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NL MVP vote looks like a choice among three

As a trio of candidates dominates the National League Most Valuable Player Award discussion, having the reigning NL MVP Award winner among them creates a unique element to be considered.

The scenario that had Ryan Braun somehow playing himself out of the discussion -- thus saving voters from judging whether his overturned positive performance-enhancing drug test last offseason should be a factor in the considerations -- has not transpired, to no one's surprise.

Braun's 2012 season ended with numbers similar to his MVP Award performance from a year earlier, and the Milwaukee left fielder is again a top candidate. What happened after his 2011 crowning may or may not matter, depending on the voter.

Just as important to the discussion: This is not a one-candidate race. Voters have viable choices. Two other candidates -- San Francisco's Buster Posey and Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen -- are as compelling as Braun. With Posey fulfilling his two-way role as catcher and cleanup hitter with a second-half flourish, and McCutchen using his full toolbox to will his team deeper into contention this year than last, the three All-Stars are widely considered the head of the NL class for select Baseball Writers' Association of America voters.

Whatever else comes into the conversation, this much is clear: All three have defined the word "valuable" on many levels for their respective clubs.

For one objective observer who happens to own hardware with the words "Most Valuable Player" etched on it, that's the overriding factor in all of it -- what that player did for his team, and how his team benefited from his presence.

"It really is the ultimate team award, because for you to have the numbers that you have, so many things factor into that," said Jason Giambi, the Rockies veteran who won the American League MVP Award in 2000 with a breakout season not only for himself, but for the A's. "You're getting pitches to hit because guys are on base, there's all the guys you drive in, and the team has to play well."

In this year's model, Braun, Posey and McCutchen have been valuable to their teams, and their teams contended deep into the season.

They're not the only three NL players who should be considered, of course. The league's two best teams have been group efforts, in general, although the Reds' Jay Bruce and the Nationals' Adam LaRoche put together noteworthy seasons. Similarly, the Cardinals' push for a postseason spot was fueled by Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina, the latter sharing with Posey the factor of being a premier catcher. Among teams out of contention, the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton and the Padres' Chase Headley are among those who warranted attention as well.

Braun's Brewers having made the playoffs in 2011 and Matt Kemp's Dodgers missing out likely had an effect on last year's polling. This year's vote is prefaced by the fact that Braun tested positive for testosterone after winning the NL MVP Award a year ago. That test would have triggered a 50-game suspension, but it was overturned on appeal in an arbitration decision. Where voting members stand on that issue likely will be evident in the election results.

On the field, Braun's 2012 performance has been definitive of an MVP Award candidate.

Braun led the NL in home runs (41), total bases (356), slugging percentage, OPS (.987) and runs scored (108). He did it without his longtime power partner Prince Fielder -- although Aramis Ramirez was very much up to the task as Braun's protector in the lineup.

How all that adds up for Braun, and whether the successful appeal of the suspension plays into it, nobody knows.

"We'll see," Braun said upon hitting his 40th homer of the season and 200th of his career on the same swing. "It's just like everything else -- we'll play it out. But if I'm even in the conversation, it means I've done pretty well and the team's done pretty well, so that's always a good thing."

Ditto for Posey, the batting champion who was at the center of it all for the Giants.

Lest anyone forget, Posey missed most of the 2011 season after a devastating leg injury on a play at the plate. The 2010 NL Rookie of the Year Award winner returned to health to earn his first All-Star start and posted a second half without peer.

After the All-Star break, Posey led all of baseball with a .385 average, .456 on-base percentage and 1.102 OPS. He also hit 14 of his 24 homers in the second half, to go along with 60 RBIs.

Not coincidentally, the Giants wrapped up the NL West despite losing first-half star Melky Cabrera to a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.

While helping to guide the San Francisco pitching staff to the fifth-best ERA in the league, Posey was behind the plate for 114 games, in addition to making 29 starts at first base.

"When you talk about the Most Valuable Player, his name has to be mentioned for what he's done for us," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.

Perhaps none of the three had as much riding on his team's performance as McCutchen, whose Pirates struggled in the final month of the year after a surprising start.

McCutchen was an All-Star for a second straight year, this time entering the break with a .362 average, 18 homers and 60 RBIs -- the best first half in the storied franchise's history. His production fell in the second half, along with the team's, but McCutchen still ranked first in the league with 194 hits, finished second to Posey with a .327 average and was in the top-three in runs (second), total bases (second), on-base percentage (third) and slugging percentage (third).

The Bucs' center fielder's defense has made him a viable Gold Glove candidate as well.

"It's a very special time and place for him in the game. We're seeing a superstar grow up right in front of our eyes," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.

Boil down all the ingredients, add other factors to the mix and the same question is asked every year: What does it mean to be the league's Most Valuable Player?

"I think it's what you mean to your team, the year that you have, how you play down the stretch -- those are all things that factor into winning it," said Giambi, who batted .396 with 13 homers and 32 RBIs in 28 September/October games in 2000.

Giambi doesn't have a vote, but he said it's Posey who had all the right stuff this year.

"In my opinion, I'd say Buster's the front-runner, for sure," Giambi said near season's end. "The biggest thing is he does a phenomenal job -- not only offensively, but catching. And when he's not catching, he plays first. He's definitely a valuable member of that team."

Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey