Choosing a Manager of the Year is, in some ways, like judging art. What looks like a masterful work to some doesn't impress others because so much of the evaluation is in the eye of the beholder.

Though it certainly helps, a Manager of the Year candidate isn't required to have a team with a gaudy won-loss record -- Joe Girardi won National League Manager of the Year last season after piloting the Marlins to a 78-84 record. What can help even more is the perception that the team the candidate managed overachieved.

This season, there are several National League teams that overcame numerous obstacles to reach the cusp of the playoffs. A few surprised most observers and, as such, their respective managers will certainly merit consideration for NL Manager of the Year.

Unlike most years, the field is relatively wide open with several worthy candidates.

Will it be Milwaukee's Ned Yost, especially if the Brewers reach the playoffs for the first time since 1982?

What about Arizona's Bob Melvin, who is on the verge of taking the surprising Diamondbacks from last place in 2006 to first place this year?

Or San Diego's Bud Black, the rookie manager who has the Padres atop the NL Wild Card standings?

Last year, Girardi's Marlins finished 19 games behind the NL East Division-winning New York Mets, who were managed by Willie Randolph. Randolph received eight first-place votes but finished second in the balloting, 30 points behind Girardi. Randolph again has the Mets atop the NL East, but will the voters penalize him because he manages one of the best teams in baseball and one many expected to reach the playoffs?

Injuries decimated Philadelphia and St. Louis, but Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa have their teams in the playoff hunt in spite of all the setbacks.

»» 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

Manuel finished fifth in the balloting last year with an 85-77 team that finished 12 games behind the Mets. Where will he finish if the Phillies, currently 1 1/2 games back in the Wild Card, make the playoffs?

The Cubs finished in last place a year ago, 30 games under .500, and began play Sept. 12 one game behind the first-place Brewers. Could such a last-to-first jump raise manager Lou Piniella's chances?

For now, it remains a race that is too close to call.

The 32 voters on the NL Manager of the Year Award committee are required to file their ballots, listing their top three choices in order, before the playoffs begin.

Here's a rundown of the candidates for the 2007 NL Manager of the Year Award:

FAVORITES

Bob Melvin, Diamondbacks: The D-backs' team batting average is the lowest in the league and they are 26th among the Majors' 30 teams in runs scored. Only six teams in all of the Majors' have made more errors, and the Diamondbacks are one of the youngest teams in baseball. Even so, Melvin has Arizona flying high in the very tough NL West.

Bud Black, Padres: San Diego's offense has been as anemic as Arizona's, but the Padres have managed to stay in the thick of the postseason picture, thanks to one of the best pitching staffs in baseball and an opportunistic offense that has found ways to get the job done often enough to keep the team atop the Wild Card standings.

Ned Yost, Brewers: The clear frontrunner when the Brewers got off to a 24-10 start, Yost's candidacy slid along with the Brewers' sub-.500 second half. However this team finishes, Yost will almost certainly land on some ballots, and if the Brewers end their 25-year string and make the playoffs, he will likely land on most of them.

DARK HORSES

Tony La Russa, Cardinals: La Russa won the award in 2002 and finished second in the balloting in 2004 and 2005. The Cardinals were the consensus preseason choice to win the NL Central, but injuries to Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Scott Rolen, Juan Encarnacion, Yadier Molina, Jim Edmonds, David Eckstein, Scott Spiezio, Preston Wilson, Chris Duncan and Braden Looper convinced many observers to write off the defending World Series champions' playoff chances. And yet here they are, a mere four games out of first place as of Sept. 12.

Willie Randolph, Mets: The Mets have had more injuries to deal with this season than last. They've had setbacks on the pitching staff and inconsistent performances from several players, but through it all Randolph has kept his team atop one of the toughest divisions in baseball.

HONORABLE MENTION

Clint Hurdle, Rockies; Charlie Manuel, Phillies; Lou Piniella, Cubs.