NL MVP Rankings: Matt Kemp, David Wright on Top, but What About Ryan Braun?

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterMay 23, 2012

NL MVP Rankings: Matt Kemp, David Wright on Top, but What About Ryan Braun?

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    If you were hoping for some change among the top five National League MVP candidates, this isn't the week for it. (Check out this week's NL Rookie of the Year rankings for some major shuffling.) 

    As much as I wanted to (hey, I like change too), I just couldn't come up with a good reason to tinker too much with the candidates or rankings from last week. So—spoiler alert—everything is holding pretty steady. 

    But I think we do have an interesting dilemma in the National League right now, one that was made more obvious to me when putting together my NL All-Star predictions yesterday. 

    What are we to do about Ryan Braun? His numbers most definitely warrant consideration.

    Yet I believe that there's no way Braun will repeat as NL MVP because the suspicion of PED use still hovers over him. Even if his suspension was successfully appealed as the condition of his test sample was questioned, he did test positive for high levels of testosterone. 

    But maybe the best argument in Braun's favor is his performance this season. If he's putting up big numbers under heavy scrutiny, perhaps that shows he shouldn't be penalized in the court of public opinion. I'll leave that to you to continue discussing in the comments.

    Meanwhile, commenter Dylan Toron posted a suggestion in last week's NL Cy Young Award rankings that I liked so much that I'm going to implement it here. We're going to include an "Honorable Mention" contender, as well. Some weeks, maybe we'll have more than one. 

    OK, let's get on with this week's top five contenders for NL MVP.

Honorable Mention: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Well, why don't we just get this out of the way?

    As said in the introduction to this slideshow, Ryan Braun's numbers should certainly put him in the thick of NL MVP discussion.

    His 1.036 OPS is the third best in the National League. His 12 home runs are tied for second. His 31 RBI rank fourth. And if WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is your player measure of choice, Braun's 2.6 is behind only David Wright among NL batters.

    The reigning NL MVP is having another great season. However, this year, his Milwaukee Brewers are not. Holding fifth place in the NL Central, the Brew Crew has been one of the major disappointments of the season, battling a flurry of injuries. 

    If winning the division and making the playoffs arguably gave the edge to Braun over Matt Kemp in last year's MVP vote, shouldn't it have a similar influence this season? The only thing that can fight that perception is if Braun's numbers are just so good that they can't be denied. 

    I still feel, however, that the drug-testing scandal from the offseason will kill whatever chances Braun has to be a repeat winner. 

5. Adam LaRoche, Washington Nationals

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    The Washington Nationals just keep winning.

    Tuesday night's 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies gave them their third straight victory. Couple that with the Atlanta Braves' two consecutive losses to the Cincinnati Reds, and the Nats are back in first place in the NL East. They also hold the second-best record in the league at 27-19.

    We haven't mentioned Adam LaRoche yet, but that's kind of the point. The best hitter on one of the league's best teams should get some MVP consideration, and LaRoche has been a major contributor to the Nationals' success this season.

    However, the past week wasn't one of his best. It began very well in two games against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which included a 3-for-4 performance with a double, home run and four RBI. The next night, LaRoche hit an RBI triple that put the Nats back in a ballgame they eventually lost.

    But LaRoche has hit a rut since then, batting 0-for-16 in his past five games. That's lowered his average to .298/.395/.532. It's not the lowest his batting numbers have been this season, but his OPS has dropped by almost 100 points since last week.

    If LaRoche stays on that trend, it won't matter how good his team is. He won't be a contender for NL MVP. 

4. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Thanks to a four-game winning streak and a recent slide by the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cincinnati Reds are making a move in the NL Central. 

    That's been fueled in part by Joey Votto continuing to swing a reliable bat. While Votto hasn't been explosive over the past seven games, he's been solid, batting 6-for-23 (.260) with one home run, three RBI and six walks. 

    With a 2.3 WAR, Votto rates as the fourth-best player in the NL. His 1.027 OPS ranks fifth in the league, and only David Wright has a higher on-base percentage than his .457. Yet Votto has drawn 11 more walks than Wright, leading the majors with 40. 

