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Five alive: NL's top MVP candidates

Five alive: NL's top MVP candidates

Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard won the National League Most Valuable Player in 2006 and Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins won it last year.

Second baseman Chase Utley might make it a hat trick for the Philly infield in 2008.

Utley is certainly talented enough to pull it off. He finished eighth in the voting last year despite being limited to 132 games because of an injured hand. He still managed to drive in 103 runs, hit 22 homers and bat .332 with a .410 on-base percentage. There's no reason to think he won't surpass those totals this season on a team expected to contend for a playoff berth again.

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San Francisco had five consecutive MVP winners from 2000-04 but that was two players, Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds. Cincinnati's Big Red Machine had three MVPs in a row (Joe Morgan in 1975-76, George Foster in 1977) and six in an eight-year span during the 1970s.

But if Utley manages to walk away with the MVP trophy next fall, it would be only the third time in NL history three different players from the same team won MVP honors in three consecutive seasons.

The last time it happened was during World War II, when Mort Cooper (1942), Stan Musial (1943) and Marty Marion (1944) did it for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Reds did it during 1938-40, when Ernie Lombardi, Bucky Walters and Frank McCormick, respectively, won the award.

Obviously Utley faces an extremely difficult task.

Not only are teammates Rollins and Howards primed for MVP-caliber seasons, there are other perennial candidates like Albert Pujols of St. Louis and Chipper Jones of Atlanta. Other recent vintage stars like Atlanta's Mark Teixeira, David Wright and Carlos Beltran of the Mets, Matt Holliday of the Rockies, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun of the Brewers and Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez of the Cubs also figure to put up eye-popping numbers for contending teams.

The race starts March 31, and here's five early NL MVP candidates to keep an eye on:

1. Chase Utley, Phillies. Utley's career track is entering a perfect storm of factors that could enhance his chances of having a career year. He's 29 years old, entering his fourth full season (sixth overall) in the Major Leagues, playing in a hitter's park in a lineup that should lead the league in scoring again. If he stays healthy, Utley should have a monster year.

Opening Day
Countdown to Opening Day
•   March 23: Turnaround tales to be told
•   March 23: Rule 5 decisions loom
•   March 24: Free agents on the spot
•   March 25: Breakout players in 2008
•   March 25: Comeback candidates
•   March 26: Top storylines for '08
•   March 26: Top AL rookie candidates
•   March 26: Top NL rookie candidates
•   March 27: AL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: NL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: Breaking down '08 slate
•   March 27: Century since Cubs' title
•   March 28: Top AL MVP candidates
•   March 28: Top NL MVP candidates
•   March 29: Changing of guard at short
•   March 30: Predictions for '08
•   March 30: '08 milestones
•   March 30: Season preview

2. Matt Holliday, Rockies. The Colorado left fielder finished second to Rollins in the balloting last fall and received 11 first-place votes, just five fewer than Rollins. Last year was Holliday's fourth year in the bigs, and his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles, home runs and RBIs continued their four-year streak of climbing higher than the year before.

If that trend continues, look out in 2008, because last year Holliday led the league in hitting (.340), extra-base hits (92), total bases (386), doubles (50) and RBIs (137). He finished fourth in home runs (36), third in slugging (.607) and seventh in on-base percentage (.405).

3. Prince Fielder, Brewers. He doesn't turn 24 until May 9, and yet Fielder's NL-leading 50 homers helped keep Milwaukee in contention. Fielder, who batted .288 with 119 RBIs and a .395 on-base percentage, hasn't even played 400 Major League games, and yet he was the only player other than Rollins and Holliday to receive first place votes (five) in the MVP voting last year.

Makes you wonder what the youngest player to hit 50 homers in a season will do when he gets a little more experience.

4. David Wright, Mets. Wright's MVP campaign faded with the Mets' fall from first place in the NL East, but it wasn't the third baseman's fault, and he still wound up fourth in the voting.

Wright hit .364 with 14 homers and 56 RBIs in the second half and wound up batting .325 for the season with 30 homers and 107 RBIs, all career bests. Wright, who won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards last year, has finished in the top 10 in hitting and RBIs each of the three years he's been the regular third baseman. The 26-year-old should put up similar numbers again in 2008, and if so, he would make the short list again.

5. Albert Pujols, Cardinals. The St. Louis first baseman finished ninth in the voting last year, ending a remarkable run. Until last year, Pujols' first six years in the league had seen the slugger finish fourth, second, second, third, first and second, respectively, in the NL MVP voting for 2001-06.

Pujols remains a force, but with the Cardinals undergoing major changes to the lineup and Pujols having an elbow issue that could flare up at any time, his MVP chances heading into this season figure to be lessened.

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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