My 2005 All-Stars: National League

Much like with the end-of-season award voting, I’m not sure why I still get worked up about the All-Star Game each year. I know better, and I know that all the hype and exaggerated outrage over who makes the team this year and who doesn’t will be completely forgotten within 72 hours of the game’s final pitch, just like it was last year. And yet the annual discussion of who deserves to be an All-Star still manages to rope me in each time.

I have a very specific idea of what an “All-Star” is, and in my mind All-Star Games should be reserved for great players, not just players having great first halves. I tried to explain my point of view by using Jack Wilson as an example last year and received an avalanche of nasty e-mails from Pirates fans for my trouble. In short, my point was that one good half-season does not an All-Star make, and Wilson should have to prove himself for longer than that before being branded an “All-Star” for life.

Or, as I wrote then:

If Jack Wilson is “for real,” we can certainly wait a year just to make sure, and pick him as an All-Star next season. If he’s not for real, he doesn’t deserve to be an All-Star this year any more than Paul Quantrill in 2001 or Scott Cooper in 1993 and 1994 anyway. A mediocre player who has 10 good weeks is not an All-Star; he’s just a mediocre player who happened to put his hot streak together in the first half of the season.

Despite all the angry e-mails from Pittsburgh, Wilson hit just .279/.313/.407 in the second half of last season and is back to his banjo-hitting ways this year, hitting .231/.266/.351. In other words, he was indeed far from for real, and we certainly could have waited to see him in his first All-Star game. Ah, but I know what you’re saying now. Pittsburgh needed someone to represent them in the All-Star game last year, so why not Wilson?

My formative years as a baseball fan were spent watching the post-Kirby Puckett Minnesota Twins fight for fourth place in the AL Central, so I speak from experience about the one-player-per-team rule. There is absolutely nothing exciting about watching Ron Coomer represent your favorite team in the All-Star game, and in fact it serves as more of a reminder that your team stinks than simply not having an All-Star at all would. Plus, the idea that a deserving player has to miss out on an All-Star game because a less-deserving player plays for a horrible team is repulsive to me.

Each year, a number of players who get off to hot starts are branded All-Stars for the rest of their lives, and then they go back to being thoroughly mediocre. Each year, several established stars who are off to slow starts get snubbed in favor of guys like Wilson, and they then go back to being great players. All of which is why my method for picking All-Stars is to choose players who are having good seasons but who also have the best chance of not making you feel dumb for picking them two months later. If I had to break it down into a formula, I would say 75% past performance, 25% current season.

That still leaves plenty of room for guys having breakout years, assuming they have been quality players in the past. For players like Wilson who have good first-half numbers but very little in the way of a deserving track record, I prefer to wait a year. The worst-case scenario is that someone continues to play well in the second half and into the next season, at which point he can be chosen to an All-Star Game. I know, I know, forcing someone to play well for two straight years before they make an All-Star team is a new concept, but I think it’s a solid one.

With all of that said, here are my picks for the 2005 NL squad (starters listed with a * next to their name) …

CATCHER:
Mike Piazza*
Paul Lo Duca
Michael Barrett

There are at least three and probably as many as five or six American League catchers whom I would pick to start the All-Star Game if they were in the National League. Unfortunately for Joe Mauer, he’s stuck behind Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada, while the best catcher so far in the NL has nearly identical (and equally unspectacular) numbers:

                   G      AVG      OBP      SLG     RC     VORP      CS%
Joe Mauer         57     .288     .359     .420     37     16.6     38.2
Paul Lo Duca      65     .299     .355     .403     35     16.3     27.9

Paul Lo Duca (.299/.355/.403) has been the best catcher in the NL, but Mike Piazza (.264/.323/.439) still gets the starting nod based on his outstanding career. Plus, while Piazza’s having a very poor season by his standards, he still ranks as one of the top two to three offensive catchers in the league. For Piazza not to start for the NL, someone else would have to be significantly better than him this season, at the very least.

The third catcher spot is a toss-up among Ramon Hernandez (.280/.310/.428), Michael Barrett (.273/.311/.468), Jason LaRue (.262/.351/.429), Johnny Estrada (.278/.322/.406) and Mike Lieberthal (.233/.315/.378), but I’m going with Barrett over Hernandez, who is currently on the disabled list.

