Predicting All-Star teams takes a fair bit of role-playing, first into the minds of the fans selecting the starters, then into those of the players who pick the reserves and finally into the heads of the managers that fill out the remainders of the roster. Surely the most enjoyable portion of the proceedings was the time inside Bruce Bochy's head, which felt like a voyage into the Spelling Manor.
Ultimately, I emerged with 34 players for each bloated All-Star team – and a few notable observations. Missouri's early efforts to rock the vote fell short in a handful of places. Finding an All-Star on the Boston Red Sox proved rather difficult. And determining home-field advantage in an exhibition game whose starting pitcher never goes more than two innings remains the undisputed king of sporting stupidity, a mandate steeped not in logic or reason but the emotional reactions of a commissioner who no longer gets to make the rules.
One of these years, I'll stop wasting words on the this-time-it-counts farce because someone in charge of such decisions will sentence it to its rightful death. In the meantime, let that be the boilerplate that precedes the annual unveiling of my All-Star predictions. They aren't necessarily reflective of the teams I think should be on the field, but they're reasonable-enough facsimiles that try to account for fans, players, managers and the politics that help guide their decisions.
All of the above can agree that in another year of destitute offenses the inclusion of …
1. Bryce Harper in this All-Star Game is not an act of charity or a product of celebrity as much as an absolute necessity. Seeing Giancarlo Stanton go down to an unnecessary injury – hamate-bone fractures are products of outdated equipment – lessened the star power even more, and Harper's inclusion in the Home Run Derby could go a long way to replacing Stanton, provided the hamstring injury that kept him out over the weekend doesn't linger, too.
Harper suggested shoulder surgery to his father Ron, his Derby pitcher, will prevent him from participating, which would be a shame seeing as Harper has a ready-made replacement: his older brother, Bryan, a 25-year-old Double-A pitcher for the Nationals with a 1.96 ERA. Bryan has allowed only one home run in 18 1/3 innings this season. He's due a few.
As for the game itself, Stanton and Nori Aoki figure to be elected starters, especially with the injury to Matt Holliday keeping him out of the game. The players almost surely will choose Andrew McCutchen, Justin Upton's power and name make him almost a sure thing and Joc Pederson's power, patience and glove in center field warrant his inclusion. Sneaky-excellent A.J. Pollock deserves to round out the NL All-Star outfielders with his first bid.
Mike Trout leads the AL outfielders, flanked by a pair of Royals, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon, both of whom more than deserve the positions to which fans are electing them. The players are likely to go with two familiar faces (Jose Bautista and Adam Jones) and shouldn't hesitate to reward another who is quickly making himself into one of the most valuable free agents this offseason: Yoenis Cespedes.
Yes, there are snubs here – we'll get to all of them later – but the obviousness of players like …
2. Paul Goldschmidt leading their respect positions makes this job far easier. While Goldschmidt isn't quite Harper with the bat this season, only three first basemen ever have posted a season in which they matched or exceeded Goldschmidt's .352/.470/.648 triple-slash: Frank Thomas, Norm Cash and Lou Gehrig.
Here's where the voting starts to get shifty. The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo has been the second-best first baseman in the NL by a fair margin. His peers should vote him in. And if they do, Bochy can use one of his discretionary choices to select Joey Votto, the franchise player for the home Cincinnati Reds. If the players overvalue Adrian Gonzalez's early-season results, though, and make him the top backup, that means Bochy must go with Rizzo as his pick and carry four first baseman with Votto there.
The American League has similar levels of snubbery. Miguel Cabrera should run away with the voting, and Albert Pujols' AL-leading home run total won't allow him to spend All-Star Week relaxing at home. Neither will Prince Fielder's league-leading batting average. AL manager Ned Yost is hamstrung by the AL eating up two of his spots with a starting and backup DH. Fielder is listed at first base despite playing less than 20 percent of his games there, which leaves the DH spots to the fan vote (Nelson Cruz) and player vote (Alex Rodriguez). All of which means Yost would have to snub Eric Hosmer, his first baseman in Kansas City.
