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NL MVP race: Can Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado challenge Paul Goldschmidt?

By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

While the Aaron JudgeShohei Ohtani MVP debate rages on in the American League, the National League MVP race has hardly inspired the same level of discourse.

That’s because Paul Goldschmidt is having a career year for the NL Central-leading Cardinals, raising his already high standard of offensive excellence, which earned him plenty of MVP runner-up finishes in the past, to impressive new heights that will likely earn him his first actual MVP award.

Goldschmidt’s 182 wRC+ is bested across baseball only by the guy having one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time (Aaron Judge) and arguably the best all-around hitter in the league (Yordan Alvarez). More importantly to the NL MVP conversation, Goldschmidt’s offensive output is comfortably ahead of that of the next-best in his league: Freddie Freeman at 158.

Speaking of Freeman, Goldschmidt’s Cardinals are in Los Angeles this weekend for a three-game set taking on his fellow superstar first baseman and the unstoppable winning machine that is the Dodgers in what could be an NLCS preview. Furthermore, with so many of the league’s best players on the field at the same time — namely Goldschmidt, Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Mookie Betts and Trea Turner — this series could help clarify the pecking order of the NL MVP field. 

With less than two weeks to play, I’d be surprised if anyone can swing the overwhelming narrative away from Goldy. But there’s plenty more to be decided beyond that top spot. 

Let’s dig into some of the top candidates, from least to most serious.

Joey Meneses: If you lower the plate appearance minimum to 180, only Goldschmidt and Freeman have a higher wRC+ in the NL than the Nationals’ inexplicable, 30-year-old rookie super-slugger. That’s ridiculous. MVP votes for Meneses would be a bit rich, but how about some third-place NL Rookie of the Year votes? Let’s have a conversation!

Christian Walker: Walker’s 35-plus homers and elite defense at first base should not go overlooked. The D-backs‘ future suddenly looks a lot brighter with the ascending core of Daulton Varsho, Corbin Carroll and Jake McCarthy supplementing the breakouts of veterans such as Walker. 

Willy Adames: Adames’ 30-plus homers and near-elite defense at shortstop should definitely not go overlooked, and Adames is doing that for a Brewers team that is much closer to the postseason than Arizona. He has been tremendously reliable, but power alone does not lift a closer–to-average overall offensive profile to MVP consideration. He’s Milwaukee’s MVP, though, that’s for sure. 

Tommy Edman: Edman’s move to shortstop this season has gone spectacularly, launching him way up the WAR leaderboard, thanks in large part to his excellent defensive metrics. However, his bat has fallen off a far bit from the first couple of months of the season, so it’d be tough to put him in the top five regardless of his stellar WAR totals.

Juan Soto: Despite barely looking like himself for much of his Padres tenure thus far, Soto still sports the third-highest OBP in the NL, behind Goldschmidt and Freeman, thanks to his hilariously large pile of walks — a league-leading 127, to be exact. He might finish in the back half of the top 10 with a strong last week or two, but he’s not a legitimate MVP contender the way he was the previous two seasons.

Sandy Alcantara: This is a courtesy mention for the likely NL Cy Young Award winner who isn’t having an MVP-level pitcher campaign, a la 2014 Clayton Kershaw or 2011 Justin Verlander, but whose durability and workload in this era are truly remarkable. Not only does Alcantara lead MLB in innings by nearly 20 frames over Miles Mikolas, but his five complete games are more than any other team has this season. In fact, 15 of 30 MLB teams haven’t had a pitcher record a complete game this season. Starting pitching might never be what it once was, but Alcantara is reminding us that the right guy can still be a serious workhorse for a team. 

Pete Alonso: Forty years ago, we’d be talking about Alonso as Goldschmidt’s biggest competition for NL MVP. Why? He has 121 RBIs for a team in first-place! That’s all it took to win MVP back then! OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but Polar Pete has been excellent and is trending dangerously close to underrated territory. Still, the bar for overall offensive production at first base is sky-high, as demonstrated by Goldschmidt and Freeman, and Alonso — even with his impressive power and run-production numbers — falls a tad short of his peers.

Trea Turner: Just as he was often overshadowed by the likes of Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon in Washington, Turner’s brilliance continues to go somewhat unnoticed, thanks to the two future Hall of Famers sandwiching him in the Dodgers’ batting order. He’s still one of the fastest players in baseball playing a solid shortstop and slugging .479. That is an outrageously valuable player, and I think we’ll all be reminded of that when he signs for a bajillion dollars this winter — in L.A. or elsewhere.

