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Battle still very much on for NL MVP

Three of baseball's major award races are starting to feel like foregone conclusions. Even if Miguel Cabrera falls short of his second straight Triple Crown, he's a lock to capture his second consecutive American League MVP. Max Scherzer's 19-2 record and impressive WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio make him a clear favorite over Yu Darvish for the AL Cy Young. And unless Clayton Kershaw develops a mysterious case of Ricky Romero-itis in September, he's about to collect the second of potentially several NL Cys.

The only competition still generating much debate is the National League MVP, even though Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen has seized the initiative with his stellar all-around play and the Pirates' heartwarming run to the playoffs.

Bovada, the Las Vegas sports book, has McCutchen listed as a 1-to-5 favorite for the award. "McCutchen may be the only one who is not a sure thing, but with the fact that the Pirates are having their best season in 20 years and that he is such a complete player, this one is also a no-brainer," Kevin Bradley, Bovada sports book manager, said in an email.

Or is it? With 3½ weeks left in the regular season, an injury, late hot streak or other unforeseen development could put a new slant on the NL MVP dynamic. Keeping that in mind, here's a look at the top contenders in order of where they should finish:

1. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

Why he's the favorite: Every MVP winner needs a strong narrative, and McCutchen has the best one going. He's a homegrown product who played through the lean times in Pittsburgh, committed to the franchise by signing a six-year, $51.5 million contract and is leading the Pirates to the promised land after two decades of bad baseball.

McCutchen is trying to join Barry Bonds, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Roberto Clemente and Paul Waner as the sixth Pittsburgh outfielder to win the award (shortstop Dick Groat also snagged one in 1960). He leads the league with a wins above replacement of 7.2, and provides a hitting-defense-speed package that makes him valuable in a multitude of ways. McCutchen's .384 batting average in August was the highest by a Pittsburgh player since Jason Kendall hit .413 in 1996, so he entered the final leg of the season with a mother lode of momentum.

Although good citizenship points count for only so much in an MVP race, McCutchen also grades out well on the leadership-professionalism scale that MVP voters traditionally hold dear.

"He's got my vote," said Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche, who played with McCutchen in Pittsburgh in 2009. "I've always loved being around him. I don't know that he's changed at all since he first came up, which says a lot for a star. He's really humble, respects the game and plays it right. He knows he's good, but he lets his actions speak for him rather than pop off. He's one of those guys who's hard to root against."

Why he could lose: With 18 homers and 27 stolen bases, McCutchen is on track to join Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke as the third 20-30 player in Pirates history. But his power numbers are underwhelming by traditional MVP standards, so a rough September could bring him back to the pack.

One person's view: "I just love his attitude," said former Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere. "Obviously, he's a great talent. But the kid comes to play every night. You don't see him ever jog to first base. He's 100 percent every single night. He's prepared. He takes care of himself. He busts his ass. He's worked hard and now he's reaping the benefits."

The outlook: It's McCutchen's award to lose.

2. Yadier Molina, Cardinals

Why he should win it: The more you dig down into the game's subtleties, the stronger the case for Molina. He's one of baseball's elite pitch framers. He's 16-for-38 throwing out base stealers, and most runners not named Billy Hamilton simply choose to stay planted on the first-base bag. Molina is also adept at getting the best out of pitchers, whether they're seasoned veterans or callow youths. When it comes to reading pitchers' emotions and unspoken cues, he's baseball's answer to trainer Cesar Millan -- aka the "Dog Whisperer."

Molina's home run total has dipped from 22 to 10 this season, but he's compensated with an increase in doubles, from 28 to 37. His overall offensive numbers are eerily similar to Buster Posey's, which isn't a bad place to be for a catcher whose hallmark is defense. Molina also wins valor points for continuing to grind it out through nagging knee and wrist injuries.

Why he may not: Molina is the most indispensable Cardinal. But even when he went on the DL for two weeks in August, manager Mike Matheny still posted a lineup card with Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran on it. That's the sixth-leading hitter in the National League, the league's No. 3 RBI man and a pair of outfielders who've combined for 14 All-Star Game appearances. Molina is just one of several prominent bats in the St. Louis order.

