Dark Horse Candidates For 2023 MLB Awards

Identifying six under-the-radar award candidates.

As we begin another MLB season, it may feel as though we already know the answers, especially when it comes to who is taking home the game’s most coveted awards. AL MVP? That’s got to be Shohei Ohtani. He’s the best player in baseball! NL Cy Young? How could it not be Sandy Alcantara? He’s unhittable. AL Rookie of the Year? That’s Gunnar Henderson’s to lose. He’s the best prospect in baseball. 

As last year showed us, however, it’s often the players we least expect who take home the hardware. Who among us saw a 39-year-old Justin Verlander posting a 1.75 ERA in his first season back from Tommy John Surgery? What about Paul Goldschmidt having a career year at age 35? How about Spencer Strider nearly taking home NL Rookie of the Year a season after posting a 4.71 ERA at Double-A, only for Michael Harris II, his teammate, to earn the honors after never playing a game in Triple-A?

In this article, we’re going to try and get ahead of the curve. For each major award, I identified one player outside Vegas Insider’s top five candidates for each award who have a real shot at winning. So without further ado, let’s kick things off with a former number-one pick looking to take the big jump in year two.


AL MVP: Orioles C Adley Rutschman (+2400 odds)


The state of catcher offense in the MLB is not pretty. With the increased emphasis on pitch framing, teams are willing to stomach truly awful numbers from their backstops as long as their pitchers like throwing to them. Many of the strong offensive catchers, such as Kyle Schwarber or Bryce Harper, are moved from the position before they settle in at the major league level, leaving the position bare of standout offensive performers. Among qualified catchers in 2022, only J.T. Realmuto, Will Smith, Alejandro Kirk, and Sean Murphy were above-average hitters. 

It is against this backdrop that Adley Rutchsman made his MLB debut and established himself as not just a franchise cornerstone, but an absolute unicorn. There is simply nothing he can’t do on a baseball field.

He might be the best pure-hitting catcher since Buster Posey, and will likely contend for batting titles in his prime. He’ll hit 20-25 home runs. He walked and struck out at above-average rates, a feat that many of his rookie classmates could not come close to matching, and even managed to rank in the middle of the pack for sprint speed.

And just in case you think he’s going to move to first base or designated hitter, he also ranked in the top quarter of the league in pitch framing and pop time. All in all, despite not debuting until May, Rutschman still managed to put 5.2 WAR as a rookie, which already puts him in borderline-MVP candidate territory. 

The only question that remains is how soon Rutchsman can reach his massive potential. And if the 2023 season opener was any indication, it’s going to come sooner rather than later. He reached base in all six of his plate appearances, tallying five hits and a home run on his first swing of the season.

Obviously, one game is too small a sample size to make any grand assessments, but it shows that when Rutchsman is going right, there are few better hitters in the game, let alone catchers. If Rutchsman stays healthy and takes even a small step forward from last season, he will be right in the middle of the MVP conversation.


NL MVP: Atlanta 3B Austin Riley (+1600 odds)


What do you look for in an MVP candidate? Well, first and foremost, given how much the voters overvalue offense, you need someone who can rake. Austin Riley rakes and then some.

By any metric you want, Riley was among the top handful of hitters in baseball last season, ranking in at least the 95th percentile of average exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and barrel percentage. He maximizes this power by lifting the ball and, more specifically, lifting the ball to the pull side, which is a large reason why only eight players have homered more over the last two seasons.

The second thing to look for is year-to-year growth, and Riley has checked that box as well. One of the biggest knocks on Riley as a rookie was his plate discipline, or rather lack thereof. In 2019, Riley walked 16 times against just 108 strikeouts.

While no one will ever confuse him with Juan Soto, Riley has made massive strides, setting a career-high last year with a 8.2% walk rate and a full-season low with a 24.2% strikeout rate. Every season of his career, Riley has improved on his WRC+, culminating in an MVP-level 142 last season

The final thing, and perhaps the most overlooked one, is the ability to play day in and day out. Riley has missed just three games over the last two seasons, fewer than any player except Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien. With MVP awards so dependent on counting totals, Riley’s durability gives him a great chance of ranking near the league leaders in home runs, WAR and RBI, critical metrics to both new-school and old-school voters. 

