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Who's in first?

There's no clear favorite for the top spot on the AL MVP ballot

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / November 18, 2008
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While Dustin Pedroia seems to be the front-runner heading into today's American League Most Valuable Player announcement, Kevin Youkilis, Justin Morneau, Carlos Quentin, and Francisco Rodriguez are all going to garner support, and with good reason.

There wasn't really a true No. 1 candidate for most of the season. Josh Hamilton was the favorite, it seemed, right up to the All-Star break and shortly thereafter, but he began to slow down while Quentin's stock was rising fast. After Quentin was hurt Sept. 1, Pedroia and Youkilis gained steam, with the momentum - in the form of attention - more in Pedroia's corner.

Which is why the vote could be close.

Before injuring his wrist, Quentin was the heart of the White Sox' order, and he ended his season hitting .288 with 36 homers, 100 RBIs, a .394 on-base percentage, and a .964 OPS.

Quentin, 25, was on his way to leading the White Sox to a division title in the AL Central. He had the earmarks of an MVP candidate - the numbers, the big bat in the middle of the order. Could you conservatively add 5 homers and 20 RBIs to those totals for the final month of the season?

But Quentin went down, which elevated the candidacy of Morneau and Rodriguez.

Quentin may still get votes, but as Morneau himself put it during the stretch run, "This is the time of year when you show whether you're an MVP. If you can help lead your team to the playoffs, then you should be in the running for the award."

With the Twins fighting for a playoff berth and falling just short, Morneau didn't have the best of endings: .243 with 2 homers and 21 RBIs in September. Yet his .300 season average with 23 homers and 129 RBIs certainly make him a contender. But Pedroia hit .326 the final month with 2 homers and 15 RBIs, while Youkilis, who missed five games at the start of the month because of injuries, hit .275, his worst monthly average of the season, with 5 homers and 21 RBIs.

There's a theory that if Pedroia and Youkilis split enough of the vote, Morneau could sneak in and win his second MVP.

The case is less compelling for Rodriguez, who set a season record by saving 62 of the Angels' 100 wins, an impressive feat. Yet late in the season Rodriguez's name wasn't coming up much in MVP discussions, prompting his manager, Mike Scioscia, to say, "He should be a strong contender for the Cy Young and the MVP."

There might not be a lot of love for K-Rod because the Angels were such a dominating regular-season team; they clinched their division Sept. 10, the night K-Rod earned his 56th save. All that was left for Rodriguez was to mount more saves, which he did.

The theory among some baseball officials is that if K-Rod was saving games in a tight divisional race, he would be considered a more serious contender.

But is that his fault?

"If it wasn't for K-Rod, we wouldn't have had the season we had," said teammate Gary Matthews Jr. in late September. "To have a guy you know is going to shut down a close game - what's that worth? That's everything right there."

Mark Teixeira also said at the time, "I think that's pretty valuable. It gives everyone a sense of confidence - the starting pitchers, the positional players, everyone - to know you have someone that dominating to end a game."

Matthews and Teixeira were right, but did that resonate with the voters?

Pedroia's case is compelling because he won the Gold Glove at second base, won a Silver Slugger for being the best offensive player at his position, led the league with 54 doubles, and was considered the heart and soul of the Red Sox.

Youkilis played both corner positions after Mike Lowell went down and ended up with a .312 average, 29 homers, and 115 RBIs. He hit .374 with runners in scoring position and .358 with men on base. He was voted the Hank Aaron Award as the league's best offensive player.

In an up-for-grabs type of field, two things often stand out with voters: the Morneau theory, about leading the team down the stretch run, or being the best player from start to finish who helped his team win.

There is no wrong answer. Any of the guys mentioned are deserving. It just seemed that Pedroia was the guy most talked about, the one who seemed to stick in the minds of voters.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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