No Hosmer would be the first crack in the Royals' quest to bring eight players to Cincinnati. At this point, there is no surer thing than …
3. Salvador Perez, an awfully unlikely candidate for baseball's most popular player. And there he is, a 24-year-old catcher who plays in Kansas City going into Monday with more All-Star votes than anyone in the game. Assuming Yost carries three catchers – and of course he will, because, like Bochy, he himself wore the tools of ignorance – Stephen Vogt and Russell Martin make the most sense, all due respect to Brian McCann.
Beyond Buster Posey in the NL, it's a complete guess. So here's to speculating the players will choose Derek Norris because of his 20 doubles and 41 RBIs, and Bochy will take Francisco Cervelli over Yasmani Grandal because of Cervelli's superior glove game and similar offensive profile with slightly less power.
The only position thinner than catcher is shortstop, where …
4. Jhonny Peralta will win the fan vote for his third appearance while Brandon Crawford should get the player vote for his debut. Whether Bochy carries a third shortstop is quite murky. Troy Tulowitzki is hitting his way into the picture, but ultimately Bochy's desire for versatility leaves Tulo on a strong list of NL snubs.
The picture is far uglier in the American League, where if voters could fix it so that Carlos Correa started then the game would be better for it. Alas, Alcides Escobar will bring his sweet glove to the game for the AL, while because of his defensive wizardry and batting average that remains among the leaders in the league, Jose Iglesias will be the players' choice as Escobar's backup.
Here comes the tricky part for Yost. He could make Xander Bogaerts the Red Sox's representative, seeing as Dustin Pedroia is injured, David Ortiz isn't winning the DH slot and Boston's pitching staff is a tire fire. Just as easily Yost could tap …
5. Brock Holt as a utilityman who could back up second base starter Jose Altuve and players' choice Jason Kipnis. (No, I do not have Omar Infante holding onto his AL second base lead. True anarchy can wait for another day.)
The case for Holt is strong: His .295/.387/.446 line trumps Bogaerts' .291/.326/.402. His versatility is appreciated in a game like this. And precedent does exist for a player who doesn't even qualify for the batting title to make the All-Star Game because of his flexibility. Some guy in 2010 named Omar Infante.
Whether he continues to hold onto the fan vote or rely on the players, Dee Gordon will make his second consecutive appearance. As strong as St. Louis fans have proven at clicking, getting Kolten Wong to leapfrog Gordon at this point is a difficult task, meaning the players vote will give Joe Panik a deserved spot on the NL team. One could make a good argument he has been better than Gordon this year – and Panik is only 24.
As thin as the middle-infield crop is today …
6. Josh Donaldson and the rest of the third basemen should be well-represented in Cincinnati. Manny Machado is a shoo-in. And while Mike Moustakas certainly deserves a spot, because of Boston's need for a player and the seemingly necessary inclusion of Fielder and Pujols, his lone hope is to win the vote, something that seems troublesome after Donaldson's significant gains on him last week.
Third base could be my Dewey-beats-Truman moment of these predictions. Betting against St. Louis in All-Star voting isn't the most brilliant idea, and yet with 1.2 million ballots separating Matt Carpenter and Todd Frazier, I wonder if the vote will end up tilting such that Cincinnati can at least have one starter in its home game. If Frazier gets it, the spiral off the team for Carpenter could happen. Nolan Arenado will finish second to Frazier in the player vote and lock up a spot.
Then comes the troublesome choices for Bochy. Carpenter is hitting .280/.378/.461. Kris Bryant is hitting .274/.378/.465. Considering just how enormous a part rookies have played in the 2015 season, having only Pederson representing them seems thin. Now, Bochy may well reward Carpenter with his third consecutive All-Star appearance – if, that is, fans finagle Frazier into the starting role – but seeing Bryant in Cincinnati feels right.
