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The 30: Highlighting four MVP-caliber seasons in power rankings

What makes an MVP? In this week's power rankings, the focus is on four players whose brilliant seasons are making all the difference for their teams.

One of the most puzzling trends in baseball awards voting over the years has been (some) voters’ attempts to tie themselves in knots over the meaning of the word “value.” The Most Valuable Player award, they posit, must go to a player who plays for a playoff team. Their flip-side argument often looks something like this: If a team is losing with a great player on the roster, it can also lose without him.

That argument falls short on a couple of fronts. First, baseball requires a far broader range of contributions than, say, basketball does. While LeBron James can take the last shot of a game (or at least greatly affect the final offensive play) any time he likes, Josh Donaldson might not even get a chance to bat in the same inning as his team’s game-winning rally (or failure). By extension, handing MVP hardware to a player on a winning team and denying a great player on a losing team is essentially awarding or penalizing that player for the good or bad work done by his general manager in choosing his 24 teammates—which is loopy.

Rather than wrestle with semantics, our criterion for picking the Most Valuable Player in each league is simple. “Valuable” simply means “best,” whether you play for a 100-win club or the worst team in the league.

This week, we’ll dig in with four players who have had terrific seasons—in some cases for top teams, in others for bottom-feeders. The last-place Rays can at least rejoice in the return of their franchise player. The struggles of the sputtering Angels remind us that one superstar isn’t enough to achieve postseason glory. The Astros’ big dog is as little as they come. Meanwhile, the Nationals’ top player this year has been one of the most pleasant surprises in all of baseball.

Hey you, reading this column! You the real MVP. It’s Week 18 of The 30.

Best Villainous Canadian: Joey Votto

Joey Votto might have the best batting eye on Earth. Until a few days ago, he was riding a streak that saw him reach base in 50% of his plate appearances over a stretch of more than 200 PA. As ace Reds beat writer Trent Rosecrans noted, Votto’s heroics helped propel the Reds to six straight series wins recently, the first time they’d done that since 1999.

Sometimes, Votto gains recognition for something other than being a hitting savant. He’s lost his mind on multiple occasions with umpires. More amusingly, in multiple different road parks, he’s held up foul balls, signaling like he’s going to toss them into the stands for a lucky fan to catch, only to trot off in the other direction or drop the ball onto the ground instead.

The latest Votto incident saw him chase down a foul ball at Great American Ball Park last Tuesday night, only to muff it after coming close to a fan in a Reds shirt. He immediately grabbed the fan’s shirt, indicating that he couldn’t believe a Reds fan would make him botch the play.

As a good Canadian who didn’t want to mess with his country’s reputation for being nice, though, Votto was quick to make amends. He signed an apology ball for the fan, posed with him for a picture and wished him well. There’s still time for a major league player to take on the role of full-blown wrestling heel, but Votto’s not quite ready to take up that mantle.

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Ray Of Hope

The return of vintage Evan Longoria gives Tampa Bay a little something to build on for next year.

30. Atlanta Braves (41–70 record, minus-123 run differential, last week: 30)
29. Arizona Diamondbacks (45–66, minus-118, LW: 26)
28. Cincinnati Reds (45–65, minus-128, LW: 29)
27. Tampa Bay Rays (45–65, minus-42, LW: 28)
26. Minnesota Twins (45–66, minus-64, LW: 27)
25. Oakland A’s (48–63, minus-94, LW: 23)
24. San Diego Padres (48–63, minus-42, LW: 25)
23. Milwaukee Brewers (49–60, minus-67, LW: 24)
22. Philadelphia Phillies (52–61, minus-99, LW: 22)

Just a few short years ago, Evan Longoria was one of the most valuable assets in baseball. From 2009 through ‘11, he led the majors in Wins Above Replacement, batting .275/.364/.510 in an extremely tough park for hitters and winning two Gold Gloves at a premium defensive position. Combining elite all-around performance with youth and a highly affordable contract, he ranked just below the Mike Trout-Bryce Harper phylum of young superstars on the list of players who’d be least likely to get traded.

