The process of selecting American League All-Star starters was complicated by a thin top layer of the talent pool. It just seemed like most positions were decided with a shrug as much as anything else. Let’s see if the situation is any different in the NL.
First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. Much like Alex Rodriguez in the AL, Pujols will get my vote until it is established that someone is superior to him, not just over two months-sorry, Lance Berkman-but in an overall sense. The NL has a bunch of All-Star-caliber first basemen, all wishing the Cardinals had left Pujols at third base or in left field. Presumably, Berkman will be the NL’s DH at Yankee Stadium next month.
Second Base: Chase Utley, Phillies. An easy call, as Utley came within a John Lannan fastball of being the MVP last season, and is a top candidate for the award this year. Utley’s ascension to replace Jeff Kent as the NL’s top second sacker illustrates the process by which one player comes to be considered as better than another. Utley first outplayed Kent over a full season, just barely, in 2005. Should Utley have been the All-Star choice in ’06 over Kent based on that and some strong play to start the season? I voted for him (Kent was injured at the time), but it’s a close call. Utley has gone on to become one of the game’s best players, which makes the changeover seem appropriate, but that doesn’t always happen.
Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins. I got killed last year for voting Rafael Furcal over Ramirez and Jose Reyes, and by the end of the season, the pick did look silly, as both younger players were three wins better than Furcal. Then again, Furcal started this year like a house afire before being injured in May, an injury that saves me from making another tough choice. Ramirez’s defense has improved by some measures, and is better than Furcal and just enough better than Reyes to warrant this spot.
Third Base: Chipper Jones, Braves. The toughest choice on the ballot is selecting between Jones and David Wright. Wright seemed like Scott Rolen‘s natural successor, but Miguel Cabrera got my vote last year, and Jones’ late-career surge moves him ever so slightly ahead of Wright this year. I think David Wright is as complete a baseball player as you’ll find, an MVP candidate in just about any season. I just can’t ignore the guy who’s had three straight .400/.550 years, might have been the best player in the league last year, and is its best player this year. Maybe Jones can play left field.
Catcher: Russell Martin, Dodgers. This may come as a surprise, given that a few weeks back I made a big deal about preferring Brian McCann to Martin. That’s about the two players’ futures. Right now, Martin is the better player and has been over the last year and a half, and that’s good enough to make him the All-Star pick.
Outfield: Alfonso Soriano, Cubs; Carlos Beltran, Mets; Matt Holiday, Rockies. It was maybe two years ago that the NL had eight guys, arguably more, with real cases for these spots. Since then, J.D. Drew and Bobby Abreu switched leagues, Brian Giles and Ken Griffey Jr. declined a little, and Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds declined a lot. We’re left with a mix of good-not-great options across the board. I went with a true center fielder in Beltran, one who is still the best in the league. Soriano’s low OBP makes me cringe, but he does have very good power and keeps having the same season. Matt Holliday was something of a throw-up-my-hands moment, very good in 2006, great in 2007, good in ’08, one of the few players on the ballot to be good in all three years.
I’m OK with passing on Nate McLouth, who is one of those “big two months” guys. The same goes for Ryan Ludwick and Xavier Nady. Adam Dunn has a case ahead of Beltran or Holliday, although defense matters enough to make both of the latter respectable choices. Jason Bay versus Alfonso Soriano is a tough call; Bay was better in 2005 and 2006, Soriano better in 2007, and the two have been essentially equal, by WARP, in ’08. I think Bay or even Pat Burrell might have been a better pick than Soriano, but it’s close.
That’s really the only vote on my ballot that gives me pause two weeks later. The All-Star Game is for the best, and I think you can choose the best while sitting at the park enjoying a ballgame. I’ll repeat the point: if 2008 statistics are a player’s best case, he’s probably not an All-Star.