The 2008 Major League Baseball All-Star Game—July 15 at Yankee Stadium—is only a month away.
With nearly every leading vote getter holding a secure grasp on the top spot for their respective position, it is already crystal clear which players will be on the field at this year’s Midsummer Classic.
The National League has seen its fair share of incredible first-half performances. Chase Utley has put on his own personal home run show. Ryan Ludwick is enjoying a surprise breakout in St. Louis. Chipper Jones is flirting with a quest for .400.
All in all, picking the stars from the Senior Circuit was far easier than in the American League. Unlike the AL, though, the voters are doing a better job of picking the deserving candidates.
In the second set of a four-part series, here are my picks for the National League starting lineup, listed next to the current leading vote getter at each position. My picks are based on performance so far this season, albeit over a small sample size. Click the link for my American League picks.
Catcher: Geovany Soto—. Brian McCann has hit more home runs (12) than any catcher in all of baseball while posting a stellar .953 OPS. In addition, he has posted a line of .307/.384/.569 and currently leads all NL catchers in doubles and extra-base hits. With all due respect to McCann, however, the rookie sensation Soto is the most deserving candidate at this point. It is based off of too small a sample size to read too much into it, but the Chicago backstop has had the better first half, helping the historic franchise to its best start in a long time. He is leading all big league catchers with a 130 OPS+ while hitting .298/.374/.530 with 11 home runs and a position-best 42 RBIs.
Soto put up monster numbers for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in 2007, hitting .353/.424/.652 with 26 home runs and 109 RBIs. For his stellar performance, he was elected as the Pacific League Most Valuable Player, before enjoying a fine September call-up in the big leagues. If he continues to produce, the 25-year-old will have the chance to add another piece of hardware to his trophy case—the NL Rookie of the Year award. Either way, he will definitely make his first All-Star appearance this July, as the Wrigley fan favorite leads McCann in the balloting by over 300,000 votes.
Current Leader: Soto
First Base: Lance Berkman—The National League is loaded with talented offensive first baseman, making this selection a difficult choice on an annual basis. Albert Pujols is one of the most consistent hitters baseball has even seen. Ryan Howard, despite a poor first half, arguably has more pure power than any slugger in the game. Prince Fielder has only been able to drink legally for two years, yet already has a 50-home run campaign under his belt. Then there is Lance Berkman, who made the process much more difficult by trading his outfield glove for a first baseman’s mitt.
Pujols is expected to miss the next three weeks after sustaining a calf injury earlier in the week, a huge blow for the surprise St. Louis Cardinals. Before he went down, though, he was producing like his usual monster self, hitting .347/.475/.631 with 16 homers and 42 RBIs. St. Louis is certainly going to miss his 1.105 OPS in its lineup, in addition to his above-average defense at first.
While Pujols probably will not be healthy enough to play at Yankee Stadium on July 15, Berkman is the better choice here anyway. The “Big Puma” is first in the majors in slugging percentage (.711), second in hitting (.362) and home runs (19), fourth in on-base percentage (.455) and RBIs (57). In addition, his 1.159 is the second-highest total in all of Major League Baseball.
So, at this point, fans are 2-for-2 in the National League, as, with over one million votes already, Berkman looks like a lock to start next month’s Midsummer Classic.
Current Lead: Berkman
Second Base: Chase Utley—Second base is not a position generally known for producing sluggers, but Dan Uggla and Chase Utley are changing that belief with every swing. After hitting his 22nd long ball of the season on Friday night in the Phillies’ 20-run rout over the Cardinals, Utley increased his lock on the majors’ home run lead. Right behind him on the board is Uggla, who is tied for second with 19 homers and is one of only eight hitters in the game with an OPS above .1000.
On pace to break the single-season record for homers hit by a second baseman, Utley is the clear-cut winner here. In addition to his prolific offensive exploits, he is an above-average defender at an important infield position. In the year of the slugger on the Senior Circuit, he has perhaps been best of all, batting .317/.404/.653 with 63 RBIs.
Through three frames, the fans are pitching a perfect game in the National League, as Ultey, the most deserving selection, is by far the leading vote getter in his league. Uggla has one quarter of Utley’s one million-plus votes, ranking fourth.
Current Leader: Utley
Third Base: Chipper Jones—There is no contest here. Jones is flirting with .400, sitting with a league-best .414 clip on June 14. The Atlanta third baseman is playing like a 25-year-old again, having posted a line of .414/.500/.665 while producing the majors’ highest OPS, 1.165, through Friday. The odds are against Jones from becoming the first player since Ted Williams, who hit .406 back in 1941, to finish a season with an average at or above the .400 plateau. The veteran slugger, however, has not let his mark drop below .400 since April 12. While his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is unusually high—meaning that there has been some luck involved—Jones has been the best overall third sacker in baseball in ’08, no questions asked.
Current Leader: Jones
Hanley Ramirez (Associated Press)
Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez—Ramirez is having a nice spring. He is certainly a lot wealthier, having agreed to a six-year, $70 million contract extension to become the face of the Florida Marlins. His play on the field has not been too shabby, either, as he ranks first among all National League shortstops with a .919 OPS and Adjusted OPS+ of 145. The 24-year-old is hitting .298/.388/.531 and leads all major league shortstops with 15 home runs. The National League East is stacked with dynamic offensive players at the position—with Jose Reyes (.291/.351/.480) and Jimmy Rollins (.277/.331/.441)—but the Marlins’ leadoff hitter has outperformed them all in a solid first half. The performance to date of the excellent Florida double-play tandem, Uggla and Ramirez, is a huge reason why the Marlins rank six out of 30 major league teams with 327 runs scored and are only four games back of the Phillies in the East.
