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Predicting the 2020 MVPs, a ranking

@williamfleitch and @mike_petriello
March 1, 2020

MLB.com's Will Leitch and Mike Petriello have had so much fun getting together to do drafts -- see 2019 World Series rosters, 2019-'20 free agents, and, just recently, all 30 teams based on likelihood of winning the 2020 World Series -- that we thought we'd keep the ball rolling and

MLB.com's Will Leitch and Mike Petriello have had so much fun getting together to do drafts -- see 2019 World Series rosters, 2019-'20 free agents, and, just recently, all 30 teams based on likelihood of winning the 2020 World Series -- that we thought we'd keep the ball rolling and get them together to pick 2020 MVP Award candidates, 20 of them.

It's important to note here that Will and Mike aren't picking who they want to win or think should win. They're trying to look ahead to make some guesses about which players who are likely to actually win. That means that it's not just about choosing "best players" or "ranking Wins Above Replacement," though it's surely a little about those things too. It's about getting into the minds of the electorate, knowing that the voters often take into account how well a player's team did or how many good teammates he had in terms of assigning "value."

And yes, we know there are MVPs for each league, but we're doing a combined draft here because we get to make our own rules for our own made-up drafts. Petriello has the first pick this time around.

1) Mike Trout, OF, Angels

Petriello: Imagine me picking literally anyone other than Mike Trout, the defending American League MVP Award winner, the three-time winner, the probably-should-have-been-a-five-or-six-time winner, the very possibly greatest player who ever lived, who doesn’t even turn 29 until August. Yes, it’s true he’s had minor injury problems in each of the past three years, and that the Angels haven't made the postseason since 2014, which some voters (incorrectly, in my view) hold against him. But consider what’s happened to his primary competition, too. Mookie Betts is in the National League now. Aaron Judge has been healthy enough to collect 500 plate appearances just once. Alex Bregman and the rest of the Astros hitters have, uh, other issues, ones that are very likely to be held against them come award time.

I had to pick Trout because you always have to pick Trout, and his odds in 2020 might be even better than ever. You should probably show some respect by leaving number two blank, really.

2) Ronald Acuña Jr., OF, Braves

Leitch: If I can’t have the obvious pick, I’ll pick the guy who might have the most pure, overwhelming talent in the sport right now. Acuña went 41/37 last year, and it still felt like he was just starting to tap into just how deep his skills really run. I don’t know if he’ll steal that many bases again -- it almost seems not worth it for a guy this good to bother risking that many steal attempts -- but I can see him hitting 50 homers. The defensive and baserunning lapses should dissipate a bit in year three, and if the Braves can outlast everyone in the NL East again, I suspect he’ll (quite deservedly) get much of the credit. This guy is overwhelming already, and he has only started to decipher all the mysteries of this. Look out.

3) Christian Yelich, OF, Brewers

Petriello: I know. The Dodgers have two MVP-caliber outfielders, and I just bypassed both, but we’re trying to get to narrative here, and the thought of “Mookie Betts arrived in L.A. and the Dodgers won only 102 games, four less than without him” already makes me cringe. That being the case, why not go with the 2018 NL winner who might have been back-to-back if not for the September knee injury that ended his season early? At the risk of underestimating the Brewers once again, I’m a little wary of this club, because it lost Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal and Eric Thames. I don’t know how good Milwaukee is going to be. I know that Yelich is extremely good. If he drags this group into the postseason, that’s the kind of thing MVP Awards are made from.

4) Mookie Betts, OF, Dodgers

Leitch: I can’t let him slip any farther than this. I find the “the Dodgers are going to win 105-plus games no matter what, so how much credit can you give Betts?” argument somewhat compelling. Another thing I find compelling is that the second-best player in baseball over the past five years is now playing for a team that’s probably going to win its division by 20 games. In his free-agent walk year. Another potentially underrated factor: If the Red Sox fall apart without him this year (something I do not actually think will happen, but it’s on the table anyway), that speaks even more to his value. But let’s not overcomplicate this: It’s Mookie Betts.

5) Juan Soto, OF, Nationals

Petriello: I also can’t believe I’m letting Cody Bellinger slip by here, but then again, Soto is off to a career start that is very legitimately historic. (No, really: the only better hitters through age 21 in baseball history: Trout, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Mel Ott and Mickey Mantle.) Soto hit .282/.401/.548 with 34 homers last year, improved his defense from a minus to a plus, hit five more homers in the postseason, and won’t even be 22 until after this year's regular season. If the Dodger guys split the vote, and if Soto helps pull a post-Rendon/Harper Nats lineup back to October, he’s going to collect some serious support.

