The 2008 Major League Baseball All-Star Game—July 15 at Yankee Stadium—is only a month away.
With nearly every leading vote getter holding a secure grasp on the top spot for their respective position, it is already crystal clear which players will be on the field at this year's Midsummer Classic.
The host New York Yankees—no surprise here—will be well represented in their home ballpark, as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, according to current voting results, will once again make up the left side of the American League infield.
The Boston Red Sox are currently dominating the ballots as well. Boston has five regulars, in fact, who appear to be a lock for the starting lineup, which will make life easier on American League manager Terry Francona.
As the game's financial superpowers, with fan bases that extend across the entire world, Boston and New York have a superior advantage over small-market teams—the Tampa Bay Rays, for instance—in the voting process. Thus, on a yearly basis, many of the more deserving candidates at each position do not garner the necessary votes to crack the starting lineup in the All-Star game.
Granted, fans do not get to vote on pitchers, the coaches and players get to pick reserves and league rules state that every organization must send at least one representative to the game.
The voting system, however, has turned into a popularity contest more than ever, evident by the current results.
Here are my picks for the American League starting lineup, listed next to the current leading vote getter at each position. My picks are based on performance so far this season, albeit over a small sample size.
Catcher: Dioner Navarro—2008 has not been the year of the catcher in the American League so far. Jorge Posada has spent most of the spring on the disabled list. Perennial All-Star Ivan Rodriguez is now splitting time with Brandon Inge—of all people—in Detroit. It is the time of the year in which many of these All-Star pick columns are beginning to surface and Cleveland catcher Victor Martinez, now on the disabled list as well, has yet to hit a home run.
Navarro, though, has been one of the few exceptions, hitting .338/.367/.459 while playing above-average defense behind the plate in 44 games for the Wild Card-leading Tampa Bay Rays. While he has not garnered enough at-bats yet to qualify, his batting average is technically tops in the American League. The 23-year-old who continues to improve has had some off-the-field, family issues in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay. Despite a stint on the disabled list in April, he appears to have put his troubled past behind him, posting an OPS+ of 126, with a mark of 100 the barometer for league average.
As expected, Navarro does not rank in the top five in the latest round of voting results. To most fans—outside of New York, where he was tabbed the heir apparent to Posada's throne during his days as the top catching prospect in its farm system—he is probably best known as the guy who fought with pitcher Matt Garza in the dugout last week. Still, he has been one of the more consistent offensive players for the Rays while handling one of the league's up-and-coming starting rotations. In addition, he is third among AL catchers with three home runs and second with 25 RBIs. While Navarro's high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) indicates that he has had his fair share of luck and points towards regression for him in the second half, he has been one of the more valuable offensive catchers in all of baseball since the All-Star break in 2007.
Honorable mention: Joe Mauer—Mauer, though he has hit only two home runs, is enjoying another fine season. Currently trailing Jason Varitek in the voting at his position, he is second in the league in hitting among those who qualify, batting .327/.412/.435—good for an .847 OPS, first among catchers, and 136 OPS+.
Current Leader: Jason Varitek—Varitek is leading all AL catchers with seven home runs, but his line of .257/.327/.437 is hardly All-Star worthy. Although he is the captain and leader of baseball's strongest team, his 102 OPS+ means that he has been just a tick above league average at the plate.
First Base: Jason Giambi—Whether his creative slump buster, a gold thong, has anything to do with it, Giambi has been on a tear of late, carrying the struggling Yankees' offense. After a horrendous April—in which his batting average hovered around the Mendoza line for most of the month—he rebounded nicely in May to surge up the leader board in numerous statistical categories. He currently ranks third in the American League with 15 home runs, a number which is best among first baseman in his league, while also sitting third in slugging percentage (.570), seventh in on-base percentage (.395) and third in OPS (.964). Giambi's OPS and OPS+ of 160 are good for first among AL first baseman as well.
