NL MVP Rankings: Should Matt Kemp Look over His Shoulder for Carlos Beltran?
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Could a race actually be developing among MVP contenders in the National League?
Just a week ago, such a thought was inconceivable. And maybe it still should be. It's not like Matt Kemp is in a slump. He had one bad game on Wednesday, going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts versus the San Francisco Giants.
Kemp still leads in two of the three Triple Crown categories in the NL. But his peers are beginning to catch up. Maybe this won't quite be the runaway race we originally thought it would be. Obviously, so much can happen over the next five months.
A more interesting MVP race certainly wouldn't be a bad thing. But at this point, it's up to the rest of the league to catch Kemp. It's still his award to lose.
However, a couple of recent developments might make Kemp more vulnerable. If he falters, here are four other candidates who could give him a run for NL MVP.
5. Adam LaRoche, Washington Nationals
Adam LaRoche remains the only big bat the Nationals have in their lineup.
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Last week, Adam LaRoche held the No. 4 spot in our NL MVP rankings. Has he really done anything to warrant dropping down the list?
Well, LaRoche did miss four games last week with a bruised right oblique muscle, taking the Nationals offense with him to the bench. Yet the Nats won three of those four games, thanks largely to their pitching, which has been their key to victory all year.
But more than team success or outstanding pitching, what might ultimately keep LaRoche from truly contending for MVP honors was demonstrated in Wednesday night's 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle twice called for LaRoche to be intentionally walked with runners in scoring position, opting instead to face Xavier Nady and the .348 OPS he brought into Wednesday's game. As the Washington Times' Amanda Comak tweeted, the message to Nats manager Davey Johnson is clear: Your No. 5 hitter doesn't scare us.
As long as that's the case, LaRoche is going to get walked with increasing frequency. And any home run or RBI opportunities will jog over to first base with him.
4. David Freese, St. Louis Cardinals
What's that buzzing noise, David Freese? It's the sound of Carlos Beltran's bat.
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Shuttling David Freese from No. 2 in last week's rankings to the No. 4 spot this week probably isn't fair.
Freese hasn't done anything to lose his standing. He's still among the league leaders in all offensive categories with a .312/.375/.550 slash average, seven home runs and 26 RBI. Last year's World Series MVP is a huge reason the St. Louis Cardinals haven't missed a beat without Albert Pujols.
The Cards have scored more runs than any team in the NL with 174, good for second in all of baseball. And their plus-75 run differential blows away the competition. Freese's production has a lot to do with that.
But as you'll see later (higher?) in these rankings, Freese moving down is more about one of his teammates leapfrogging him with numbers that might have him at the top of this list if not for Kemp's presence.
Barring slump or injury, being surrounded by other MVP-caliber hitters will likely be what ultimately hurts Freese's candidacy. He could be victimized by a split of the vote.
3. David Wright, New York Mets
Don't look so surprised, David Wright. Where would the Mets be without you?
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Holding steady at No. 3 in this week's rankings is David Wright. The New York Mets third baseman isn't quite as high among the league leaders as he was a week ago. But he still ranks with the NL's top five in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS.
As those numbers indicate, Wright also remains the Mets' most reliable player at the plate.
However, he's beginning to get some help in the lineup. Daniel Murphy is a consistent hitter, though he won't provide much power. Kirk Nieuwenhuis continues to produce more than anyone expected after he replaced the injured Andres Torres. And speaking of Torres, he's swung a strong bat since returning from the DL.
With other Mets hitters beginning to produce, Wright is being pitched around less and seeing more balls to hit. Consequently, he's drawing fewer walks but is getting better pitches to drive. Wright has a double in each of his past three games, while driving in four runs.
Can Wright continue to show some extra-base muscle while the Mets keep hanging around the top of the NL East standings? If so, there's no reason to think Wright won't get plenty of MVP consideration and support.
2. Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals
Carlos Beltran hasn't replaced Albert Pujols in St. Louis, but he's put up some impressive numbers.
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We made the case for Carlos Beltran earlier this week, asking why he hasn't been getting more attention for surging to the top of the NL's offensive leaderboard.
Beltran's 10 homers and 27 RBI are each tied for second among NL hitters in those categories, and his .959 OPS ranks eighth in the league.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny looks brilliant for putting Beltran in the No. 2 spot in the batting order where he has thrived, compiling a 1.219 OPS. Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland have often believed that putting a power hitter in the No. 2 hole can help boost offensive production, and Beltran has certainly done so for the Cards.
But as mentioned with David Freese, Beltran's MVP candidacy will likely be affected by other hitters performing well in the St. Louis lineup.
If Freese is having a great season and Beltran is putting up big numbers, which player would voters choose? They'll split votes among those who want to vote for a Cardinal, or decide to vote for someone else who stands out more.
However, if Beltran keeps up his current level of production and the Cards continue their dominance of the NL, he looks like the top challenger for the NL MVP award alongside Matt Kemp.
1. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers
The National League is still pine tar on Matt Kemp's bat so far this season.
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As we said in the intro, the other contenders for NL MVP are still getting a look at the back of Matt Kemp's jersey. He's the front-runner, and that's not likely to change.
If Kemp has to face Tim Lincecum frequently throughout the season, however, he might have a problem staying ahead of the competition. The San Francisco Giants right-hander dominated Kemp on Wednesday night, striking him out in each of his first three at-bats.
As the Mercury News' Tim Kawakami wrote, Lincecum was in near-vintage form, locating his fastball on the outside corner, and then coming back to baffle Kemp with changeups and sliders to finish him off. Did Lincecum unlock the formula to getting the Dodgers out consistently? If so, other pitching staffs and coaches will certainly be taking notes and studying video of those three plate appearances.
Kemp has also been hobbled by a sore left hamstring that might want to make the Dodgers consider sitting him down for a few days (Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times suggests the team do just that).
With the bad hammy, Kemp isn't hitting for extra-base power and has been tentative in the field. Better to rest him now and get healthy, rather than risk further injury down the line. That, above all else, would be the one thing that surely costs the 27-year-old slugger MVP honors.
Without Kemp in the lineup, you'd see just how valuable he really is, as the Dodgers would go into a tailspin. There's not much else in that batting order without him (no offense to Andre Ethier).
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