MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Bryant, Rizzo front-runners for NL MVP

Teammates are tearing it up for NL Central-leading Cubs

Bryant, Rizzo front-runners for NL MVP

CHICAGO -- Brace yourself. The great National League MVP Award debate of 2016 is coming, if it is not already raging at your office, on your radio or in your favorite tavern.

Which one of the Cubs have you got? Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo?

Jake Arrieta, for what it's worth, calls Bryant a "very special guy'' but says Rizzo is "a tremendous player … pretty much our MVP about every year.''

In manager Joe Maddon's perfect world, Bryant and Rizzo both could win.

"They really share one name -- Bryzzo,'' Maddon said, referring to the Bryzzo Souvenir Company ads for Major League Baseball. "Maybe Bryzzo could be named the MVP.''

Rizzo joked Thursday he might treasure the honor more than his younger teammate.

"He's won an award the last 15 years, so I think it just would come natural [for him],'' Rizzo said. "If it was me, I'd probably have it in my locker, sleep with it.''

Rizzo's RBI double to right

Why not? If the Cubs hang onto their wide lead in the NL Central and either Rizzo or Bryant win the NL MVP Award, they'd become only the fourth Cub to win the MVP Award on a first-place team, joining Phil Cavarretta (1945), Gabby Hartnett ('35) and Rogers Hornsby ('29).

That's how special this chance is.

Bryant has a chance to win the NL MVP Award the year after winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Rizzo, who is in his fifth season with the Cubs, suffered through the rebuilding years at Wrigley Field before Bryant and other talented players arrived.

There are candidates outside of Chicago, of course. Daniel Murphy, Nolan Arenado, Buster Posey, among others. But this has been the Year of the Cubs in baseball, and Rizzo and Bryant certainly aren't slowing down.

Rizzo's amazing grab

Rizzo's "Fiddler on the Roof" walk across the top of a brick wall to catch a foul ball on Tuesday night epitomizes the defense of a team that leaves few possible outs on the field. But you win MVP Awards with your hitting, and Bryant had one of the best games of his career in Thursday's 9-6 victory against the Brewers.

Bryant was 5-for-5 with two home runs and a double, tying Arenado for the NL lead with 30 home runs. That overshadowed a two-double day by Rizzo, who moved past Murphy to take the NL lead with 36.

The Brewers' Corey Knebel may have signaled his feelings about the NL MVP Award race in the bottom of the eighth inning, when he threw up and in on Bryant -- just before Bryant slammed an RBI single to left.

Meet your new MVP favorite.

The good news for Rizzo is that the Bryant-Rizzo debate figures to go back and forth many times between now and Oct. 2, when the 30 selected voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America (two following each team) submit their ballots.

"These next six weeks will really separate them,'' Maddon said. "[It will] put them definitely in that conversation.''

There's only the slightest difference between Bryant and Rizzo as hitters.

Rizzo is batting .291 with a .960 OPS; Bryant, .296 with a .956 OPS. Bryant, who leads Rizzo in runs scored 96-72, has clearly benefitted from having Rizzo behind him. But the other side of that coin is that Rizzo leads Bryant in RBIs 86-78 because he's had the speedy Bryant getting on base at a .392 rate.

While Rizzo is a strong Gold Glove candidate at first base, some voters could lean toward Bryant because he is a solid defensive third baseman who is also a plus defender wherever you put him in the outfield. He also has a significant baserunning edge on Rizzo.

Wins Above Replacement values the more well-rounded Bryant above Rizzo (5.5-4.6, per Baseball-Reference.com; 5.9-4.1, per FanGraphs). Both have leadership skills and grace under pressure. But Rizzo deserves some extra credit for helping create the welcoming atmosphere that Bryant has thrived in, doesn't he?

Maddon is right that this will go down to the end. The Cub who has the best September will probably win, unless something crazy happens.

The danger is that Bryant and Rizzo will split the vote and one of the other candidates slips in to grab the hardware. That happened in 1996 when the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez won the American League MVP Award after the Mariners' Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. split votes.

Rodriguez, who outplayed Griffey by a hair, hurt himself by playing humble. Rodriguez said he'd vote for Griffey if he had a vote, and manager Lou Piniella added to the chorus by saying that Griffey was the team MVP in part because he had hit behind his younger teammate.

Sort of like Rizzo hitting behind Bryant.

Bryant says he and Rizzo have joked that Rizzo is like Prince Fielder, who batted behind Miguel Cabrera in his AL Triple Crown year.

"He told you that?'' Rizzo said Thursday, his head snapping toward Bryant at the next locker.

Here's one thing you can make book on: Maddon isn't going to endorse a candidate while the polls are open.

"No,'' Maddon said. "I wouldn't. Honestly I wouldn't. I might give it up after the season's over, but that's the kind of thing that could create a rift within the group. I really would want to avoid that.''

Maddon expects the best from his players, who long ago earned his confidence.

"I think they'll be fine,'' Maddon said. "I've watched them interact. KB, if he has an ego, I haven't seen it. This guy comes to play every day, and he doesn't react any differently. Rizz is probably a little more animated. I want to think they'd root for each other in that particular moment. I honestly do.''

So who you got?

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.