    The top of the Reds' batting order is starting to produce more, which should give Votto more runners to drive in. Additionally, Brandon Phillips is swinging a hot bat, hitting safely in nine of his past 10 games and boosting his OPS to .707. If he can keep hitting, teams might pitch around Votto a bit less and give him more pitches to hit. That could help his home run and RBI numbers go up.

    But most importantly, the Reds look like they're getting better each week. If they overtake the Cardinals and become the playoff contender many expected them to be, Votto will have played a big part in that success. That won't be forgotten when it comes to casting MVP votes.

3. Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals

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    With eight losses in their past 12 games, some of the shine has gone from the St. Louis Cardinals' great start. Their NL Central lead has shrunk to just a half-game over the Reds. 

    Obviously, injuries have played a huge role in the Cards' skid. And Carlos Beltran's sore knee has contributed to that. 

    After getting some rest, however, Beltran has come back to swing a solid bat again. In his past six games, he's 5-for-18 (.278) with three RBI. That hasn't pushed his batting average to over .300, which seems like a requirement for an MVP, but he's certainly close at .298.

    Beltran's 1.011 OPS is sixth in the league. And his 2.1 WAR is the eighth best among his fellow NL batters.

    With the injuries to Lance Berkman, Allen Craig and Jon Jay, Beltran's presence in the lineup is huge. Couple that with David Freese's deep slump, and Beltran suddenly isn't surrounded by a bunch of productive hitters anymore.

    It's increasingly looking like he'll have to carry the Cardinals' lineup. If he can do so and the Cards stay on the winning track, he'll get major consideration for NL MVP.

2. David Wright, New York Mets

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    The biggest change in this week's NL MVP rankings is David Wright leapfrogging Carlos Beltran into the No. 2 spot on our list. 

    Wright's New York Mets team has struggled a bit, losing seven of their past 12 games and dropping to fourth place in the NL East.

    But the Mets are still three games over .500 going into Wednesday's slate of games, and a couple of wins or losses here and there can shuffle around the standings, given how closely packed the five teams in the division are.

    Meanwhile, Wright is doing all he can to keep his team in the race. Over his past six games, he hit 7-for-19 (.368) with four doubles and four RBI. That's kept his average above .400—.403, to be exact, which is by far the highest mark in the major leagues. 

    Wright's on-base percentage is .503, which is an eye-popping number. The idea of a batter reaching base 50 percent of the time is rather staggering. He's almost 50 points higher than the next closest hitter, Joey Votto, at .457. 

    WAR also loves Wright at 3.2, tops among NL batters and second in the majors behind Josh Hamilton. If he starts hitting for more power—the only smudge on his record—then we really will have an MVP race in the NL. 

1. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Matt Kemp's explosive start to the season looks even more impressive since he's been on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring.

    Despite missing the Los Angeles Dodgers' past nine games (with at least six more to come), Kemp's numbers still have him ranked among the top hitters in the NL. 

    His .359 batting average is fifth in the majors, as is his .446 on-base percentage. Only Josh Hamilton has a higher slugging percentage than Kemp's .727. The same goes for his OPS at 1.173. 

    Interestingly, Kemp is a bit below his peers when it comes to WAR. At 2.2, he's 11th in the majors and seventh in the NL. Teammate A.J. Ellis is actually just ahead of him with a 2.3 WAR. But that obviously still ranks Kemp among the elite hitters in baseball. 

    One curiosity worth noting, however: The Dodgers have won seven of their nine games since Kemp went on the DL. That includes a three-game sweep of the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium. The other four wins were against the Padres and Diamondbacks, so the competition wasn't necessarily the strongest.

    But if the Dodgers keep winning without their best hitter, does that hurt Kemp's MVP candidacy? After all, one of the standard arguments in such matters is what would happen to a team if you took its top player out of the lineup.

    Well, that's what we're seeing with the Dodgers and so far, they don't seem to be suffering terribly.