A good benchmark for Riley is the MVP season of Kris Bryant. In 2016, Bryant slashed .292/.385/.554 with 39 home runs and 102 RBIs, just slightly better than Riley’s average over the last two years (.288/.358/.530, 36 home runs, 100 RBI). If Riley takes another step forward like he has the last two seasons, he should match or surpass those numbers and be among the favorites for NL MVP. 


AL Cy Young: Astros SP Framber Valdez (+2000)


It is truly shocking that Vegas gives Framber Valdez only the 12th-highest odds to win the American League Cy Young Award. In fact, Valdez doesn’t even have the best odds in his own rotation; that would be Cristian Javier, who is about to begin his first full season in a big-league rotation. 

Yet, maybe the reason Valdez is so criminally underrated is because there’s nobody in the league quite like him. Standing at just 5’11, 235 pounds, Valdez nonetheless showcased his remarkable durability last year, leading the league with 201 innings and three complete games.

He doesn’t post gaudy strikeout numbers or possess an elite fastball, but his pitch-to-contact approach allows him to work deep into games, and his heavy sinker allows him to rack up ground balls at a higher rate and allow home runs at a lower rate than anyone in the league.

The most impressive part of Valdez’s game, however, isn’t his durability, his ground ball excellence, or his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. It’s the fact that he might have the single-most unhittable pitch in baseball. Valdez’s curveball is downright nasty, holding batters to a .146 batting average, a .196 slugging, and a 45.4% whiff rate.

Just for fun, let’s compare that to Emmanuel Clase’s cutter, which is widely regarded as the best pitch in the game.



Obviously, the comparison is a little bit unfair because Clase throws his cutter almost twice as often as Valdez throws his curveball, but it goes to show how much Valdez has mastered his pitch mix and pitch tunneling. Batters are so concerned about not pounding his sinker straight into the dirt that his curveball out of the same plane gets them to expand the zone and come up empty nearly half the time. Throw in a cutter that held batters to a .118 batting average last season, and trying to piece together a Valdez offering is an almost impossible task.

To find a precedent for someone with Valdez’s skillset winning the Cy Young award, one only needs to go back to last season. Like Valdez, Sandy Alcantara didn’t possess the strongest strikeout numbers, but his heavy sinker and pitch-to-contact approach allowed him to pitch an MLB-leading 228 ⅓ innings and nearly match Valdez by allowing just 0.6 home runs per nine innings.

That’s the formula for Valdez. And with a newly-cemented status as the ace of the defending World Series champions and another strong defense behind him, all the pieces are there for him to take home the 2023 AL Cy Young award. 


NL Cy Young: Reds SP Hunter Greene (+5000)


Of all the dark horses on this list, Greene might be the one with the longest odds. He is entering his age 23 season with just 24 starts to his name; 24 starts, I may add, in which he displayed hit-or-miss control, an inability to work deep into games, and no clear third pitch, He also plays in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks for one of the worst teams in baseball. Not exactly a shining resume for a Cy Young winner.

Yet there’s one more thing about Hunter Greene. He may throw harder than any starting pitcher. Ever. His fastball sat at 99 miles per hour last year, and paired with a hard slider that induced whiffs at nearly a 40% clip, Greene struck out 11.7 batters per nine innings, a total topped only by Spencer Strider among starters.

When he was right, he was unhittable, and over his last six starts of 2022, he was really, really right. Over that span, Greene pitched to a 1.02 ERA, striking out 51 batters and walking just eight batters.

The elephant in the room is that Greene missed nearly a month and a half in the middle of that stretch with a shoulder strain, an all too common refrain for Greene. He missed the end of the 2018 season and the entire  2019 season while recovering from Tommy John Surgery before the 2020 season was altered due to the pandemic. In total, Greene has topped 110 innings just once and 70 innings just twice, putting into question whether he can handle a starter’s workload, let alone pitch enough innings to have a case for the Cy Young.

As many warts as there are in Greene’s game, however, it’s not that difficult to imagine a world in which Greene puts it together. With just a little injury luck, a little more refinement of his changeup, and a little more command of his elite fastball and slider, Greene could take the massive leap that only pitchers with his level of explosive stuff are capable of.


AL Rookie of the Year: White Sox OF Oscar Colas (+1700)


The 2023 American League rookie class is one of the most stacked in recent memory.

Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe and Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson are both top 10 prospects in the game who will be given everyday at-bats from the get-go. Red Sox first baseman Triston Casas was just a notch below in rankings, but impressed with his power and plate discipline during last year’s September callup, and should spend a majority of the season as a starter. And while he may not seem like a rookie, Japanese phenom Masataka Yoshida will qualify for this award, and if he matches his offensive projections, he should be right in the middle of the conversation. 

All of this is to say that it will take a unique talent to contend with these future stars. That’s where Oscar Colas comes in. Colas has taken an unconventional route to the majors, playing professionally in both Cuba and Japan before the age of 20, but has impressed at each stop. He finally came stateside in 2022, and given that he hadn’t played in a professional game in two years, the White Sox conservatively assigned him to High-A Winston Salem.

Colas quickly proved that he had no ill effects from the layoff, laying waste to three different levels of minor league pitching and ultimately ending the season with an impressive seven-game cameo at Triple-A Charlotte. Overall, Colas slashed an impressive .314/.371/.524 with 23 home runs in just 119 games. 

With Oscar Colas making the White Sox Opening Day roster and the lack of outfielders on the depth chart in front of him, getting enough at-bats to realistically qualify for Rookie of the Year will not be an issue. The far bigger question, however, is whether his lack of plate discipline will drag down his overall numbers.

Despite his high batting average, Colas walked just 38 times against 120 strikeouts in 2022. This is far from unheard of though, as three of the last four Rookie of the Years have all had less-than-ideal plate approaches:



Even if Colas draws walks at a subpar rate, his elite bat-to-bat skills and plus power should still allow him to put up well-above-average offensive numbers. With the competition surrounding him in the American League, Colas definitely faces long odds for the Rookie of the Year award, but as his career has shown us, he’s made a habit of exceeding expectations.


NL Rookie of the Year: Ezequiel Tovar (+1200)


If you’re trying to pick a dark-horse winner for the NL Rookie of the Year, looking at the Rockies’ shortstop is a good place to start.

In 2007, Troy Tulowitzki helped the Rockies win the National League pennant with a .291/.359/.479 slashline, and given that he more than doubled Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun in WAR, he probably should have won the award. His successor, Trevor Story, burst onto the scene in 2016 by becoming the first player to homer in their first three career games en route to a 122 OPS+ and a fourth-place finish in the rookie of the year voting.

Like his predeccesors, Ezequiel Tovar will begin his rookie season as the everyday shortstop on the back of a standout minor league season. Despite being one of the youngest players in Double-A, the 20-year-old Tovar put up some gaudy numbers while flashing his standout tools all year long. He slashed a terrific .319/.387/.540, homered 17 times in just 71 games, and converted on 17 of his 20 stolen base attempts.

The crazy thing is, Tovar’s offense isn’t even the strongest part of his game; MLB.com rates his glove as a 70 on the 20-80 scale, declaring he has Gold Glove potential and a strong likelihood of staying at shortstop long-term.

Besides a seemingly endless collection of tools, Tovar has a couple of other points working in his favor. First, he had the fortune (or misfortune) of being on the Colorado Rockies, a team that has no intention of competing. So unlike Jordan Walker of the Cardinals and Corbin Carroll of the Diamondbacks, two teams that expect to at least be in the playoff race, Tovar will be given every opportunity to work through his struggles without the threat of getting benched or demoted.

The second thing working in his favor is the benefit of playing in Coors Field. It’s no secret how much playing in the Mile-High Air can benefit one’s offensive numbers, and with Tovar’s speed, he should be able to rack up an impressive number of extra-base hits. The thin air will also benefit Tovar’s power, which MLB.com rates as slightly below-average, to play up, and 20-25 home runs may be more of a possibility in Colorado than anywhere else. 

Though not as strong as the American League, the National League still features some strong candidates in the aforementioned Walker and Carroll. And while the former may surpass the 30 home run plateau and the latter may contend for a stolen base crown, neither possess the collection of tools of the Rockies shortstop. He may not be the favorite, but don’t be surprised if Tovar’s all-around game earns him some hardware

Daniel Fox

Since attending my first Red Sox game in 2009 at the age of seven, Daniel has been obsessed with all things baseball. Over time, he has learned to combine his love for writing, debating, and performing with his love of baseball. As a junior at Ithaca College, Daniel has been involved with both the TV and radio stations as an on-air personality while also continuing his passion for writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login