On paper, the National League East is the deepest division in baseball. The division boasts four teams that can plausibly contend for the playoffs. Those teams are the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, and the Philadelphia Phillies. Even the Miami Marlins have an outside shot to be a solid team this season because of their potent pitching staff. Regardless, the top four teams all have the talent to contend by the time October rolls around. With Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, and Ronald Acuña Jr., among others, there are several NL MVP candidates within this division. As one writer previewed with the AL East, let’s look at some dark horse NL MVP candidates from the NL East.
Jeff McNeil, New York Mets
Jeff McNeil has played three seasons in the majors thus far and has been really good. With a career .319 batting average and 138 OPS+, McNeil has been nothing short of fantastic. He is a brilliant contact hitter whose style of play is really at odds with the rest of the league. With a career 12% strikeout rate paired with a below-average 6.7% walk rate, the strongest aspect McNeil’s game is his bat-to-ball ability. What makes him a dark horse is the sheer talent within the division and even his own team. Players like Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, and Michael Conforto are thought of as better players or more likely to win MVP than McNeil.
McNeil brings a lot to the table in terms of his versatility and value to the team. While his natural position is second base, he can play third base as a solid level. In fact, McNeil can also play the outfield. Since the start of 2019, he has played a combined 123 games in either right or left field. With the Mets outfield locked up, McNeil figures to get most of his games at second base which should benefit him defensively. His best season came in 2019 as he was an All-Star and hit 23 homers, with a .318/.381/.531 batting line, which translated to a .916 OPS and 142 OPS+. He posted a 4.9 bWAR in 2019, and per Baseball-Reference, McNeil’s WAR per 650 plate appearances is 6.0. What this means is that when healthy, he has been one of the better players in the sport.
What makes McNeil one of these dark horse NL MVP candidates is how similar he is to DJ LeMahieu. Both are contact-oriented hitters who can spray the ball all over the field. Additionally, both can play multiple positions and provide great flexibility to their respective teams. While LeMahieu hits the ball harder and is better defensively, the similarities are very clear. LeMahieu has finished Top-4 in MVP voting with the New York Yankees in consecutive years. He proved that great contact hitters can still be valuable in today’s game. With that said, it would not be surprising to see McNeil put up a 6+ WAR season, while playing multiple positions for the Mets and becoming an NL MVP candidate.
Alec Bohm, Philadelphia Phillies
Alec Bohm finished runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020. In 44 games, he posted a .338/.400/.481 batting line, good enough for a .881 OPS and 138 OPS+. There are about three or four players in the Phillies lineup who project to be more likely MVP candidates. However, there is a lot that proves Bohm’s great 2020 season was not a rookie fluke. Let’s get the one real concerning number out of the way. Bohm posted an unsustainable .410 BABIP which will definitely come down to earth in 2021 because the league average is .292. Now to the great numbers. Even with such a high BABIP, Bohm still ranked in the 86th percentile in xBA with a figure of .285. Further, his exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xSLG, and xwOBA all ranked in the 70th percentile or better.
While a lot of those numbers stand out, one part of his offensive profile that could be improved is his plate discipline. He posted a modest 8.9% walk rate and a 20% strikeout rate which are right around league average. Building better plate awareness and walking more is usually the next step in the development of young hitters as good as Bohm. Additionally, his future at third base is in question as he posted a -2 DRS in 44 games in 2020. Whether he remains at third or not, Bohm possesses the athleticism and build to be a good defender. Even his 27.3 ft/s sprint speed ranked in the 64th percentile in the league, a very good figure. 2021 will be Bohm’s age-24 season as he looks to build upon the All-Star, or even MVP potential, that he portrayed in his rookie season.
Kyle Schwarber, Washington Nationals
Kyle Schwarber represented a very popular buy-low player this past offseason. After being non-tendered by the Chicago Cubs, the Nationals picked him up on a one-year, $7 million deal for the 2021 season. Schwarber has been in the league since 2015 and is still only 28-years old. He had some glimpses of great play with the Cubs, but never lived up to the hype. In his six seasons, he only posted 5.5 bWAR and only once slugged above .500. His best season came in 2019 as he hit 38 home runs and drove in 92 runs, while posting an .871 OPS and 123 OPS+. Schwarber hits the ball almost harder than anyone in the sport as even in a down 2020, his exit velocity ranked in the 95th percentile and hard-hit rate fell in the 86th percentile.
