Pena tops list of AL Comebackers
Guillen and Lester also among favorites for award
The Comeback Player of the Year Award is easily the most misunderstood, and least desired, of baseball's major honors.Comeback from what? Injury? A bad season? A manager's doghouse? Hanging out with Kotter? The imprecision of this award may have been best illustrated in 1986, when it was still presented by The Sporting News, long before becoming an official MLB-sanctioned award in 2005. California left-hander John Candelaria earned it, despite having appeared in 50 games, with a 9-7 record and a respectable 3.80 ERA, the previous season. The Candy Man's claim to the award? He'd missed the first half of that season, and rebounded to post a 10-2 record for the Angels in the second half. So Candelaria was Comeback Player of the Year in the same season in which he'd been away. As for not really being wanted ... no one volunteers for the misfortune that makes him eligible for an honor such as this. However, on the road back, this definitely is welcome praise. Semantics aside, you just have a sense of who deserves consideration for this distinction. In the absence of hard-and-fast rules, common sense takes over. At its most elemental, the contenders for this award are simply the people whose triumphs over adversity make you feel good. Maybe that's what we should call it, and do away with the gray: The American League Feel-Good Award. THE FAVORITES Carlos Pena, Devil Rays: If Pena has revisited anything, it is the sky's-the-limit expectations and projections when, in essentially another lifetime, the Rangers made him the overall 10th pick in the 1998 First-Year Player Draft. He had some moderate success through his first three organizations, but nothing close to his rise in Tampa Bay, which followed his total fade in 2006 (only 33 Major League at-bats with the Red Sox). Still only 29, the first baseman's Devil Rays-record 39 homers and 110 RBIs are nearly one-third of his seven-season career totals.
Jose Guillen, Mariners: After virtually donating his body to sports medicine last season, Guillen has returned to the lofty -- if often controversial -- stature he had enjoyed the previous three seasons. Well-spaced-out injuries to his right hamstring and both of his elbows unplugged his power and reduced him to a .216 hitter in 69 games in Washington, D.C. In Washington state, he is nearing a 20-100 season while hitting close to .300 -- on target with the 24-90 and .295 he'd averaged in 2003-05.Jon Lester, Red Sox: There is a reason we mentioned the Candelaria precedent. There is a little bit of that at work for the inspiring young Boston left-hander. After all, Lester went 7-2 as a rookie in the second half of last season. But that success came before diagnosis of large-cell lymphoma threatened his life, never mind his athletic career. But within three months of that dire diagnosis, after proper treatment and the power of will, he was declared cancer-free and began his climb back up the hill. He was back in Boston by July 23, and hasn't lost yet. He's made all of us watching his back feel like winners. THE CONTENDERS Fausto Carmona, Indians: Maybe this pitcher with the operatic name ought to be at the very top of the list. To reach his current status as Cleveland's solid No. 2 (16-8, 3.20), he had to rebound physically and psychologically. In his brief tenure as the replacement for Bob Wickman in 2006, he had endured one of the worst weeks in closing history on his way to a 1-10 record with a 5.42 ERA. Now that's a platform for a comeback. Casey Kotchman, Angels: The early career of the former No. 1 Draft choice (2001, when he was the 13th overall pick) has been traced by various injuries, none as significant as the mononucleosis which held him to a .152 average with one home run and six RBIs in 79 at-bats last season. Healthy and still in possession of a picture-perfect left-handed swing, he has eclipsed the total production of his first three big league seasons.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.