These final three American League teams - Tampa, Texas, and Toronto - all offer a variety of candidates for whom convincing arguments can be made regarding their chances of taking home an end-of-season award in 2013.
The Tampa Bay Rays will once again be one of the most intriguing teams in baseball this season as they currently possess some of the best young hitting and pitching talent in all of baseball. They may not have had a flashy off-season, but they're a team built on intangibles and with one of the best game managers in Joe Maddon, they're a team that looks better on the field than they do on paper.
Maddon will once again be an expected candidate for AL Manager of the Year as he'll be expected to lead another cheap, young, scrappy squad to the post-season with his ever-changing lineups and skilled handling of the pitching staff.
He has a pitching staff that boasts reigning AL Cy Young winner David Price, who will be in the mix for another Cy Young in 2013, in the rotation, and reigning AL Comeback Player of the Year winner, Fernando Rodney, closing out games in the bullpen.
Rodney is coming off one of the greatest seasons of all-time for a reliever, and although it will be almost impossible to duplicate, Tampa Bay has been an excellent place for relievers to thrive in and he deserves to at least be mentioned after finishing 5th in the AL Cy Young voting last season. If there's anyone who could get a second Cy Young-worthy campaign out of a 36-year old reliever, it's Joe Maddon and the Rays.
The Rays' rotation will also feature two up-and-coming, talented pitchers in Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson, both of whom showed the potential to one day be Cy Young candidates. Maybe that day is beyond 2013, but it's not out of the realm of possibility to see either emerge as a sleeper candidate for the award.
If that weren't enough, the Rays also have a pair of AL Rookie of the Year pitching candidates in fireballer Chris Archer and recently-acquired Jake Odorizzi.
Odorizzi came over from the Royals in a deal that sent the Rays' former staff ace, James Shields, to Kansas City in exchange for a bevy of prospects. In addition to Odorizzi, the Rays also landed the Royals' No. 1 ranked prospect, outfielder Wil Myers.
Myers hit .314/.387/.600 with 37 home runs and 109 RBI last season split between the Royals' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates and is widely considered the best MLB-ready hitting prospect in the game. Should the Rays give him the opportunity to play in Tampa to start the season, he could be considered the favorite for AL Rookie of the Year himself.
However, my money is on Evan Longoria having a bounce-back campaign and putting himself in the mix for AL MVP. It may not be the safest pick among the Rays' multitude of options, but as we saw late last season, a healthy Longoria can make all the difference for a Rays' team that otherwise lacks power.
Longoria was limited to just 74 games last season, but hit 17 home runs and 55 RBI with a .289/.369/.527 batting line. He finished the season red-hot, hitting 8 home runs with 21 RBI in 108 at-bats between September and October.
Healthy and back at full-strength, Longoria could return to his 2009-2010 form when he appeared to be on the cusp of becoming a perennial MVP candidate. Longoria just turned 27 and still shows all the tools that made him a budding star, including the ability to hit 30+ home runs, hit for average, draw walks, and provide some of the best defense in the league at the hot corner.
Perhaps most telling about how valuable Longoria is to the Rays isn't what Longoria has done or can do, but what the Rays did in his absence. In games 88 games without Longoria last season, the Rays weren't even a .500 team, going 43-45. However, with Longoria in the lineup, providing them with much-needed power and excellent defense, the team was 20 games over .500, going 47-27.
If we're talking in sheer terms of value - as this is the Most Valuable Player award after all - no player may be more instrumental to their ability to contend than Longoria is to the Rays. Unlike almost every other contender in the American League, the Rays don't have multiple superstar hitters.
Without Longoria in the lineup, the Rays' best hitter was Ben Zobrist. Zobrist is not a bad player by any means, but you can see a very noticeable difference when you compare him to most AL teams' second-best hitters. Longoria is the lone hitter who commands the respect of pitchers and can hit for elite power.
His career 15.1/UZR150 at third base just further shows how important he is to the Rays in all aspects of the game.
The Rays have a great manager and coaching staff and quality young pitching, but as we saw last year, you still need to be able to hit for some power to make the playoffs in the American League. Longoria is the only player on the roster who offers that game-changing quality and he's a big reason why, if healthy, the Rays should be right back in contention, despite a much smaller payroll than their AL East brethren.
And that's why, despite Longoria's struggles and health issues over the past two seasons, he is someone who I believe will be in contention for the AL MVP award in 2013. He has all the tools to be one the game's best and at age 27, a bounce-back campaign could be in the works.
Other potential awards candidates: Joe Maddon (AL Manager of the Year), David Price (AL Cy Young), Chris Archer (AL Rookie of the Year), Jake Odorizzi (AL Rookie of the Year), Wil Myers (AL Rookie of the Year)