Ichiro leads long list of AL MVP candidates

Though not as crowded as the National League playoff scrum, the American League race is plenty cozy itself.

Three teams jockey for position in the AL Central. Two teams battle it out in the West. For the time being, the Yankees haven't yet sewn up a sixth straight American League East crown. Two games separate two wild-card aspirants.

It's hardly surprising then that the American League MVP is jumbled, too. Of the seven teams still in contention, three won't make it to October. That, in turn, will likely disqualify a handful of MVP candidates since no AL player has won the award without getting to the playoffs since Cal Ripken in 1991.

Another curio: some teams can't field legitimate candidates. The Royals' two best players (Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney) have missed enough time because of injuries to keep their stats modest, while neither the Twins nor the A's can offer a truly worthy position player, and in this era of bloated stats, a repeat of 1988 (when Kirk Gibson won the NL Award despite rather ordinary numbers) is virtually unthinkable.

Here's a look at the field:

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro leads the American League in hitting and stolen bases and, it's generally agreed, is the best outfielder in the league.

The case for: Few players influence a game in as many ways -- at the plate, in the bases and on the field.

The case against: He may lose some votes for his relative lack of power.

The verdict: His impact is undeniable. A repeat of his 2001 award is hardly out of the question.

Bret Boone
For the first half of the season, Boone was unquestionably the Mariners' most important player, but since the All-Star break, Boone has cooled considerably and has likely been bypassed by his teammate, Ichiro.

The case for: Boone is a Gold Glove-caliber middle infielder with power.

The case against: His second-half dip will be tough to overcome, particularly if the Mariners and A's continue to jockey for the AL West title. Voters will want to see a player having an impact in the final weeks.

The verdict: He may lose votes to Ichiro. If Boone can't clearly claim to be the most valuable Mariner, it's tough to see him winning the league-wide honor.

Carlos Delgado

The Toronto first baseman is running away with the RBI title and is among the leaders in homers, runs scored, walks and on-base percentage.

AL MVP: Ichiro over Nomar Garciaparra and Magglio Ordonez.

NL MVP: Barry Bonds over Albert Pujols by an eyelash.

AL MVP: Split between Jason Giambi and Ichiro, with Bret Boone a close second. Ichiro is a more complete player than Giambi, with his Gold Glove defense and base-running ability, but you can't ignore Giambi's production.

NL MVP: Split between Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, with Gary Sheffield a half notch below (Sheffield has more help in the lineup than the other two).

AL MVP: Ichiro. This is a close call, because Carlos Delgado is having a great season. But Ichiro brings so much more to the table. He ignites Seattle's offense, he wreaks havoc on the basepaths, he makes contact, he plays Gold Glove defense. Since Seattle is in first place and Toronto is way back, I give the nod to Ichiro.

NL MVP: Barry Bonds. Not to take anything away from Albert Pujols, but if opposing teams pitched to Bonds the way they pitch to Pujols, Bonds' numbers would be staggering. The respect that pitchers will give Bonds down the stretch could prevent him from winning the MVP award.

AL MVP: Ichiro Suzuki. Carlos Delgado has had a tremendous year, but the Mariners are one of the AL's best teams, and Ichiro makes them go.

NL MVP: Barry Bonds. I'd like to split the award between Bonds and Albert Pujols, but I'll give Bonds the edge. Who thought the Giants would be this good this year after losing Dusty Baker and Jeff Kent (and Robb Nen to injury)? You could make a statistical case that Pujols is having a better year, but teams don't pitch to Bonds. He's on another planet.

The case for: Delgado carried the Blue Jays in the first half when they were surprise contenders in the American League East and continues to post strong power numbers.

The case against: The Blue Jays have faded since July and have slipped below .500, making the case for Delgado far more difficult.

The verdict: If Alex Rodriguez couldn't win the award while playing for a losing club, what chance does Delgado have?

Jason Giambi

As he did last year, Giambi started slowly but has steadily picked up steam.

The case for: Giambi leads the league in homers, walks and on-base percentage and is among the leaders in RBI and slugging percentage. On a team limited by injuries in the first half, Giambi kept the Yanks afloat offensively.

The case against: Giambi's contributions in the field are minimal -- the Yanks prefer Nick Johnson's glove at first base -- and his batting average won't help his cause.

The verdict: Check your history: Yankee MVPs are rare. Giambi isn't likely to reverse that trend in a crowded field.

Nomar Garciaparra
Garciaparra more closely resembles the 1998-2000 version of himself (pre-wrist surgery), stinging the ball everywhere and regaining his power stroke.

The case for: Remarkably consistent (51 multi-hit games, numerous hitting streaks), in the top tier in total bases and enjoying his finest year in some time at shortstop.

The case against: Garciaparra is not among the league leaders in RBI or homers, two customary statistical benchmarks for MVP candidates. Also, his home-road split in batting average and production will raise some eyebrows.

The verdict: If he can lift the Sox to the playoffs with a strong September, he might emerge as a consensus choice. More likely, he'll have to be satisfied with a top-five finish.

Manny Ramirez
Once more among the leaders in numerous offensive categories (batting average, homers, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage), Ramirez is having a typically excellent year at the plate.

The case for: Ramirez remains one of the game's top run producers, and his outfield play, with some exceptions, have been upgraded.

The case against: Ramirez hasn't done anything to completely separate himself from the pack statistically.

The verdict: Like his teammate, Garciaparra, Ramirez probably needs a huge September to win the award. Otherwise, he'll be viewed as one of the two best hitters in a strong lineup.

Magglio Ordonez
When Ordonez awoke, so did the White Sox. His second-half turnaround has been a big part of the White Sox's playoff push.

The case for: In addition to being in the top 10 in hitting, hits, total bases, doubles and extra-base hits, Ordonez has obviously been the catalyst for the Sox.

The case against: Somehow, this terrifically talented player keeps a low profile playing in the nation's third-biggest market.

The verdict: If Ordonez can somehow duplicate his play from the last six weeks in the next six weeks, he has a shot. Otherwise, he'll once again be overlooked.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.