Then the disabled list came calling. After blasting 31 homers despite playing in just 133 games in 2011, Longoria had his ‘12 campaign blown up by injuries, appearing in just 74 games that year. He came back strong in 2013, clubbing 32 homers, just missing career-highs in park-adjusted offense and missing just two games all season. Then, mysteriously, he turned into an ordinary hitter. Though he played in every game in 2014, he still posted career lows in on-base percentage and slugging. In another healthy season in 2015, his numbers ticked up slightly, but he posted offensive numbers that were worse than those flashed by pedestrian hitters like Chris Coghlan and Mitch Moreland.

That 2015 season marked the second straight sub-.500 campaign for the Rays following a run of four playoff berths in six years. Longoria turning 30 just as the Rays’ AL rivals started last year’s playoffs seemed to signal the end of an era for both player and team.

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The team has only regressed more since then, with Tampa Bay on pace for its worst record since 2007. The good news is that Longoria looks like he’s back: He’s on pace for his best showings in batting average and slugging percentage in four years. The bigger question now becomes whether he can keep it up. That’s something the Rays desperately need, given that the six-year, $100 million deal they gave Longoria was back in 2012 doesn’t even kick in until Opening Day of next season.

By plate discipline metrics, Longoria doesn’t look so hot. His 6.8% walk rate is the worst of his career, and his 22.6% strikeout rate his worst in three years. He’s swinging and missing more often than ever before, swinging at pitches out of the strike zone more often than ever before and making contact on pitches in the zone less often than ever before. On the other hand, Longoria is also hitting the ball harder than he has in years, whether you measure that by hard-hit rate and line-drive rate or by his big in-season uptick in exit velocity.

With an average salary of about $17 million through 2022 and still-playable defense, Longoria doesn’t actually have to hit the way he did in his mid-20s to be a positive asset for the Rays. That’s a good thing if those plate-discipline markers end up portending a future pullback in his overall numbers. But with a dearth of impact talent on the position-player side thanks to years of misses in the draft and international market, a version of Longoria who’s merely good enough wouldn’t be good enough for the suddenly moribund Rays.

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Fish Story

Mike Trout might be the best player in the American League yet again, but his teammates have offered little support.

21. Los Angeles Angels (49–62, minus-4, LW: 21)
20. Kansas City Royals (53–58, minus-61, LW: 20)
19. Chicago White Sox (53–58, minus-44, LW: 19)
18. New York Yankees (56–55, minus-33, LW: 18)
17. Pittsburgh Pirates (55–54, minus-9, LW: 16)
16. Colorado Rockies (55–56, plus-21, LW: 17)

You can find plenty of logical reasons why Mike Trout has won only one MVP award so far in his career. In 2012, Miguel Cabrera took it home instead, as he became the first player to win the Triple Crown in 45 years. In 2013, Cabrera captured it again, this time by winning a different kind of triple crown, as he led the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In 2015, Josh Donaldson beat out Trout despite posting slightly inferior numbers by batting average, OBP and SLG, but he led the league in runs scored and runs batted in and played Gold Glove-caliber defense for a Jays team that made the playoffs for the first time in 22 years (the kind of team success that, again, gets some individual awards voters more excited than others). And this year, Trout figures to face stiff competition from Donaldson and other contenders.

All of that is pretty interesting, considering that Trout is batting a massive .316/.427/.555, right up there with his best career performances. He leads the AL in Wins Above Replacement this year, just as he did in each of the previous four seasons. And while WAR isn’t an immutable statistic by any means, the mental gymnastics required to deny Trout his hardware over the past few years have become almost Bondsian.

Also being denied: Trout’s shot at postseason glory. For the fifth time in Trout’s six major league seasons, the Angels are going to miss the playoffs. Those failures are a stark reminder both of the team-oriented nature of baseball and of the failures of ownership and management, who have failed to develop and acquire the elite homegrown talent necessary to complement Trout and propel the Halos into October.

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The road back won’t be easy. Los Angeles' farm system was rated the worst in baseball by multiple publications, and the Angels failed to execute the kind of veterans-for-prospects deadline deals engineered by teams like the Yankees, further stunting their future. Some of their best 20-something hopefuls are dealing with serious injuries, with Andrew Heaney out until next summer after Tommy John surgery and Garrett Richards still trying to avoid that procedure after tearing his own ulnar collateral ligament. They have a meddling owner in Arte Moreno who, according to a well-placed source, has been the driving force behind some of the team’s most painful long-term contracts and also nixed deals that might have helped the team’s future. You can find some faint glimmers of hope, starting with the more than $40 million coming off the books at the end of this season once Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson hit free agency, as well as the team’s gigantic commitment to Josh Hamilton mercifully ending next year. Still, the overall outlook is grim.