One person's view: "I like to ask managers, 'If you could have any player on a given team, who would you choose?'" said a National League broadcaster. "When I ask about St. Louis, they all give me a look like, 'Are you kidding me?' Everybody knows what Molina means to that team."

The outlook: If Molina goes on a tear in September and the Cardinals pass the Pirates and win the Central, this thing could get interesting in a hurry. But Molina is banged up, and the Cardinals are 18-23 since July 25.

3. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks

Why he should win it: He's been the one true constant for an Arizona team that's suffered a slew of disappointing performances (from Ian Kennedy, Miguel Montero, Jason Kubel and David Hernandez, to name a few) and injuries (Cody Ross, Aaron Hill, Adam Eaton). Through it all the Diamondbacks have consistently leaned on Goldschmidt, who has appeared in all but two of the team's 139 games.

Goldschmidt leads the NL with 106 RBIs and ranks second to Pedro Alvarez with 31 homers, but he's more than just a slugger. He ranks first among MLB first basemen with 13 steals, and is third in the league in walks (90) and tied for second in pitches per plate appearance (4.20). Goldschmidt's defense has also prompted some Diamondbacks people to compare him with Mark Teixeira around the bag. Bill James' Fielding Bible gives Goldschmidt a defensive runs saved ranking of plus-14, second best in the league behind the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo.

"He keeps doing it over and over and over again," said Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy. "He has MVP numbers by any measure, but he's also done it in high-leverage situations. It's walk-off, walk-off, extra-inning hits. I don't know if it's more meaningful, but it feels more meaningful. And he keeps doing it without any other downside to his game. You never have to take him out of the game for defense or baserunning. To me, that's as MVP as you get."

Chase Field has been known to inflate a hitter's numbers, but Goldschmidt has been slightly more productive on the road (a .554 slugging percentage) than at home (.512). Although his numbers against the NL West aren't good, he's hitting .365 (19-for-52) with a 1.046 OPS against the first-place Dodgers.

Why he won't: The Diamondbacks are barely above .500 and a major long shot for the playoffs. That does not bode well for Goldschmidt's chances. Since the advent of the wild card in 1994, 30 of baseball's 36 MVP winners have played for postseason teams. Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds (twice) and Larry Walker are the only players to have bucked the trend.

From the manager: "If you're going to do it by the numbers, certainly he measures up there," said Arizona manager Kirk Gibson. "I know what he's done for this team. The late-inning stuff. The big RBIs. The great plays he's made. He can run the bases, and he'll steal a base when it counts. And just his impact on the team and his leadership -- just being Goldy. He would almost be shy if he knew I was talking about this."

The outlook: A noble effort will land Goldschmidt somewhere in the top four or five.

4. Freddie Freeman, Braves

Why he's in the mix: Someone needs to be in the conversation for the team with baseball's best record. It might as well be Freeman, who has gained some traction of late as an offensive pillar for an Atlanta club that's overcome a slew of setbacks.

While Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis have spent time on the disabled list, Justin Upton has been up-and-down and B.J. Upton has been mostly awful, Freeman has been a monument to consistency since his return from a strained oblique in April. He posted an .857 OPS in May, followed by .858 in June, .918 in July and .834 in August. Freeman has been especially productive at Turner Field, hitting 15 of his 19 homers to help the Braves to a major league-best 51-20 record at home.

Why he'll fall short: Freeman simply hasn't done enough to distinguish himself from some other leading candidates. He's hitting .435 with runners in scoring position, but Allen Craig has been even better at .454. And it's hard to argue that Freeman's all-around game makes him more valuable to Atlanta than McCutchen's overall package makes him to the Pirates. They have similar power numbers, and McCutchen plays a premium defensive position in center field. Freeman is one of several first basemen in the discussion, along with Goldschmidt, Craig and Joey Votto.

From a scout: "I think he's the best defensive first baseman in the league, because of his height and his feet around the bag," said an NL talent evaluator. "It's amazing how many balls he picks to save Uggla and [Chris] Johnson from getting errors. The more you watch him, the more you see."

The outlook: He's an intriguing dark-horse candidate. But it will take a major plot twist for Freeman to crack the top three.

5. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

Why he could win it: Every time ESPN or another media outlet posts a photo of Kershaw side by side with Sandy Koufax, it can only help his cause. Kershaw leads major league starters in ERA (1.89), WAR (6.6) and WHIP (0.92), and is tied for first with James Shields with 23 quality starts.

Major League Baseball's ballot instructions specify that "all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters," so voters have no reason to exclude Kershaw from consideration other than their own personal biases. Justin Verlander pulled off a Cy Young-MVP double in 2011, so there's recent evidence that the electorate will be open-minded about a pitcher who goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Why he won't: Voters have become less swayed by win-loss records in recent years, so Kershaw's 14-8 record shouldn't affect his candidacy much one way or another. His biggest obstacle is history: Since Bob Gibson and Denny McLain captured MVP awards in 1968, baseball has had 89 MVP winners (including co-winners Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez in 1979). Only six of those 89 recipients were pitchers, and Verlander, Roger Clemens and Vida Blue were the only starters.

The Kershaw-for-MVP bandwagon also lost a little steam this week when the Dodgers' ace went into Coors Field and got cuffed around by the Rockies to inflate his ERA from 1.72 to 1.89. Given the odds against him, Kershaw has very little margin for error.

The skipper's view: "He goes out there 30 times, 35 times," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told the LA Daily News. "But then as a manager you see how important that is every fifth day. He goes deep into games, saves your bullpen, stops losing streaks, extends winning streaks … it's just big."

The outlook: Enjoy that Cy Young Award and start preparing for that Game 1 start in the National League Division Series, Clayton.

Others who'll receive support

Joey Votto, Reds: Votto, the league leader with 111 walks and a .424 on-base percentage, should win an award as the most polarizing figure among the 2013 NL MVP contenders. He's an icon in the statistical community for staying true to his disciplined approach and refusing to expand his zone and give away outs. But he's simply too meticulous in the eyes of some observers, who think his 64 RBIs fail to meet the traditional standards required of a No. 3 hitter with a $225 million contract. Stats buffs may not like it, but that's the reality.

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Brandon Phillips, Reds: He leads the National League with 18 game-winning RBIs and is the first Reds second baseman to drive in 100 runs since Joe Morgan achieved the feat in 1976. Phillips' defense is always going to work in his favor. But that .316 OBP and 1.7 WAR won't help his cause.

Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers: He quietly helped keep the Dodgers afloat early in the year, when Zack Greinke was injured and the lineup couldn't produce a hit with runners in scoring position. In early August, Mattingly told reporters that Gonzalez -- not Kershaw, Yasiel Puig or Hanley Ramirez -- is the Dodgers' team MVP.

Matt Carpenter, Cardinals: He's been a huge unsung hero for the Cardinals, filling dual voids at second base and the leadoff spot. Carpenter is on track to become the first St. Louis hitter with 50 doubles in a season since Albert Pujols in 2004.

Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers: Ramirez has given the Dodgers monster production at shortstop and has been every bit as important as Yasiel Puig to the team's resurgence. But it's tough to rank him among the elite candidates given that he played four games and logged a total of 11 at-bats in April and May.

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Allen Craig, Cardinals: Craig, third in the league with 97 RBIs, is going to miss a significant amount of time after suffering a sprained foot Wednesday against the Reds.

Yasiel Puig, Dodgers: Yes, we know a lot of folks are suffering from Puig fatigue. But it's hard to deny that the Dodgers were going nowhere when Puig arrived in early June, and he immediately energized the city and the clubhouse and altered the mindset surrounding the team. The more pressing question is: How will Puig fare against a stacked array of young pitchers in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting?

Carlos Gomez, Brewers: He's having a fine all-around season and ranks second to McCutchen in the NL with a 6.6 WAR. But he's hitting only .250 with a .747 OPS since the All-Star break, and Milwaukee has been a nonfactor in the NL Central since May.

Craig Kimbrel, Braves: Kimbrel is putting up ridiculous numbers again, with 83 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings, a .159 batting average against and a 0.85 WHIP. He's been pitching on a different planet since June.