Giambi's days in New York are numbered. There is no way the club is going to pick up his option for 2009, especially with the Steinbrenner brothers' interest in soon-to-be free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira. The Yankees are obviously one of the only organizations with the necessary financial resources to seriously pursue Teixeira, a Scott Boras client. Thus, the former MVP's controversial rollercoaster tenure in the Bronx is winding down. Still, though, he has evoked memories of his old dominant self, and—with Alex Rodriguez and Co.— will have to continue to produce if New York wishes to make a second-half push towards the postseason.
Despite his admission of using performance-enhancing drugs, Giambi stills ranks third in the first base voting, garnering 437,656 votes.
Current Leader: Kevin Youkilis—Youkilis, who will always be known to many as the "Greek God of Walks," would be a legitimate pick to start the All-Star game as well. He is enjoying a solid campaign in 2008, batting .301/.368/.488 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs in 239 at-bats. Youkilis' OPS of .894 trails only Giambi among AL first baseman, as he continues to consistently do whatever it takes to get on base; just as Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta predicted he would when they pursued the Boston fan favorite in 2002, as documented in Moneyball.
Youkilis has one clear advantage over Giambi—superior defense. He is, in fact, one of the premier defensive first baseman in the American League. While his consecutive game without an error came to an end recently, he is a solid defender who has the versatility to play third base.
Second base: Ian Kinsler—Sorry, Boston fans, Dustin Pedroia does not deserve to get the starting nod in this year's All-Star game. Rather, Kinsler is the easy choice here after his strong first two months of the season. The Texas infielder is batting .312/.361/.482 through Friday while leading all AL second baseman with eight homers and 38 RBIs. If it was based on merit, not the fans' approval, Kinsler and his 130 OPS+ would join three of his Rangers teammates, Milton Bradley, Josh Hamilton and double-play partner Michael Young, in the American League's starting lineup.
Kinsler has 17 stolen bases as well, trailing only Brian Roberts in the category among AL players at his position. Even more impressive, however, he has yet to get thrown out, as he is a perfect 17-for-17 in stolen base chances. Roberts, on the other hand, has been gunned down five times in 23 attempts, killing potential rallies in the process. Kinsler ranks first in too many categories at his position, including hits, extra-base hits, OBP, OPS+ and range factor on the defensive side, to justify making a case for anyone else.
Who could have predicted that sweet-swinging New York second baseman Robinson Cano would rank last among AL second baseman who qualify with a .580 OPS?
Current Leader: Dustin Pedroia: He is gritty. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2007. He once gave up a portion of his scholarship money in college so that the coaching staff had more resources to recruit starting pitching. Quite frankly, Dustin Pedroia is a tough player to root against. However, Pedroia is having a poor offensive season, posting an OPS+ of 80 through Friday. Which means that, all things considered, he has been a below-league average hitter to this point of the 2008 season. His on-base percentage, a stellar .380 during his excellent rookie campaign, stands at .312, as he has been responsible for making far too many outs in the first half. Pedroia also sits in the middle of the pack for second baseman in most categories, having posted a line of .263/.324/.361—for a not-so-stellar OPS of .678, which trails players like Akinori Iwamura and Jose Lopez.
Shortstop: Michael Young: Just two years ago, Young brought home Most Valuable Player honors at the 2006 All-Star game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. He will once again get a shot at repeating the honor, despite the fact that he trails fan favorite Derek Jeter on the ballot by nearly 700,000 votes. After his strong first half, it would be a shock if Francona and his staff failed to add the Texas shortstop to the AL All-Star roster.
From an offensive standpoint, Young has been the best shortstop in the American League. He has posted a line of .299/.356/.435 with six home runs and 33 RBIs, as his .792 OPS and 115 OPS+ reigns supreme among AL shortstops. He is a capable defender at his position as well, ranking above league average in fielding percentage and range factor.
