Can Soto topple Harper for NL MVP honors tonight?

Wednesday night, we saw a former Nationals star come up short in a bid to win another major end-of-season award. Tonight, we could see either a different former Nationals star or a current one win the biggest award of all.

The National League MVP will be announced around 6:25 p.m., and the names of the two frontrunners are as familiar as they get around here: Bryce Harper and Juan Soto. (Fernando Tatis Jr. also was named a finalist, but the Padres shortstop is widely expected to finish third behind the other two.)

This is Soto’s first serious run at an MVP award, on the heels of a fifth-place finish last season and ninth place the year before that. And the 23-year-old slugger has a very compelling case to win, built upon a second-half performance that ranked about the best in baseball history.

Harper, though, has an equally compelling case to win his second MVP, perhaps even a slightly more compelling case than his former teammate in D.C. The unanimous winner of the 2015 award produced his best offensive season since that one, leading the league in slugging percentage (.615), OPS (1.044) and doubles (42) while batting a cool .309 with a .429 on-base percentage, 35 homers and 84 RBIs.

Thumbnail image for Soto-Connects-Blue-Sidebar.jpgSoto led the league in one category: on-base percentage. But oh, did he put up a big-time number in that department: .465, far outdistancing Harper’s mark. And he was no slouch in the other categories, as well, finishing with a .313 batting average, .534 slugging percentage and .999 OPS to go along with 20 doubles, 29 homers and 95 RBIs.

That Soto’s numbers wound up there was testament to a monster second half, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen before. In 72 games after the All-Star break, he batted a ridiculous .348/.525/.639, that on-base percentage representing the fourth-highest second-half mark since the All-Star Game was created in 1933.

Soto’s hard charge put him in a position to possibly overtake Harper in OPS down the stretch, but he finally cooled off over the season’s final week and a half, going 3-for-28 with zero extra-base hits. And that little slip-up in late September might have spoiled his case.

Harper was nearly as productive in the second half himself, batting .338/.476/.713 after the All-Star break for a 1.188 OPS. And with the Phillies still clinging to postseason hopes until the final week, he continued to produce, delivering a 1.084 OPS over his last 17 games.

A team’s record used to matter a great deal to MVP voters, but that seems to have changed over the last decade. It’s quite telling that none of this year’s three finalists’ teams made the postseason.

But the fact that Harper was a huge reason - probably the biggest reason - an otherwise lacking Phillies roster was still in contention down to the end should help his case, at least a little bit. And that Soto’s monster second half came for a Nats team that traded away eight veterans and commenced a rebuild won’t help his cause, fair or unfair.

Regardless of tonight’s outcome, there’s no question Soto will be in this position again, probably as the frontrunner to win an MVP sooner rather than later. And it should be said Harper almost certainly will compete for more MVP awards himself as he enters his 30s.

Which means the Soto vs. Harper and the Nationals vs. Phillies rivalries aren’t going away any time soon.

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