Will Alex Rodriguez's great comeback season earn him an All-Star nod?
The chances of Major League Baseball bringing its season to a halt to honor Alex Rodriguez and Pete Rose would seem infinitesimally small, but something fitting that description could very well happen when MLB holds its 86th annual All-Star Game in Cincinnati on July 14.
Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Associated Press in April that Rose, who made the All-Star team 13 times while playing for the Reds, would be allowed to participate in “some of the activities” related to the All-Star Game despite being on baseball’s permanently ineligible list. Though further revelations about Rose gambling on baseball during his playing career have since become public, there has been no indication from Manfred or Baseball that they intend to curtail his participation as a result.
As for Rodriguez, it won't be up to the commissioner as to whether the man who is coming off the longest PED-related suspension in baseball history will also be at the Midsummer Classic. Rodriguez has played well enough to be solidly in the mix for a spot on the American League All-Star roster, which would add just one more fascinating twist to the career of a player who was considered baseball’s Public Enemy Number One just last year, when he sat out the entire season for his role in the Biogenesis scandal.
That Rodriguez has played well enough after a year-long suspension and in his age-39 season to be part of the All-Star conversation is frankly astounding. (I’ll admit to being among those who thought he would have nothing left.) The only player in major league history who had ever missed as much time at a similar age and returned to an All-Star level of performance at the age of 39 or beyond was Hall of Famer Luke Appling, who missed most of his age-37 and -38 seasons due to World War II, then played at an All-Star level from ages 39 to 42. Appling stands as an extreme outlier and one of the best old players in baseball history. Rodriguez, meanwhile, had struggled to stay healthy and productive even before his suspension—he had been in decline since at least 2010, his age-34 season—and last made the All-Star team in '11 at 35. The idea that he would be a potential All-Star this season seemed laughable as recently as four months ago.
Still, here we are. Rodriguez won’t start the game—he was a distant fifth in the designated hitter race in Monday’s final voting update—but he has clearly been one of the best DHs in the league to this point in the season. Assuming Seattle's Nelson Cruz, who was the starting DH last year in the wake of his own performance-enhancing drug suspension, holds on to his current lead in the voting and edges out the Royals’ Kendrys Morales for the starting assignment, Rodriguez would rank no worse than second among the remaining DH candidates. Here are the leaders in OPS+ among qualified hitters who had played at least one-third of their games at DH this season:
Of course, there’s no need for the AL team to include more than one designated hitter, but then here’s where Rodriguez ranks among all qualified American League hitters in OPS+:
There may be no need to include the third-best designated hitter in the league on the All-Star roster, but including the seventh-best hitter in the league seems like something that should happen. Indeed, all 10 of the players on the above list deserve a place on the AL team.
Whether or not Rodriguez does wind up making the team is going to be largely in the hands of AL manager Ned Yost, who could pass the buck back to the fans. After the nine starters are chosen by the fan balloting, which ends at midnight on Thursday, the player vote selects eight pitchers and a backup at every defensive position, but not a backup DH. At that point, it will be up to Yost, the Royals manager, to fill the final eight spots on the AL roster, making sure to represent all 15 teams and also balancing his roster in terms of positions. Rodriguez has made just three starts in the field this year (two at third base, one at first base), limiting the flexibility of the roster if he's chosen. Also, with Dellin Betances likely to be among the three relievers selected by the player ballot, Yost won’t have to pick Rodriguez as the Yankees' representative. Even if Betances isn’t selected by the players, Yost would be justified in picking him or New York outfielder Brett Gardner before Rodriguez.
It would not be at all surprising, however, to see Yost include Rodriguez on the Final Vote ballot, which allows the fans to vote for one last player to be included on the roster. That would be a near-perfect use of the Final Vote. After all, given his lack of viability in the field, Rodriguez isn’t terribly valuable as a bench player, but he has arguably earned a spot on the team. Given his checkered history, why not let the fans decide if they want to honor him for what has been a genuinely remarkable season that has seen him surpass two major career milestones (660 home runs and 3,000 hits)? If not, there’s always the Comeback Player of the Year award.