Nineteen years ago, a rookie in name only stood atop the pitching mound to start the All-Star Game for the National League. Hideo Nomo was 26 years old. His ERA was 1.99. He struck out 119 in 90 1/3 innings. He was a phenomenon working under the bright lights of Dodger Stadium.
In three weeks, a rookie in name only should stand atop the pitching mound to start the All-Star Game for the American League. Masahiro Tanaka is 25 years old. His ERA is 1.99. He has struck out 113 in 99 2/3 innings. He is a phenomenon working under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium.
Every All-Star game represents a tenuous balance between rewarding the best performers of the current season and engaging the casual fan. Luckily, Tanaka satisfies both qualities. In the past, I've advocated for those whose qualifications were more tied to the excitement they brought – Bryce Harper in 2012 and Yasiel Puig last season, for example – than their overall performance.
The argument that only the best of 2014 should play stems from the single dumbest rule in sports, the All-Star game counting for home-field advantage in the World Series. Whoever Bud Selig's successor is, abolishing that embarrassment of a rule – one that makes the old tuck rule and the signing of golf scorecards look positively logical – should be a top priority upon occupying the office.
Projecting All-Stars nevertheless remains one of the more enjoyable endeavors of every baseball summer. Whether it's fans poking chads out of ballots at the ballpark or clicking until they get carpal tunnel, it's a pastime within a pastime. This version is a bit different than most: It aims to project who the All-Stars will be while at the same time pointing out who should be.
One thing that's for sure: At least we'll get to gawk at ...
1. Masahiro Tanaka, whether Boston manager John Farrell gives him the start or opts instead for Felix Hernandez or Yu Darvish or perhaps even Chris Sale, all of whom belong in Minneapolis. The starters projected to join them: Mark Buehrle, Scott Kazmir, Jon Lester (thanks, skipper), David Price (as the lone Rays rep) and Dallas Keuchel (as one of two Astros, which shows you just how weird 2014 has been).
Who will start for the NL is just as murky. Could be Johnny Cueto, who leads the league in ERA. Or Tim Hudson, who did before his last start. Perhaps Adam Wainwright. Even Clayton Kershaw can make a strong case, mainly because he's Clayton Kerhsaw and he's the best pitcher in baseball.Their peers: Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathon Niese (because the Mets need someone), Stephen Strasburg (who probably won’t make it even though he very much deserves to) and Josh Beckett (which would make three starters from the rotation of a second-place team, an indictment of the other facets of the Dodgers’ game).
For those unclear how it works, here's a primer: fans choose position-playing starters, players choose a backup at each position along with five starting pitchers and three relievers, and managers get to fill the roster out while accounting for at least one player from every team. Neither Farrell nor St. Louis manager Mike Matheny will be accused of choosing the worst All-Star, seeing as ...
2. Derek Jeter will start at shortstop for the AL despite a .267/.320/.317 line. It's exactly the right call, of course, because this is the All-Star Game and he is Derek Jeter. And anything that makes it seem wrong to play Jeter – like, say, a rule that tries to make the game worth something – is shown for the hollow joke it is. With no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Fame players, one last All-Star Game is a victory lap well worth the reward. Good for the fans for doing it.
Alexei Ramirez has been the best shortstop in the AL by a long shot, and he'll back Jeter up. Troy Tulowitzki has been the best player in baseball, and he'll start for the National League, with Hanley Ramirez the likeliest player to get votes from his peers, even if Starlin Castro could make a decent argument he should go instead. As thin as shortstop is around the major leagues, the ...
3. Robinson Cano- and Chase Utley-led second basemen are loaded with possibilities. Cano should run away with the AL vote, particularly considering he's now second in the league in batting, and fans still luuuurve batting average.
Joining him? Jose Altuve, the Astros' second All-Star and the guess as for who the players will pick. Here's the problem: They can also choose Ian Kinsler. Or Dustin Pedroia. Or Brian Dozier. So even though he does belong there, Altuve could conceivably end up one of the snubs, particularly if the players don't vote him in and he's not leading the league in batting average at the time of the announcement in two weeks. Farrell won't face quite the pressure. Ultimately, he will need to pick Dozier to satisfy the hometown Twins, whose other candidate, starter Phil Hughes, faces an even deeper pool of candidates.
NL players face a similar conundrum. Dee Gordon's dynamism on the bases helps his cause. Brandon Phillips is a big name still. Neil Walker may have the best raw numbers. Daniel Murphy is underappreciated. And then there's Anthony Rendon, the Washington Nationals' rookie who started the season at second, shifted over to third, is better than all of the other candidates and would satisfy the mandate for a utility player. He'd be the perfect guy if ...
4. Matt Carpenter didn't play the same positions and have a boss who's running the NL team. Now, Matheny may not be one of those managers who plays the All-Star home-cooking game. Some are egregious; some understand the point of the game isn't to reward your players for a good first half. Matheny is a loyal sort, and Carpenter is an on-base junkie at a position (third base) that won't have much.
