Beginning Monday, Major League Baseball will be handing out its annual awards to players who've achieved some of the finest seasons in recent memory.
In the National League, Brewers slugger Ryan Braun (MVP) and Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw (Cy Young) are seeking to repeat in their respective categories. However, Braun is facing serious challenges from the likes of Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen, while Kershaw is getting pushed by R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez.
The awards will unfold like this: Rookie of the Year (Monday), Manager of the Year (Tuesday), Cy Young (Wednesday) and MVP (Thursday).
Here is a breakdown of all the NL finalists: (Click here for the AL list)
Ryan Braun (Brewers) — A disputed positive test for an elevated level of testosterone threatened Braun's first 50 games of the season. Fortunately for the Brewers' slugger, a panel overturned the suspension, allowing Braun play a full year. The reigning NL MVP took full advantage of the reprieve, hitting 41 home runs and 108 RBIs to go along with a .595 slugging percentage, which ranked second in the league.
Buster Posey (Giants) — After suffering a gruesome broken leg in 2011, an injury that cost him most of the season, Posey bounced back with the best year of his young career. Posey led the NL with a .336 batting average in addition to career highs in home runs (24) and RBIs (104). The 2010 rookie of the year, who caught teammate Matt Cain's perfect game in June, was also a big part of the Giants' World Series championship this season.
Andrew McCutchen (Pirates) — McCutchen finally lived up to the lofty expectations that were place on him since he joined the Pirates back in 2009. His .327 batting average ranked only behind Posey and set personal bests for home runs (31) and RBIs (96). McCutchen led the NL with 194 hits and recorded at least 20 stolen bases for the fourth consecutive year.
Chase Headley (Padres) — Headley is the most unlikely name on this list, yet he certainly belongs among the candidates for MVP. The third baseman had career highs in eight categories, including home runs (31), RBIs (115) – tops in the NL — and runs (95). Headley's previous best for home runs came in 2009 when he hit only 12.
Yadier Molina (Cardinals) — It's rare that two catchers become top candidates for an MVP award, but Molina – like Posey – had a terrific season. A consistent offensive weapon for the Cardinals throughout the 2012 season, Molina increased his power total to 23 dingers, and surprised opposing pitchers by stealing 12 bases. Molina also earned his 1,000th hit in September.
R.A. Dickey (Mets) — There was no indication, in any of Dickey's previous nine seasons, that the veteran knuckleballer was capable of a 20-win campaign. The journeyman had only registered two winning seasons (Texas in 2003 and New York in 2010) as he bounced around with four major-league teams. But the 38-year-old put together a magical 2012 season, finishing second in wins (20) and ERA (2.73), and led the NL with 230 strikeouts.
Gio Gonzalez (Nationals) — The Nationals were rewarded handsomely after they acquired Gonzalez in an off-season trade with the A's. Even with the presence of phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the southpaw remained Washington's most reliable pitcher, piling up a major-league best 21 wins, along with a 2.89 ERA and 207 strikeouts.
Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers) — Don't be too focused on the 14-9 record, Kershaw remains a worth candidate. It's true the left-hander's numbers were down from his eye-popping stats of his Cy Young win a year ago (21-5, 2.28 ERA, 0.97 WHIP), but he still was one of the NL's best pitchers in 2012. Kershaw ranked second in ERA (2.53), WHIP (1.02) and finished one strikeout (229) shy of Dickey.
Bryce Harper (Nationals) — Sometimes rookies thrive no matter the hype. That certainly was the case for Harper. The former No. 1 overall pick was called up in late April and never looked back. At only 19, Harper was the youngest player to homer in the major leagues since 1998 and also made the all-star roster. For the year, Harper hit 22 home runs, scored 98 times and had 57 extra bases – the most for any player under 20.
Todd Frazier (Reds) — Perhaps not other rookie played with more poise than Frazier. With the Reds battling for the NL Central crown and all-world first baseman Joey Votto on the shelf following knee surgery, Frazier delivered in the clutch, hitting .305 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs in the Canadian's absence. His overall season was no less impressive, finishing with 19 home runs and a .273 batting average.
Wade Miley (Diamondbacks) — Consistency was Miley's calling card in 2012, one the Diamondbacks will take on a yearly basis. Miley, a first-round pick in 2008, paced the D'backs with 16 wins – tied for sixth in the NL – and a respectable 3.33 ERA. Miley tied Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish for most wins by a rookie this season.
Dusty Baker (Reds) — Baker is a three-time manger of the year winner (1993, 1997, 2000) and guided the Reds to the post-season for the second time in his five-year stint. With Baker at the helm, the Reds won the NL Central on the strength of a 97-65 record.
Bruce Bochy (Giants) — Already an elite manger, the 57-year-old elevated his status to another level after leading the Giants to a second World Series title in three seasons. Bochy's even-keel style is a perfect demeanour for his team, which dominated the Tigers en route to a four-game sweep.
Davey Johnson (Nationals) — Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo took a lot of heat for shutting down prized Strasburg in September, but no one can argue with the Nationals' success. The team came into its own in 2012, finishing with the best record in baseball (98-64) to take the NL East crown.