When Span went deep twice a refrain that has become familiar over the past couple months rang out again. Could Denard Span be a legitimate MVP candidate? This often moves to can Anthony Rendon be a legitimate MVP candidate? before our attention is drawn elsewhere. The answer to the first is no, and to the second is probably, but really any Nats player has to fight the way the Nats are made up.
Let's look at the WAR totals for the Nationals, Dodgers, Cardinals, Brewers, Giants, and Pirates, because unless you are awesome it's playoff teams that get the MVP. Yes, I understand the flaws inherent in WAR*, but it'll give us a place to start. Given bWARs (Baseball Reference's WAR, which calculates defensive stats differently that fWAR Fangraph's WAR) numbers look a little funny in regards to Span, we'll use fWAR for this argument.
LAD Kershaw 6.0
MIL Lucroy 5.6
SFG Pence 5.4
STL Peralta 5.2
PIT McCutchen 5.1
WSN Rendon 5.0
You may want to argue, say Peralta (.271 / .347 / .458) is not better than Rendon (.280 / .338 / .468), but as you can see the argument right off the bat doesn't have much merit. That's close to a wash offensively. Could Peralta be better than Rendon in the field? Well, he plays a tougher position and the three-year cycles for defense suggest - yes, he's really that good - so yes, he could be. But really you are arguing a difference that is not meant to be definitive. They are pretty much the same. So Rendon has an argument.
But looking at the above Kershaw he should have a distinct edge. Even though the distance between Kershaw and Rendon isn't definitive, it does mean at some level it's more likely Kershaw has been more valuable. What does one think outside of WAR? That's difficult to say with stats, since you are comparing a pitcher and a batter. I can say Kershaw is historically good as a pitcher and Rendon... he's pretty good for an offensive player. And what does the gut say**? Kershaw (at least to me). To me it'd be cut and dried if the season ended today.
But there may be a contingent of "I won't vote for a pitcher for MVP" idiots out there. We all know that. So why do I keep Rendon at a "probably" when he seems to be definitely in the mix? A couple reasons. One reason, as I said earlier, is the make-up of the Nats. Let's continue looking at WAR.
3rd/5th/7th Best Player
LAD Ryu 3.2 / Gordon 2.9 / Uribe 2.5
MIL Ramirez 2.8 / Davis 2.1 / Lohse 1.7
SFG Bumgarner 3.8 / Pagan 2.1 / Blanco 1.6
STL Wainwright 3.5 / Molina 2.8 / Jay 2.3
PIT Harrison 4.3 / Walker 2.3 / Melancon 1.4
WSN Werth 3.7 / Strasburg 3.3 / Roark 2.6
No team is as balanced with very good players like the Nats are. The difference between their best player and 7th best player in this broad generalization, is easily the closest. The Pirates and Giants are top heavy, clearing out quickly to "just good" players. The Brewers aren't even top heavy. The Dodgers have balance but there is a bigger drop from Kershaw. The Cardinals are the closest to what the Nats have but are a half-step behind at every level. More than any team in the NL the Nats aren't led by anyone. It's hard to get an MVP when your team is thought of in that way.
What else is hurting Rendon? Well, if we do focus on the more reliable offensive stats, which is something MVP voters tend to do anyway, Rendon is good but clearly behind players like McCuthen, Pence and say a Puig. In fact, he's most likely behind Werth in that respect. It's not helpful to your cause when you're not the best offensive player on your team.
Where's Span in all this? Around where Werth is, which makes sense to me. His defense may be getting undervalued but enough so that I think he's clearly more important than Rendon? I can't say that. Plus with Span you run into the McCutchen problem. McCutchen is clearly much much better offensively even with Span having arguably the best season of his career. To put Span ahead of McCutchen you have to first say Span's defense is being severely undervalued then you have to say McCutchen's defense is NOT being undervalued. That's a little too much picking and choosing for me.
So the Nats don't have an MVP. I wouldn't be surprised if they don't even get someone in the Top 5 in voting. (Kershaw is a lock. McCutchen will be too unless the Pirates just die in September. Stanton won't win but he'll get enough votes to be top 5 because he's awesome). The Nats won't have a Cy Young (Kershaw). They'll just have to settle for having the best team.
And I mean that in the talent sense, not the nebulous "spirit" sense that some bad sportswriters boil it down to when you have a team without a great player. The Nats have a lot of very good and good players. Let's please not take the lack of an MVP and run it into some trite "good clubhouse" nonsense, ok? I'm talking to you Boz.
*WAR is a measure of offense and defense combined. While the stats community feels they have a pretty good grasp on offensive value, no one really trusts defensive statistics for a single year to be very accurate.
**Silly question? Not if you are asking for a vote. You are asking for people's opinions for God's sake. Why would they not use their gut?