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7 early dark-horse candidates for MVP

@RichardJustice
April 27, 2019

Mike Trout and Christian Yelich are back in a familiar place, all over the MLB leaderboard, and they’d surprise no one by dominating this season's voting for the American League and National League Most Valuable Player Awards. Cody Bellinger and Paul Goldschmidt are off to great starts and could challenge

Mike Trout and Christian Yelich are back in a familiar place, all over the MLB leaderboard, and they’d surprise no one by dominating this season's voting for the American League and National League Most Valuable Player Awards.

Cody Bellinger and Paul Goldschmidt are off to great starts and could challenge Yelich in the NL, while in the AL, A’s third baseman Matt Chapman could be Trout’s closest competitor. And then there are the dark-horse candidates. Some of them have emerged, as well.

We haven’t had a dark-horse candidate named MVP since possibly Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia in 2008. Or maybe a better example is Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton edging out Barry Bonds in a tight NL race back in 1991.

Twins first baseman Justin Morneau also won a close race, edging out Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter in the AL in 2006, a year that saw the top two candidates separated by just 14 points (320-306) in voting.

Let’s look at seven emerging dark-horse MVP candidates for 2019:

Luke Voit, 1B, Yankees 1B: He has been in the middle of the Yankee turnaround, with three home runs and a 1.060 OPS during their recent six-game winning streak, which ended Thursday. With so many core players on the shelf, Voit's contributions have been invaluable. If Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton remain out for a while and Voit keeps on hitting, the narrative could build around Voit. And remember, he posted a 1.095 OPS in 39 games with the Yankees last year, which is looking less and less like a fluke.

Paul DeJong, SS, Cardinals: He’s off to a tremendous start, hitting .346 with 17 extra-base hits as the Cardinals have sprinted into first place in the NL Central. His 1.7 fWAR is tops among all MLB shortstops. Overall, he trails only Bellinger and Yelich in the NL, and DeJong’s defense at shortstop has been excellent. An up-the-middle player with power always makes for a strong MVP case.

Jorge Polanco, SS, Twins: His 1.033 OPS ranks fifth in the AL after the Twins' win over the Orioles on Saturday, and his 1.3 fWAR is third behind only Trout and Chapman. That’s how good Polanco has been. Still only 25, Polanco is off to the best start of his career after reworking both his mental approach and swing mechanics, as detailed by MLB.com's Mike Petriello here.

Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres: Wow, that happened fast. This 20-year-old may have transitioned from heralded prospect to legitimate MVP candidate in record time. His transition has been no transition at all -- .896 OPS, six home runs -- and his defense is better than anyone anticipated. Yes, he’s a rookie, but Aaron Judge finished second as a rookie just two years ago, and Ichiro famously won it as a rookie in 2001 (as well as Fred Lynn in 1975).

Austin Meadows, OF, Rays: Dark horse? He began this season with 191 Major League plate appearances, and his numbers didn’t reveal someone on the verge of a breakout season. He’s a big reason the Rays have MLB’s best record: first in the AL in wRC+, wOBA and OPS. His challenge will be adjusting as opponents poke and prod at is weaknesses. So far, so good. Though his recent trip to the injured list definitely dings his chances. Thankfully, he won’t need surgery and should be back soon.

Christian Walker, 1B, D-backs: It took a long time for him to find regular playing time, but he has taken advantage of Paul Goldschmidt’s trade to the Cardinals. He’s sixth in the NL in WAR, sixth in wRC+ and fifth in wOBA. His defense at first base has been excellent. This one is a real longshot, but if the D-backs stay in the race and he hits 40 homers, it’s hard to carve a better MVP narrative than “replace franchise icon and carry team to a playoff spot.”

Joc Pederson, Dodgers OF: If the Dodgers have an MVP, it’s almost certainly going to be Cody Bellinger. To carve out playing time in a crowded and talented Dodgers outfield says plenty about Pederson, who is 12th in the NL in fWAR and 10th in wOBA and wRC+. If Bellinger cools down, and Pederson stays hot, he could build a case. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago (2015) when Pederson was all the rage in LA.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.