It’s funny. MVP debates supposedly are becoming more objective, thanks to the expanded influence of advanced metrics, yet the races remain difficult to predict. Last year, Clayton Kershaw became the first National League pitcher to win the award since Bob Gibson in 1968, while Mike Trout received his first MVP following the worst of his major-league seasons. Here’s a look at 15 candidates to receive the BBWAA’s most coveted annual award in 2015. – Jon Paul Morosi
Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Of all the remarkable performances by Cuban defectors in recent years, Abreu’s Rookie of the Year 2014 season might’ve been the best. He led the majors in slugging percentage and hit 36 home runs despite losing two weeks to the disabled list. Abreu’s poise at the plate, high batting average (.317) and power to the opposite field recall a younger Miguel Cabrera. Just think how great Abreu will be in 2015, now that he knows AL pitchers far better than at this time last year. If the White Sox are in contention, Abreu could finish even higher in the MVP vote than his fourth-place standing last year.
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Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays
Bautista’s 187 home runs are the most for any big-league hitter over the past five seasons, and he’s finished fourth, third, and sixth in the MVP vote during that span. In other words, he’s been regarded as a bona-fide MVP candidate despite playing for non-playoff teams in Canada. So, what will happen now that the Blue Jays are poised to contend? Bautista should be helped by hitting in one of the AL’s top lineups — with new teammates Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin — in a homer-friendly ballpark. Then again, Bautista hits everywhere. Since 2010, five seasons of at least 30 home runs, 100 RBI and 100 walks have occurred in the major leagues; Bautista has three of them.
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Michael Brantley, LF, Indians
Brantley’s recognition as an MVP finalist in 2014 — he finished third — should end his days as an underrated star. Last year, 'Dr. Smooth' became only the 20th big leaguer to finish a season with at least 20 home runs, at least 20 stolen bases and fewer than 60 strikeouts. (Paul O’Neill was the most recent to do so, in 2001.) At a time of escalating strikeout numbers, Brantley’s ability to put the ball in play — with power — will continue to stand out.
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Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers
Cabrera underwent surgery in each of the past two offseasons, but he’s only one year removed from back-to-back MVP awards. His status as the greatest right-handed hitter in the sport remains intact despite an injury-plagued 2014 during which he ended the season effectively playing on one leg. (He won American League Player of the Month honors in September, not long before undergoing extensive surgery to repair bone spurs and a stress fracture in his right foot.) Cabrera is about to turn 32 but should have a number of great seasons left — perhaps even another MVP or two.
Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners
With relatively minimal fanfare, Cano put together an MVP-caliber season in his first year as a Mariner. He finished higher in the MVP balloting (fifth) than in the FanGraphs.com WAR rankings (11th), an indication that voters saw beyond his lowest home run output (14) since 2008. Cano’s offensive numbers should increase this year, thanks to his greater comfort at Safeco Field and the presence of slugger Nelson Cruz in the lineup. And the Mariners are a popular pick to reach the playoffs, which means Cano should receive the boost that comes from playing for a contender.
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Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals
By most any definition — in society or sports — Harper is still a kid. He will play the entire 2015 regular season at 22 years old. A breathtaking power display during the NLDS last fall — three monstrous home runs in four games — hinted that Harper is on the verge of realizing his immense potential. And the Nationals need him to be great, with the absences of fellow left-handed hitters Adam LaRoche (signed with the White Sox) and Denard Span (out with an injury). Anthony Rendon’s knee injury will create another void, forming the foundation of an MVP narrative if Harper carries the Nats to a playoff berth. And MVP voters love narratives.
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Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners
Recent MVP victories by Justin Verlander (2011) and Clayton Kershaw (2014) underscore the electorate’s willingness to consider pitchers who post historic seasons and are the most important force in their team’s division title. More than any pitcher, Hernandez has the potential to do the same in 2015. Even with the addition of Nelson Cruz, the Mariners will need to win their share of 2-1 games. King Felix can do that, and he’s especially motivated this year: He knows he’s on the verge of a playoff berth for the first time in his potential Hall of Fame career, and he narrowly missed winning a second Cy Young Award in 2014.
Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
The odds are against Kershaw repeating as the NL MVP. Then again, what were the chances that he’d win the award last year after missing all of April with a strain of the Teres Major muscle behind his left shoulder? Kershaw recovered quite nicely, of course, becoming the first pitcher to win four consecutive major-league ERA titles. In many ways, he is poised to be just as good this year: The month he missed last season means he’s not coming off an especially onerous workload, and he’s especially motivated to atone for a disappointing postseason against the Cardinals.
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Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers
Lucroy is one beneficiary of the new catching metrics — especially pitch framing, one of his specialities. And yet, Lucroy’s value can be explained just as easily using old-fashioned terms: He handles the Milwaukee pitching staff exceptionally well and batted .301 last year with a major-league-leading 53 doubles. Lucroy was a first-time All-Star in 2014 and finished fourth in the NL MVP vote, so he’s earned a place on the preseason watch lists.
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Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates
With three consecutive top-three MVP finishes — including a victory in 2013 — McCutchen has established himself as the best all-around player in the National League. (He may be the most complete player in the game, since he’s less strikeout-prone than Mike Trout.) McCutchen missed 11 days of spring training due to lower-body soreness, which raises some doubt as to whether he’ll have the durability for an MVP candidacy in 2015 — especially after the injuries he’s played through in recent years. Keep an eye on his stolen-base totals, which declined from 27 two seasons ago to 18 last year; the number could decrease further if McCutchen’s body wears down.
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Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox
The Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, and David Ortiz has remained a powerful force in the latter years of his career, but Pedroia is the team’s most indispensable player. He led Boston in WAR last year, according to FanGraphs.com, even though his power numbers declined sharply as he battled injuries. Pedroia won the MVP seven years ago, and, as long as he remains healthy at age 31, he’s capable of posting similar numbers again. The emergence of Mookie Betts as an offensive catalyst for the Red Sox should bring out the best in Pedroia, too.
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Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers
Puig has long possessed MVP ability. Of course, he’s had MVP-caliber name recognition since his first days in the major leagues. To his credit, Puig gradually has added polish to his on-field skills and off-field persona. And if he flails at fewer sliders — and runs into fewer unnecessary outs on the basepaths — his production should put him in the middle of the MVP race. He’s the Dodgers’ best all-around player, and the departures of Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez mean Hollywood’s Klieg lights will shine even brighter on No. 66.
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Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs
Slugging corner infielders have won plenty of MVP awards over the past decade: Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau. All of them hit above .300, something Rizzo hasn’t done in the major leagues. He’s also yet to finish a season with 100 RBI — a prerequisite of sorts for first basemen to win the award, even in these analytical times. But Rizzo hit 32 home runs last year and has shown signs that a classic .300-30-100 season is within range, especially as the Cubs’ lineup improves around him.
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Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins
Stanton easily could have won the NL MVP last year, if his season hadn’t been cut short by a pitch that hit him in the face and resulted in multiple fractures. Despite missing the Marlins’ final 17 games, he ended the year as the NL leader in home runs and slugging percentage. Stanton’s strong spring allayed any fears he’d suffer from psychological effects of the beaning. He will play the entire 2015 season at age 25, and there’s reason to believe he’ll get even better as he enters his prime — and begins a record-setting $325 million contract extension. Durability is another key Stanton attribute; he played in each of the Marlins’ 145 games prior to the season-ending injury.
Mike Trout, CF, Angels
Trout, who won’t turn 24 until August, could dominate the AL MVP award for several years — the way Barry Bonds did in the National League during the early 2000s. The irony, of course, is that Trout was better in 2012 and 2013 — when he finished second to Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera — than in 2014, when he actually won the award. The lone complaint with Trout is a high strikeout total; he fanned 184 times last year, the most in the American League and highest total ever by an MVP.