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Sizing up the AL Cy Young contenders

Sizing up the AL Cy Young contenders

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The 2008 American League Cy Young Award race shapes up a little like the 2008 presidential race. George W. Bush has used up his eligibility, and Johan Santana has switched parties, so both are up for grabs.

Santana's move to the Mets and the National League removes from the equation what had been the AL's only sure thing. The left-hander was the only pitcher to score in each of the last five Cy Young races, twice winning unanimously and collecting a total of 59 first-place votes and 333 points.

That kind of staying power is exceptional, illustrated by the current fates of the two guys who last year gave winner C.C. Sabathia a good run.

Boston's Josh Beckett and the Angels' John Lackey, who between them got the nine first-place votes that Sabathia did not, will both start the season on the disabled list, their returns unclear.

Other strong 2007 performers or newly minted staff aces will start off in only trainers-room rotations, including Kelvim Escobar, Scott Kazmir and Andy Pettitte.

Missing the first few rounds doesn't necessarily knock a pitcher out of the competition, yet another commonality with that presidential stuff. John McCain appears to have rallied nicely after dragging through the opening primaries.

But the truth is, enough studs will be on track from the outset to thwart similar rallies at the Cy Young voting booth.

Sabathia, Indians: Forget last impressions -- the AL Championship Series struggles against Boston. The big lefty is a big-game, big-situation pitcher and, on a personal level, few situations are as big as pitching for your next contract.

Sabathia should dominate even more in his walk season -- although "walk" doesn't really belong in the same sentence with a guy who issues one every other week. Pedro Martinez was the last to win this award consecutively, in 1999 and 2000, but C.C. will take a good shot at becoming the first lefty to ever do so. (Sandy Koufax did earn back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 1965 and 1966, when one trophy covered both leagues.)

Roy Halladay, Blue Jays: For Doc, another former winner (2003), the chief challenge is just staying clear of those other docs. Whenever he has remained healthy enough to make 30-plus starts, he has contended for this honor. In his four such seasons, Halladay has gone a cumulative 73-26.

Opening Day
Countdown to Opening Day
•   March 23: Turnaround tales to be told
•   March 23: Rule 5 decisions loom
•   March 24: Free agents on the spot
•   March 25: Breakout players in 2008
•   March 25: Comeback candidates
•   March 26: Top storylines for '08
•   March 26: Top AL rookie candidates
•   March 26: Top NL rookie candidates
•   March 27: AL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: NL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: Breaking down '08 slate
•   March 27: Century since Cubs' title
•   March 28: Top AL MVP candidates
•   March 28: Top NL MVP candidates
•   March 29: Changing of guard at short
•   March 30: Predictions for '08
•   March 30: '08 milestones
•   March 30: Season preview

And he appears to be approaching this season healthy and fine-tuned. In exhibition play, he has struck out 15 and walked one. In the uneven schedule, Halladay's biggest mental block is Boston. The Red Sox have beaten him 10 times, twice as often as any other team. (In the AL East alone, he is 35-12 against the three other clubs.)

Justin Verlander, Tigers: If Detroit is as powerful a team as everyone expects after its productive offseason, the young right-hander should benefit from gaining overdue recognition -- and Cy Young votes. Last year he picked up one condescending fifth-place vote for going 18-6 -- and the year before had gone 17-9 for two fifth-place votes.

Verlander has the benefit of a pitchers' park -- he is 18-7 lifetime in Comerica -- and has been remarkably consistent during his brief career. Unless the Tigers fall far short of expectations, they could propel him to 20 to 23 wins, which would be hard to overlook.

Jered Weaver, Angels: Speaking of hitting the gate versus getting a delayed start: A year after not jumping in until the third week of the season because of a sore shoulder, Weaver might be Los Angeles' Opening Night starter. Coming off a spectacular Spring Training, that would further heighten his visibility and put him in a position to take advantage of the absences of Lackey and Escobar.

Though exhibition wins are like small fish -- you toss them back in the pond -- Weaver's 5-0 Cactus League record and 1.33 ERA catch the eye. Having slightly altered his mechanics to reduce shoulder strain, Weaver says, "I'm starting to figure things out."

Considering his 24-9 record for a season-and-a-half in the bigs, that can't make the league feel too comfortable.

Mark Buehrle, White Sox: The constant in the South Side shuffle -- double-figure wins and 200-plus innings for seven straight seasons -- could be primed for his best season yet. Now beyond the expiring-contract issues that a year ago were distracting both him and a team that depends on him for direction, Buehrle enters the season on a high note.

Team success tends to sponsor individual honors. The White Sox are regarded as Central Division also-rans, so any breakthrough by them would boost Buehrle's chances, especially since he would figure prominently in that.

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

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