With the abbreviated Major League Baseball season set to open, early betting odds favor the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts to take home National League MVP honors. In the American League, the obvious betting favorite is Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout. With a short season, there are a handful of dark horses that could find themselves in the running.
Josh Donaldson (3B, Minnesota Twins)
Donaldson showed a return to form last year with the Atlanta Braves, clubbing 37 home runs and collecting 94 RBI in a 6 WAR campaign. The big factors that put him in the MVP conversation are that he did most of this damage in the second half of the season. During the second half, Donaldson hit 19 homers, drove in 49 runs and had an OPS of .958. In the month of July, Donaldson had an OPS of 1.051. The following month, he posted a .989 OPS.
His new team, the Minnesota Twins, were also one of the most prolific offenses at the team. During the 2019 season, they shattered the franchise record for home runs. Being on a winning team with the kind of lineup protection, Donaldson could see a boost in his offensive production.
Nelson Cruz (OF, Minnesota Twins)
When thinking of “old man strength”, Nelson Cruz has to come to mind. Last season, he found himself as one of the premier power bats across the league. As a designated hitter, Cruz totaled 41 home runs and drove in 108 RBI. He finished .08 points shy of a .400 OBP, with a 1.031 OPS and hit for a .311 average. He hit 25 of his dingers in the second half.
In August of 2019, Cruz only hit eight home runs. He also drove in 27 runs and batted .03 points shy of .400 for the month. He slugged .808 and had an OPS of 1.253 for the month. From June until the end of the year, Cruz never finished a month with an OPS under 1.000. He finished the year with a 55% hard hit rate, a .417 wOBA and a 163 wRC+.
The same lineup protection mentioned with Donaldson also applies to Cruz. The Twins figure to be favorites in the American League Central and expect Nelson Cruz to factor into that success.
Jose Ramirez (3B, Cleveland Indians)
Ramirez has had an up-and-down past two seasons, finishing third in MVP voting after his monster 2018 campaign before seemingly falling back down to earth last season. Ramirez struggled to start last season, slashing just .218/.308/.344 with a .652 OPS. Ramirez looked a far cry from the MVP candidate in 2018.
After the All-Star break, Ramirez had a return to form and finished the second half with a .327/.365/.739 line with an OPS over a 1.000. The big thing with Ramirez is continuing this form into the shortened season. Once Ramirez is hot, he tends to stay hot and could ride that momentum to a potential MVP award. The Indians figure to get back into contention after a disappointing year in which they missed the playoffs.
Bryce Harper (OF, Philadelphia Phillies)
Harper is penciled in at +1800 to win the National League MVP. How can that be a dark horse you may ask? The argument of overrated versus underrated as it relates to Harper seems to persist on just like the sands of time. The fact of the matter is that the Phillies this season will go as far as Harper can take them. He was recipient of a lot of criticism for leaving the eventual World Series Champion Washington Nationals and his slow start in relation to his contract.
Harper got hot near the end of the season; especially in August. He hit 11 home runs and drove in 25 of his career-high 114 RBI that month. He also put up a strong .277/.376/.649 slash line with a 1.025 OPS. Harper has consistently been on another level during August and September. Going back to 2018, Harper hit .324/.400/.559 in August of 2018 with 20 RBI. In a shortened season, Harper getting hot in August could give him all the momentum to coast to his first MVP award since 2015.
Trea Turner (SS, Washington Nationals)
From a former National to a current one, Trea Turner struggled last season with injury. However, he was at his best at two important junctions that make him a prime candidate to be considered. Turner was hot to start the season last year before getting injured and got hot again down the stretch. His second half line is .304/.360/.502. This is a big factor when it comes to being considered for most of these dark horse candidates.
Turner isn’t a big home run threat, but he did hit notch 61 extra base hits to go along with 35 stolen bases. If he comes out hot to start the season and the Nationals play like contenders, Turner could take home the honors instead of star teammates like Juan Soto and Max Scherzer.
Anthony Rizzo (1B, Chicago Cubs)
The Chicago Cubs’ first baseman was one of the most productive players in the National League in the second half of last year. Rizzo plays on a team with two other MVP candidates in Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. Still, he could have the best shot at winning the MVP of the three of them. Rizzo led all National League first basemen after the All-Star break in wRC+ with 153. In addition, he also posted a .408 wOBA, and bumped his OBP up from .384 to .437.
Rizzo has established himself as one of the top run-producing first basemen in the game, along with being a Gold Glove winner at the position. As a result, he could find himself in the conversation for MVP honors.