NL MVP Rankings: Are Matt Kemp and Carlos Beltran Losing Grip as Top Candidates?

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterMay 16, 2012

NL MVP Rankings: Are Matt Kemp and Carlos Beltran Losing Grip as Top Candidates?

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    The one thing that could cost Matt Kemp the National League MVP award was an injury. Well, here we are.

    Kemp went on the disabled list this week with a strained left hamstring. The injury was obviously restricting him, as the MVP favorite suffered through an 0-for-13 slump in his past four games before going on the DL.

    Should the injury and the slump it caused affect Kemp's MVP standing? Well, you'll have to click ahead to find out for sure. But if it's generally understood that a player shouldn't lose his job to injury, should he be considered less accomplished if he's hurt?

    One guy who did get knocked off our list of NL MVP candidates is St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese. He's hitless in his last 15 at-bats, moving his OPS down to .815. That's the eighth-highest total on his own team. 

    Maybe it's not a coincidence that the Cards have been losing while Freese has been slumping. And perhaps that should help his case for MVP consideration. That's something we'll think about over the next week, along with your comments on the matter. 

    In the meantime, here are this week's five top candidates for NL MVP.

5. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Last week, a commenter voiced his support for Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce to be included among the top NL MVP candidates. With a slash average of .300/.343/.631, 10 home runs and 26 RBI, he's definitely worthy of consideration. So maybe that was an oversight on my part.

    We do have a Reds batter on the list this week, but it's not Bruce. This is an argument worth having in the comments, but Bruce's teammate—with an MVP award already on his mantle—has leapfrogged him into our rankings.

    Joey Votto doesn't have as many home runs as Bruce, clubbing five so far this season. But he's ahead of his teammate in virtually every other offensive category. Especially impressive are his league-leading 34 walks (Bruce has 10), resulting in a .465 on-base percentage (second in the majors behind David Wright) and a 1.036 OPS, good for fifth in the NL. 

    One game doesn't make an MVP, of course. But Votto sure looked like one of the top players in the league in Sunday's 9-6 win over the Washington Nationals. He went 4-for-5 in the game with three home runs and six RBI. The last of his homers was a grand slam that gave the Reds a walkoff win and probably their biggest victory of the season.

    As CBSSports.com's C. Trent Rosecrans passed along on Twitter, the Elias Sports Bureau said that Votto was the first player in major league history to have three home runs and a walkoff grand slam in the same game. 

    MVPs rise to the occasion. Votto most certainly did on Sunday. 

4. Adam LaRoche, Washington Nationals

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    Should Adam LaRoche still be on this list, let alone ranked No. 4? 

    His .975 OPS is still among the best in the NL, while his batting average, OBP and RBI totals also rank among the league leaders. He leads the Washington Nationals in the Triple Crown categories (batting average, home runs and RBI), still the best offensive player on a first-place team in the NL East.

    Opposing teams pitching around LaRoche was becoming a concern, as managers figured out that he was the only hitter in the Nats lineup that could really do some damage. But with Nats skipper Davey Johnson moving Bryce Harper into the No. 5 spot behind LaRoche, pitching around him won't be a no-brainer anymore.

    Harper hasn't exactly exploded while hitting behind LaRoche, batting 5-for-26 (.192), but he did club his first two major league homers from that spot. So at least there's the threat of some pop now. 

    LaRoche could get further help in a few weeks if Michael Morse is able to return to the Nats lineup and pick up his power production from last season. That should help give him more pitches to hit. If he can keep hitting the way he has and the Nationals continue to fight for first place, there's no reason why LaRoche shouldn't continue to be considered an MVP candidate. 

3. David Wright, New York Mets

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    First in the NL in batting average and on-base percentage, No. 5 on your scorecard and No. 1 in your hearts, New York Mets fans. And his 1.105 OPS is the third-best in the league. 

    Even Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who infamously gave Wright a back-handed compliment by calling him "a good kid" in the New Yorker, thinks his team's third baseman is "playing like a superstar right now." 

    (Is "right now" a bit of a qualifier, though? Like, "OK, let's see if the kid can keep this up"? It kind of feels that way. But maybe Wilpon and Mets general manager Sandy Alderson want to wait a bit longer before committing to the contract extension Wright deserves.)

    Wright's league-leading stats, along with him being the only hitter of consequence on a Mets team that's still over .500 and competing for first place in the NL East, should be enough to make his case for NL MVP.

    But manager Terry Collins let everyone know just how valuable Wright is to his team on Tuesday night when he pulled his star out of the game instead of allowing him to get hit by a pitch. All it would've taken is a slip by Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke or missing his location on the pitch, and maybe Wright gets a broken wrist or forearm.

    The risk was too great for Collins to consider, especially in a game that was all but decided. And the idea of his lineup without Wright probably gave him shivers. So out came Wright, over heated protests. 

    Displaying that kind of passion and leadership, along with a willingness to take one for his teammates, only adds to Wright's MVP candidacy.

2. Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals

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    If Joey Votto had his MVP breakout moment on Sunday versus the Nationals, Carlos Beltran may have had his season highlight last Friday against the Atlanta Braves.

    In the St. Louis Cardinals' 12-inning, 9-7 loss, Beltran was unstoppable. He went 4-for-5, hitting two home runs, along with a double and triple, and drove in four runs. It was one of the most dominating performances in the NL this season, albeit in a losing effort.

    Perhaps the only thing that can slow Beltran down this season is his 35-year-old body. Injuries had taken a toll on Beltran in recent years, but he was able to stay healthy last year. Consequently, he put up good numbers and became a dangerous hitter again. 

    Beltran looked to be on a similar path this year before a sore knee took him out of the lineup for the past couple of games. The Cardinals have to hope this is merely the sort of nagging injury that just needs a few days' rest. Reportedly, he was available to pinch-hit on Tuesday, so that appears to be the case. 

    The Cardinals are looking a bit wobbly right now and have a tough West Coast road trip ahead of them. For them to show they can win outside of the NL Central, they'll need Beltran to keep putting up the kinds of numbers we saw from him during his peak years of 2006-08.

1. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Matt Kemp was making it look easy in the first few weeks of this season. The world was his baseball, jumping off his bat with every swing. Kemp's name topped virtually every offensive category, and the NL MVP (and maybe a batting Triple Crown) looked all but assured. 

    But it's not easy to dominate the sport over a full season. It might just be impossible. Kemp is now learning that the hard way. 

    With a left hamstring that was clearly restricting him, Kemp slumped over his past five games, batting 1-for-16. That snatched the Triple Crown from his head, as Kemp lost his lead in each of the major hitting categories. However, he still leads the NL in OPS at 1.173, which shows just how explosive his performance had been before he slumped.

    Should that recent bad stretch, along with the games he'll miss while sitting on the disabled list with that strained hamstring, drop him down the NL MVP rankings? As noted in the introduction to these rankings, a player typically doesn't lose his job to injury, so shouldn't the same hold true for MVP consideration?

    Obviously, if Kemp comes back and continues to struggle, then that's something that needs to be addressed. Perhaps his case for MVP will also take a hit if the Los Angeles Dodgers keep winning games and hold on to first place in the NL West without him. 

    But does anyone think that Kemp isn't the best player in the National League right now? As long as no one can answer that question with any certainty or credibility, he's still the MVP. He'll come back and prove it again soon enough.