It’s not grim enough, however, to justify the calls for trading Trout to restock the farm system. The Angels still control his rights through 2020. They’ll likely land a top-10 pick in next summer’s amateur draft. They have some prospects starting to stir in the lower minors, led by 2015 second-round pick Jahmai Jones, who’s raking in the Pioneer League. And they have Moreno’s war chest, which hopefully can reel in better bang-for-the-buck players than Hamilton, Wilson, Vernon Wells and Albert Pujols now that a bunch of money is set to come off the payroll.

If a year or two down the road, the Angels appear no closer to returning to contention, they’ll still be able to acquire an avalanche of young talent for Trout. It’s just too early to have that discussion right now, both because of Trout’s historic on-field talent and what he means financially and psychically to a team that currently has little else to celebrate.

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The Little Man Can

Baseball’s unlikeliest MVP candidate has a unit of measurement named after him, but does he have strong enough teammates for another playoff run?

15. New York Mets (57–54, plus-13, LW: 14)
14. Houston Astros (57–54, plus-35, LW: 11)
13. Seattle Mariners (57–53, plus-38, LW: 15)
12. Miami Marlins (59–52, plus-14, LW: 12)
11. St. Louis Cardinals (58–53, plus-71, LW: 10)
10. Detroit Tigers (61–50, plus-22, LW: 13)
9. Boston Red Sox (60–50, plus-86, LW: 5)
8. Los Angeles Dodgers (62–49, plus-59, LW: 9)

One of the joys of covering the MLB All-Star Game is the relaxed atmosphere, one that enables candid and interesting conversations with people who might not otherwise be all that accessible. That was the case last month in San Diego, when I spotted super-agent Scott Boras. Instead of talking to hundreds of frenzied reporters gathered around him for a breathless winter meetings quote, I saw three writer friends—Boston scribes Alex Speier, Evan Drellich and Jason Mastrodonato—asking him Red Sox questions. I waited my turn, then asked Boras about his newest big-ticket client: Jose Altuve.

That Altuve would become a topic of national baseball conversation—much less a marquee Boras client worthy of MVP discussion—might have seemed insane a few years ago. The Astros signed Altuve as an undrafted free agent from Venezuela in 2007 for the tiny sum of $15,000. A nearly perennial .300 hitter with excellent speed, Altuve still didn’t do enough in the minors to earn even a single top-100 ranking from any of the major prospect sites. His first brush with the big leagues seemed to confirm those doubts, as he batted just .276/.297/.357 in his rookie year. He took a big step forward the next year, batting .290/.340/.399, stealing 33 bases and making the All-Star team. But when he slipped to .283/.316/.363 the next season, those doubts resurfaced.

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Since then, Altuve has grown into one of the best players in all of baseball. His elite contact skills have made him a threat to win the batting title every year. His blazing speed has earned him two stolen-base titles. This season, he’s taken the final step, adding big-time power to the equation. When I asked Boras how all that success came to pass, his answer was both simple and highly logical: Because Altuve is 5’6”, pitchers aren’t used to throwing to such a small strike zone, so they leave the majority of pitches belt-high or higher. And because Altuve has incredibly quick reflexes and strong hands and wrists, he’s able to get on top of balls and rope them into the gap, and now over the fence too.

The problem for Altuve and his teammates this year boils down to a terrible start. The Astros stumbled to a 7–17 record out of the gate. They went on a huge tear after that, going 47–27 and pulling to within 2 1/2 games of first-place Texas, but since then, Houston has gone 3–10, a stretch that might not have been fatal under normal circumstances but now leaves it in third place in the AL West thanks to the anchor of that lousy start.

There’s a broader question to be asked—namely, why general manager Jeff Luhnow opted not to make aggressive moves to upgrade the current roster to better the team’s chances of winning the West. Then again, you can find multiple reasons for that course of action. First, the Astros had already spent a lot of prospect capital on other moves over the previous 12 months, from last year’s deadline deals for Scott Kazmir and Carlos Gomez to last off-season’s trade for Ken Giles. Second, Luhnow did in fact make some aggressive moves, including signing star Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel to a long-term deal and promoting top 2015 draft pick Alex Bregman to the majors.