And then there is the case of that last NL position-playing spot. Like Holt in the AL, Justin Turner hasn't had an everyday role with the Dodgers all season, and yet he has been their best hitter, particularly of late, when he has raised his line to .320/.392/.584. He's not a classic All-Star by any means. Just a 30-year-old utilityman who's playing tremendous baseball and has earned a position behind …
7. Max Scherzer and the seven other NL starters. The next five behind Scherzer were rather easy: Zack Greinke, Gerrit Cole Shelby Miller, Jacob deGrom and A.J. Burnett, all among NL ERA leaders. (Remember, pitchers are mostly a player vote, and most players focus on ERA as their main indicator.) Surely the players won't let a year go by without Clayton Kershaw representing the NL, and same goes for Bochy and Madison Bumgarner. He'll be there, too.
The AL was a bit more trying. There are the guarantees: Chris Archer, Sonny Gray, Dallas Keuchel, Chris Sale and David Price. Even though he's having an un-Felix year, Felix Hernandez gets in on reputation. Then … well, then it comes down to exactly how many starters Yost wants. Presuming he goes with eight and five relievers, that's two slots left. And of the remaining starters, Scott Kazmir and Jake Odorizzi probably can make the best cases.
Of course, Kazmir hit Cain with a pitch earlier this season, which angered the Royals and may live in Yost's mind. And Odorizzi was traded from Kansas City in the James Shields deal, and no team wants to deal a former All-Star. And Corey Kluber, the reigning Cy Young winner and second to Sale in strikeouts, has gotten crushed by Kansas City this season. And Hector Santiago and Yovani Gallardo simply don't have the profile to match their ERAs to get them a Yost vote. I'm sticking with the safe guess, even if I know Yost loves the idea of …
8. Zach Britton and a super-deep bullpen to use at his disposal in Cincinnati. In addition to Glen Perkins, Dellin Betances, Wade Davis and Huston Street, few would quibble if Yost left Kazmir and Odorizzi home in favor of, say, Darren O'Day and Will Harris.
The NL bullpen is stocked with two no-doubters (Trevor Rosenthal and Aroldis Chapman), two gotta-be-there-because-their-teams-have-no-one-else guys (Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Papelbon) and a Bochy homer pick, Santiago Casilla. That would mean leaving major league save leader Mark Melancon off the team, as well as Drew Storen, Jeurys Familia, A.J. Ramos, Kevin Siegrist and a gang of others worthy of the honor. Such is life among the …
9. Snubs, the poor, sad achievers deprived of their rightful place in a watered-down All-Star Game.
For Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira, J.D. Martinez, George Springer, Brian Dozier, Jose Abreu, Josh Reddick, Logan Forsythe, Freddie Freeman and the aforementioned Carpenter, Grandal, Gonzalez, Tulowitzki, Wong, Holliday, Hosmer and Moustakas, our most sincere apologies. Just take solace in Infante not making it, either, and knowing that you avoided an All-Star Game of ...
10. Bryce Harper overshadowing everyone. So long as the Royals don't retake the lead among all the non-Trout offensive positions, Harper is going to be the story of the week in Cincinnati. What he's doing this year ranks with some of the great seasons in history and reignites the debate at the All-Star Game three years ago: Harper vs. Trout.
The answer is Trout, of course. He remains the game's finest player. Harper's season has significantly narrowed the gap, though, and like Trout he's now the sort of player worth tuning in just to see. Baseball doesn't have enough of those, though with Trout, Harper, Stanton, Bryant and Correa all 25 and younger, baseball's future core is as young and strong as it has been for more than a decade.
There is Hall of Fame-caliber talent everywhere in the game today, and for all the nice one-year breakout players that deserve to go, fans really want to see the elite of the elite in the All-Star Game. It's not a matter of the game counting. It's about great players doing great things during that dead time when the NBA and NHL are done and football hasn't quite geared up.
So whether it's Harper or Trout or any of the other 66 players there, too much talent will gather in Cincinnati for something great not to happen. Of all the predictions herein, that's the one I'm surest of.
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