5 under-the-radar MVP predictions for 2023

March 4th, 2023

You already know the MVP favorites: Aaron Judge, Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Juan Soto and Mookie Betts.

But who else could emerge in the race for baseball's top award this season? MLB.com's analysts made their predictions.

Here are five dark horse MVP candidates for 2023.

Adley Rutschman, C, Orioles
Key stat: 5.3 FanGraphs WAR in only 113 games

Too soon? This former No. 1 overall Draft pick is just 113 games into his big league career, but he is already one of the most well-rounded players in the sport.

At the plate, Rutschman’s batting eye is extremely sharp, as evidenced by his 13.8% walk rate and 18.3% strikeout rate. He rarely makes poor swing decisions (23.1% chase rate), and when he does unleash, Rutschman makes a good amount of quality contact. His 7.9% barrel rate was above the league average, his 71st-percentile max exit velocity hints at his plus raw power, and overall, his offense produced a stellar 133 wRC+.

But his ability to combine those skills with superb work at a premium position is why he's worthy of space here. He graded very positively as a pitch framer in his rookie season. Plus, a strong arm and fast pop times helped Rutschman log a 30.6% caught-stealing rate, 10th-best among backstops.

Rutschman is on track be MLB’s best catcher this year. He might also become the first player at that position to win an MVP since Buster Posey in 2012.

-- Brian Murphy

Masataka Yoshida, OF, Red Sox
Key stat: .973 OPS over last 5 seasons in NPB

Maybe you don't realize just how complete of a hitter Yoshida was in Japan. He hits for average, he hits for power, he's elite at getting on base and he doesn't strike out. Over his last five seasons, he had a .332 batting average, .427 on-base percentage, .546 slugging percentage and .973 OPS, and he averaged 22 homers a year. And in the last three of those seasons, he walked more than twice as often as he struck out (210 walks, only 96 K's). Those are MVP-caliber hitting numbers … if he can translate them to MLB.

Well, the projections love Yoshida. Steamer is projecting him to win the MLB batting title, to have the second-best on-base percentage in baseball behind Juan Soto and to be a top-10 hitter by OPS, right ahead of Pete Alonso, Rafael Devers, Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuña Jr. ZiPS is projecting him to win the AL batting title and hit 20 homers with a higher OPS than players like Mookie Betts and reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt. If Yoshida hits those projections, that's a monster year. And what if he exceeds them? 

-- David Adler

Wander Franco, SS, Rays
Key stat: 9.6% strikeout rate in 2022

Franco is still just 22 years old and already has a track record of elite plate discipline at the MLB level. His 2022 strikeout rate was third-lowest in the Majors among players with at least 300 plate appearances. To the point about his age and skill set, it was also the third-lowest by a player in his age-21 season or younger since 1990, with that same plate appearance minimum. Of course, the low minimum is necessary because Franco played just 83 games due to quadriceps and wrist injuries. But a healthy Franco is a dynamic shortstop bound to captivate.

Franco can show the baseball world how the word "valuable" can encapsulate so many facets of excelling at the game. Franco had the aforementioned strikeout rate, along with a 98th-percentile whiff rate and 96th-percentile expected batting average last season. His two most similar batters by hitting profile were Jeff McNeil and Luis Arraez -- the two league batting champs. If the Rays outperform expectations and Franco has a strong, healthy year, he’ll certainly be in the MVP conversation. 

-- Sarah Langs

Corey Seager, SS, Rangers
Key stat: Estimated 20 hits lost to shift in 2022

Last season was not exactly what the Rangers or Seager had in mind when the club signed him away from the Dodgers on a 10-year, $325 million contract. Mostly, that was on the team around Seager, which stumbled to 94 losses and fired manager Chris Woodward. Seager, who nabbed his third All-Star selection, was in no way the problem for Texas, showing durability (151 games played), a solid bat (119 OPS+) and stellar overall production (4.0 bWAR). Still, given the expectations, it was a fairly quiet year.

But the stage is set for 2023 to be different. Seager should be more comfortable in Year 2 in Texas, as he adjusts to a new team and league and with the shift restrictions now in place. When MLB.com’s Mike Petriello looked into which hitters were affected most by the shift in 2022, Seager stood out, having lost an estimated 20 hits and 64 points of OPS. (That’s one reason Seager might have underperformed his expected production by more than almost any qualified hitter). There’s no guarantee those numbers are predictive of future performance, of course. But if Seager bounces back to his 2020-21 level (145 OPS+ over 147 games), and a Rangers club that aggressively fortified its starting rotation fights its way into the playoff picture, one could envision a compelling MVP narrative building around him.

-- Andrew Simon

Byron Buxton, OF, Twins
Key stat: 150 OPS+ from 2021-22

The thing about dark-horse MVP selections is that, primarily, you’re betting on a talented player not only playing to an elite level, but maintaining that level of production over a six-month season. In Buxton, I’ve got the talent and production part down, because over the last two seasons, he’s posted a 150 OPS+ with all-world defensive play in center. He’s been an 8-WAR player in just about a full season -- 153 games, 636 plate appearances. The two-way talent is unquestionable. He’s a better outfielder than Mike Trout, and he’s got power like Pete Alonso.

I’ve buried the lead, of course. Those 153 games came over the last two seasons. Buxton always, always, always misses time due to injury. It’s unreasonable to expect him to play every day, or even close to every day. Yet he’s so good, so talented on both sides of the ball, that he doesn’t even need a full 162 to post eye-popping numbers. He just needs to play "most of a season," and "most of a season" has been hard to get to for him. But if he has just one healthy year, just one, there’s no doubt whatsoever the talent is there. At 29 years old, this is the one.

-- Mike Petriello