While it wouldn't be fair to say he came out of nowhere, Milwaukee Brewers offseason trade pickup Christian Yelich was not at the top of anyone's list of NL MVP candidates heading into last season. Was he the type of player who could break out and win the award? Yes, absolutely. Was he the preseason favorite? Nah.
Yelich is neither the first nor will he be the last player to earn a somewhat surprising MVP win. It could happen again as soon as this year! Hopefully it will. Baseball is boring when it's predictable. With that in mind, let's look around the league at players with a chance to emerge as MVP candidates this year and steal the award away from preseason favorites like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, and Nolan Arenado.
I'm going to limit our list to players who did not receive an MVP vote last season. Yelich received zero MVP votes in 2017, not even one tenth place vote, then he won the award in 2018. Seems like a good idea to stick to that criteria. I love Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman and expect him to be an MVP candidate in 2019, but he's ineligible for our list because he finished seventh in the AL MVP voting a year ago. Those are the rules.
Here are five players from each league who could sneak up on everyone and win the MVP award this season, listed alphabetically.
Four different Red Sox players received MVP votes last season, including winner Mookie Betts, but Andrew Benintendi was not one of them. Benintendi has a very Yelich-esque skill set. He's a left-handed hitter with excellent bat control and developing power, plus he plays a nice left field. Even on a stacked Red Sox roster, Benintendi could emerge as an MVP candidate if he turns some of his doubles into home runs the way Yelich did last year.
We're kind of cheating here because Tommy Pham was traded and changed leagues last summer, but it's unlikely he would've garnered MVP votes anyway. His late-season stint with the Rays was excellent (.343/.448/.622 in 39 games) and remember, this is a guy who hit .306/.411/.520 with 6.2 WAR in 2017. There's an MVP caliber performer in there. The Rays snuck up on everyone and won 90 games last year. With another step forward this year and a possible postseason berth, Pham could be right in the thick of the MVP discussion.
My hunch is Nelson Cruz would get serious MVP love should the upstart Twins knock off the Indians in the AL Central this season. He was the big offseason addition and Minnesota will need him to have a big year to win the division, and that'll equal MVP votes. Jorge Polanco and a sneaky excellent player though, one with great on-base skills and good enough middle infield defense. Polanco served an 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension last year, which I supposed could work against him, but a full 2019 season could feature a .380 on-base percentage, 20-plus homers, and 5 WAR or better. An unlikely MVP candidate? Sure. But who had Jose Ramirez developing 30-plus homer pop?
. He'll play the entire 2019 season at age 26 and he's finally over the shoulder woes that sidelined him in 2014 and 2015. With a healthy shoulder, the former top prospect in baseball broke out last season, and he's poised to take another step forward in 2019. Yes, the spacious Oakland Coliseum could cut into his power numbers, but Profar has elite hand-eye coordination and he hits the ball very hard. He's a solid bet for a high on-base percentage with a ton of doubles and triples this summer. Profar becoming the player he was projected to be a few years ago will make him a serious stathead MVP candidate.
A year ago at this time Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez was in the conversation for the best catcher in baseball. A miserable 2018 season followed, one in which he didn't hit much, led the league in passed balls, missed two months with two separate groin injuries, and had offseason shoulder surgery. Ouch. Sanchez is a lot better than he showed last year, and a return to his 30-homer form will put him in the MVP mix because catchers are so very bad these days. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and other Yankees figure to get some MVP attention as well, but a dominant catcher would be hard to ignore.
Two years ago Mets outfielder Michael Conforto was in the midst of establishing himself as one of the game's truly elite hitters when he took an awkward swing and suffered a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery. He returned ahead of schedule last year to hit 28 homers in 153 games, which is notable because shoulder injuries are known to sap power. Now that he's further away from surgery and is entering his age 26 season, the stage is set for Conforto to regain his 2017 excellence. Of all the players in this post, Conforto is the one I'm most willing to bet on as an MVP candidate this year.
The Cardinals have two MVP candidates on the corner infield spots in Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter, though Paul DeJong might be their most valuable player relative to his peers at the position. Twenty-homer shortstops with good defense are hard to find. At age 25, DeJong is about to enter what should be the best years of his career, and if he can bump his homer total up to 30 and hit .300 while driving in a bunch of runs behind Goldschmidt and Carpenter, expect DeJong to become a nice little sleeper MVP candidate. It would take some things falling into place, but it's not impossible.
Bryce Harper is the big name addition, plus Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura have name recognition, but catcher J.T. Realmuto is the most well-rounded player the Phillies added this winter. He put up MVP numbers with the Marlins last year but received zero MVP votes because, well, the Marlins stunk. Being on a contending team is more or less a prerequisite for winning MVP these days. Now that he's in Philadelphia, Realmuto's all-around excellence will get the attention it deserves. The question is whether he can beat out the narrative that Harper is the one driving the team's success.
For all intents and purposes, Cubs masher Kyle Schwarber is some good fortune away from being a true MVP candidate. A low batting average won't cut it (.225 the last two years), but, with some more bloops and seeing-eye singles, Schwarber would be a potential 40-homer bat with a good average and a high on-base percentage. On a stacked Cubs roster, his best shot at the MVP award is Khris Davis-ing his way to votes, meaning clutch dingers and just enough of everything else.
The Nationals went a disappointing 82-80 last year and they're far too talented to do something like that two years in a row. Are you ready for the "the Nationals are better without Bryce Harper!" narrative? Because it's coming. Trea Turner has been one of the most productive shortstops in baseball the last three years, and he's now entering his age 26 season while coming off back-to-back 40-steal campaigns. Turner really fills up the stat sheet and the talent is there for him to be a 40-double, 20-homer, 40-steal, 6 WAR player. As long as the Nationals return to contention, that'll earn Turner a ton of MVP love.