Dansby Swanson: He’s not the overall hitter that Turner or Francisco Lindor are, but Swanson is every bit the defender at shortstop and has continued to provide excellent power for the Braves all year while essentially never missing a game. I wouldn’t bet on him to get quite as much as Turner in free agency, but he should have plenty of suitors.

Austin Riley: Unsurprisingly, the Braves have more than one player who deserves MVP consideration. Riley has tailed off some in the second half, which has him lower on this list than I expected when I started sorting the candidates, but at just 25, he’s one of the more intimidating right-handed hitters in the NL and will continue to be feared as the postseason begins. 

JT Realmuto: With Bryce Harper missing significant time on the injured list, Realmuto’s fantastic second half has kept the Phillies in the thick of the NL wild-card race. There was a moment there when it seemed Realmuto might have been losing his grip on the title of Best Catcher In Baseball — my good friend Jake Mintz even wrote about it — but Realmuto’s scorching past few months have reestablished him as the gold standard at the position right when his team needed it most. 

Manny Machado: As far as stepping up when a team needs it, arguably no player besides Judge has been a more reliable guiding light of excellence amid internal chaos and frustration than Machado in San Diego. He hasn’t quite maintained his unbelievable start that seemed to have him ticketed for the very top of the NL MVP discussion, but he has been more than good enough to keep his team moving in the right direction amid the Fernando Tatis Jr. drama and slow start to Soto’s Padres tenure. 

Francisco Lindor: Remember halfway through last season when people thought Lindor was washed? That was cute. I’ll admit, I was mildly concerned his bat might move closer to league average than the legitimate force he was earlier in his career in Cleveland, but shame on me for doubting that Lindor’s tremendous talent would eventually shine through in Queens. He might not hit 30 homers ever again, but a switch-hitting plus defender at shortstop with 25 homers is still an amazing player. Alongside Alonso, Lindor has been the face of the Mets’ position-player group en route to the postseason for the first time in six years, and he’s a bona fide MVP candidate. That’s exactly why the team traded for him. 

Freddie Freeman: While it clearly took Freeman several months of the season to accept that he wasn’t on the Braves anymore, his performance didn’t reflect that. He’s in line to win his first batting title and has already set a career high with 45 doubles that help compensate for his relatively low dinger total. It’s still weird seeing Freeman in Dodger blue, but he’s every bit the player he was in Atlanta and has seemingly started to mesh more with his teammates off the field.

Mookie Betts: Coming off his enormous debut season with the Dodgers in 2020, which ended with a World Series championship and second-place MVP finish, Betts’ 2021 — a stellar season by big-league standards but underwhelming for him — felt like something of a letdown. But let’s remember that he was playing through a hip injury for most if not all of the season. Now fully healthy, Betts is just about all the way back to the 2020 version that helped carry the Dodgers to a title. His outfield defense has returned to an elite level, and he already set a career high with 35 homers. He’s one of the best players of his generation, and we’re lucky as fans that he’s back at full capacity to amaze us on a daily basis.

Nolan Arenado: Last year, we saw Blue Jays teammates Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien finish second and third in AL MVP behind Shohei Ohtani. Vlad Jr.’s full-blown breakout dominated the headlines all year — and deservedly so — but I remember looking at Semien’s numbers last September and thinking: Hold on, are we not talking about this other guy enough? 

I feel the same way this season about Arenado in relation to Goldschmidt. Yes, Goldschmidt’s bat — like Vlad Jr.’s — has been a notch above what his teammate across the infield has done. But don’t sleep on Arenado’s year at the plate: He might not have the gaudy HR totals he produced in homer-friendly Colorado, but his 152 wRC+ (appropriately park-adjusted) would be a career high, just as Goldschmidt’s is. Add Arenado’s continued elite defense at the hot corner, and that’s how the WAR totals end up as close as they currently are, with Goldschmidt at 7.0 fWAR and 7.7 bWAR and Arenado at 6.9 fWAR and 7.5 bWAR. 

Teammates finishing in the top three of MVP voting, like Vlad Jr. and Semien did last year, is uncommon, but it does happen every handful of years. 

Teammates occupying the top two spots, though? That’s rarer. 

Should Goldschmidt and Arenado ultimately finish 1-2 in NL MVP voting, they’d be the first duo to accomplish that feat since Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds in 2000. Before that, it hadn’t happened since 1990, when Bonds finished first ahead of Pirates teammate Bobby Bonilla. 

As things stand now, I’d bet on Arenado to join Goldschmidt atop the ballot — just probably not ahead of him. 

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.


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