keyboard_arrow_uptop

First, there was Albert Pujols. Pujols hit .346/.509/.914 in April with 14 homers, inspiring mounds of copy about what a superstar would look like in the nominal post-steroids era, as well as speculation that he could make a run at the single-season home-run record. After all, it’s been five years.

On June 3, however, Pujols injured his right oblique and missed two weeks. Since returning from that injury, he’s been a great player, but not one having a season for the ages or a lock for an MVP award. He hit 25 homers in 185 AB before going on the DL; he’s hit 13 in 230 ABs since, and while he’s still maintaining his high batting average and OBP, the diminished power has impacted his value.

With Pujols stepping back from history to merely be amazing, the floor was open, and Carlos Beltran danced on. Already off to a terrific start, Beltran strung together three 1000-OPS months through the summer, sprinkling in a series of highlight-reel moments that made Mets fans forget his struggles in 2005. The Mets’ center fielder is the best player on the best team in baseball, a pretty good working definition of a Most Valuable Player.

For many, the discussion of National League Most Valuable Player comes down to these two players. Without dismissing their credentials-I’m likely to choose one or the other to top my ballot-I’m here to argue that there’s a third name who’s being overlooked, a player who has been about as valuable as those two players but who gets no mention when discussing postseason hardware:

                   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA    VORP    FRAR   WARP1
----------------------------------------------------------------
Albert Pujols     .323  .424  .665  .345    65.4      19     8.8
Carlos Beltran    .286  .390  .633  .328    62.8      25     9.0
Player X          .340  .429  .590  .338    66.0      18     9.0

If you’re of a mind to consider the context of a player’s performance, note that he’s been the best player on a team that is just three games out of the wild card, easily the biggest reason why this team-picked to be the worst in the NL by many-is playing relevant games this deep into the season. He’s accumulated more batting runs (BRAR) than any two of his teammates combined, making him arguably more important to his lineup than either of the other players are to theirs. Back at his original position, he’s played surprisingly good defense, on par with the work of two guys who might win Gold Gloves this year.

There’s just no good reason why Miguel Cabrera isn’t getting more attention this year. His performance is on par with the consensus two best players in the league, he’s helped put the Marlins into the playoff picture, and he’s a young star who’s already been part of a champiosnhip team and is just entering his peak. He’s even come up big as the games have taken on more meaning: he’s hitting a ridiculous .400/.449/.744 in August, helping the Fish to a 14-10 month and a legitimate chance at the wild card. You can’t even make the Jermaine Dye case against Cabrera, the argument that while he probably deserves to be mentioned as a downballot guy, he’s not really a candidate for the top spot. Cabrera has done just as much on the field as Pujols and Beltran have, and deserves just as much consideration as those two are getting.

Unlike the AL, the NL has just these three players as MVP candidates. The next-best hitters in the league are Lance Berkman and Chase Utley, both about a win behind the big three. Brandon Webb started the year as an MVP candidate, but he’s fallen back from those lofty heights; there are no pitchers in the conversation.

It’s a three-horse race, and while that’s 50% bigger than you’ll read in most places, it’s important that Miguel Cabrera start to be recognized as not just a legitimate NL MVP candidate, but a player whose performance is right on par with the work of Pujols and Beltran. He’s been just that good.

You have to love the National League. The Reds move into a pseudo-tie with the Cardinals on Thursday, are the story of the day Friday, then score two runs on 16 hits all weekend-on a pair of solo home runs-in dropping three games to the Giants. Despite this, they retain their lead in the NL wild-card race, as the Padres drop two of three in Colorado, the Phillies drop two games in New York and the Diamondbacks lose two of three at home to the Dodgers.

Cabrera’s Marlins-with a sweep of the Brewers-and the Red-beating Giants were the big winners over the weekend. Each is now in the top half of the standings and within three games of the top spot. The Cardinals and Dodgers both picked up ground in the NL Central and the NL West with strong weekends, but the losses at the top of the wild-card group created even more compression in that list. There are 10 National League teams separated by just 5½ games, and as dismissive as I was of the Astros and Rockies a week ago, you just can’t ignore any team that’s one big week from the top of the group.

The most likely scenario is that we get some separation early in September. But given that none of these 10 teams has managed to play better than .511 baseball through five months, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason to think that any of them can get it together and run away over the last five weeks. More and more, this is looking like a set-up for the kind of wacky finish that cements the wild card’s place in the game’s lore.

But check back in a few days, just to be sure.