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Due largely to some pressing family concerns, I’ve made very few appearances at our nation’s ballparks so far this year, a condition that’s likely to persist throughout the season. Extra Innings feeds the addiction well enough, but there’s nothing quite like catching a game on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, or for that matter, on a dismal Tuesday night. Baseball is better in person, interacting with all five senses and providing, even in the most mundane of games, plenty of fodder for discussion.

One of the things I miss most about attending games right now is the All-Star ballot. Two years ago, I filled out one at a game in Phoenix with Jonah Keri and Rany Jazayerli, and we got into debates so heated the Pirates and Diamondbacks had to play 12 innings just to let us finish them. Last year, I did my ballot while attending a game with friends at Dodger Stadium, kibitzing with what you might describe as a “normal” baseball fan about the merits of various candidacies.

This year, however, I’m turning to the ‘Net. MLB.com‘s online All-Star voting is one of the cooler features of the game’s flagship Web site. It’s not just that it allows fans around the world a chance to vote, but it provides fans here in the U.S. who might not be able to reach a major-league ballpark a chance to participate in the balloting. Having to enter my personal information (name, e-mail address, birthdate) isn’t one of my favorite things, but it does allow me to safely indulge in the popular Internet pastime of pretending to be an 18-year-old girl.

I’ve written a bunch of these columns over the years, so I’ll just recap my principles quickly: I don’t just vote for the guy having the best year. Six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks of performance can’t make you an All-Star if your candidacy would have looked silly in March. I think the All-Star Game is largely for the best players in baseball, the ones who show up on MVP ballots and postseason All-Star teams. This is the main reason why I can comfortably fill out my ballot in mid-May.

After careful consideration of thousands of e-mails over the years–I get more reaction to these columns than to just about any other–I’m inclined to consider a less-established player if it looks like there’s a changing of the guard happening. Of course, we can be fooled; wasn’t Marcus Giles supposed to have passed Jeff Kent by now?

I’ll cover the AL today, the NL tomorrow.

First Base: Remember when this was the deepest position in baseball? Even after that mid-’90s peak, the AL was usually good for an argument among Carlos Delgado, Jim Thome and Jason Giambi. Now two of those guys are in the NL, and the third is comfortably outside of the discussion.

Who does that leave? The established-value candidates are Paul Konerko and Mark Teixeira. Mike Sweeney, having the best year of any AL 1B this year, isn’t an unreasonable choice, either, although his balky back kept his playing time and performance down the previous couple of years. By the end of the season, Justin Morneau may have all these guys lapped; right now, the two weeks he missed after a beaning are making his numbers suffer by comparison.

It’s an uninspiring group, and Konerko is the blandest choice. Teixeira outplayed all of these guys last year and is only clearly behind Sweeney this year, so he gets my vote. I can’t get worked up about any of these guys, and if you prefer Morneau or Sweeney, I can’t complain. Rafael Palmeiro was born about eight years too soon.

Second Base: This is the first place where you have a real argument based on current-year performance versus established value. Brian Roberts is a legitimate candidate for the AL MVP award, and he certainly wasn’t a bad player in ’04. Alfonso Soriano is the established best second baseman in the AL, although it’s hardly a secure position, and while he’s playing well, Roberts has been more than two wins better than him so far this year. Remember that last year, I voted for Bret Boone instead of Soriano despite Boone’s poor performance early in the season, arguing that his established value was higher. It would be hard to now vote for Roberts, effectively cheating Soriano on both ends of the deal.

It’s a very tough call. Roberts was a good player last season, and while his home-run power is a bit of a fluke, it’s not unreasonable to think he’s going to be a 6-7 win player for a few seasons through his peak. Even without the extra power, his OBP and defensive edges on Soriano might well make him a better player. I’ll go against my tendencies and vote for Roberts.

Shortstop: There’s no debate here, and I’m the guy who was pimping Carlos Guillen for MVP last year. Miguel Tejada has outlasted and outplayed the Trinity to establish himself as the best shortstop in baseball. Guillen deserves to be on the team, and Derek Jeter has quietly been one of the better players in the AL this year, but Tejada is better than both of them.

Third Base: This is going to be Alex Rodriguez until he moves to a new position. Eric Chavez can only make the All-Star team by having big first halves and hoping the best players on bad AL teams don’t also play third base. He’s been nice enough to not make himself an issue this year, however.

Catcher: This is where the arguments that used to happen over first base have landed. Javy Lopez, Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada could all be deserving All-Stars in most seasons. Varitek has outplayed the pool so far this year, and wouldn’t be an unreasonable selection.

For this year, though, I’m sticking with Ivan Rodriguez, despite Rodriguez’s sub-par performance to date. For me, this is the classic case of not putting too much weight on 160 plate appearances in light of the previous 1600 or so. By the end of the year, I expect the gap between Varitek and Rodriguez to at least have narrowed, and quite possibly, to have reversed itself. Even if I’m wrong about that, it’s just not reasonable to lose your status as an All-Star based on seven weeks’ play.

Designated Hitter: I think I liked it better when they just picked a reserve having a big year to be the DH, the way the NL team gets to do. If we’re voting for one, it comes down to David Ortiz and Travis Hafner, who were very close in value last year and remain so this year. Choosing between them is difficult; I’ll go with the guy with the longer record of being productive, and the one I expect to be better when all is said and done this year: Ortiz.

In my heart I want to vote for Frank Thomas one last time, but I won’t.

Outfield: In stark contrast to the NL, this is starting to become a fairly easy default position, made moreso by the AL’s dearth of good center fielders. Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez are automatic picks (Ramirez’s “slow start” still has him leading all AL left fielders in RARP). I’ve never been a big Ichiro Suzuki backer, but when he hits for a very high average, he’s a great player. He’s done that for the past year and change, and he gets my third vote ahead of Johnny Damon and Gary Sheffield.

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