Spring is almost here, and that means the official start of the 2018 baseball season is just around the corner! The off-season always feels way too long, but soon we’ll all be grabbing a hot dog and a beverage while we enjoy the sights and sounds that only watching a baseball game can produce. Or maybe you’re just a stat geek who thrives on your multiple fantasy baseball leagues (no shame in that). The point is, that for sports fans everywhere, the start of the baseball season is always something special.

The off-season has been a strange one, with the free agent market freezing colder than the North Pole. Many of the biggest names waited until the last minute to sign, with almost every free agent getting fewer years and less dollars than anticipated. From a team perspective, we’ve already offered our thoughts on who has a chance to win the 2018 World Series (check that story out right here), but now we want to focus on the individual.

The 2018 MVP race should be one of the most interesting in recent years, with a groundbreaking crop of elite players hitting free agency next winter. Maybe the lack of big contracts being offered ahead of 2018 means plenty of teams are saving their money hoping to land one of the really big fishes for 2019 and beyond. If that’s the case, then there is plenty of incentive for some players to put up MVP numbers in an effort to land that once-in-a-career payday.

The MVP race isn’t restricted to upcoming free agents, though. There are plenty of locked up players who are just stupidly good at baseball, and could easily claim the 2018 MVP trophy ahead of the previously mentioned free agents. With that being said, here are 12 players we think could win the 2018 MVP (six from each of the National and American Leagues, since there are two awards).

National League

12. Joey Votto

Joey Votto may be in his mid-30s, but he appears to be unaffected by all passing of time. He will celebrate his 35th birthday in September, and hopes to have the Cincinnati Reds in the hunt for a postseason spot by that time. Even if he can’t get his team into October, there’s still a good chance this is the year that voters will once again recognize Votto’s ridiculous talent.

Since his first full year in the majors in 2008, Votto has led the NL in on-base-percentage six times, and twice in on-base+slugging percentage. He finished second in MVP voting in 2017, seventh in 2016, and third in 2015. He actually won the NL MVP in 2010 with a monster season of 37 home runs, a .324 average, and 113 RBIs. Which is almost identical to the numbers he put up in 2017.

Votta is one of the game’s pure hitting machines. While his defensive ability at first base is perfectly fine, Votto’s chances at the 2018 MVP rest solely on his bat (and, perhaps, and his ability to carry the Reds to a meaningful season).

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

11. Max Scherzer

There’s a strong argument that pitchers should not be eligible for the regular season MVP, since they have a separate (and equally prestigious) award to contend for in the Cy Young. While we can accept the logic in that argument, the fact remains that unless MLB changes their rules (they won’t), it’s impossible to ignore some of the elite pitchers in the game when it comes to MVP talk.

Enter Max Scherzer. The Washington Nationals ace pitches like he has ice in his veins, and has actually finished in the top ten in NL MVP voting in each of the last two years. Even more impressive is his back-to-back Cy Young wins in 2016 and 2017, after putting up seasons with a 2.96 ERA, 20-7 record, and 284 strikeouts (2016) and a 2.51 ERA, 16-6 record, and 268 Ks (2017) — leading the NL in Ks both years.

The Nationals are on the verge of their championship window closing, especially if Bryce Harper leaves next winter (plus Scherzer will be 34 this summer — hardly a youngster). If they are going to finally get to a World Series in 2018, they will need another dominant year from Scherzer. He’s likely to deliver, and that will put him squarely in the MVP conversation (even if pitchers shouldn’t be able to win it).

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

10. Nolan Arenado

Slowly but surely, Nolan Arenado is getting closer to putting the MVP trophy on his mantle. In his last three seasons with the Rockies, the All-Star third baseman has finished eighth, fifth, and then fourth in MVP voting. In our article about bold predictions for the 2018 season, we confidently proclaimed that Arenado has a legitimate shot at winning the NL Triple Crown this year (batting average, home runs, and RBIs). Even if he doesn’t quite accomplish that milestone, he’ll likely be close.

The 26-year-old slugger has put up at least 37 home runs and at least 130 RBIs in each of his last three seasons, and has been steadily improving his average and OPS numbers every year. He’ll be hitting in a lineup that includes D.J. LeMahieu (.310, 189 hits in 2017), Charlie Blackmon (.331, 37 home runs, 104 RBIs), Trevor Story, and Carlos Gonzalez. Add in the offense boost of playing half his games at hitter friendly Coors Field, and the fact that the Rockies look ready to make some serious playoff noise, and Arenado is a solid pick for NL MVP.

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

9. Clayton Kershaw

I know we said that pitchers should stick to the Cy Young award and leave the MVP for everyone else, but… well, we just can’t ignore the dominance of Dodgers leftie Clayton Kershaw. In fact, he actually won the MVP award back in 2014 and there’s no reason he can’t do it again. He’s one of the most unhittable pitchers in all of baseball, with a career ERA of 2.36 and an impressive WHIP of 1.002. He’s led the league in ERA five times, in strikeouts three times, and in WHIP on four separate occasions. While the “win” stat doesn’t mean as much as it used to in our modern world of advanced analytics, Kershaw is still about as close to a sure thing as there in in baseball.