Current Leader: Miguel Tejada—Despite the fact his name was featured in the December Mitchell Report, an ESPN report stating he lied about his age when he signed a professional contract out of the Dominican Republic in 1993, and a decline in production, Miguel Tejada leads Hanley Ramirez and the rest of the NL shortstop class in the balloting. Tejada has surprised me a bit this season with his improved play at short from a season ago, perhaps justifying his continued presence at the position. Scouts continue to rave about his “energy” as well, but the former MVP does not deserve an All-Star bid as his skills continue to decline. He is batting .301/.336/.480 with nine home runs and 41 RBIs, sitting third among players at his position in the Senior Circuit with a .815 OPS and 114 OPS+. Never known for his plate discipline, however, he has only has 11 walks to his name in ’08 while striking out 33 times; hence the low on-base percentage. Thus, if he cannot maintain his batting average—with his declining power—Tejada could end up with some poor numbers at the end of the year.
Outfield: Ryan Ludwick, Pat Burrell, Nate McLouth—This group ranks 1-2-3 in OPS among National League outfielders, respectively, which perhaps make the selection process here easy. Yet each player in the aforementioned group has meant so much individually to their respective teams, which is more important than strictly one offensive statistical category.
Burrell, in a walk year, is picking the right time to produce for the surging Phillies, enjoying one of the best starts of his career. He has posted a line of .281/.419/.585, for a robust OPS of .1065, and is second among outfielders in the majors with 52 bases on balls. The former first-round pick is also tied for the league at his position with 17 home runs, picking up the slack left by Philadelphia sluggers Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, who have struggled in the first half. While he is a marginal defensive outfielder, his production at the plate merits the start.
Ludwick his having a breakout campaign in in his first full season at the major league level, as his surprise offensive production has helped key the Cardinals’ quest to remain in contention in the NL Central. He has the highest OPS (1.057) of all outfielders on the Senior Circuit, ranking 6th in the majors as well. Plus, he is currently tied with his teammate, some guy named Pujols, for the club lead with 16 homers. Ludwick, who is also leading his team with 52 RBIs and has produced a stellar OPS+ of 169, will not garner the necessary votes to earn a start at Yankee Stadium, but should be an easy choice as a reserve for National League manager Clint Hurdle.
McLouth, seemingly lost on the Pirates’ outfield depth chart not too long ago, is establishing himself as a solid big league outfielder as well. The Pittsburgh center fielder, who began the season with a 19-game hitting streak, is batting .298/.386/.565 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs in 66 games, compiling an OPS+ of 149. Among NL outfielders, he ranks first in runs scored (53), tied for second in base hits (78), second in OPS (1.028), fifth in RBIs, sixth in homers and seventh in on-base percentage.
Current Leaders: Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, Ken Griffey Jr.—Soriano is producing yet again for the Cubs. While he is more of a three hitter than a leadoff man, he was hitting .283/.332/.547 with 15 home runs before landing on the disabled list on Thursday with a broken left hand. He is expected to miss at least six weeks, meaning he will not be healthy enough to play in the All-Star game. Currently, though, he is the leading vote getter in the National League with 1,088, 866 votes in the most recent series of results.
Chicago fans have been excellent in their effort to get their favorite players elected. In fact, almost every Cubs starter ranks in the top three in the balloting at their respective position, from Mark DeRosa to Fukudome, the Japanese import who created a frenzy when hit a clutch home run at Wrigley Field on Opening Day. Deservedly so, as he has been a solid addition to the Cubs’ lineup. The (not so) rookie right fielder, whose stellar .409 on-base percentage ranks third among NL outfielders, is batting .300/.409/.438 to help anchor a dynamic Chicago offense, which has the highest team on-base percentage (.362) and has scored the second-most runs (378) in all of baseball. The correlation between OBP and runs is no coincidence, folks.
On Monday night, Griffey became the sixth player to join the historic 600 home run club, belting a 3-1 pitch off of Florida lefty Mark Hendrickson into the right field bleachers during the first inning of a Reds’ win. Griffey has fallen out of grace to some fans in Cincinnati. To many kids who grew up playing his video game for Nintendo 64, however, he will always be king.
Griffey, whose name has never been attached to allegations of performance-enhancing drugs, is enjoying a nice comeback in the popularity department. Before the chase for 61 in 1998, he was the most marketable player in the sport, as his genuine love for the game, smile and sweet left-handed stroke attracted many fans to partake in Griffey Mania. It is good to see him getting so much love again, bringing back memories of the “Griffey For President” campaign back in 1996.
Griffey does not rank in the top 20 in OPS among NL outfielders. He is hitting .252/.364/.404 and his once-brilliant outfield play has declined dramatically. But Junior, the Player of the Decade in the 1990s—a man who said he would never call Yankee Stadium home after the way the New York organization treated his father—will get the start in the Bronx. Baseball fans of all ages should cherish the moment.
To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.