Ultimately, this season might just prove to be a small speed bump on the way to multiple years of success. Dallas Keuchel (partially) turned things around after a terrible start, and Lance McCullers came on strong after dealing with early-season injuries. Altuve put up monstrous numbers, and several supporting-cast members played well, too. But a nasty offensive slump at exactly the wrong time, combined with that 7–17 start, make another playoff berth difficult, albeit not impossible.

A year or three from now, we might look back at the Astros’ decision to not send away prospects in exchange for rental players as exactly the right decision. By then, Altuve might have even won some flashy hardware.

Hat-tip to legendary scout Andres Reiner for building the Astros’ presence in Venezuela years before they signed Altuve, and more broadly for being a great ambassador for the game. RIP.

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The Other Guy

Bryce Harper got the early accolades, but the Nationals’ best player this year has been free-agent steal Daniel Murphy.

7. San Francisco Giants (63–48, plus-50, LW: 7)
6. Texas Rangers (65–47, plus-4, LW: 8)
5. Cleveland Indians (62–47, plus-81, LW: 4)
4. Baltimore Orioles (63–47, plus-38, LW: 6)
3. Toronto Blue Jays (63–49, plus-79, LW: 3)
2. Washington Nationals (66–45, plus-135, LW: 2)
1. Chicago Cubs (69–41, plus-182, LW: 1)

All signs pointed to 2016 being Bryce Harper’s year. At age 22, he’d torn through the NL last season, pocketing his first MVP award and drawing breathless comparisons to the likes of Ted Williams. The Nationals figured to improve this year and contend for an NL East title, and Harper seemed the obvious pick to lead the way. With a .254/.455/.585 batting line and Washington in first place one-quarter of the way into the season, that pick seemed to be the right one.

Things have changed a great deal since then. The Nationals still hold the top spot in the NL East, opening up a seven-game lead, but Harper has gone cold after his torrid start, batting just .223/.326/.366 since the 40-game mark. The player who’s taken the mantle in his stead, meanwhile, landed in Washington after signing a three-year, $37.5 million deal that now looks like a colossal bargain. Harper might get the headlines, but right now, Daniel Murphy is the straw that stirs the drink.

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The 31-year-old second baseman has blown away every other season of his career, batting an off-the-charts .353/.393/.619. He leads the NL in hits, doubles, batting average, slugging percentage, total bases and overall park-adjusted offense. An excellent contact hitter throughout his career, Murphy’s skills have soared into the stratosphere this year: He holds one of the league’s highest contact rates and a near-.400 batting average on pitches in the zone. And while he has always been a solid singles-and-doubles hitter, Murphy is reaching the seats far more often this year, setting a new career-high in homers (21).

The baseball world has a unified theory when it comes to Murphy’s newfound dominance. It holds that Mets hitting coach Kevin Long suggested multiple tweaks, including moving much closer to the plate, closing his stance and crouching more, all of which would hopefully enable Murphy to pull the ball more often and ideally drive the ball further, too. As the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell wrote, Long suggested those changes before the start of the 2015 season, but Murphy didn’t put it all together until the second half of last season, leading into a jaw-dropping performance in the postseason. Last fall, SI’s Ben Reiter wrote in more detail about the Long-Murphy collaboration and its impressive results.

The underlying numbers suggest those vastly improved results might stick around for a while. Murphy’s pulling the ball more often than ever before, making more hard contact than ever before and driving the ball in the air more often than ever before.

For the Nats, the keys to success now lie with the rest of the roster. After conversations with multiple teams, they made righthanded closer Mark Melancon their big deadline pickup, steering clear of the bigger deals that required truckloads of prospects going the other way. Melancon has answered the call so far, firing four scoreless innings with six strikeouts and just one hit allowed. Pursuing a pending free agent not named Aroldis Chapman could prove to be the perfect balance of meaningful addition, sans future regret.

Now Nationals fans just have to sit and wait, hoping this is the year that the powerhouse team everyone’s been waiting for finally catches fire in the playoffs.