Since his first All-Star season in 2011, Kershaw has gone 118-41 for a .742 winning percentage. That stretch also includes two 20-win seasons, which is still a milestone mark in the modern game. He’s also a three-time Cy Young winner and the Dodgers are hoping to once again make it to the World Series in 2018 (after losing the Fall Classic to the Astros in 2017 and falling in the 2016 NLCS to the Cubs). Although the Dodgers have a stacked lineup (thanks to a huge payroll), a lot of their success or failure will depend on Kershaw’s performance. He’s already a Dodgers legend, but a second MVP would truly cement his place in baseball history.

Kershaw could technically be a part of the free agent class this winter too, since his current contract contains an opt-out after 2018. However, he is scheduled to make a combined $65 million in 2019 and 2020, so it’s possible he just takes the sure money and stays in L.A.

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

8. Kris Bryant

Kris Bryant had a “down year” in 2017, and still managed to finished seventh in MVP voting. That tells you just how impressive in actual MVP-winning season of 2016 really was. In just his second year in the Bigs, the prized Chicago Cubs prospect cranked out 39 home runs, adding 102 RBIs and a league-leading 121 runs. He slashed for .292/.385/.554. Even more important than any of that, he helped break the 108-year championship drought at Wrigley Field, as the Cubbies would finally capture another World Series title.

Bryant won’t be a free agent until 2022, but he already signed one the largest contracts for a first-year arbitration eligible player when he agreed to a one-year,  $10.85 million deal in January 2018. He has three more arbitration years left before his contract expires, so basically he will get paid according to his production. The better he does, the higher those arbitration numbers will soar. The Cubs are still in their championship window, with a strong pitching staff and dangerous lineup of hitters. Bryant will likely be hitting No. 3 or No. 4 in that lineup, which should contribute to another strong offensive showing from the former Rookie of the Year. He’s pretty handy with the glove on the hot corner, as well. A strong defensive year could boost his MVP potential.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

7. Bryce Harper

Like Kris Bryant above, Bryce Harper actually has a recent NL MVP in his trophy case. He was on the 2015 MVP with a season where he led the league in runs (118), home runs (42), on-base percentage (.460), and slugging percentage (.649). He also tacked on a .330 batting average and 99 RBIs, which didn’t top the leaderboards that year but were still damn impressive. He missed over 50 games in 2017, but still managed to get 134 hits, 29 home runs, and 87 RBIs. For most ball players, that’s a pretty decent entire season.

Harper is in the last year of his current contract, and it’s likely he will command one of the richest contracts in baseball next winter. There are rumors floating around of teams preparing war chests in an attempt to land the 25-year-old right fielder. Could Harper really be in line for a 10-year, $350 million deal (or higher, as some have suggested)? If he puts forth an MVP caliber season in 2018, the sky could be the limit for his next payday.

There’s no reason to think Harper won’t put up career numbers in 2018. The Nationals are pretty good, with the likes of Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy in their lineup. Their pitching staff is one of the best in baseball (although they need to find a reliable closer this year). Harper has both the individual talent and the right teammates to do serious damage in the NL this season, and potentially take home another MVP — and maybe a first ever World Series title for the Nats?

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

American League

6. Josh Donaldson

Switching over to the American League, we start with the interesting case of Josh Donaldson. After an MVP-winning season in 2015 (41 home runs, 123 RBIs, .297/.371/.568) and leading the Toronto Blue Jays to the ALCS in back-to-back years, Donaldson had a setback in 2017. He missed almost 50 games due to injury, and even when he was playing, it seemed obvious that he wasn’t 100 percent healthy. Despite that, he still managed to hit 33 home runs and knock in 78 runs, although he saw a dip in almost every notable offensive stat.

Donaldson will be a free agent after the 2018 season, but he’ll be 33 in December. That’s a lot older than the likes of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado (other elite upcoming free agent players), and we just saw a bizarre offseason where massive free agent contract offers simply ceased to exist. At this point, we’re not sure if anyone knows what Donaldson’s value is on the open market. But, if he wants to jack up that number for what will likely be the biggest payday of his career, having a monster 2018 season should be his focus.

On top of the contract situation, the Blue Jays have a short chance left at championship contention. While most expect them to fall behind either the Yankees or the Red Sox for the AL East title, they still have a strong pitching staff and a number of credible threats at the plate. They are, on paper, better than the 2017 team that finished 76-86 and should be in the Wild Card hunt come September. With a healthy Josh Donaldson leading the way, motivated both by his upcoming free agency and his attempts to bring a championship back to Toronto, an MVP season seems extremely possible.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

5. Corey Kluber

Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber doesn’t need an introduction. The reigning AL Cy Young winner (the second of his career) is one of the most feared pitchers in the game. In fact, he finished seventh in MVP voting last year on the back of an 18-4 season where he put up a frugal 2.25 ERA and a downright stingy 0.869 WHIP. He pitched five complete games (three of them shutouts) and struck out 265 batters in 203.2 innings pitched. In short, he was a dominant, efficient work horse the Tribe.

