Major League Baseball has been blessed boatloads of young, budding superstar position players in today’s game.
We don’t have enough time to list them all, but here are a handful: Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, Jose Ramirez, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr. … the list can go on and on. The MVP race in each league is the very definition of a heavyweight bout, and it gets tougher each year as more players throw their hat into the proverbial ring.
There are a number of things that must fall into place for the following six position players to find themselves in an MVP race by August and September. However, it could happen if they continue progressing, sustain their elite performance, or bounce back from a tough year.
Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies
I already mentioned him as an under-the-radar MVP candidate last week, so there was no way Hoskins would be left off the list. Already an offensive force for the Phillies, things continued getting better with regard to his 2019 outlook as the offseason progressed.
First, it was trading Carlos Santana away and signing Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal. This not only opened Hoskins’ natural position back up, but it also filled the theoretical hole he’d leave in the outfield. I say theoretical because advanced defensive metrics pinned his efforts as less than stellar.
Philly has also swung two notable trades for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto, further transforming manager Gabe Kapler’s lineup. Cutch, Segura, and Realmuto are projected to take the top three spots in the Phillies’ lineup, according to Roster Resource. Hoskins is currently sitting in the clean-up spot, as he surely will be salivating over plenty of RBI opportunities.
Oh, and this doesn’t take into account that if Manny Machado and Harper ever sign a new contract, there’s a good chance one of them will be heading to the City of Brotherly Love. Yes, the Phillies could muscle up their roster like steroids-universe, bringing some serious strength to their lineup and immediately becoming the team to beat in the NL East.
This all comes on the heels of him posting a 2.9 fWAR and 129 wRC+ with 34 home runs and 96 RBI during his first full season in the majors (660 plate appearances).
Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
Calling a former top overall pick in the MLB Draft a dark horse MVP candidate feels weird, but it does make sense in this instance. Despite a down year in which he accumulated 1.6 fWAR and a 101 wRC+ through 468 plate appearances, Carlos Correa is firmly on the radar of many with regard to the game’s best young shortstops.
The 24-year-old already has three seasons of 20-plus homers and two years of at least 5.0 fWAR under his belt, along with that 2017 World Series title. What’s most important for him moving forward is his health. After playing through back troubles last year, he’s declared himself totally healthy with 2019 coming into focus.
He qualifies as a dark horse MVP candidate because of the team he plays on — and more specifically, his teammates on the infield. Jose Altuve played through knee troubles last year, but still had a solid 2018 and is only a couple seasons removed from his own MVP campaign. And then there’s Alex Bregman, who legitimately broke out and shoved his way into the conversation last year thanks to a 7.6-fWAR performance.
This is as close to “under-the-radar” as Correa is probably going to get in his big-league career.
Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies
Speaking of young shortstops, Trevor Story had himself a tremendous bounce-back campaign in 2018 following a disappointing sophomore season. While he did rack up 24 homers and 82 RBI through 555 plate appearances in 2017, he did it with a .239/.308/.457 triple slash to go along with an 81 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR, and an alarming 34.4% strikeout rate.
Story basically set new single-season career highs in just about every offensive category in 2018 while taking a huge step forward in his development. The shortstop slashed .291/.348/.567 with 37 home runs, 27 stolen bases, and 108 RBI in 656 plate appearances, which culminated in a 127 wRC+ and 5.0 fWAR.
The most encouraging part of this performance was a drop in strikeout rate — that 34.4% clip dropped all the way down to 25.6% without sacrificing much in walk rate (8.8% in ’17, 7.2% in ’18). Story’s hard-hit rate settled in above 40.0% for the third straight year, but he was more aggressive on pitches in the strike zone (69.0% swing rate in ’17, 74.6% in ’18). That was accompanied by a career-low 11.4% swinging-strike rate and a career-high 87.2% contact rate on strikes.