FIRST BASE:
Albert Pujols*
Derrek Lee
Carlos Delgado

This group more than makes up for the weak crop of NL catchers, as there are at least five NL first basemen I would have chosen to my AL squad over Paul Konerko. A Hall of Famer like Jeff Bagwell (.250/.361/.398) doesn’t even get a sniff, while perennial All-Stars like Todd Helton (.261/.393/.412), Lance Berkman (.270/.376/.434), and Jim Thome (.219/.367/.372) don’t make the cut because of injuries and sub par first halves.

So who does make the team? Well, Derrek Lee (.388/.466/.719), obviously. Lee is leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and ranks second in homers, RBIs, and runs scored. Still, Albert Pujols (.337/.421/.605) is my starter based on the fact that he’s within shouting distance of Lee this season and has been the second-best player in the league for a long time. The third spot goes to Carlos Delgado (.313/.407/.558) in a close decision over Nick Johnson (.320/.444/.508) and Lyle Overbay (.281/.396/.466), whose track records just can’t compete.

SECOND BASE:
Jeff Kent*
Marcus Giles
Craig Biggio

NL second basemen are another deep group, but like the first basemen many of them—Mark Loretta (.300/.388/.344), Jose Vidro (.290/.365/.510), Luis Castillo (.314/.419/.397)—have been injured this year. Jeff Kent (.297/.373/.524) is a no-brainer as the starter, and I think Marcus Giles (.290/.370/.458) is almost as big a no-brainer as the top reserve. Chase Utley (.313/.382/.528) deserves a spot on the team if you’re going by the best first half, but Craig Biggio (.278/.338/.467) has had a solid year and his outstanding career more than outweighs 200 good at-bats from Utley.

SHORTSTOP:
Omar Vizquel*
Cesar Izturis

NL shortstops are probably the weakest group in baseball right now. The only everyday shortstop having what I would consider a great year is Felipe Lopez (.301/.348/.551), who is finally living up to his long-since-forgetten prospect status. Clint Barmes (.323/.365/.507) was putting up great numbers, but they were mostly Coors-inflated and he is now out until at least August. And other than Lopez and Barmes, no regular shortstop is slugging even .425. That wouldn’t be surprising if this were, say, 1985, but in 2005 it certainly made me do a double-take.

Neifi Perez (.279/.304/.402) actually ranks fourth in slugging percentage and seventh in OPS among the 14 NL shortstops who qualify for the batting title, which should tell you all you need to know about the group. Among the 17 positional groups (eight in each league, plus designated hitters in the AL), NL shortstops rank dead last in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Basically, unless you want to crown Lopez the NL’s starting shortstop based on 60 good games that bring his career totals up to .248/.312/.414, you have to go with defense and track records to pick a starter.

Which is why I’m going with Omar Vizquel (.295/.355/.394), despite the fact that I think he’s perhaps the most overrated player of his generation. Regardless of that, he’s hitting well in a tough ballpark and playing solid defense. I would have gone with Cesar Izturis (.279/.324/.343), who hit .288/.330/.381 last year and batted .342/.387/.425 through the end of May, but he has gone 8-for-78 (.103) in June while missing several games with an injury. Accounting for his excellent defense, Izturis has more or less been Vizquel’s equal this season, but Vizquel’s track record (however overrated) obviously gives him the tiebreaker.

THIRD BASE:
Scott Rolen*
Aramis Ramirez
David Wright
Troy Glaus

Scott Rolen (.248/.333/.436) has been limited to just 37 games because of injuries and hasn’t played that well when he’s been healthy, but a bad first half doesn’t stop him from being the top third baseman in the league any more than a good first half makes Joe Randa (.302/.381/.458) one of the best. I am one of the world’s biggest David Wright (.298/.389/.512) fans (at least among non-Mets fans), so I was ready to give him the nod as Rolen’s primary backup.

