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Many contenders, one favorite for NL MVP

Many contenders, one favorite for NL MVP

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No, the "P" in MVP doesn't stand for Pujols.

It might seem that way in the National League, with the Cardinals' super-slugger having won the NL Most Valuable Player Award in two of the past four seasons and seemingly cruising toward his second straight honor, for which the results will officially be revealed Tuesday.

But while the man they call "The Machine" appears to have been an automatic ballot-punch in 2009, it wasn't quite that simple for the voters of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Almost 20 NL players were in good position to receive votes, and a group of the usual suspects were right there with typically outstanding numbers.

Then again, Pujols won the MVP last season while his team finished out of the running for the postseason, and this year the Cardinals steamrolled the NL Central before bowing out to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. All MVP votes were cast before the start of the postseason.

To his credit, Pujols improved his statistical output in home runs (a Major League-leading 47), runs scored (an NL-leading 124), slugging percentage (a big-league-leading .658) and walks (a career-high 115) from 2008. He also led the Majors in on-base-plus-slugging (a big-league-best 1.101), drove in 135 runs, made his seventh straight All-Star team and won his second straight Silver Slugger.

Heck, he even finished with 16 stolen bases, which tied his career high set in 2005. And he played excellent defense at first base, too, just missing out on a second Gold Glove.

CANDIDATES BY THE NUMBERS
Pujols Fielder Ramirez
G 160 162 151
AB 568 591 576
AVG .327 .299 .342
R 124 103 101
HR 47 46 24
RBI 135 141 106
SB 16 2 27
OBP .443 .412 .410
SLG .658 .602 .543
OPS 1.101 1.014 .954

"I don't know how anybody could ever be better than he is," Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright said during the season. "Ever. No offense to Henry Aaron and all those guys. I'm sorry, Hank. Albert Pujols is really, really good."

That's why it will be a major upset if Pujols doesn't take home his second consecutive NL MVP honor Tuesday, even though he's up against a good number of worthy contenders.

Here's a rundown of the leading NL MVP candidates:

THE FAVORITE
Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (.327, 47 HR, 135 RBIs): The only question, most likely: Will it be unanimous?

CONTENDERS
Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida Marlins (.342, 24, 106, 27 SB) : Led the NL in batting average (.342), reached the 100-RBI mark for the first time in his career with 106, hit 24 home runs and stole 27 bases to annex his second straight Silver Slugger award. Pretty special stuff for anyone, let alone a much-improved defensive shortstop.

Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers (.299, 46, 141): He didn't reach the 50-homer plateau the way he did in 2006, but he got close with 46, and his NL-co-leading RBI total of 141 was the best single-season mark of his career by far. His batting average (.299), on-base percentage (.412) and OPS (1.014) were career highs as well.

Andre Ethier, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers (.272, 31, 106): Topping the 30-homer (31) and 100-RBI (106) marks for the first time for the club that had the best record in the NL made up for the batting average (.272), which was down from 2008. Ethier established a career high in runs scored (92) and won his first Silver Slugger, but his season was defined more by his six walk-off hits, four of them home runs. The six walk-off hits were the most in one season for a Major Leaguer since at least 1974.

DARK HORSES
Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies (.279, 45, 141): It's tough to argue with Howard's typically eye-popping numbers, but across the board (.279 average, 45 homers, 141 RBIs, .931 OPS), they weren't as good as Pujols' or Fielder's. Howard's strikeout total of 186 ranked second in the NL, and comparably good seasons by three of his teammates -- Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth -- probably didn't help him in the voting.

Derrek Lee, 1B, Chicago Cubs (.306, 35, 111): After a few down -- for him -- offensive years, D-Lee responded with his best overall numbers since his watershed season of 2005.

HONORABLE MENTION
Matt Kemp (.297, 26, 101, 34 SB), Dodgers; Utley (.282, 31, 93, 23 SB), Ibanez (.272, 34, 93) and Werth (.268, 36, 99), Phillies; Pablo Sandoval (.330, 25, 90), Giants; Ryan Braun (.320, 32, 114, 20 SB), Brewers; Mark Reynolds (.260, 44, 120, 24 SB), D-backs; Adrian Gonzalez (.277, 40, 99), Padres; Ryan Zimmerman (.292, 33, 106) and Adam Dunn (.267, 38, 105), Nationals.

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

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