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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

AL MVP race might be baseball's best

Cabrera might be one to challenge A-Rod dominance

In what should be a season of great American League showdowns, the best match race may not be for first place but for third base.

Los Angeles-Seattle, Cleveland-Detroit and Boston-New York are set up for tough division fights, but the most gripping knockdown battle could be for MVP honors between the incumbent and the insurgent.

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez is the best player in the game, but new Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera is arguably the hottest name. The made-over Tigers are supposedly front-runners for every award, with the possible exception of the Nobel Prize, and Cabrera is at the root of the hysteria.

Cabrera, who as a rookie with Florida in 2003 broke in with the World Series ring which A-Rod still covets, may be even more precocious than was Rodriguez. At the end of the eight-year, $153 million deal he just inked, Cabrera will be Rodriguez's current age, 32.

There are ample other candidates, but none more compelling than these two. Cabrera placed in the NL MVP vote in each of his five seasons with the Marlins. Besides being the only three-time MVP to never appear in a World Series, Rodriguez is also the only player in the last 16 seasons to earn AL MVP honors on a non-playoff team (in 2003, when he copped his first award, with the Rangers).

So there is an obvious correlation between title teams and players earning the title of MVP. Naturally, our MVP forecasts thus reflect consensus predictions for the division races.

Rodriguez, Yankees: You can't go against the King Rod. He just keeps mocking the numbers, and comes off his best overall season, in which he beat his previous RBI high by 14.

Now take into consideration that he is approaching this season in his best frame of mind, ever. He is so past the Derek Jeter issues, is convinced he has finally tamed the Big Apple, and also is deriving a tremendous sense of satisfaction from having gained control of his professional life by sending Scott Boras to the penalty box while working out his own deal.

Rodriguez has to keep up with the very high standards he has set for himself; any slippage won't be excused by MVP voters. But that doesn't seem to be a problem for a guy who actually continues to raise those standards.

Cabrera, Tigers: He left Miami with a slight reputation as a self-centered airhead who had too many helpings at the buffet bar, and now we know why -- he needed people around whom he felt comfortable, and a place where he felt comfortable, for focus and motivation. Who doesn't?

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

Cabrera professes to have found both in Detroit, vouching for that by agreeing to that contract extension before playing his first game in Comerica Park. If it isn't a mirage, and he is happier and more inspired than ever, Jim Leyland will coax an MVP season out of him.

Torii Hunter, Angels: His expected highlight-reel of catches should anoint Hunter as Los Angeles' candidate on the MVP ticket, succeeding Vladimir Guerrero, who'll take increasing turns at DH and thus become less conspicuous.

It may be hard to believe, but during all those seasons he was winning Gold Gloves and helping carry the Twins into the playoffs, Hunter received little MVP recognition; didn't get a single vote for 26 homers and 102 RBIs in 2003. He's in a slightly bigger fishbowl now, and he'll be noticed.

Manny Ramirez, Red Sox: Almost as hard to believe is that Ramirez has produced huge numbers on some of the past decade's best teams without ever being MVP. He's been in four World Series, even won two of them -- which makes him the anti-A-Rod of sorts.

Yet he's finished in the top 10 eight times. He could be ready to go over the top. This appears to be another Year of the Happy Manny on the Red Sox Nation calendar, and he dedicated his offseason to conditioning, something new for him. By our midseason update of these forecasts, Ramirez could be on top.

Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners: It may depend more on the new arms in their starting rotation than on Ichiro's own predictably high level of play, but if the Mariners are as formidable as they expect to be, he could bookend the MVP he won as a rookie in 2001.

Suzuki plays an entirely different game than does Rodriguez, but also mocks the numbers in his own unique way. Whoever heard of averaging 226 hits a season? No one else has gotten that many in any season since Darin Erstad had 240 for the Angels in 2000.

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