As surprises go, you can find bigger ones than for a National League Central catcher to be a strong candidate for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.
Yadier Molina, of course, has become a regular in the discussion.
But if a catcher upsets the sluggers this year in the NL, Molina will get nothing more than an assist for opening our minds. The hardware would go, deservingly, to the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy, who before this season hadn't even been an All-Star.
It's time to handicap the MVP races as contenders head into the final six weeks that will settle the postseason field.
With Miguel Cabrera taking a step backward, Mike Trout has established himself as the guy to beat in the American League, but sorting out the NL field is quite the task. If the vote was held today, it seems very unlikely that any candidate would receive half of the 30 votes.
The top three candidates at this point are the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Lucroy.
While Stanton has the totals that fit the profile, he's on a team that is still on the outside looking in at the playoffs, and a lot of voters (myself included) have a bias toward players who lead their teams to the postseason. Kershaw's candidacy (like Felix Hernandez's in the AL) faces the basic question of whether pitchers belong in the discussion alongside everyday players.
There's nothing to really hold against Lucroy. That's why he heads this list of MVP candidates.
1. Lucroy, Brewers: Milwaukee has led the NL Central continuously since tying the Pirates for the lead on April 6, and Lucroy has been the biggest reason why. He does a great job handling the pitching staff -- and you thought Glen Hansard was lead singer of The Frames? -- while throwing out 25.3 percent of runners and compiling a 1.5 defensive WAR, second to Russell Martin among NL catchers. Heading into Tuesday's action, Lucroy is hitting .303 and projects to rack up 17 homers and 75 RBIs. Nothing about that screams MVP, but it's the same kind of package that Molina put together in finishing fourth behind Buster Posey in 2013 and third behind Andrew McCutchen last year.
2. Stanton, Marlins: He could be a very easy choice if Miami was able to somehow make the playoffs without Jose Fernandez. The Marlins were 44-52 and in seventh place (8 1/2 games back) for the second NL Wild Card spot on July 19, but they've cut that deficit to 3 1/2 games. A red-hot Stanton down the stretch would make Miami the story of the year. That would mean he'd probably do even better than his current pace. Heading into Tuesday, Stanton is hitting .295 with a .964 OPS, and he projects to hit 42 homers and finish with 115 RBIs. That's what an MVP looks like. He'll be a strong candidate, even if the Marlins fade.
3. Kershaw, Dodgers: On his way to leading the Major Leagues in ERA for a fourth straight year, Kershaw's dominance is the one sure thing for the Dodgers. He's 14-3 with a 1.86 ERA and a Majors-best 0.84 WHIP. But Kershaw hasn't been the innings-eater that Justin Verlander was when he won the AL MVP Award in 2011. The case against Kershaw will include his missing five or six starts while on the disabled list in April and May. But that time off might help his kick to the finish and his performance in the playoffs. Don't count Kershaw out.
4. McCutchen, Pirates: Off the DL, the stretch run will determine how strong of a case he makes in defense of his 2013 NL MVP Award. McCutchen's performance (.311, .947 OPS, 5.0 WAR) positions him to be a strong candidate if Pittsburgh can get its starting rotation in order to reach the playoffs.
5. Yasiel Puig, Dodgers: A novelty a year ago, Puig has become a key player on one of the NL's best teams. He's hitting .313 with a .912 OPS and a 4.1 WAR. Puig may not be quite the all-around player that McCutchen is, but the Dodgers kicked it into gear after moving him to center field. He has learned an awful lot in his short time in the Major Leagues. If that shows in September, Puig will be near the top of the discussion.
Five others who could fit on an NL ballot: Dee Gordon, Dodgers; Anthony Rendon, Nationals; Carlos Gomez, Brewers; Matt Adams, Cardinals; and Josh Harrison, Pirates.
1. Trout, Angels: This is the time for the guy who was runner-up to Cabrera the past two seasons. Trout's consistent production in every area of the game has been the foundation for a team that has suddenly passed Oakland to be the best in the AL West and arguably the Major Leagues. He's hitting .291 with a .939 OPS, and he's on pace to finish with 35 homers, 114 RBIs and 107 runs scored. At this point, there's almost as good of a chance of Trout being a unanimous AL MVP Award choice as there is of anyone snatching the trophy out of his hands.
2. Josh Donaldson, A's: Arguably the AL's best player after the first two months, Donaldson still is basically even with Trout in WAR. He's batting .252 with an .805 OPS, and he projects to hit 33 home runs and record 110 RBIs. Donaldson has quietly been very productive since the All-Star break, bouncing back strong from a horrible June (.181, .509 OPS).
3. Robinson Cano, Mariners: Remember when everyone scoffed that Cano would chase the almighty dollar to the Pacific Northwest? He'll certainly feel a lot of vindication if he leads Seattle to the playoffs while the Yankees fall to the wayside without him. That has become a distinct possibility. Cano is hitting .329 with an .868 OPS, and he projects to have 14 homers and 88 RBIs. Safeco Field hasn't exactly destroyed him, has it?
4. Jose Abreu, White Sox: At one point, it looked like he might pull off the AL Rookie of the Year Award/AL MVP Award combination, but he's had a power outage since midseason. Abreu hasn't stopped hitting, however, and he could put up numbers that get him in the discussion with a strong finish. The Cuban first baseman is hitting .302 with a .949 OPS, and he projects to hit 40 homers with 115 RBIs.
5. Nelson Cruz, Orioles: If the Angels aren't the best team in the AL at the moment, the O's are. They would be well up the track if not for hitting home runs in bunches, and nobody has hit more of them than Cruz, who is on pace to finish the season with 42 homers and 111 RBIs. He's a one-dimensional player who has the 2013 Biogenesis suspension hovering over him, so he seems unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt from voters. Manager Buck Showalter is going to have to do some campaigning in late September.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.