Fans getting it right with All-Star vote

Published 4:05 am Saturday, July 4, 2009

Give the fans a hand for an All-Star performance.

Albert Pujols, absolutely. Joe Mauer, right on the money. Chase Utley and Evan Longoria, no doubt about it.

Fan balloting for All-Star game starters has been a contentious issue in baseball for years. Some complain the process is merely a popularity contest that often puts big names on the field at the expense of more deserving players.

This season, however, a look at the numbers shows fans were hitting for their highest average in years.

When vote counts were released early in the week, with only a few days of balloting left, most of the players leading at their positions merited those spots.

Pujols was the top vote-getter, as he should be. The big first baseman has been the best player in the game all season and he figures to own the spotlight July 14 at his home ballpark in St. Louis.

But it wasn’t just Pujols, an easy selection. Fans were throwing strikes all around the horn.

Utley at second base, Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, David Wright at third for the National League.

Over in the AL, it was the same thing: Mauer behind the plate, Longoria at third, Jason Bay in the outfield.

Even a couple of close races made sense. Kevin Youkilis vs. Mark Teixeira at first base, though Justin Morneau shouldn’t be forgotten. Ian Kinsler was neck-and-neck with Dustin Pedroia at second, though Aaron Hill was getting overlooked.

Unlike previous years, the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs weren’t dominating the votes. And big stars who were suspended (Manny Ramirez) or slumping (Alex Rodriguez) were on the verge of getting left out.

That’s a good thing, because their spots figure to be filled by worthy and exciting newcomers such as Justin Upton and Brandon Inge.

Of course, fans don’t get to vote for the pitching staffs. But after such an astute performance this season, maybe it’s time that changed. After all, there are tough decisions to be made on the mound.

Zack Greinke or Roy Halladay starting for the American League? Francisco Rodriguez or Trevor Hoffman closing for the NL? Does 42-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield make his first All-Star team?

‘‘The players are the show,’’ AL manager Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays said. ‘‘My basic job is to pretty much get out of the way.’’

Rosters were expanded from 32 to 33 players this year, with the extra spot going to a 13th pitcher in each league. But every team must be represented, so the choices remain difficult.

For example, try finding a legitimate All-Star on the scuffling Cubs this season. Not so easy, which is quite a surprise for a talented team coming off consecutive division titles.

The American League is 11-0-1 since the NL last won in 1996 at Philadelphia’s old Veterans Stadium, the longest unbeaten streak in All-Star game history.

Pujols and his pals would love to end the drought — with the world’s most famous Chicago White Sox fan on hand. President Barack Obama plans to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Busch Stadium.

‘‘I’m really looking forward to it,’’ said Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel, who will manage the NL squad. ‘‘It’s important that we go in there with the mindset that we’re the National League and we’re trying to win it.’’

Without regard to fan or player balloting, here are our picks for the 80th All-Star game — the first in baseball-loving St. Louis since 1966. The teams will be revealed Sunday, and the league that wins gets home-field advantage in the World Series again.

Starting with the AL:

First Base — Morneau’s big numbers for Minnesota earn him the start, barely edging Teixeira and Youkilis. Russell Branyan is having a surprise season with Seattle. Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera and Tampa Bay’s Carlos Pena also make it at a power-packed position. Youkilis, Branyan and Cabrera all have extensive big league experience at third base, so one or two of them could come off the bench and play there.

Second Base — Kinsler is the leadoff man with pop that makes Texas’ offense go. He gets a slight nod over Hill, who is having a terrific year for Toronto after missing much of last season with a concussion. Ben Zobrist of the Rays earns a spot here, too. Enjoying a breakout season while filling in for injured second baseman Akinori Iwamura, Zobrist can also play the outfield. Pedroia, the 2008 AL MVP, falls short this year.

Shortstop — Even at 35, Derek Jeter remains a consistent offensive force for the Yankees. His backup is Tampa Bay’s Jason Bartlett, previously a light-hitting glove man who has suddenly developed a dangerous stick.