As with any Rockies hitter, Coors Field will (rightly or wrongly, depending on who you ask) be a topic of discussion, as will the teammate to his right in Nolan Arenado. Story finished eighth in National League MVP voting last year, but Arenado has four straight top-10 finishes (three straight top-five finishes). With him in his penultimate year of team control — at least at the moment — he’ll be taking up a ton of the spotlight and headlines.
Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
If this particular pick sounds familiar, it’s because Byron Buxton made this very same list prior to last season getting underway. Based off the -3 wRC+ he posted in just 94 big-league plate appearances, that selection didn’t age well, but I’m willing to give it another try.
The temptation is here because of the breakthrough Buxton experienced with the Twins in 2017. Despite a slow start, a hot second half pushed his offensive numbers up to respectable levels. Although that year finished with a season-long wRC+ of just 90, he also added 16 homers and 29 stolen bases en route to posting 3.5 fWAR.
That high wins-above-replacement number is largely because of the elite defense he brings to the table. Buxton has racked up just shy of 2,500 innings in center field since debuting in 2015, but he still ranks sixth at his position (among those with at least 2,000 innings) with 33 Defensive Runs Saved. Buxton’s ability to impact the game in multiple ways could help him shoot up fWAR leaderboards, if he’s healthy.
In an effort to become more durable, the outfielder added 21 pounds of muscle over the winter. We’ll see if there’s an impact on his style of play during spring training, but hopefully it means he takes the field almost every day throughout 2019.
Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds
The Reds are fascinating based off the handful of win-now moves they’ve made this winter. Since they don’t have a legitimate option to play center field after non-tendering Billy Hamilton, top prospect Nick Senzel is going to get a look over the next month or so.
Why wouldn’t Cincy just leave one of their most valuable minor leaguers at his natural position of third base? Well, that’s because Eugenio Suarez is there, under contract until 2024, and has continually made strides in the batter’s box.
Check out the three-year progression Suarez has been on since 2016 (when he received his first full season’s worth of plate appearances):
Among third basemen who qualified for the batting title (20 total), Suarez’s wRC+ ranked sixth, along with having the fourth-most homers and the seventh-highest fWAR.
He also must be taking notes from teammate Joey Votto in a couple departments. The 2018 season was the second consecutive year in which his walk rate finished above 10.0%, but it was his batted-ball profile that took a huge leap. His soft-hit rate fell dramatically (20.7% in ’17 to 8.4% in ’18) while his hard-hit rate spiked (33.8% to 48.6%). He hit line drives, ground balls, and fly balls at the same consistency as 2017, but his infield-fly rate went from 11.0% (a career-worst mark) to 2.8% (a career-best mark).
At a position that’s stacked with young, elite talent, it’s easy for Suarez to be forgotten, but he did finish 18th in NL MVP voting in 2018, so it’s not as if nobody is noticing the current trajectory he’s on.
Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics
Oakland’s surprising 97-65 record from last season wouldn’t have been possible without Matt Chapman leading the way. He posted 6.5 fWAR in his first full big-league season off the strength of above-average offensive production (.864 OPS, 137 wRC+, 24 homers, 68 RBI, 100 runs scored) and elite defense (29 DRS in 1,273.2 innings).
The two defenders who were closest to what Chapman did in the DRS department were Andrelton Simmons and Nick Ahmed, who both finished with 21. So, the gap between Chapman and second place (8 DRS) was as big as it was from second place to 13th place (Addison Russell, 13).
He did finish seventh in American League MVP voting in 2018, and he can thank a big second half for that happening. After posting a .776 OPS and 116 wRC+ through 330 first-half plate appearances, his final 286 trips to the plate resulted in a .961 OPS and 162 wRC+. That included more homers (14), RBI (39), and runs scored (52) following the All-Star Break despite fewer plate appearances (10, 29, and 48, respectively, in the first half).
Chapman has most certainly put himself on many radars thanks to his breakout campaign, but with a Junior Circuit full of talent — while also playing in the same division as Mike Trout — it’ll be tough for the A’s third baseman to come out as a frontrunner for this award.