More than one national baseball columnist has speculated that voters for the 2012 National League Most Valuable Player award might hold something against the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun.
The reason? His positive drug test from last October. The one that Braun got overturned on appeal. The one that was supposed to be confidential shy of a guilty verdict by an arbitrator. The one that has nothing to do with the 2012 season, when Braun has passed every drug test administered.
A sticky wicket, wouldn't you say?
The logic - if you can call it that - behind that line of thinking is that Braun was exonerated with a chain-of-command defense, considered by many a technicality. The test itself reportedly was not challenged, only the manner in which it was collected and delivered. Braun's camp, of course, contended those issues invalidated the test itself because tampering could have occurred with his urine sample during the delay in shipping.
Braun proclaimed his innocence from the very start but never revealed what he often referred to as "the true story." Some even suggested his 2011 NL MVP award be taken away, though his positive test was in October - for an extremely high level of testosterone - after ballots were cast by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America for the regular season.
Voters are going to do what they're going to do. But if any leave Braun off their 10-man ballot completely there will be some explaining to do because his offensive numbers absolutely make him a leading candidate to claim MVP honors again.
Beyond Braun's tremendous production, his candidacy is boosted by the Brewers' charge back into the playoff picture. In July, when the team was foundering and showing no reason to believe a charge was coming, Braun's numbers were not as compelling in an MVP sense.
Should the Brewers pull off their improbable push to the second wild-card berth, Braun's chances of winning will increase even more. But, just being in the chase makes him a bona fide MVP candidate.
Braun conceded after winning the award last year over Los Angeles' Matt Kemp that he was greatly aided by the Brewers winning the NL Central crown while the Dodgers went nowhere. How a team fares often plays a role in the voting when candidates are close because players are given credit for performing with more at stake.
Which brings us to San Francisco catcher Buster Posey, who has been gaining steam in the MVP debate. The Giants are safely on top in the NL West and Posey has been a big reason for that status as a dynamic offensive player in an otherwise mundane lineup.
Posey is a shoo-in for NL comeback player of the year after suffering a devastating leg injury last year in a collision at the plate. That factor, along with playing the key role of No. 1 catcher, will boost his candidacy.
But how does Posey's offensive production compare with Braun's? He has a big lead in batting average - .335 to .315 entering Saturday - but Braun had better numbers in nearly every other category: 40 to 23 in home runs, 107 to 96 in RBI , 332 to 272 in total bases, 98 to 74 in runs scored, .599 to .545 in slugging percentage, .989 to .954 in OPS and 29 to one in stolen bases. Posey had a .409 on-base percentage to .390 for Braun.
On numbers alone, Braun has the edge over Posey. He leads the league in homers, RBI, slugging, total bases and OPS. Accordingly, if Posey gets much stronger support than Braun in the BBWAA balloting, something else likely is in play. That scenario would indicate some voters believe Braun escaped a 50-game suspension to start the season merely through good lawyering. And MLB did him no favors by firing arbitrator Shyam Das in outrage after the verdict.
Anyone who has watched Braun over his first six seasons in the majors realizes he doesn't need artificial help in pummeling pitchers. Aramis Ramirez, who bats behind Braun in the Brewers' lineup, recently gave his teammate a ringing endorsement.
"He's the best player I ever played with," Ramirez said. "It's not because of the homers. It's everything. He can steal a base whenever he needs to. He plays good defense.
"I don't know about being a better hitter (than in 2011) but he's having a better year. He has hit 40 home runs and over 100 RBI. He's going to score over 100 runs again. He can do everything."
While Braun's candidacy has been bolstered by the Brewers' run, Pittsburgh centerfielder Andrew McCutchen has been harmed by the Pirates' folding act down the stretch. Had the Pirates marched into the playoffs as they once appeared destined to do, McCutchen likely would have been the MVP favorite.
McCutchen certainly has the credentials for strong consideration - a .338 batting average entering Saturday, 30 home runs, 92 RBI, 102 runs scored, .408 OBP, .567 slugging percentage, league-best 186 hits.
There has been some talk about St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina being in the discussion. He is having a fine season but nothing like Braun, Posey or McCutchen. It's a three-horse race, and Braun's numbers should have him in the lead by at least a nose.
Two baseball writers representing each NL city vote for the NL MVP. The ballots are due before the postseason but the results are not announced until after the World Series.