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10 dark-horse MVP candidates for 2019

Jan. 30th, 2019

We understand if it is difficult to think about baseball right now. It's so cold. They are literally setting train tracks on fire in Chicago to stay warm right now; forgive Cubs fans for not dreaming of homers onto Waveland Avenue at this precise second.That said, there is a baseball

We understand if it is difficult to think about baseball right now. It's so cold. They are literally setting train tracks on fire in Chicago to stay warm right now; forgive Cubs fans for not dreaming of homers onto Waveland Avenue at this precise second.
That said, there is a baseball season that's going to start in less than two months. And nothing is going to turn out the way we think it will. It's easy to pick out the stars we know will dominate -- Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, to name a few. But not many were predicting Christian Yelich in 2018 (well, Richard Justice was).
Today, as we plow through the snow and chill and imagine a world of grass and dirt and warning tracks, we look at 10 potential sleeper MVP Award candidates -- players who, if everything lands right, could be looking at some hardware next winter.
Robinson Canó, 2B, Mets
There was much grousing about Cano's contract -- specifically the length of it -- and the PED suspension last season didn't win him many fans, either. But it is probably worth mentioning that he can still really hit. In Cano's 80 games last year, he put up a .303/.374/.471 line, and Statcast™ showed him with the second highest hard-hit percentage before breaking his hand. He kept ripping when he came back, too. Cano is older, so there's always a fear of rapid fade. But right now, he looks like the Mets' best hitter, in a lineup that's vastly improved over last year's. Cano has finished in the top 10 of MVP Award voting six times, but never higher than third. If the Mets have the turnaround their new GM believes they will, Cano could put up huge numbers and receive a lot of the credit.

Matt Chapman, 3B, A's
Chapman finished seventh in the American League MVP Award race last year, but he arguably should have been higher: He was third in WAR (per Baseball-Reference) on a team that came out of nowhere to win 97 games, a team he was the undeniable leader of. The A's aren't expect to win that many games again, but they tend to make a habit out of winning more games than anyone expects them to. Chapman is right in the middle of everything they do, with his otherworldly defense combining with a bat that has evolved dramatically and is still improving. If he could cut back on his strikeouts a bit and take a few more walks, he'd be one of the best hitters in baseball. If Oakland has another surprising year, Chapman will again be the primary reason why.

Rhys Hoskins, 1B, Phillies
We still don't know if Hoskins is going to be teammates with Bryce Harper or Manny Machado or neither, but we do know he'll be back at first base after his outfield misadventures, and that can only help. We also know he's an elite power bat, who wasn't the streaking meteor he was upon his debut in 2017 but was a consistent power presence in the middle of that lineup. The Phillies clearly want to play with the big boys in 2019, and while they try to bring in the big free-agent fish, the one guy they're counting on is Hoskins, who is entering his prime in a ballpark seemingly built for him. Forty homers are on the table. Do we hear 50?

Tommy Pham, OF, Rays
After years of never quite getting his shot, Pham broke through in 2017, having one of the best seasons in baseball and even receiving AL MVP Award votes despite not being called up until May. The Cardinals, clearing up an outfield logjam, traded him in July, and something amazing happened: Pham was even better for Tampa Bay than he was for St. Louis in '17, putting up a .343/.448/.622 line in 39 games. Those are MVP numbers right there, and while Pham has always struggled with injuries, if he can stay healthy and in the middle of the lineup for a Rays team that has 90-win potential, he could be seen as the driver of a surprise contender.

Yasiel Puig, OF, Reds
The Reds, after four straight 90-plus-loss seasons, are stocking up this offseason, attempting to compete in baseball's most brutal division. There was no more high-profile addition than Puig; there might not be a more high-profile anything than Puig. The idea of a hitter with his massive power, particularly his opposite-field power, playing at Great American Ball Park is enticing, and remember, too, this is Puig's free-agent walk year. If he has a big year and the Reds make a playoff push, he'll have a strong narrative behind him.

J.T. Realmuto, C, Marlins
This is assuming, of course, Realmuto is in fact traded. But if we're going to have our first catcher MVP Award-winning since Buster Posey in 2012, it'll probably be Realmuto, who, because of this trade market, is finally getting the national attention he has long deserved. It's possible that he gets traded to the Reds and fights Puig for National League MVP Award votes, actually. But wherever he goes, Realmuto is about to be introduced to the rest of the baseball world in a big way, and "new acquisition having a big year in new city" always makes for a compelling MVP case. (See Yelich, Christian.)

Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals
Speaking of players in a free-agent walk year, Rendon will hit the market after this season, and if you're wondering how under the radar he's been, he has had a higher WAR (per Baseball-Reference) than teammate Harper each of the past three seasons. (Suffice it to say, we'll probably talk about Rendon next year a little less than we did Harper this offseason.) If Harper does leave, but the Nationals still contend, that'll be in large part because of Rendon, who could finally get the credit for being the Nats' best position player he has deserved all along. This is his year to shine.

Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
It has been nearly nine months since we saw Seager play a baseball game, so maybe you've forgotten: This is one of baseball's best players, a superstar who's still only 24 years old and the centerpiece of a Dodgers team that's absolutely desperate to win a World Series at this point. Seager should be fully healthy from his UCL surgery last season, and advanced projections expect him to be a star again. Seager's going to win an MVP Award someday. Why not now?

Blake Snell, LHP, Rays
What do you give a pitcher who's even better after an AL Cy Young Award-winning season? How about the AL MVP Award? It might seem crazy, but if the Rays are a postseason team -- a real possibility -- Snell will be the most high-profile, well-known player on the team. Not just that: He's on a team that, rather famously, doesn't rely on starting pitchers that much, or at least starting pitchers not named Blake Snell. Let's say, hypothetically, that Snell has a 2018 Jacob deGrom season, except Tampa Bay makes the playoffs, and he's the only guy who started more than 30 games? You'd have to seriously consider making Snell your vote at that point, yes? The Rays may show us the value of one starting pitcher by devaluing the others. You never know what can happen out there.

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
For a while, it looked like 2018 would be the year Freeman finally won the NL MVP Award. (He's finished in the top six of voting three times.) He faded a little in the second half while Yelich surged, but he remains the best, most consistent, most experienced player on a team that looks like it might be on the cusp of a few years of dominating its division. Some probably wouldn't consider Freeman a "dark-horse" MVP Award candidate given the support he has received in the past, but Ronald Acuña Jr. has emerged as the Braves' likeliest candidate, so we'll include Freeman here. If he can close stronger than he did last year, this could be his last best chance at the NL MVP Award.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rendon, Rhys Hoskins, Blake Snell, Matt Chapman, Robinson Cano, Yasiel Puig, J.T. Realmuto, Tommy Pham, Corey Seager