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CC returns to AL Cy Young mix

CC returns to AL Cy Young mix

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A familiar face is back in the town known as the American League, and anyone not wearing pinstripes and an "NY" on his cap will not be happy to see him.

While the 6-foot-7, 290-pound left-handed nemesis named Carsten Charles Sabathia penciled himself squarely into the 2009 AL Cy Young award picture with his fantastic second-half work in the National League last year (11-2, 1.65 ERA) and his monster free-agent deal to helm the rotation of the loaded New York Yankees, he's got serious competition for top-pitcher honors in the upcoming year -- particularly from a wily former teammate.

Yes, once upon a time in the not-so-distant past, Sabathia and Cliff Lee were side-by-side southpaws in the Cleveland Indians' rotation, and while CC claimed the Cy hardware in 2007, Lee put it all together in '08 (22-3 record, 2.54 ERA) and annexed the award in a voting rout (24 of 28 first-place votes). He shouldn't be dismissed as having a realistic repeat chance this year.

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Then again, the same can be said for a host of other proven and potential AL pitching stars.

Toronto's Roy Halladay has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting in four of his past six seasons. The Boston Red Sox have at least four legitimate contenders in starters Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett and closer Jonathan Papelbon. The Yankees signed hard-throwing A.J. Burnett to complete what they hope is a championship staff, and they still have Mariano Rivera and his cutter to close out games. And that only covers 60 percent of the AL East.

Here are our top five AL Cy Young contenders for the coming season, plus a few other candidates to watch out for:

1. Lester: Every once in a while, you've got to go with a long shot, and since this young lefty has already overcome huge odds by beating cancer, a Cy Young race that he's highly qualified for won't be intimidating him any time soon. Last year was Lester's first full season in the bigs and he responded, going 16-6 in 210 1/3 innings with 152 strikeouts and a 3.21 ERA. In the postseason, he had some big-time moments, like his 14 scoreless innings against the Angels in the AL Division Series. Given that he only made 26 total starts in 2006 and 2007, you have to figure he can be even stronger in '09 if he manages to cut down on the 66 walks he allowed last year. And then there's the confidence factor. With far-above-average southpaw stuff (low-to-mid 90s fastball, cutter, curveball), a new-look changeup, pinpoint command and growing poise on the mound, Lester might just outpitch Matsuzaka, Beckett and Papelbon to take yet another trophy back to Boston.

2. Halladay: Doc has been simply scintillating over most of his past seven seasons, and he's been rightly honored for that work, including a Cy Young win in 2003 and a second-place finish last year. Halladay achieved his second 20-victory season in 2008, and his 2.78 ERA was his lowest since 2005. Also, his 206 strikeouts last year marked the highest single-season strikeout total of his career and his 246 innings led the AL, the first time he's accomplished that feat since his '03 Cy season.

3. Sabathia: The big fella looked astoundingly good down the stretch in 2008 after the Indians traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, but remember that he was a National League newcomer and his AL numbers earlier that year (6-8 record, 3.83 ERA) weren't exactly Cy-worthy. Then again, he did win this award in 2007 after a 19-7, 3.21 ERA campaign, and he established career highs last year with 251 total strikeouts in 253 total innings. Bronx Bomber run support could push him to the 20-win plateau for the first time in his career, and CC will still only be 28 on Opening Day, so he's a shoo-in for this short list.

4. Lee: If you think Lee's outstanding 2008 campaign came out of nowhere, hit MLB.com's stats section real quick for a little more research. He finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2005 after compiling an 18-5 record and a 3.79 ERA. In fact, Lee averaged over 15 wins per season from 2004-2006, with the only blip on his otherwise stellar career being his 2007 season. That year, an abdominal strain in Spring Training delayed the beginning of his season and injury-related command problems landed him in the Minor Leagues. At the age of 30, Mr. Defending Cy should have a lot more gas in that left-side tank.

5. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle Mariners: Toss the 9-11 record out the window for a second and consider that 2008 was the big right-hander's first season (while making 30 or more starts) with fewer hits allowed (198) than innings pitched (200 2/3). Also consider that Hernandez reached a career high in innings, a career low in ERA (3.45), all while working in front of a disappointing defense that has been upgraded dramatically with the addition of outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez in a pitcher's park. The slimmed-down Venezuelan with some of the best pure stuff in the game struck out 175 batters while issuing too many (80) walks. If he cleans up that ratio, look out -- especially when you realize he turns 23 on April 8.

Dark-horse dozen: Matsuzaka; Burnett; John Lackey, RHP, Los Angeles Angels; Matt Garza, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays; Papelbon; Beckett; Fausto Carmona, RHP, Cleveland; Erik Bedard, LHP, Seattle; John Danks, LHP, Chicago White Sox; Joakim Soria, RHP (closer), Kansas City Royals; Rivera; Joe Saunders, LHP, Angels

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

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