Shohei Ohtani was a two-way sensation once again, stretching the limits of what a human being can achieve on a baseball field. Ronald Acuña Jr. put together the sort of jaw-dropping, season-long performance that had looked like his destiny since he burst into the Majors as a precocious 20-year-old in 2018, setting power-speed records in the process.
With Spring Training just around the corner, both look like strong MVP candidates once again, with a shot to become MLB’s first back-to-back winner since Miguel Cabrera in 2013. But with Ohtani limited to a DH role in his first NL season and many other talented players close behind, there certainly are no guarantees.
So who should be considered the favorites for the 2024 AL and NL MVP Awards? And who are some dark horse candidates to keep an eye on going forward? MLB.com brought together a panel of five writers to make their picks and explain their thinking.
American League favorites
Rodríguez, 23, just put up a 30/30 season with Gold Glove-caliber defense … and he didn’t even have a fully great year because he posted a mere .721 OPS in the first half, then had a scorching-hot .941 OPS in the second half. One of the three AL MVP finalists above him, Ohtani, no longer plays in the AL. Rodríguez is not as strong a hitter as new Yankee Juan Soto, but he’s a much better defender and baserunner. He’s nine years younger than Aaron Judge and a better bet to stay healthy. Yordan Alvarez? Designated hitters don’t win MVPs. Baseball’s next great young superstar might.
2. Juan Soto, RF, Yankees
2023 MVP finish: 6th
This was an easy choice — a young player on a Hall of Fame trajectory, playing his contract year in his first season in pinstripes. We’ve seen how great Soto is throughout his career and he’s the kind of player we’ve seen rise to the occasion time and again. Like when he helped the Nationals win their first World Series championship in franchise history in a Fall Classic during which he turned 21 years old. And when he won the 2022 Home Run Derby as trade rumors swirled around him, controlling the narrative and showing us how good he was, yet again. And now he gets to play in New York? This will be a joy to watch.
The only question with Seager is health. Injuries have taken a significant chunk of his career so far, but despite only playing in 119 games in 2023, he led the AL with 42 doubles while smashing a career-high-tying 33 home runs (equaling his ’22 total in 116 fewer at-bats) and posting a .327/.390/.623 slash line. He was nearly a 7-bWAR player despite missing a quarter of the season. Seager underwent surgery for a sports hernia, but he hopes to be ready to go by Opening Day. If he can somehow stay on the field for 150 games, Seager could put up some incredible numbers at the plate, numbers that could take him from AL MVP runner-up in ’23, to winner in ’24.
4. Aaron Judge, CF, Yankees
2023 MVP finish: 15th
If Judge stays healthy and the Yankees have a big bounce-back season, it will almost certainly be because the most awesome offensive force in the sport led the way. Sure, new teammate Soto also could have a strong case for the award — both statistically and narratively — but we’ve seen Judge earn the honor very recently, so it’s easy to imagine him doing so again if he plays at least 130-140 games. Even while missing nearly two months with a freak right toe injury, the Yankees’ captain leads everyone in homers (138), wRC+ (179, or 79 percent above average) and fWAR (22.5) by substantial margins since 2021.
You could probably flip a coin between Rutschman and teammate Gunnar Henderson (who was eighth in last year’s AL race), as both are brilliant young players. And winning an MVP Award as a catcher is tough, with only Buster Posey (2012), newly minted Hall of Famer Joe Mauer (2009) and Ivan Rodriguez (1999) doing so in the past 47 seasons. But if anyone can do it, Rutschman is the man. The Orioles cornerstone, who turned 26 on Tuesday, is a top-tier contributor on both sides of the ball, all at a premium position — and for a club that is primed for another run at an AL East title.
National League favorites
Betts over Acuña, even with the possibilities that Acuña could improve? Risky, to be sure, but it’s partially about the fact that you should always pick the field over “the MVP will repeat,” and partially about Betts’ full-time move to second base, which gives his 2024 season an entirely new feel. If he does it successfully, the narratives will be off the charts — great defensive outfielder plays middle infield! — and the advanced numbers will look kindly upon him, too, because his elite offense is more valuable from a middle-infield spot than a corner-outfield spot. He had a real case last year before a September slide. He might have a better one in ’24.
2. Ronald Acuña Jr., RF, Braves
2023 MVP finish: unanimous NL winner
We haven’t seen a back-to-back MVP since Cabrera from 2012-13, but why not Acuña? After a record-setting season with 41 home runs and 73 stolen bases, he’s projected for another 38 homers and 56 bags in ’24. He would be the first player ever with multiple 30-50 seasons, and that projection is on the conservative side anyway, as the systems always are. Sure, the addition of Ohtani makes the NL even tougher, but there’s no reason that Acuña can’t be even better than he was last year.