It is his natural ability to hit the ball really hard that has made his career so disappointing. He is a three-true-outcomes type of player as he boasts above-average figures in home run rate, walk rate, with a below-average strikeout rate. While he does make elite contact, it is the amount of overall contact that Schwarber has struggled with in his career. His .220 xBA and .433 xSLG figures in 2020 were better than his actual .188 BA and .393 SLG. This shows that he performed better than his surface level numbers suggested, but still not enough for the Cubs to keep him.
2021 has started out really well for Schwarber. He has hit four home runs thus far in Spring Training, while posting a 1.046 OPS. Maybe a new team, new culture, and a chip on his shoulder will bring about an absurd 2021 season for Schwarber. It is entirely possible he has the best season of his career, while hitting 40+ homers and driving in 120+ runs with players like Soto and Trea Turner ahead of him. RBI is known to be a widely outdated stat. However, it can be a good indicator of how successful Schwarber is this year. He is a true x-factor for Washington this year. Performing at a high level and helping Washington be contenders can lead some MVP votes his way.
Starling Marte, Miami Marlins
Miami Marlins centerfielder Starling Marte is a known quantity at this point in his career. He has always been an above-average player with All-Star upside, but has never been elite. In his nine seasons, he owns a .287/.341/.450 batting line, posting a .791 OPS and 114 OPS+. He has won two Gold Gloves and has made one All-Star team over the course of his career. Perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of his game in his speed. Since 2012, Marte is tied for third in baseball with 249 stolen bases. In all, Marte has posted exactly 30 bWAR throughout his career. A very solid career indeed, but he never posted an MVP-caliber season. He may never post a season of that caliber, yet is the most proven hitter in the young Marlins lineup.
It would not be a surprise in the least to see Marte put up an excellent season in 2021. His defense remained fantastic in 2020 as he posted 5 Outs Above Average (OAA) in center field which ranked in the 95th percentile of the league. In addition, his 28.5 ft/s sprint speed ranked in the 89th percentile and 16.4 strikeout rate in the 81st percentile. Marte is the type of player with a high floor because he can do everything on the baseball field. On a Marlins team that might struggle to score runs, Marte will prove to be an x-factor for them throughout the season.
Whether he bats leadoff or in the middle of the order, he will be relied upon to be a major contributor. If Miami exceeds expectations this season, expect Marte to be at the heart of it and be one of the most unexpected NL MVP candidates.
Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
Still only 24 years old, Ozzie Albies is entering his fifth major league season. With a career .803 OPS and 106 OPS+, Albies has been slightly better than average. What makes him a good dark horse for this award is that he is vastly overshadowed by multiple hitters on his own team. Despite this, he may be the most important contributor in the Braves lineup this year. Whether he bats second or bats fifth, he is a player that will look to either score or drive in a lot of runs. If he bats second, he will serve as a bridge from Acuña Jr. to Freddie Freeman; if he bats fifth, he will deepen a Braves lineup that is very top-heavy.
His best season came in 2019 when he hit 24 homers, while hitting .295 with an .852 OPS and 112 OPS+. In fact, he led the NL with 189 hits that year. Albies hit 24 home runs in both 2018 and 2019, while accumulating 83 doubles in those two seasons. With an above-average strikeout rate, Albies rates as a player with gap-to-gap power, leading to a lot of doubles and modest home run totals. He only played 29 games in 2020 due to injury so a big bounce back is likely in 2021. Albies’ career high in WAR also came in 2019, which was 5.2. He is a very good player who is unlikely to receive the attention that he deserves in 2021. With that said, he can be one of these dark horse NL MVP candidates by staying healthy and posting a great all-around season.
The NL East looks to be the most entertaining division in baseball in 2021. With all this talent, it is easy to see how there are so many possible NL MVP candidates. Both known and unknown, the players listed in this piece are all capable of having fantastic 2021 seasons. Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson is also someone who could put up some sneaky MVP-type numbers. However, Albies will probably play a bigger offensive role on the team. From the Mets lineup all the way to the Marlins rotation, the talent in this division is legitimate.
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Players Mentioned: Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, Ronald Acuna Jr., Jeff McNeil, Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, DJ LeMahieu, Alec Bohm, Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, Starling Marte, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson.