2011 MLB Predictions: 10 Dark Horse Candidates for MVP
Major League Baseball can be deceiving in April.
Bit players like Jason Kubel and Matt Joyce can lead the league in hitting. Also-rans like Aaron Harang can pile up the wins.
Yet in sports (more so, probably, than any other arena) we love to live in the now, and we love to project the future.
As much as it is a fool's mission to predict who will be leading ANY statistical category in September at this point in the season, it’s safe to say that it probably won’t be Jason Kubel. If I may, I’d venture to guess it won’t be Aaron Harang either.
Still, sometimes early stats can tell a reliable story. Just last season, a guy named Jose Bautista started early on blasting home runs at an impressive rate. As it turned out, Bautista (who had never had more than 16) would lead the league with a whopping 54 and then pick up right where he left off this year (10 so far).
Indeed, sometimes April can be telling. In that vein, here are 10 unlikely players whose April totals may just foreshadow their impact on each league’s MVP race.
Placido Polanco, Philadelphia Phillies
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When Philadelphia added Cliff Lee in December, it was as if the lazy galactic contractor had finally finished the Death Star. The baseball community was in awe of the power of the Phillies, and the 2010 “arms race" of an offseason was all but over.
Yet concerns remained in the Cheesesteak Capital of America.
Beyond Ryan Howard (whose RBI totals often disguise the way he flails at breaking balls), the Philly lineup had some definite holes.
Jimmy Rollins’ and Raul Ibanez’ age. Shane Victorino’s ceiling (you can pretty much bank on a .290 BA and .350 OBP—good, not great). Chase Utley’s knee. Yes, despite a legendary pitching staff (on paper), Philly fans were justified in their concern.
However, prayers to the gods of run production have seemingly been answered in the form of Placido “Poly” Polanco.
Leading the team in hits (48), OBP (.411), BA (.366) and OPS (.884), Polanco has been an offensive savior in Utley’s absence.
An MVP might be a stretch for Polanco (he’s on a team with so much talent elsewhere). However, if he keeps up his current pace, if Utley doesn’t return to form and if the Phils still beat out the Braves/Marlins for the division crown, he will deserve a serious look.
Conventional wisdom advises Ryan Howard in that circumstance, but already having an MVP to your name kind of disqualifies you from any “dark horse” discussion.
Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals
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Anyone who was diligent enough to pick up Alex Gordon for their fantasy baseball team knows what he has accomplished thus far this season.
Aside from batting .309 and tallying 23 RBI, Gordon (along with Jeff Francoeur) has led the annually abysmal Royals to a surprising 18-16 start, good for second place in the AL Central.
Anyone with a level baseball head will tell you that the scorching Indians (22-11) will cool at some point, and if they do, the Royals may have a chance to surprise this season.
If that happens and Gordon continues to play to his potential, the Kansas City left fielder (former second overall draft pick coming into his own) is a more likely candidate for postseason awards than Francoeur (flash-in-the-pan talent turned journeyman).
Smart money says that more talented teams will prevail in the end, but after a month the Royals are looking like they may have the young talent to emerge a year earlier than expected, a la the 2010 Cincinnati Reds.
Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees
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If you think a guy with Teixeira’s credentials doesn’t belong on this list, you might be right.
Teixeira’s got four Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers, is a two-time All-Star and is a lifetime .285 hitter with 284 career home runs.
He also makes enough money in a day to feed the entire city of Detroit.
Yet take a look at the Yankees roster.
Alex Rodriguez. Robinson Cano. Curtis Granderson. Derek Jeter.
All guys who have either won an MVP or have the talent, numbers and/or street cred to win one in any given year. In other words, the Yankees by NO means rely on Teixeira to carry their offense.
Also, it’s not like Teixeira's off to a blazing start, which, since he’s a Yankee, would make him an MVP front runner in the eyes of voters.
Nope—while not bad (.259, nine HR, 21 RBI), Teixeira’s stats through a month and change don’t necessarily have people talking. Good numbers, yes. MVP numbers? Not really.
However, take into consideration that in April of 2009 and 2010, Teixeira hit .200 and .136, respectively. He would eventually raise his average to .292 and .256 to close those seasons—admirable rebounds from sluggish starts.