Here's an upset guess: Pablo Sandoval will overtake David Wright, whom he trailed by nearly 80,000 votes last week, to start at third in the NL. One truth about All-Star voting: Bay Area fans are awesome. Keep that in mind going forward. Hopefully the NL players are paying attention and reward Todd Frazier with the backup spot instead of a good ol' standby like the not-good-enough David Wright.
AL voters are showing all sorts of baseball smarts by putting Josh Donaldson in the lead over bigger names like Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria. Beltre likely will snag the players' vote, on account of his reputation and a solid season, even though Seattle's unheralded Kyle Seager deserves the spot every bit as much, if not more. We'll harp on the snubs later, though ...
5. Devin Mesoraco warrants a particular shout-out here first, because barring injury he has next to zero chance of making it. Despite Jonathan Lucroy's valiant campaign replete with attack ad – attack ad! – Yadier Molina is going to win the vote easily. Players will vote Lucroy in, and Matheny has to take Evan Gattis, one of the NL's 10 best hitters this season.
Which leaves Mesoraco out despite 12 home runs in 145 at-bats. The 26-year-old's .628 slugging percentage is exceeded only by Tulowitzki's and Corey Dickerson's, and he has hit the same number of homers as Freddie Freeman in less than half the at-bats after an oblique injury sent Mesoraco to the DL for three weeks.
Far, far worse than the Molina pick – which, mind you, is completely justifiable – are the top two catchers in the AL now: Matt Wieters and Brian McCann. Wieters had Tommy John surgery. He's as likely to play in the game as you. And McCann's line this season is .226/.289/.366. Welington Castillo is hitting .242/.287/.385, for reference.
Hopefully, Oakland does its Oakland thing and thrusts Derek Norris (.301/.403/.512 and a beard that's slugging 4.000) to the top of the ballot. He was less than 3,000 votes behind McCann on the last ballot, and the Wieters lead of more than 400,000 should dissipate in time. Salvador Perez should be starting, but the players will take care of him. Remember, they've got our backs. Chances are ...
6. Jose Abreu will be launching balls out of Target Field in the Home Run Derby because the players wouldn't dare keep his bat out of the game like the fans seem inclined to. Granted, they are voting for Miguel Cabrera, the back-to-back AL MVP. Even if his homers are down, he remains the sort of preeminent hitter who should be an All-Star every season.
First base isn't overcrowded in the AL anyway, thanks to a number of first basemen landing in the designated-hitter category. Nelson Cruz, an outfielder, should win the starting spot at DH, holding off David Ortiz, who's doubtful to make it because there are simply better options. Like Victor Martinez, the best hitter in the AL this season outside of the guy who should've been MVP the last two years. Or Edwin Encarnacion, the king of home run hitting in the AL since 2012 – and the one who now leads the AL after hitting his 24th homer Sunday. Certainly Farrell doesn't want to choose three DHs – and almost just as certain: He must.
The NL is fairly straightforward at first base. Paul Goldschmidt will win the vote, as he should. Freeman will win the player's vote because he's a name and having a strong season. The real backup should be Anthony Rizzo, whose breakout season leaves him as one of only six players with at least a .400 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage. The other five are no-doubt All-Stars. Rizzo should be. Not even ...
7. Mike Trout is rocking the .400 on-base and .500 slugging. He's actually at .394 and .595, a goofy amount of plate discipline and power and yet another sign that Trout's evolution from five-tool monster into just flat-out Mothra will go just fine. The fans are voting him in the outfield, behind the voting machine that is Canada, which willed Jose Bautista to the top of all AL players. Canada also is doing a big no-no in placing Melky Cabrera in third place. Not because of Biogenesis but because his numbers don't make him worthy of a spot at a crowded position.
Ideal scenario: Some hacker from Kansas City cracks the online ballot and gets Alex Gordon into his proper starting spot in left field. Best legitimately conceivable scenario: Oakland pushes Yoenis Cespedes (back about 350,000 votes) into third place and Gordon joins Michael Brantley and Adam Jones on the player ballot.
The fans have the NL starters right: Andrew McCutchen in center field, flanked by Yasiel Puig and Giancarlo Stanton. The players will choose Carlos Gomez and could well settle on two of the following three – Michael Morse, Justin Upton and Hunter Pence – with the third seeking a justifiable nod from Matheny. Because they're backups, they're likeliest to play in the late innings and see ...
8. Sean Doolittle and the rest of the relief crew from the AL. And this may be a leap of faith to think the AL hitters would recognize someone like Doolittle, who didn't take over as Oakland closer until near the end of May. It's just that in 36 innings this season, Doolittle has struck out 50 hitters and walked one. Like, literally, one. A 50-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
And he won't even pitch the ninth, nor will Greg Holland, an AL shoo-in along with Farrell's likely choice, his closer Koji Uehara. With one slot left to fill out his roster of 13 pitchers, Farrell should choose Yankees setup man Dellin Betances. He has more strikeouts than one-third of qualified starters, with 70 in 42 innings – which, by the way, is the fourth-highest inning count among relievers. Opponents are hitting .133/.200/.203 against Betances. He's the right guy, no matter the bigger names.