Although the AL lineup will primarily consist of Boston players at the fans' request, it is the Texas Rangers that should legitimately feature the most position players on the diamond during the early innings of next month's classic. With a weak pitching staff, the main reason why Texas is currently hovering around the .500 mark after a poor start is its dynamic offense, which leads the majors with 383 runs scored. And Young is a cog in that lineup, the face of the Rangers' franchise, and deserves to get the nod at Yankee Stadium. With Jeter, though, did anyone else really have a chance?
Current Leader: Derek Jeter—Who else would you expect to get the nod at short in the last All-Star game ever at historic Yankee Stadium? The chance of Atlantic League outfielder Jay Gibbons making an appearance in the Midsummer Classic is more realistic than Jeter—the Yankees' captain, the beloved fan favorite in the Bronx, the glue in the dynasty years—not getting voted onto to the AL squad for a game to be played in New York. In fact, if Jeter was having a worse offensive season than outmaking machine Tony Pena Jr., he would still have one million-plus votes.
The game would not be the same without him, would it? Jeter does not deserve to start, but has perhaps performed well enough for an invitation to the party, hitting .272/.330/.370. His OPS+ of 90, however, indicates otherwise, telling us that he has been below average as a hitter in '08.
Even worse—despite what you hear on the YES Network from Michael Kay— he is having a poor season defensively at shortstop. Jeter goes back on fly balls as well as any shortstop, plays shallow enough to allow him to look spectacular on slow rollers as well, and has a few Gold Gloves on his resume. Plus, that incredible game-changing play involving his flip to Jorge Posada to nail Jeremy Giambi in the playoffs has burned a mental model into many baseball fans' brains, telling them that Derek Jeter is a wizard out there in the field.
Overall, however, Jeter is not even an average major league defensive shortstop. He does not get to balls hits to the left or the right well enough, allowing many grounders to get through as base hits, inflating the ERAs of New York pitchers in the process. Based on objective facts, his days at the position should be numbered. Soon enough, New York general manager Brian Cashman and the baseball operations staff will force him to switch spots, perhaps by the end of 2009. His range factor, .3.77, ranks below the league average mark of 3.99, placing Jeter 18th out of 20 shortstops who qualify. His .811 zone rating is terrible as well. New York currently sits at 22nd out of 30 all major league teams with a .696 defensive efficiency rating—the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs—and the Captain's presence at shortstop is a big reason why. It is no secret that poor team defense has been a major factor in the Yankees' disappointing start.
Regardless, he will man the position on July 15. Take that to the bank.
Third Base: Joe Crede—Alex Rodriguez is the best hitter in baseball, a dominant force who posted the highest OPS in the majors in 2007. But he has missed too much time due to injury in '08, limiting his number of at-bats. Thus, Crede is my choice to get the nod.
Crede is also a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year as well, playing better than anyone could have imagined before the season began. In spring training, many scouts thought that Josh Fields would break camp as the Chicago White Sox starting third baseman, with Crede's name constantly surfacing in trade rumors. The former World Series hero struggled through a disappointing 2007 campaign, battling a serious back injury on the way to a line of .216/.258/.317 in an injury-plagued 47 games. If you do the math, that is good for an OPS of .575.
Crede's teammate, Carlos Quentin, has been a surprise in the Windy city as well, coming out of nowhere—in an offseason deal with Arizona that went unnoticed at the time—to carry the first-place White Sox. With Quentin, Crede is making up for the poor performance of Chicago's aging sluggers—Paul Konerko and Jim Thome—by posting an OPS of .894 (OPS+ of 136) while leading all AL third baseman with 15 home runs and 41 RBIs.
Rookie Evan Longoria, by the way, ranks second among third baseman who qualify with an .848 OPS.
Current Leader: Alex Rodriguez—Rodriguez is having another fine season, though he spent a large portion of it on the disabled list. When healthy, he has posted a line of .316/.395/.578 with 10 home runs in only 174 at-bats. He has a ridiculous OPS+ of 161 as he continues to dominate at third base for the Yankees. New York fans are truly lucky to have the opportunity to watch one of the best offensive players in history perform on a nightly basis. I am going to stop writing before I change my pick, possibly giving Ozzie Guillen something else to complain about.