In short, Teixeira is way ahead of schedule this year, so if the Yankees continue to play quality baseball (and there is nothing indicating they won’t), it could be Tex's time for accolades that are hard to come by in such a star-studded locker room.
Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
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Similar to Teixeira, Braun could be filed under "not exactly dark horse material."
Still, a case could be made.
First, Braun has never won an MVP. Similar to All-Star bids and Gold Glove awards (but to a lesser extent), the best way to get the exposure needed for MVP votes is to have already earned them in the past. If it weren’t for an amazing Cincinnati season, Albert Pujols may have beat out Joey Votto for the NL award simply because, well, he’s Albert Pujols.
Second, Milwaukee again finds itself in a competitive NL Central race. The Reds are fresh off a division title, and the Cardinals won’t seem to die, so the Brew Crew is far from a lock to end on top. Without a division title or a wild-card bid, it would take a monster season for a Brewer to get baseball’s top individual award.
Third, some would argue that Braun isn’t even the best player on his own team. Prince Fielder, Milwaukee’s first baseman, absolutely RAKED to start the season. While he’s since cooled a bit (.283, seven HR, 27 RBI), Fielder approaches every at-bat with the offseason in mind (when he will be a free agent, shopping his 2011 numbers to the highest bidder).
Still, over his four-year career, Braun has proven he will consistently hit for power and average, so if he can do that when the Brewers win the division, he’ll be worth a look.
Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox
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For a few reasons, Paul Konerko’s like the friend we love to invite to house parties.
1. He always shows up: Like the dude who’s always first to respond “down to drizzown” to an E-vite, Konerko has been the picture of reliability. Since 1999, Konerko has averaged 535 at-bats per season, has rarely been injured and has been a stabilizing force in the middle of the White Sox lineup.
2. He’s never empty-handed: In the same time frame, Konerko has averaged 28 home runs, 94 runs batted in and a .282 batting average. Based on those figures, it’s reasonable to assume he’d show up to a kegger with a token bag of Tostitos and a fifth of Cuervo. Either way, that’s production.
3. No one remembers him: Parties need a certain balance of clientele. Too many punch-drunk, lampshade-wearing gorillas and your meet and greet turns into a battle scene. Too few means an easy-listening snoozefest where charades makes an appearance.
In a successful party, the guy that shows up on time and brings the chips will usually be the party chameleon. Sure, he’ll gladly pong it up and chant “CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!” loud enough to be heard, but no one will be talking about his swan dive off the balcony the next day.
Similarly, Paul Konerko holds his own every season well enough to pile up admirable numbers, but rarely is he put in the same sentence with the game’s greats. Even last season, where he hit .312, swatted 39 home runs and knocked in 111, he managed only a fifth-place finish in MVP voting.
Chances are Konerko will continue to stand on the metaphorical wall, content to dance with chubbies and let people cut him in the keg line. However, should the Sox make a push into first, Konerko has a chance to get some well-deserved props.
Gaby Sanchez, Florida Marlins
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The first month of every fantasy baseball season is always the same.
A flurry of waiver-wire pickups. People losing patience and cutting guys that Yahoo! affixed the “I strongly advise against dropping him” symbol to. The Hanleys and Alberts of the world playing like scum.
Unless you're a Marlins fan, you probably didn’t draft Gaby Sanchez. However, on the strength of his .328 BA and 20 RBI, Sanchez is finding a way onto more and more fantasy rosters and making first-round stalwart Hanley Ramirez look like a poor man’s Scottie Pippen.
Realistically, Sanchez is a super-stretch for MVP. The Marlins, while battling ferociously with the Phils for first in the East, will likely finish no higher than third. Also, Sanchez will be hard pressed to keep up his current clip.
However, that doesn’t mean Florida’s first baseman’s start is a mirage. After all, Sanchez finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting last season, posting a .273 BA and clubbing 19 dongs.
MVP talk may never be in Sanchez’ future, but that doesn’t mean he can’t channel his inner Konerko and be (quietly) really, REALLY good.
Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
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Here’s where we really get into the meat of this list.
There’s no one anywhere that can deny Heyward’s MVP-caliber talent. You can tell just by looking at him that he’s a grade-A monster. Yet just 36 games into his second season and hitting just .226, Heyward obviously has a long way to go.
