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04/02/09 10:42 AM ET

Usual suspects dot early NL MVP list

Candidates include perennial favorites Pujols, Howard, Manny

For the last three seasons, the Phillies have led the National League Most Valuable Player conversation, dominating it with three different voices, actually.

With Ryan Howard taking the '06 award, Jimmy Rollins following up with the '07 honor and Chase Utley making an annual case himself, Philly has been -- and still is -- the talk of the NL MVP town.

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Then they went and blew it last year. They got their trophies all mixed up.

Instead of one of them getting the postseason hardware, all three of them got to share the biggest trophy of all as World Series champions.

No, they didn't mind one bit.

Albert Pujols took top honors in 2008 with a .357 average, 37 homers and 116 RBIs that helped buoy the Cardinals deep into the postseason race. He's a no-brainer candidate again.

There are a couple of Mets who could have a say again in the race, and let's not forget about the guy in the Dodger blue doo-rag and smartly cropped dreads.

Heading into 2009, the NL MVP race is star-studded and tightly packed. But here are five candidates, and a sixth just for good measure:

1. Pujols: The reigning honoree gets top billing. A Top 10 vote-getter since his debut in 2001, whatever the Phillies have to say about the MVP, he'll get a word in edgewise every time.

With his legendary batsmanship and his ability to stay in the lineup, the numbers will always be there. But what he gets with this era of Cardinals more than the previous version with more veteran stars is the ability to separate himself by helping his team achieve and, perhaps, overachieve.

He's certainly capable of delivering, so he has to be at the top of the list.

2. Manny Ramirez, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers: With his 17 homers and 53 RBIs in the final two months, Manny earned a fourth-place nod in voting last year. Certainly begs the question: How much can he do for them in a full season?

Manny would have hit about 45 homers and driven in about 150 if you took what he did in two months and roughly extrapolated it out to six months. And that probably would have vaulted him to the top of the MVP list. Scientific, it's not. But illustrative? A little.

Does that mean he'll just put up those same numbers in 2009? Don't bet your dread wig on it. But don't dismiss it, either -- or at least something approaching it.

Put another way: The Dodgers should expect nothing less than an MVP performance after all the offseason drama and hyperbole.

3. Howard: Of the three Phillies, it could be said he's the one with the most to gain by his own performance -- in part because Rollins and Utley are there getting on base in front of him, or at least should be. And having Raul Ibanez behind him could be an upgrade.

Oh, and while we're playing extrapolation games, Howard went for 18 homers and 51 RBIs the final two months of the season, so it's not as though Ramirez stands alone in bringing into '09 fond memories of a strong finish to '08.

4. Jose Reyes, SS, New York Mets: Hard to pick one over the other, but there's this concept to consider: If Reyes steals a ton of bases and scores a ton of runs, he won't do it on his own, but he sure will have put David Wright and Co. in position to deliver their goods. Besides, you have to have a speed guy in the conversation if Howard indeed does drown out Rollins this year.

5. Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers: In his first year, his offensive prowess was enough to carry him to Rookie of the Year honors. Last year, his ability to help power the Brewers to the postseason for the first time since 1982 was enough to put him among the elite.

There's a trend there, but it gets a little tougher up at the glass ceiling of the NL MVP elite. Perhaps more than the other top candidates -- even Pujols -- Braun's performance is tied to his team's success. If Milwaukee doesn't contend with Braun pounding the drum along the way, it'd be hard to see him take his meteoric rise to the next level.

And one more for good measure . . .

6. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida Marlins: Some might call him the best all-around player in the league. And some might be right. The skills he possesses combined with the ability to turn it into production have been beyond impressive. If he can somehow raise the Marlins into the NL East conversation, and that's the most likely way it'd happen, then we could be looking at the next big thing.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.