Outfield: Milton Bradley, J.D. Drew and Josh Hamilton—Bradley may have ran up into the press box this week to chase an announcer, just one of many questionable actions in his rather interesting career. But, as a player, Bradley—the AL's leading hitter—is on a tear. He is batting .333/.454/.629 for an OPS of 1.082, fourth-best in the majors, with 14 home runs and 45 RBIs. While he is technically a designated hitter primarily, he deserves to hear his name called when starting lineups are announced at Yankee Stadium in a few weeks.
Drew upset a lot of baseball fans in New England with a poor showing in his first season with the Red Sox. This year, though, he is on pace to turn in one of the finest seasons of his career, having posted a line of .324/.430/.562 with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs entering Friday night's game at Great American Ballpark. Drew, a polarizing player, is leading the American League in on-base percentage, getting on for Boston's big boppers, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. He also ranks third in the league in batting average, ninth in walks, fourth in slugging percentage and third in runs scored. Equally as telling, he is second in the AL with a stellar .993 OPS, making this a relatively easy pick. While he will not get voted in, his manager, Francona, will undoubtedly elect Drew as a reserve. Boston ranks third in the majors with 355 runs scored. The Red Sox right fielder has scored 46 of them.
Hamilton's off-the-field struggles and addiction to crack have been well documented. And his comeback story is truly the stuff of Hollywood, perhaps even too unrealistic. The talent has always been there for Hamilton, but his drug addiction and a plethora of injuries derailed his career, preventing him from reaching his full potential with the team that drafted him ahead of Josh Beckett with the first pick in the 1999 draft, the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
This year, Hamilton has emerged as one of the game's best offensive players, posting a line of .302/.390/.554—for an OPS of .950. While his average has slipped in the past week, he was among leaders in every Triple Crown category at the end of May. With fellow should-be All-Stars Bradley, Kinsler and Young batting ahead of him, he has had plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. And he has not disappointed, as it is not even the middle of June yet, and he has 71 RBIs. I mean, really, 71 leads the majors by a landslide— Adrian Gonzalez's total of 60 comes in at second.
Honorable mention goes to Quentin, who is leading Chicago with 16 home runs and has posted an OPS of .904. Tampa Bay outfielder B.J. Upton ranks 14th in the majors with a .404 on-base percentage, and, despite a lack of power (only five home runs), the center fielder is the Rays' most deserving position player All-Star candidate outside of Navarro. He has provided one of the few bright spots for a team that has struggled to score runs and continues to rely on its excellent starting pitching and defense, scoring 40 runs while posting an OPS of .894.
Current Leaders: Manny Ramirez, Hamilton, Ichiro Suzuki—Manny, the leading vote getter through Friday, is having a fine season. Not only did he join the exclusive 500 home run club a few weeks ago, he is batting .302/.390/.554 with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs, again leading one of baseball's most potent offensive machines, Boston's dominant lineup. He definitely deserves to make the squad as a reserve.
Hamilton is an easy pick, as mentioned above, but Suzuki is having one of the worst seasons of his career in Seattle. Suzuki has a line of .288/.355/.376, for an OPS+ of only 104; 14 points below his career average. He has provided one of the only bright sports for arguably the worst-constructed offense that baseball has seen in some time. While he seems like he is having an All-Star campaign when compared to the performance of Richie Sexson and below replacement-level designated hitter Jose Vidro (65 OPS+), Ichiro does not deserve to make the trip to Yankee Stadium.
My National League picks will run in the next few days, and my pitcher picks for both leagues will soon follow as well.To hear me discuss my picks in more detail, touch upon why Eric Hinske should not have attempted to steal third base early in Friday night's game against the Florida Marlins and why the Rays should not pursue Ken Griffey Jr., use the media player below.
Who do think is the Rays' most deserving All-Star candidate? Vote in our message boards.
To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.