At 20-16, the Braves sit third in the division behind the upstart Marlins and the powerhouse Phillies. If they manage to climb into the playoff race, it will be due in no small part to the contributions of Heyward.
Despite his slow start, Heyward plays an outstanding right field and has analysts raving about his abilities. If he can lift his batting average (his seven early dingers translate to about 40 over the course of the season), he could undoubtedly be in the hunt.
Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds
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Anyone who doubts Brandon Phillips’ ability to win an MVP hasn’t seen him play.
It’s that simple.
As Reds fans, every night we see Phillips treat his position like an art form—gobbling up base hits and melding baseball with acrobatics effortlessly. Phillips has now won two Gold Gloves, and many more will undoubtedly follow.
Yet it’s always been his offensive output that has kept him a step behind the league’s elite.
In five seasons with the Reds, Phillips has averaged 21 HRs, 88 RBI and has hit .275. Productive, certainly, but not MVP-caliber.
This season, however, Phillips has done something he’s rarely done in the past: carry the team. To be fair, Phillips has had help from reigning MVP Joey Votto (1.005 OPS). However, beyond that the Reds offense has struggled, yet the team sits at 18-16, a game and a half back from the division-leading Cardinals.
Phillips' numbers (.305 BA, four HR, 17 RBI) may tail off. History would suggest they will. However, if he can continue to lock in as he did in April and the Reds retain the Central crown, Phillips’ offensive/defensive package could put him right in the conversation with the league’s best.
Travis Hafner, Cleveland Indians
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Earlier in this article I suggested that the Indians (22-11) will eventually be overtaken by the more talented clubs in the AL Central. Until July comes along and they're still in first, I'll hold on to that belief.
Let me be the first to say, however, that I'm HOPING I'm wrong.
It’s no secret that Cleveland has been one of the primary whipping boys of sports over the last few decades, a distinction that was only strengthened when a certain entitled superstar decided to strike out from his Akron nest and seek his fortune in sunnier pastures, leaving his city and reputation in shambles.
Yet now, somehow (no thanks to the fanciful claims of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that the Cavs would be good before the Heat were...oops!) Cleveland has something to get psyched about, and it’s awesome.
Led by a rejuvenated Travis Hafner and a healthy Grady Sizemore, the Tribe has invaded the top of baseball Power Rankings everywhere and has a better run differential (plus-48) than the Four Aces and Co. of Philadelphia.
Pronk seems to be Pronk again too, only with a more calculating approach. Currently he’s fourth in league with a .347 batting average, trading colossal power (only four HR) for precision.
Hafner certainly has it in him to have an MVP season (in 2006 he hit .308 with 42 homers), so if what every man, woman, child and dog in Cleveland is praying for is true (that the Tribe’s boppers are back), Hafner’s 2011 performance could go a long way in making LBJ a distant memory.
Lance Berkman, St. Louis Cardinals
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Lance Berkman’s scorching April is a perfect example of why everyone in the NL Central hates the damn Cardinals.
For years, St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan has taken guys like Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse (who were either injured or ineffective before coming to St. Louis) and turned them into productive big leaguers, if not absolute studs.
Now, it appears, Tony La Russa and friends are up to the same old hijinks, this time with aging offensive stars.
I’ll be the first to admit that when the Cardinals signed Berkman to play right field, I snickered a little. After all, an injury-stunted 2010 saw Berkman hit a career-low .248, not to mention the former Astro first baseman hadn’t played the outfield since 2007.
So, in effect, the Cards were adding a gimpy, somewhat portly right fielder to a defense that already features the below-average Matt Holliday (coupled with the substitution of slow-footed Ryan Theriot for the shortstop wizard Brendan Ryan). That drop-off, along with Berkman’s disappointing 2010 numbers, had me convinced the signing would be a flop.
Apparently, the Big Puma had other designs.
So far, Berkman has led the firework display that's been the Cardinal offense. Hitting .374 with 10 homers and a league-leading 32 RBI, Berkman has proven to everyone (NL Central naysayers included) that his days of terrorizing the division are far from over.
If the Cardinals can win the division without Adam Wainwright, and if Berkman can beat out just-as-hot teammate Matt Holliday (or, for that matter, Prince Albert), Berkman could be in line for Comeback Player of the Year and MVP.
I hate the damn Cardinals.