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Friday, August 9
Updated: August 10, 5:36 PM ET
 
Hunter tops the list of MVP candidates

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

There's been a changing of the guard in the American League the past few seasons, and it's reflected in the look of the AL MVP race.

Just like two of the three division races and the wild-card spot, this prize is still up for grabs. But among the leading contenders are a handful of players who weren't in the big leagues when the millennium began. Heck, a few weren't even in this country.

At a time when baseball is staring down another labor impasse, it's at least comforting to know for the game's future that new stars continue to emerge. These players are multi-talented, exciting and young.

Torii Hunter
To go along with his stellar glove, Torii Hunter has also shown pop in his bat this season.
Let the National League voters choose from the old guard like John Smoltz, Barry Bonds and Curt Schilling. The AL has a list of relative newcomers who could impact the league for years to come.

Here are the candidates:

1. Torii Hunter
The case for: If you get right down to the real meaning of valuable, it would be difficult to get past Hunter's name on the ballot. He should win a Gold Glove for his outfield play, he's a good baserunner and he hits for average (.307) and power (24 home runs). The Twins don't have the payroll or the means to surround him with great players, but Hunter has become the best player on the game's most surprising team.

The case against: Hunter's RBI total (72) is off and he doesn't steal as many bases (17) as other athletic players do. The Twins may be running away with the AL Central, but a look at the rest of the division suggests they may be doing so by default.

The verdict: His numbers may not be the most overwhelming, but take him away from the Twins -- who haven't gotten the pitching they anticipated -- and they wouldn't be nearly as good as they are. And isn't that the very essence of "most valuable?"

2. Alfonso Soriano
The case for: It would be pretty hard to overstate Soriano's importance to the team with the best record in the league. While the pitchers have shuttled to and from the disabled list and Jason Giambi was slow to get on track, Soriano has been a revelation, injecting the one element -- speed -- the Yankees' attack had been missing. Oh, he also has power -- 28 home runs and 40 doubles (the first Yankee right-handed batter with 40 doubles since Joe DiMaggio).

The case against: Though he's capable of making the occasional spectacular play and will continue to improve, Soriano is a rather limited defensive player for the time being. That, his lack of patience at the plate (115 K's, 17 walks) and his strong supporting cast tend to diminish his contributions some.

The verdict: Soriano is on pace to become a 40-40 man from the leadoff spot, in the middle of the infield. His numbers are staggering and if Hunter fades, he could emerge as the winner. But for now, he'll likely be handicapped by being part of such a star-studded team.

3. Jason Giambi
The case for: After a slow start, Giambi has been everything the Yankees had hoped for. He's on pace for another 40-homer, 125-RBI season and has quickly and quietly assumed the role of the Yankees' No.1 slugger. Selective (second in walks and first in on-base percentage) and dangerous (third in slugging percentage) is an imposing combination.

The case against: The Yankees won before Giambi. They're winning with Giambi. They'll win after Giambi. See the point? Good as Giambi is, he's joined a powerhouse and it's hard to quantify his impact.

The verdict: Throughout their great run since 1996, the Yankees have not been the recipients of many individual awards (only Roger Clemens' Cy Young last season); people tend to recognize the entire ensemble, rather than single out any single performer. That trend could continue and could cost Giambi.

4. Ichiro Suzuki
The case for: Once again, Ichiro is the game's most dynamic offensive performer, and except for his lack of power (just six home runs), is one of the most complete players in baseball. There's a good chance he's going to win a second straight batting title (.346) and is among the league leaders in runs scored (79) and stolen bases (26). While Bret Boone has struggled and Edgar Martinez has aged, Ichiro has kept the Mariners afloat.

The case against: Compelling as he is to watch -- at the plate, on the bases and in the field -- Ichiro is also, let's face it, pretty much a singles hitter offensively. He fails to make a dent in any of the run production/power categories. Matched against some of the more punishing hitters in the league, Ichiro comes up short.

The verdict: Ichiro took the game by surprise in 2001, which generated lots of publicity. When the Mariners ran off in the AL West and he was the obvious linchpin. But the Mariners are merely good this year and Ichiro's case as MVP isn't as compelling.

5. Miguel Tejada
The case for: Don't look now, but a fourth American League shortstop has been made partner in the exclusive firm of Garciaparra, Jeter and Rodriguez. Until this year, Tejada wasn't in their class offensively, but that's changed. He has more homers (26), total bases (244) and RBI (93) than Jeter and Garciaparra and more hits (143) than all of them. He's the best offensive and defensive player on his team.

The case against: As good as Tejada has been, the A's are in the playoff picture because of their pitching. The trio of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito have the A's positioned for the wild card, and that could cost Tejada some votes.

The verdict: Unless Tejada has a torrid seven weeks and carries his teammates into the playoffs, he won't escape the shadow of his pitching staff.

6. Alex Rodriguez
The case for: A-Rod is leading the AL in homers (37) and RBI (96) and is among the league leaders in virtually every other significant offensive category -- total bases, runs scored, extra-base hits, slugging percentage and total bases. You can argue that Rangers owner Tom Hicks grossly overpaid for him, bidding $100 million more than anyone else had, but you can't argue this: A-Rod is the game's most complete player.

The case against: The Rangers are going to finish last in the AL West, albeit in baseball's toughest division. That's not Rodriguez's fault, as he's doing everything -- offensively and defensively -- that could be asked of him. But his team's poor showing gets to the "valuable'' part in the Most Valuable Player equation.

The verdict: For now, A-Rod will have to be content to simply be the game's best player, hardly a consolation prize. In this era of oversized offensive numbers, it's doubtful we'll ever again see a player from a second-division club named MVP, the way it once happened for Cal Ripken and Andre Dawson.

7. Pedro Martinez/Derek Lowe
The case for: Sure, Shea Hillenbrand, Johnny Damon and Nomar Garciaparra have all enjoyed great seasons. But the Red Sox are contending because of their pitching. Together, Martinez and Lowe have won 31 games, giving the Sox the best 1-2 pitching combination this side of Schilling-Johnson. They're entered as a double entry because their numbers are staggeringly similar.

The case against: Pitchers usually win MVPs in a vaccuum, or when their seasons are truly historic. Neither is the case here, and the two would undoubtedly eat into one another's vote totals, wiping out both of their chances.

The verdict: A more likely scenario is a down-to-the-wire vote for the AL Cy Young.

Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.







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