Odd Man Rush: Second half opens with wide-open NL MVP race

With the second half of the baseball season set to get underway on Friday, locking in on the favorite to come out of the National League is no simple task.

The obvious choice is the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that currently has the best record in baseball thanks in large part to a staggering plus-127 run differential.

And while the Cardinals have perhaps the deepest and most talented lineup in the NL, they are only one-game up in the NL Central on the biggest first-half surprise in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates. And of course, teams like the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers, just to name a few, are certainly talented enough to give the Cards a run for their money.

But even more wide open than who will actually capture the NL Pennant is what player will emerge by season's end as the Most Valuable Player of the league.

While the American League has a heavy-favorite in Triple Crown-threat Miguel Cabrera, no one player has jumped to the forefront of MVP discussions in the Senior Circuit.

There are, of course, a number of candidates who have grabbed poll positions in the race, but who follows Buster Posey as the top player in the NL is still anybody's game.

Posey himself is one candidate, putting up solid numbers for a Giants team that is eight games under .500 and 9-40 when scoring four runs or fewer. Posey, the reigning NL batting champion, is hitting .325 for the defending champs with 13 homers and 56 RBI while playing a demanding position behind the plate.

After Posey, there are four other players from the NL West who could garner MVP talk. The latest is another former batting champion in Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who has returned to form of old with a .386 average through 39 games, having spent time on the disabled list twice this season.

Still, Ramirez is batting .427 since June 19 and a healthy second half will have him right in the MVP mix.

Other players out of the NL West having MVP-like seasons so far include Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt (.313, 21 HR, NL-leading 77 RBI), and Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez (.302, NL-high 25 HR, 64 RBI) and Michael Cuddyer (.330, 16 HR, 55 RBI).

The NL could see a catcher win the award in consecutive seasons for the first time if 31-year-old Yadier Molina doesn't wear down in the second half. Despite a nagging right knee issue, Molina leads qualified NL hitters with a .341 average to help spark the NL Central-leading Cardinals.

Teammate Carlos Beltran (.309, 19 HR, 53 RBI) also continues to defy Father Time at the age of 36, while 2010 MVP Joey Votto is putting together another solid campaign and leads the league with a .434 on-base percentage.

With the close races in the NL's West and Central divisions, it is no surprise that each has a handful of MVP candidates. The pickings are much slimmer in the NL East, where the Atlanta Braves own a six-game edge over the Washington Nationals and another half-game edge over the third-place Philadelphia Phillies.

The Braves' Justin Upton looked Miguel Cabrera-like in April with a .298 average, 12 homers and 19 RBI in the month, but has gone yard just four times since and has seen his average dip to .255.

Freddie Freeman's 61 RBI and .308 average for the Braves look nice, as does Domonic Brown's line of .273/23 HR/67 RBI for the Philadelphia Phillies, but neither are MVP worthy.

Ditto for the Nationals, who have gotten solid contributions from a number of players but just don't have that one bat who has been hot all season.

Want a dark horse pick?

How about Milwaukee's Jean Segura, a 23-year-old All-Star who leads the NL with 121 hits to go along with a .325 average, 11 homers, 36 RBI and 27 stolen bases.

Those numbers are certainly good enough to stay in the discussion given the current state of the NL and an outstanding second half could vault the shortstop to the head of the list.

So who was the first-half MVP?

Gotta go with Molina, who should earn respect with his numbers at a grueling position for the most successful club in the league thus far.

Rounding out the top 5: Gonzalez, Posey, Votto and Segura.