Then I noticed the season Aramis Ramirez (.302/.362/.567) is having and the fact that he’s basically having it for the third straight year. Wright has been great this year, but Ramirez has been every bit as good and has done it since Wright was playing at Single-A. Ramirez had a disastrous season in 2002, hitting .234/.279/.387 in 142 games with the Pirates, and I think it has clouded my view of him. Because if you ignore that one bad season (which I’m sure will be tough for Pirates fans to do), he has the following numbers over the past four years:

YEAR       G      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     RBI
2001     158     .300     .350     .536     40     34     112
2003     159     .272     .324     .465     32     27     106
2004     145     .318     .373     .578     32     36     103
2005*    153     .302     .362     .567     44     37     107

*2005 stats are projected for the entire season

Ramirez doesn’t walk much and won’t remind anyone of Brooks Robinson at third base, but that’s some serious offense. Troy Glaus (.264/.356/.528) beats out Morgan Ensberg (.278/.380/.547) for the fourth spot (it’s a very good group, so I took four), and Chipper Jones (.282/.411/.513) misses the cut mostly because he went on the disabled list right around the time Rolen came off it. If Chipper were healthy, he’d be a no-brainer.

OUTFIELD:
Miguel Cabrera*
Andruw Jones*
Bobby Abreu*
Adam Dunn
Jim Edmonds
Jason Bay

Picking the outfield starters is relatively easy, as Miguel Cabrera (.333/.385/.570), Andruw Jones (.280/.356/.596), and Bobby Abreu (.320/.438/.561) are all great players having very good seasons. After that, it gets tough. I’m not sure if it’s just having two more teams than the AL, but the NL sure seems to have a lot of deep positions. There are no fewer than 15 NL outfielders who have some sort of legitimate case for the All-Star team this year, from Carlos Beltran (.262/.318/.426) and his track record to Brady Clark (.323/.388/.445) and his breakout season.

Seemingly every outfielder in the league is slugging .500 with a good OBP, so I’ll go with guys I would have taken before the season. That means Jim Edmonds (.292/.403/.579) and Adam Dunn (.246/.391/.566) instead of Moises Alou (.315/.410/.521), Brian Giles (.275/.408/.489), J.D. Drew (.278/.402/.489), Pat Burrell (.291/.377/.526), Luis Gonzalez (.307/.401/.482) and Carlos Lee (.277/.340/.555). I’ll fill the last spot with Jason Bay (.307/.386/.572), who in addition to winning the NL Rookie of the Year last season has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Pirates this year.

STARTING PITCHER:
Roger Clemens*
Pedro Martinez
John Smoltz
Dontrelle Willis
Roy Oswalt
Jake Peavy
Livan Hernandez
Brandon Webb

My overall view of the All-Star game can probably be summed up by the fact that I think anyone who believes Dontrelle Willis (114.2, 2.04) should start for the NL is insane. Yes, Dontrelle has had a fantastic first half, but so what? Roger Clemens (101.0, 1.51) has a 1.51 ERA while pitching half his games in a bandbox, and he’s been putting up first halves (and full seasons) like Willis’ for about 20 years now. No, when a guy with 334 career wins is leading the league in ERA at the end of June, he starts the All-Star game. I don’t care if Willis 12-3 with a 2.04 ERA or 15-0 with a 0.00 ERA.

In fact, since Pedro Martinez (109.0, 2.72) and John Smoltz (118.1, 2.74) both rank among the top five in the league in ERA, Willis wouldn’t be any higher than fourth on my list of starters. After those four come Roy Oswalt (113.1, 2.70) and Jake Peavy (100.0, 2.88), both of whom have shown in the past that their great pitching this season is no fluke. And I’ll fill out the starting staff with Livan Hernandez (119.1, 3.32) and Brandon Webb (104.0, 3.20), who has been every bit as good as Willis during their concurrent three-year careers while receiving about 1% of the attention.

RELIEF PITCHER:
Chad Cordero
Billy Wagner
Brad Lidge

As is the case over in the AL, there are tons of NL relievers with great ERAs after three months. However, I lean towards selecting starters rather than relievers, and I would never take some random middle reliever with a 1.75 ERA in 35 innings after years of mediocre pitching. Instead, I stick with dominant relievers who do it year after year. Chad Cordero (39.1, 0.92) doesn’t have the lengthiest resume, but he was great last year, with a 2.94 ERA in 82.2 innings, and it’s tough to argue with a guy who has a sub-1.00 ERA and is 26-for-28 in save opportunities (many of them the one-run variety).

Along with Cordero I’ll fill out the NL bullpen with Billy Wagner (34.2, 2.34) and Brad Lidle (33.0, 2.73), although anyone from Jason Isringhausen (26.1, 2.05), Julian Tavarez (35.2, 2.52), Trevor Hoffman (27.1, 3.95) and Brian Fuentes (35.0, 2.83) would have been a decent selection.

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