MVP award up for grabs on AL side

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Try to remember an MVP race that was this wide open going into the final weekend.

Two or three leading contenders? Sure, happens all the time.

But take a look around the American League at the list of deserving candidates this year: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis. It's awfully difficult to choose between them.

And don't forget Carlos Quentin. Does he get eliminated because he missed nearly all of September with a broken wrist? His numbers still rank among the league leaders, and he remains a big reason the Chicago White Sox could win the AL Central.

Albert Pujols is a clear MVP pick in the National League -- despite Ryan Howard's recent power surge -- but the AL award requires closer inspection.

Put aside the presidential campaign for a minute. It's time to compare RBI and OPS.

Start with Mauer, the Twins' sweet-swinging catcher. Chasing his second batting title in three years, he was hitting a league-high .330 with a .415 on-base percentage -- good for second in the AL. All that while providing sound defense and playing more than 130 games at the most demanding position.

Remember, Mauer has spent the season handling a kiddie-corps pitching staff, yet the surprising Twins entered Friday atop the AL Central. Without him, Minnesota wouldn't even be close.

The same is true for Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP. He's having another big year, leading the league with 129 RBI and hitting .306 with 23 homers. He was tied for 12th in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), trailing Quentin (tied for second) and Youkilis (fourth).

Without much power in the lineup (the Twins were last in the league with 111 homers), Morneau shoulders a heavy burden. The first baseman has delivered all season, with at least 20 RBI each month.

Pedroia has done a bit of everything for Boston, driving the Red Sox to their fifth playoff berth in six years. A gritty spark plug generously listed at 5-foot-9, he's a natural fan favorite.

The little dynamo with the big swing was batting .325 and leading the league in runs scored (118), hits (211) and doubles (54) while playing outstanding defense at second base. He was 20-for-21 on stolen-base attempts.

"What he's been able to do with that team after trading Manny, and the defensive play he shows, I think he's probably my front-runner," the Yankees' Johnny Damon said.

It seems Youkilis has been overlooked a bit, but he shouldn't be. Leading the Red Sox in homers (28) and RBI (113), he was batting .314 with a .960 OPS. Steady glove at first base, too.

Interestingly, the Angels and Rays don't have a topflight candidate between them, though they owned the two best records in the league. Sure, Francisco Rodriguez broke the major league saves mark for Los Angeles, but he hasn't even pitched 70 innings. That's not enough for an MVP.

Cleveland's Grady Sizemore, Texas' Josh Hamilton and Detroit's Miguel Cabrera are among those having huge years for teams out of contention. But none has separated from the pack the way Pujols did in the NL, so this award goes to a contender.

After much debate, the pick here is Pedroia -- by a small margin.

Mauer is short on extra-base power, while Morneau and Youkilis lack speed. Pedroia is the total package, winning games every way possible. Give him an MVP trophy to follow up last season's rookie of the year, a trick Howard turned in 2005-06.


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