The Milwaukee Brewers had a difficult second half until recently, but no one could blame Ryan Braun.

The 23-year-old third baseman is enjoying the kind of rookie campaign that could make him the Brewers' first Rookie of the Year Award winner since Pat Listach in 1992.

Braun, who wasn't called up from the Minor Leagues until May 24, reached 25 home runs faster than any player since Mark McGwire in 1987, and if he gets enough at-bats to qualify, he has a chance to lead the league in slugging (.648) and hitting (.328). At his current pace, Braun would break the all-time rookie record slugging percentage of .621 set in 1930 by George Watkins of the St. Louis Cardinals.

While Braun looks like the clear favorite, the class of 2007 National League rookies is very deep, with Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, Houston center fielder Hunter Pence and Arizona center fielder Chris Young among the probable short list of contenders for the award.

Here's a look at the candidates for the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Award, listed alphabetically:

FAVORITES

Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers: Braun came up in May, and although he's played only 85 games, he's among the NL rookie leaders in home runs (30), batting average (.328), RBIs (79), runs (74), total bases (245), on-base percentage (.372), slugging percentage (.648) and extra-base hits (56). It's not often a rookie is called up from the Minor Leagues to a contending team and hits so well he's deservedly placed in the third spot in the lineup, but that's what Braun did. Perhaps the only category in which Braun comes in second to the other rookie contenders is defense.

Hunter Pence, Houston: Pence also came up late and also went on the disabled list with a broken right wrist before returning Aug. 21, but in 91 games Pence has put up eye-popping numbers: 52 runs, 125 hits, 14 homers, 50 extra-base hits, 56 RBIs, 211 total bases and a .323 batting average. The center fielder is getting a look at leadoff during the final month of the season. He's also been outstanding defensively.

»» 2007 AWARDS CANDIDATES ««
• Most Valuable Player: AL | NL
• Cy Young Award: AL | NL
• Rookie of the Year: AL | NL
• Manager of the Year: AL | NL
• Comeback Player of the Year: AL | NL

Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies: Tulowitzki has the numbers (.290, 81 runs, 151 hits, 19 homers, 80 RBIs, 48 extra-base hits and 241 total bases). He also plays a demanding position (shortstop) for a contending team. The only potential hurdle for his candidacy is several of his numbers are lower than Braun's, and Braun has played 40 fewer games and has 143 fewer at-bats.

DARK HORSES

Josh Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds: Hamilton has played fewer games (88) and has the fewest at-bats (291) of any of the contenders as a result of injury but has good numbers and leads all rookies in outfield assists. Hamilton also has a shot at Comeback Player of the Year.

Chris Young, Arizona: Young is among the rookie leaders in home runs (29) and leads in extra-base hits (58) and stolen bases (24) and plays great defense for a contender. Batting average (.238) and strikeouts (120) are negatives.

HONORABLE MENTION

Yunel Escobar, Braves; Mike Fontenot, Cubs; Norris Hopper, Reds; Kevin Kouzmanoff, Padres; Tim Lincecum, Giants; James Loney, Dodgers; Peter Moylan, Braves; Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks; Carlos Ruiz, Phillies.