There’s no reason not to expect more of the same from Kluber in 2018. The Indians one again have championship aspirations, after losing the 2016 World Series in heartbreaking fashion and being bounced from the 2017 postseason by a red hot Yankees team. Kluber has strong defense behind him (although he rarely needs it), and will likely get more than enough run support to have a shot at winning 20 games — something he’s never actually done, topping out at 18 wins in both 2014 and 2017.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

4. Manny Machado

The last of the big name upcoming free agents, Baltimore Orioles third baseman (but maybe shortstop this year?) Manny Machado is looking to bounce back in 2018 after a slight dip in performance in 2017. Last season he hit .259/.310/.471, with 33 home runs and 95 RBIs. One season earlier, though, he hit .294/.343/.533 with 37 dingers and finished fifth in MVP voting. He broke into the big leagues at just 19-years-old, so he represents a rare situation in baseball — an unrestricted free agent, with a huge bat and elite infield defense, who is still just 25-years-old. While the era of 10-year contracts may be long over, it’s not unreasonable that Machado could get a seven, eight, or nine-year contract offer.

Machado has two major obstacles in his quest for the AL MVP though. The first is that he plays in the toughest division in baseball, and will have to face the talented pitching staffs of the Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays for a huge percentage of his games. The second is that the Orioles look like they will stink this year. Most major outlets aren’t giving the O’s much of a chance this year — Fangraphs, USA Today, and Bleacher Report all predict they will finish last in the AL East, even behind the lowly Tampa Bay Rays. Whether you agree with this trend or not, MVP voters rarely give much consideration to a player who can’t even drag his team into postseason contention. Machado definitely has the talent to become an MVP, but is probably giving the other candidates a head start due to his division and his team.

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

3. Justin Verlander

This is the last pitcher, we promise. But if we don’t include the reigning ALCS MVP, what kind of list would this be? Justin Verlander spent his entire career with the Detroit Tigers until he was traded to Houston at the deadline in 2017. Suddenly surrounded by better players on a red hot contending team, Verlander fed of the youthful energy of guys like Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa as he turned back the clock.

Despite being in his mid-30s (which isn’t really that old for a pitcher), Verlander rattled off five straight wins for the Astros as the regular season winded down. His ERA in those games was a minuscule 1.06, striking out 43 batters in 34 innings pitched, to the tune of a unthinkable 0.647 WHIP. He continued his strong performance into the postseason, going 4-0 in the ALDS and ALCS against Boston and the Yankees. He was especially great against New York, pitching a one-run complete game (with 13 Ks) in Game 2. While he wasn’t as dominant in the World Series against the Dodgers, he still gave six strong innings in both Game 2 and Game 6, allowing three and two runs respectively.

As the Astros look to repeat as champions in 2018, they get a full season of Verlander this time around. It’s hard to argue that Houston doesn’t have the best rotation in the AL, and possibly even the entire league. Verlander seems to thrive in that ultra competitive environment. Houston has the talent and run support to give him a 20-win season. If he can carry over his incredible late season heroics into the 2018 regular season, it’s entirely possible that Verlander could be in MVP contention come October.

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

2. Mike Trout

You knew he would be on this list eventually. When it comes to the AL MVP, the question usually boils down to this: “Was anyone actually better than Mike Trout this year?” Often, the answer is “no,” which is why Trout won the award in both 2014 and 2016. Even when he didn’t win the MVP in 2015 and 2017, he still finished second and fourth in voting. It’s been a long time since baseball has seen such a complete, five-tool player.

Trout missed almost 50 games due to injury in 2017, and still managed to hit 33 home runs, 72 RBIs, and 92 runs, with 22 stolen bases and slashing .306/.442/.629 (the best OBP and SLG in the league). Just imagine what those numbers will look like if he stays healthy for the entirety of 2018.

The one knock on Trout is that his team doesn’t make the playoffs. They’ve only qualified once in six years since Trout entered The Show, and were promptly swept in the ALDS by Kansas City. However, they look poised for a comeback year. We mentioned them as a dark horse World Series contender in our prediction piece, and with the likes of Shohei Ohtani and Albert Pujols lurking in the DH spot. While baseball is still a team game, Trout needs to at least get the Angels into meaningful September baseball.

(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

1. Jose Altuve

We’re ending this list with the most obvious choice, the defending AL MVP Jose Altuve. The diminutive Astros second baseman more than makes up for his lack of size with his play on the field. He’s a more than adequate defender, but Altuve truly shines as a hitting machine. He’s led the AL in hits in each of the last four seasons and hasn’t hit below .313 since 2013 (and he hit a whopping .346 last year). It’s not all singles either, as Altuve cranked out 24 home runs and 43 extra base hits in 2017. And even if he does only make it to first base, there’s a good chance he’ll steal second anyway — 32 swiped bags in 2017, and a career average of 38 per 162 games played.

The Astros should be damn good again this year, and Altuve will once again slot into a lineup that features other great hitters like Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer, and Josh Reddick. They will score plenty of runs, and Altuve’s stats should skyrocket. The race for AL MVP likely comes down to Altuve and Trout, and we have to give the edge to the defending champ.

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)