The biggest name in closing since Mariano Rivera's retirement, Craig Kimbrel, leads an NL crew with the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez and perhaps Huston Street (though the players could begrudgingly choose Jonathan Papelbon). It's up to Matheny, then, to pick Steve Cishek, who has a higher K rate than K-Rod and lower walk and homer rates than Kimbrel. Leave all the complaints to an extra-man vote that can take care of the ...
9. Snubs and help recognize a position that these days is deeper than ever. In the AL, an extra-man ballot with Joakim Soria, Wade Davis, Zach Britton, Jake McGee and Andrew Miller is awfully strong. And for the NL, Rafael Soriano, Tony Watson, Pat Neshek, Zach Duke and the leftover among Street/Papelbon/Cishek.
That doesn't begin to cover all the snubs, so let's do a fast-and-furious (though surely not exhaustive) list of those who deserve more than passing consideration, in addition to the snubs already listed above:
AL: Garrett Richards, Max Scherzer, Sonny Gray, Jesse Chavez, Corey Kluber, Anibal Sanchez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Brandon Moss, Lonnie Chisenhall, Coco Crisp, Kurt Suzuki, Xander Bogaerts, Alcides Escobar, Joe Mauer (because a game in Minnesota without him will just feel weird).
NL: Julio Teheran, Cole Hamels, Henderson Alvarez, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Tanner Roark, Corey Dickerson, Joey Votto, Billy Hamilton (for the spectacle), Miguel Montero, Justin Morneau, Luis Valbuena.
Due to the rule about those who pitch on the last Sunday of the first half not going in the All-Star Game, some of the snubs will sneak in. For others like …
10. Masahiro Tanaka we can only hope the Yankees' rotation doesn't slot him in July 13. Because three days later, baseball wants Masahiro Tanaka on the mound, throwing to the first batter of the game – maybe Gomez DHing, maybe Puig being unleashed in an amazing sign of where baseball has gone and how for all the efforts of other sports to globalize themselves, nothing speaks better to baseball's cultural prowess as Japan vs. Cuba in the first plate appearance of the All-Star Game.
We remember Mark Fidrych starting as a rookie, and Fernando Valenzuela fulfilling his mania, and Nomo, this whirling dervish of excitement. Now it's the turn of Masahiro Tanaka, $175 million man, and he seems more than up to the responsibility.
The lament that the All-Star Game doesn't mean what it used to is fair. It doesn't. It went the way of every other star-studded affair – to have fun – and that doesn't make it any worse. Interleague bragging rights based on one game played with absurd substitution patterns amounted to nothing anyway. Absent that, it's what the game should be: a showcase of the stars.
So you'll see Tanaka. And Jeter. And Puig and Trout and Cano and Cabrera and everyone else who shows why, as hard as Bud Selig tried with his ludicrous rule, not even he could take away the true meaning of the best All-Star Game in sports, and the best run-up by a long shot.
Projected 2014 All-Stars
Derek Norris, Oak
Salvador Perez, KC
Miguel Cabrera, Det
Jose Abreu, Chi
Robinson Cano, Sea
Jose Altuve, Hou
Brian Dozier, Min (Util.)
Derek Jeter, NY
Alexei Ramirez, Chi
Josh Donaldson, Oak
Adrian Beltre, Tex
Jose Bautista, Tor
Michael Brantley, Cle
Mike Trout, LA
Alex Gordon, KC
Yoenis Cespedes, Oak
Adam Jones, Bal
Nelson Cruz, Bal
Victor Martinez, Det
Edwin Encarnacion, Tor
Masahiro Tanaka, NY
Chris Sale, Chi
Mark Buehrle, Tor
Dallas Keuchel, Hou
Felix Hernandez, Sea
David Price, TB
Scott Kazmir, Oak
Jon Lester, Bos
Yu Darvish, Tex
Greg Holland, KC
Dellin Betances, NY
Sean Doolittle, Oak
Koji Uehara, Bos
Yadier Molina, STL
Jonathan Lucroy, Mil
Evan Gattis, Atl
Paul Goldschmidt, Ari
Freddie Freeman, Atl
Anthony Rizzo, Chi
Chase Utley, Phi
Dee Gordon, LA
Matt Carpenter (Util.), STL
Troy Tulowitzki, Col
Hanley Ramirez, LA
Pablo Sandoval, SF
Todd Frazier, Cin
Yasiel Puig, LA
Carlos Gomez, Mil
Hunter Pence, SF
Andrew McCutchen, Pit
Michael Morse, SF
Giancarlo Stanton, Mia
Justin Upton, Atl
Tim Hudson, SF
Stephen Strasburg, Was
Johnny Cueto, Cin
Clayton Kershaw, LA
Adam Wainwright, STL
Jonathon Niese, NY
Madison Bumgarner, SF
Josh Beckett, LA
Zack Greinke, LA
Francisco Rodriguez, Mil
Steve Cishek, Mia
Craig Kimbrel, Atl
Huston Street, SD
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