3. Shohei Ohtani, DH, Dodgers
2023 MVP finish: unanimous AL winner
No full-time designated hitter has won an MVP Award — Paul Molitor (1993), Frank Thomas (2000) and David Ortiz (2005) each finished second. But if there’s anyone who could break down that door, it’s Ohtani. As soon as it was announced that the two-way superstar would undergo right elbow surgery last September and would therefore not be able to pitch in 2024, many figured Ohtani’s chances for a third career MVP Award this year had taken a hit. But consider that Ohtani will not have his focus divided between pitching and hitting, and as a result, we could see offensive output that eclipses even the phenomenal numbers he put up in his two prior MVP campaigns.
After a tumultuous 2022, Tatis got back on the field last year and was merely above-average with the bat, posting a 113 OPS+ but still flirting with a 30-30 season. His shift from shortstop to right field might make it tougher to win MVP, but being the best defensive outfielder in baseball will help his cause. This is Tatis’ age-25 season, so it’s likely he’s yet to have his peak all-around campaign. If the Padres perform better than they did in a cruelly unlucky 2023 and make a playoff push — this time without Soto — then Tatis surely will be at the center of that turnaround.
After a tantalizing 2022 debut, Carroll backed up his sky-high potential in ’23. It’s hard to expect more from a guy who just hit 25 homers and stole 54 bases, but Carroll is still only 23, and his tremendous all-around ability means there could still be room for growth. It’s also not unprecedented for a Rookie of the Year to follow that up with an MVP Award — Kris Bryant (2016), Dustin Pedroia (2008) and Ryan Howard (2006) all have done it within the past 20 years. If Carroll shines even brighter in ’24 and once again pushes the D-backs toward October, that one-two punch could be in his future.
While there could be differing interpretations about who qualifies for the “dark horse” label, the picks below had to satisfy each of the following three criteria:
- No previous MVP Award wins
- Finished outside the top 10 in 2023 AL/NL MVP Award voting
- Finished outside the top five in both 2021 and ’22
1. Royce Lewis, 3B, Twins
Key stat: .913 career OPS
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft, Lewis’s path has been slow not because of any questions about his talent, but because of questions about whether he could stay healthy enough to remain on the field. We still don’t know the answer to that — he’s 70 regular-season games into his career — but in 58 games last year, he mashed out a .309/.372/.548 (.921 OPS) line, then hit four homers in six postseason games. He’s finally got a set position (third base) and the only thing that stands between him and stardom is if he can stay healthy. That’s a huge “if,” to be fair, but we’d rather bet on talent to stay healthy than the opposite.
2. Will Smith, C, Dodgers
Key stat: 91 career HR
Only seven catchers have hit more home runs in their first five seasons than Will Smith’s 91, and remember that his first five seasons include a 60-game 2020. Smith has been a steady presence behind the plate for a consistent World Series contender his entire career and is a strong offensive presence at his position with a 126 career OPS+. There are a lot of other MVP contenders on his team, which makes this a dark horse pick, but there’s no reason why a player who carries his team in the way Smith does shouldn’t get consideration if he has a great year.
3. Riley Greene, RF, Tigers
Key stat: MLB Pipeline’s former No. 1 overall prospect
The start of Greene’s career has gone under the radar, mainly due to injuries — he missed June with a fractured left fibula, then had Tommy John surgery in mid-September — and because the Tigers haven’t contended in some time. The latter could change soon, as Detroit is coming off a 78-win, second-place finish in a wide open AL Central. Likely to be ready by Opening Day (his procedure was on his right, non-throwing arm), MLB Pipeline’s former No. 1 overall prospect is in line to be a key part of a potentially surprising season in Detroit. Only 23, Greene improved in his second year (117 OPS+), and his strong batted-ball profile backed it up.
4. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pirates
Key stat: MLB-high 7.2 defensive WAR since 2021
That Gold Glove defense gives Hayes an extremely high floor. Case in point: He has racked up 8.3 total WAR since 2022 (19th in the NL, per Baseball-Reference) despite slightly below-average offensive production (97 OPS+). In other words, if Hayes hits, he could vault into true stardom. He makes contact often enough, and hard enough, to get there. This past season brought some positive signs in terms of elevating the ball a bit more, and Hayes slashed an encouraging .299/.335/.539 in 49 second-half games. At age 27, the time is now for a true breakout — one that could help accelerate the Pirates’ path to contention.
5. Adolis García, OF, Rangers
Key stat: 47 HR between 2023 regular season and postseason
If there’s anyone on the upswing toward superstardom, it’s García, who set career highs in home runs (39), RBIs (107), runs scored (108), slugging percentage (.508) and several other categories in 2023. He also won his first career Gold Glove Award, was named MVP of the AL Championship Series against the Astros and helped the Rangers win the first World Series title in franchise history with eight postseason homers. The underlying metrics support the big season — García ranked in the top 10% among qualified batters in hard-hit rate (49.7%), expected slugging percentage (.526) and expected weighted on-base average (.366). It seems only a matter of time until he vaults himself into the MVP conversation.