St. LOUIS-For some segment of the audience, Bob Costas became the conscience of baseball somewhere along the line, but on Monday, the marquee talent on the fledgling MLB Network took a step back from that weighty role and became the wise-cracking host of the All-Star Game press conference, in which both managers revealed their lineups for tonight’s game at Busch Stadium. When it came time to announce the starting pitcher for the American League, Costas said, “representing, at least for the moment, the Toronto Blue Jays, Roy Halladay.” Halladay shot back, “Not looking forward to this part of it.”
However, Halladay’s situation with the Blue Jays was the main topic of the day as players from both rosters met with the media. While Halladay was picked to start an All-Star Game for the first time in his standout 12-year career, all everyone seemingly wanted to know is how much longer he would be with the Blue Jays, the organization that selected him in the first round of the 1995 first-year player draft.
Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi is in a situation where he needs to cut payroll by the start of next season. Ideally, he would like the move the bad contracts of center fielder Vernon Wells and right fielder Alexis Rios, but no team is likely to take either player in a trade unless the Blue Jays eat a large portion of their contracts. Wells will have five years and $100.5 million left on his seven-year, $126 million deal beyond this season, while Rios will still have five years and $59.7 million remaining on his seven-year, $69.835 million contract after this year. As a result, the most logical player to trade is Halladay. Contenders would seemingly be willing to give the Blue Jays quite a haul of young talent to have Halladay not only for the pennant race this year but all of next season, as he is signed through 2010.
Halladay, meanwhile, has reached the stage of his career where he wants to play on a winner. He is 32 and yet to play in a post-season game, as the Blue Jays were last in the playoffs in 1993 when they won the second of back-to-back World Series titles. While Halladay has not pushed for a trade or agreed to waive his no-trade clause, he did sound like a guy counting down his final days as the face of the only franchise outside of the United States in Major League Baseball. “It’s tough,” Halladay said. “Obviously, I’m somewhere that I enjoy being and have spent my entire career, so there’s a lot that goes into it. But, as a player, there’s that will to win and there’s that will to do it in October. Basically, that’s all this has been about is I would like the chance? I’m not saying it won’t be Toronto. It’s just what’s going to best for the organization. Are we going to be able to do that?”
The Blue Jays looked like they might be contenders at the beginning of the season, as they got off to a 27-14 start and led the AL East by 3½ games on May 18. However, they have since fallen to 44-46 and fourth place, 11 games off the pace of the division-leading Red Sox. Observed Halladay, “It has been tough because I do enjoy Toronto so much and you would like to be three games up in first place and not have to deal with this. It’s a tough division but that would be ideal.” At least tonight, though, Halladay will be in an idyllic situation, starting for the AL against Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum.
Lost amidst all the Halladay trade talk was the news that Rays manager Joe Maddon went against protocol and decided to base his choice of the starting pitcher on lifetime achievement rather than who has been the best in the league this season. Thus, Halladay got the nod over Royals right-hander Zack Greinke. Greinke is 10-5 with a league-leading 2.12 ERA in 18 starts, while Halladay is 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA in 17 starts. Greinke leads the AL in Expected Win Percentage with a .725 mark, while Halladay is fourth at .661 behind the Rangers‘ Scott Feldman (.710) and the Tigers‘ Edwin Jackson (.680).
“It’s very difficult to actually pick that one guy,” Maddon said. “There are so many qualified pitchers among the group but, based on the body of work, I think Doc over the last several years has demonstrated to possibly be the pitcher in the American League. Once again this year, I get to see him way too often playing against him in the same division. He’s still at the very pinnacle of his pitching ability.”
Like most Blue Jays, Halladay seems to get ignored in the United States despite being one of the best pitchers in the game and winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2003. The six-time all-star seemed genuinely touched that Maddon showed him so much respect. “I’m obviously very honored by this,” Halladay said. “I’ve had a chance to be here a few times and never really thought about starting. Once it was announced, it is a big difference and it is a special experience. It’s something I’ll always remember. I’m just glad that I wasn’t the one trying to decide who was going to start based on some of the other available guys we had. I’m extremely excited and it’s another highlight moment for me in my career. All I can say is thank you.”
Lincecum, last year’s NL Cy Young Award winner, will be making his first All-Star start. Like Halladay, he is fourth in expected win percentage in his league with a .689 mark, trailing the Diamondbacks‘ Dan Haren (.775), the Giants’ Matt Cain (.758), and the Marlins‘ Josh Johnson (.724). Lincecum also did not escape a Costas wisecrack as he showed up at the press conference wearing a stocking cap on an 80-degree day that included the usual mid-summer St. Louis humidity. “Tim Lincecum is wearing a knit cap reminiscent of the kind Jim Bunning wore during his playing days,” Costas said, referencing the Hall of Fame pitcher who is now a United States senator.
Headgear aside, Lincecum is looking forward to the start after being hospitalized for last year’s All-Star Game in New York because of dehydration. “This is a great accomplishment for me,” Lincecum said. “I’ll just try to load up on a bunch of liquids and stay hydrated this time. I will have Cain around my neck to keep me in my room all night.” That elicited plenty of laughter because one of the worst-kept secrets of last year’s Midsummer Classic is that Lincecum fell ill after loading up on a bunch of liquids of another kind the night before the game.
Lincecum will face an AL lineup in which Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki will lead off, followed by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Twins catcher Joe Mauer, Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay, Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill, and Halladay. Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez will lead off for the NL and be followed by Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, Brewers right fielder Ryan Braun, Phillies left fielder Raul Ibañez, Mets third baseman David Wright, Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, and Lincecum.
Manuel chose Victorino to replace Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran, who was voted into the starting lineup by the fans, but will miss the game because of a knee injury. Victorino ranks fourth in EqA among the five outfielders Manuel had to choose from, behind the Rockies‘ Brad Hawpe (.313), the Phillies’ Jayson Werth (.306), and the Diamondbacks’ Justin Upton (.301), and ahead of only the Astros‘ Hunter Pence (.290). Manuel said the nod went to Victorino more because he is a true center fielder. “Hawpe is a great player and I like everything about him,” Manuel said. “I’m sure I’ll work him into the game.”
The winning league will gain home-field advantage in the World Series for a seventh straight year. Though the idea that was hatched after the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie in commissioner Bud Selig’s hometown of Milwaukee has drawn plenty of fire, Maddon likes to have something riding on the All-Star Game. Maddon’s Rays, though, did not exploit that advantage last October, as the Phillies nevertheless won the World Series in five games. “The weight placed on this game causes it to take on a different shape,” Maddon said. “I’m all for it. I think it makes this moment a lot more interesting and a little bit tighter. All of the All-Stars are going to play to win, regardless. However, I think by putting this little weight on the end of it, believe me, man, when it comes down to that point of the season you want to play the first game at home and possibly the seventh.”
If recent history is a gauge, the AL will be home to start the World Series again this year, as it has a 12-game All-Star Game winning streak. The NL hasn’t won since 1996 in Philadelphia, when Citizens Bank Park was then just part of the Veterans Stadium parking lot. “That’s motivation and something else to play harder for,” Manuel said of the losing streak. “I hope it works. Our league definitely wants to win, and we would love to be called the superior league.”