The most striking aspect of the race for Most Valuable Player in the American League is the absence of the usual suspects.
Of the players who finished in the top five in voting over the last five years, only Justin Morneau of the Twins, the 2006 MVP, figures to have any chance of cracking the top five in 2008.
Alex Rodriguez, a three-time winner over the last five seasons and 2002 runner-up? No shot, not with the Yankees all but certain of missing the postseason and A-Rod's impressive stat line proving hollow under closer inspection: e.g., .255 batting average with runners in scoring position, and only 18 of Bill James' Win Shares, his fewest since he had 22 in 1997 and less than half the 37 he had for the Yankees in 2007.
Boston's David Ortiz had five top-five finishes in the last five seasons, but he missed two months with a wrist injury this season and has been eclipsed by Red Sox teammates Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.
Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels was a top-five finisher three times in the last five years, but while a big finishing kick may enable him to have another 30-homer, 100-RBI season, it's likely to go overlooked with Los Angeles holding a double-digit lead in the AL West.
Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Derek Jeter, Mike Lowell, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada? All out of award talk conversation this season, as Ramirez and Tejada are now plying their trade in the National League and the others having seasons that either don't measure up to their past excellence, or have come for also-rans.
So, without the old reliables, how to sort the AL field as the regular season enters its final month ? Here's our guide to tracking the race:
• Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye, White Sox: Quentin's breakout season after coming from Arizona makes him the favorite at this stage. He has 14 home runs since the break, most in the majors, and is on pace to hit 43, which would be third-most in franchise history. Thirteen of his 36 home runs have also come in the seventh inning or later, and he began play Tuesday with a .311 average with runners in scoring position. Dye, who was fifth in 2006, could siphon some votes, but if the White Sox qualify for the postseason and Quentin finishes strong, this will be his race to lose.
• Josh Hamilton, Milton Bradley, Rangers: Hamilton had it all going at midseason: 95 RBIs in 93 games, 21 home runs, an other-worldly show at the All-Star home run derby, redemptive bio line. But Hamilton has faded along with the Rangers. A .243 average with five home runs and 13 RBIs in August finished him off. Bradley has had a marvelous season, leading the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage and probably will vault ahead of Hamilton on the ballot, but Bradley will fall victim to voter bias against designated hitters, and Texas' mediocrity.
• Francisco Rodriguez, Angels: K-Rod will likely break Bobby Thigpen's record of 57 saves in a season, which will make him an attractive choice for voters looking to justify L.A.'s runaway in the West. There is precedent, of course, for a closer to win MVP: Dennis Eckersley of the Athletics (AL, 1992) and Willie Hernandez of the Tigers (AL, 1984). But it's worth noting that K-Rod, who has 53 saves in 58 chances, has had 17 more opportunities than Minnesota's Joe Nathan (41 saves) and 19 more chances than Boston's Jonathan Papelbon (35 saves). He trails in other key relief stats, such as opponents' batting average and Ks per nine innings. Still, he figures to draw support.
• Carlos Pena, Rays: The usual refrain regarding the Rays is that they're a division leader without an MVP candidate. No one on the Rays is hitting .300, has 30 home runs, or 90 RBIs. Rookie Evan Longoria might have made some noise, but he fractured his wrist and has missed the last month. Rays manager Joe Maddon often points to shortstop Jason Bartlett, who hit .389 in August and has been steady afield, as the most reliable component on baseball's most surprising team. But Pena, last year's comeback player of the year, could force his way to the top of the ballot if he continues to play the way he has since the break. Pena, who got off to a slow start, has 13 home runs and 37 RBIs since mid-July, with nine HRs and 29 RBIs coming in August, when the Rays, despite missing Longoria, Carl Crawford and Troy Percival, won a franchise-record 21 games.
• Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox: Youkilis has hit in seven different spots in the Sox lineup, including cleanup during Ortiz's extended absence, and has hit .300 or better in each of the season's first five months. The Red Sox first baseman, who also seamlessly moved to third when the Sox needed him to replace the injured Lowell, is on pace to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs, obliterating previous career highs of 16 and 83. He also has hit .359 with two outs and runners in scoring position. But second baseman Pedroia, last season's rookie of the year, just took over the league lead in batting average and is having a historic season: He is just one of four second basemen to have 180 hits, 100 runs, 40 doubles and 15 home runs in a season. He also scored 33 runs in August, most for a Sox player in the month since 1950. If the Red Sox overtake the Rays and win the division, either player could become the first Boston player to win the MVP since Mo Vaughn in 1995.
• Morneau, Joe Mauer, Twins: Of Morneau's 108 RBIs this season, 43 have come with two outs, and 40 have come in the first 42 games since the All-Star break. Mauer, meanwhile, has an OPS (.856) 100 percentage points higher than any other catcher (the White Sox' A.J. Pierzynski is second) and could win a batting title, which would make him tough to ignore.