Third Base — Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Longoria makes it all four Rays infielders on the All-Star team. The Tigers finally moved Inge out from behind the plate for good and let him play third every day. He’s rewarded them with great defense (as expected) and plenty of pop (more than expected).

Catcher — Mauer is making a run at .400 with the Twins, and now he’s hitting for power, too. His numbers are mind-boggling considering he missed all of April with a lower back injury. The backup is Cleveland slugger Victor Martinez, also having a huge year. He splits time between catcher and first base, but stays behind the plate for this one.

Outfield — Torii Hunter of the Los Angeles Angels starts in center, flanked by Bay in left and Chicago’s Jermaine Dye in right. Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki is on the bench and Matt Holliday represents last-place Oakland, which costs Johnny Damon a spot.

Starting Pitchers — Zack Greinke beats out Halladay for the start, capping a remarkable ride for an elite prospect who walked away from the game for a while because of social anxiety disorder. Greinke would join Bret Saberhagen (1987) as the only Royals pitchers to start an All-Star game. Also on the staff are Tigers teammates Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, Texas’ Kevin Millwood, Angels right-hander Jered Weaver, White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle and Boston’s Josh Beckett. Although a spot for Wakefield would make for a nice story, his ERA is too high.

Relievers — Yankees closer Mariano Rivera recently reached 500 saves. He’s joined in an imposing bullpen by Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon, Minnesota’s Joe Nathan and Baltimore lefty George Sherrill.

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And in the NL:

First Base — Stacked with power-hitting stars in the National League, too. Coming off his second MVP award, Pujols reached 30 homers before July and was leading the majors in RBIs as well. He’s joined by Milwaukee bopper Prince Fielder, San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez, Houston switch-hitter Lance Berkman, Colorado’s Todd Helton and Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard.

Second Base — Utley had hip surgery in the offseason but returned quickly and immediately found his swing. He’s a runaway winner, backed up by Pittsburgh’s Freddy Sanchez.

Shortstop — Hanley Ramirez is giving the Marlins the pop and production they envisioned when they dropped him from leadoff to the No. 3 spot in the lineup. He has blossomed into one of the game’s best offensive players. Houston’s Miguel Tejada earns a reserve role.

Third Base — Wright’s home run and RBI totals are way down, partly because of the New York Mets’ cavernous new ballpark, Citi Field. But he’s still hitting for a high average and stealing plenty of bases while trying to carry an injury-depleted team. Behind him is first-timer Mark Reynolds of the Arizona Diamondbacks. His impressive power numbers are enough to overcome all those strikeouts.

Catcher — Perhaps baseball’s best defensive backstop, Yadier Molina is rewarded with the start in his home ballpark. Atlanta’s Brian McCann also makes it after rebounding quickly from an eye problem that cost him some time.

Outfield — Phillies newcomer Raul Ibanez starts in left, assuming he returns from a groin strain without any problems. It’s the first All-Star appearance for the 37-year-old pro. Colorado’s Brad Hawpe is in right and the athletic Upton slides over from his regular spot in right to play center. Reserves are Milwaukee slugger Ryan Braun, Washington’s Adam Dunn and the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, who fills a void in center created by the knee injury that costs Carlos Beltran a trip.

Starting Pitchers — Strikeout specialist Tim Lincecum is following up his Cy Young season with an outstanding encore. He gets the start, just edging Giants teammate Matt Cain and Arizona ace Dan Haren. They are joined by Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto, Florida’s Josh Johnson and Los Angeles’ Chad Billinglsey. Left-hander Ted Lilly represents the Cubs, denying Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo a spot in a very difficult snub.

Relievers — Hoffman (Brewers) and Francisco Rodriguez (Mets), both record-setting closers, have been nearly untouchable with their new teams. Give the ball to K-Rod in the ninth inning — Hoffman already blew a chance to end the NL drought a few years back. This deep bullpen also includes Jonathan Broxton (Dodgers), Heath Bell (Padres), Francisco Cordero (Reds) and Ryan Franklin (Cardinals).