Dice-K to challenge Santana for Cy

Dice-K to challenge Santana for Cy

To excel on the mound amid the American League's offensive binge is like dancing the waltz in a rock club's mosh pit, or carrying a cell phone that does nothing but make calls. It goes against the grain and takes a lot of resolve and confidence.

The AL has plenty of those, just another entry in the argument that it is clearly the superior league, the hiccup in the most recent World Series notwithstanding.

Despite loaded lineups without opposing pitchers, last season seven AL hurlers topped the National League's individual high in wins, paced by Minnesota left-hander Johan Santana's second pitching Triple Crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts) in three seasons.

Having just turned 28, Santana has only begun his hardware collection. As superior as he is, however, he will have his hands full protecting his Cy Young Award from a horde of contenders -- precisely what makes the AL such a thrilling ride.

There is such a hill of pitching excellence, both already demonstrated and promised, that limiting a list to five names is a genuine hardship. By following the rules, and our gut, those who didn't even make the cut include Roy Halladay, Rich Harden, Chien-Ming Wang and Justin Verlander.

A lot can change before the polls close. But entering the primaries, here's how this race shapes up.

5. Erik Bedard, Orioles: This 28-year-old lefty has made steady, dramatic improvements in his three seasons in Baltimore's rotation to reach the point where one more similar step takes him among the elite. He still has something to learn about pitching out of trouble, but he has the stuff to avoid getting in too much trouble to begin with. The Orioles' dim team prospects will work against him; you need a season like the one Steve Carlton had in 1972, when he went 27-10 for the last-place Phillies, to get noticed on a losing team.

4. John Lackey, Angels: 27-16 with a 3.50 ERA the past two seasons, the tall Texan has grown into the leader of a staff that is expected to return the Angels to the AL West throne. He has had extended stretches when he has been untouchable, and now has the maturity to make that his consistent level. He throws a hard pitch with a hard head; he never wants to give up the ball and likes his chances of battling through any scrape.

3. C.C. Sabathia, Indians: He, not the other guy from The Land of 10,000 Lakes, may have been the best AL pitcher in the second half of the season. Over the last two months, C.C. went eight-plus innings in seven of 11 starts with an ERA of 2.46. But he had only four wins to show for that stretch, his other decisions wasted by a leaky bullpen. The beefy lefty is ready to peak, but may never be healthy enough to take a Cy. He took a liner off the left forearm in his last Florida start but has said he will make his Opening Day start.

2. Johan Santana, Twins: People to whom tales of Sandy Koufax sound like legend are being treated to a reincarnation. Santana has gone 55-19 with an ERA nearly two runs below the league's overall number over the past three season. At the same age (28), Koufax was coming off three seasons with a cumulative record of 40-33, and took off. Heaven help the league if Santana has any liftoff left. Word that he has finally refined a reliable changeup is not what the AL wanted to hear.

1. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox: It's a rarity to be able to say this, but, because of months of tremendous build-up, the award is his to lose. And his performance won't disappoint the expectations. Although the Red Sox beefed up in multiple areas, just as there were multiple contributors to their collapse into third place last season, if they return to the playoffs, the perception will be that it's Matsuzaka's doing. That will only strengthen his platform for this campaign.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.