6) Cody Bellinger, OF, Dodgers

Leitch: Well, then I might as well hedge my bets and get the other superstar outfielder for the Dodgers. Heck, this might even be a better bet, considering Bellinger is still only 24 years old and (theoretically anyway) could be getting even better. His second half of 2019 might not have been as jaw-dropping as his first half was, but that’s even more proof of my point: There’s still a ton of improvement left to be made. Also: Not that we needed any more evidence for Trout’s brilliance, but how about the fact that we’ve chosen five NL players (with three MVPs between them) before we’ve picked a single AL player not named Trout?

7) Gerrit Cole, P, Yankees

Petriello: Well, here’s an AL player, but very much not the one you’d have expected. I am very aware how insane it is to pick a pitcher this highly. I know that this is a ridiculous thing to do. And yet I’m trying to pretend I think the way a voter might, and consider this: The Yankees' rotation, right now, with Luis Severino out for the year and James Paxton out for months and Domingo Germán suspended, is Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and … I don’t even know. You and me? Our kids? If Cole has the Peak Cole season that we think he could, and he lives up to all the expectations that the massive contract brings with it, all while the Yankees' rotation is collapsing around him … well, I’m not saying it’s likely, but it’s possible.

8) Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros

Leitch: All right. All right. ALL RIGHT. Please stop yelling at me.

I know that the notion that anyone with a vote in baseball right now is going to willfully write the name of any Astros player for anything seems particularly absurd right now. And Bregman, in particular, hasn’t exactly been, uh, loquacious in his and his team’s defense so far. He won’t win any tiebreakers. But. But! This is still a guy who finished this close to beating Trout last season, is only 25 and has steadily improved every single season he’s been in the league. However much you think he was or wasn’t involved in the “banging scheme,” this is an elite, top-five player in the sport who just keeps getting better.

If all that happened this offseason hadn’t happened, Bregman would almost certainly be the second pick in this draft. Allowing for the fact all that did, in fact, end up happening (and how!), I’ll still feel like I got a steal getting a guy this great this low. I don’t have (or want) a BBWAA vote for MVP. But if any of my fellow colleagues refuse to vote for Bregman simply because of the scandal, it’ll be clear that the scourge of moralistic Hall of Fame voting will have invaded the yearly awards in a way that augurs ghastly things down the line.

9) Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians

Petriello: There was a non-zero chance that I was going to get through all 20 picks without picking an Astro. I still might. So good on Will, I guess, or maybe exactly the opposite of that. Anyway, due to all the trade talk surrounding Lindor, sometimes I think we forget just how incredibly good he is. He’s only 26, has hit at least 32 homers in each of the past three seasons and does it while playing an excellent defensive shortstop. He’s maybe not Trout, but who is Trout? No one is Trout. Lindor is a top five player with an off the charts “fun level.” Good enough for me.

There’s just one potential problem with this: No one has ever won an MVP Award in a season where he was traded. I know you don’t want to hear this, Cleveland fans. Sorry.

10) Pete Alonso, 1B, Mets

Leitch: Dingers! Everybody loves dingers! Alonso hit 53 last season, and while some doubt he can repeat that performance -- he’s not even on the first page of the Statcast average exit velocity leaderboard! -- I’m very optimistic about the Mets in 2020. (This is of course setting me up for public humiliation.) If Alonso can hit that many again, and maybe cut down on his 26.4% strikeout rate, he could be the best player on a surprise division winner. And one who is absolutely beloved by the local fanbase … and national writers giddy to document a Mets resurgence. Fun fact: The Mets have never had an MVP Award winner, which is kind of crazy when you think about it.

11) Anthony Rendon, 3B, Angels

Petriello: Let’s be honest here; I’m going with Rendon only partially because he is a truly elite baseball player. (And he is: Since 2014, he’s been basically the fifth-best player [tied] in baseball, even accounting for an injury-shortened 2015.) Rendon churns out elite seasons like clockwork, and 2019 was his best one. But the reason I’m going with him here is because I think it would be absolutely hilarious if the Angels finally, finally got back to the postseason … and the MVP Award went to one of Trout’s teammates.

12) Matt Chapman, 3B, A’s

Leitch: If you were doing a next-in-line sort of pick were Trout to fall off (or, more likely, suffer an injury), you could do a lot worse than Chapman. He has been in the top seven in voting each of the past two seasons and he’s the linchpin for a contending club, one that could get considerable national pop by unseating those hated Astros in the AL West. Chapman's batting average and on-base percentage were down in 2019, but his power was up (36 homers, 12 more than his previous career high). If he can consolidate those two and keep that otherworldly defense, Chapman could theoretically push the A's over the top in the AL West and reap the rewards.

13) Josh Donaldson, 3B, Twins

Petriello: You correctly picked an AL third baseman, just the wrong one. Donaldson’s already got one MVP Award under his belt (2015), he came back healthy to mash for Atlanta in 2019, he was really valuable on defense last year too, and I just can’t say enough how much voters like to vote for players who get their teams to the postseason. The Twins won 101 games in 2019 without Donaldson (or Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda or Homer Bailey). If they do it again, and Donaldson keeps playing like he pretty much always does when he’s healthy, he’s going to get some votes.

14) Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees

Leitch: All told, Judge -- who, I always feel obliged to point out, turns 28 in April and is older than most realize -- has the narrative going his way in a fashion Yankees rarely do. For crying out loud, if the Yankees play the Astros in the ALCS this year, the entire country will be rooting for the Yankees. The Yankees! We have all seen what kind of numbers Judge can put up when healthy, which, of course, is the major caveat here. (Also a major caveat: The existence of Trout.) But if you’re one of those people who believe Judge was cheated out of an MVP in 2017, when he was the runner-up to José Altuve, this could be a year you could correct that perceived injustice. (Mike chimes in: Cheated? He should have won it at the time anyway.)

15) Bryce Harper, OF, Phillies

Petriello: It probably says a lot about how high the expectations are for Harper that in his first year in Philadelphia, he hit 35 homers, drove in 114 RBIs, slugged .510, improved his defense over the previous year, and the general reaction was a collective shrug. Harper is still only entering his age-27 season, and when things go right -- really, really right -- we’ve seen what he’s capable of, in case you forgot the 2015 season where he won the NL MVP Award unanimously, thanks to putting up what was legitimately one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. No, he hasn’t come close to repeating that in the four seasons since. But it’s not that hard to see it happening once more.

16) Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox

Leitch: It wouldn’t be a draft if there weren’t at least one “oof, you stole my pick” moment, so … "oof, you stole my pick,” I was absolutely going to grab Harper next. It is possible he could be 42 years old and I’d still think, “a 2015 repeat is coming, you watch! He’s still got it in him!” If this is the year and the Phillies sneak into the postseason because of it, he’s a slam-dunk pick. Since you swiped him, I’ll go a little Ewing Theory on you. (Here is your reminder that the Ewing Theory is a rhetorical trick and absolutely not real.) Devers was fantastic last season, is only 23 and is the best player (Yes? Yes.) on a team that FanGraphs says has basically a 50-50 shot of making the postseason. If the Red Sox do end up on the upside of that coin flip, Devers could be the guy who gets all the credit. His reward? Well, probably second place to Trout. But it could happen!

17) Fernando Tatís Jr., SS, Padres

Petriello: At just 20 years old last year, Tatís hit .317/.379/.590 with 22 homers and 16 steals in just half a season (he played in only 84 games due to injuries). Yes, it’s true that he didn’t actually play a good defensive shortstop. Yes, it’s true that his .410 BABIP was the highest, in, uh, nearly an entire century, and probably won’t be repeated. But if he manages to cut down on some of those defensive mistakes, and keeps up the incomparable highlights-per-play quotient -- I’m not sure there’s a more must-watch for entertainment purposes player in the game today, and that includes Trout or Lindor -- while still offering an above-average bat at 21 years old, we might not be talking about “winning the MVP.” We might be talking about “how many more is he going to win.”

18) Yoán Moncada, 3B, White Sox

Leitch: If the White Sox have the season their front office clearly anticipates them having, it probably requires their veterans maintaining, their pitching maturing and their star young players taking considerable leaps forward. I still think Eloy Jiménez is going to hit 50 homers some day, probably soon, but if they’re all taking big leaps, Moncada is basically already a star and could jump into the stratosphere. Every improvement you could have possibly hoped for happened last year, and you still get the sense he’s just scratching the surface. If the White Sox reach the postseason, their best player will reap the rewards. That’s Moncada.

19) Shohei Ohtani, P/DH, Angels

Petriello: I thought about going with Trevor Story or Nolan Arenado here, but voters still overthink the whole Coors Field issue, and the Rockies aren’t going to be any good anyway. I also thought about going with Jacob deGrom, who I apparently pushed to be the 2018 NL MVP, because if he wins a third straight Cy Young Award and the Mets get to the postseason, you have to at least think about it. Instead, I’m going to dream on the potential of Ohtani doing something like “450 star-level plate appearances and 100 star-level innings pitched,” forcing voters to consider just how insane it is to do either of those things, much less both at the same time.

I just realized that I’ve selected three Angels and I don’t think the Angels are going to be all that good. I think I did this wrong.

20) Ketel Marte, 2B, D-backs

Leitch: The Ketel Marte experience crept up on us all so quickly that it’s difficult to get perspective on it. I mean, if this is who he is -- a middle infielder (back where he should be, now that there’s another Marte in town) with a .981 OPS who’s only 26 -- the D-backs, a fascinating team that is admirably pedaling as fast as they can rather than retreating, suddenly have their own superstar, out of nowhere. Arizona is a tricky team, one that’s a little older than it probably should be, one that has already shown a savvy ability to find improvements on the margins, and they are committed to contending this year. If this is who Marte is now, he’s one of the most important, vital players in the NL. It still feels strange, though, doesn’t it? Ketel Marte … inner-tier superstar!

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Ballpark Dimensions podcast.