be Justin Upton. You simply can’t ignore his production, which has not only carried his first place team, but also placed him statistically at the start of any conversation about best player in the National League. 

Young teams like Arizona need players to move from kid status to veteran, in order to become true contenders. It certainly like Upton has made that jump, and Arizona is poised to see what they can do come playoff time. He is carrying the team, and come the end of the year, he will likely be adding the National League MVP to his trophy case.

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