Sunday July 5th, 2009

Rarely does the best player on the best team in baseball not even come close to making the All-Star team, and rarer still would be a case where such a snub was deserved. But when that player in question is just coming off a mandatory and lengthy suspension for violating the game's drug policy, the only true reaction to his absence must be: thank goodness.

Without Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, who have combined for 25 All-Star appearances (the last time neither was in the All-Star Game? 1994), this year's Midsummer Classic will be missing two of the game's biggest stars. But it will also be free of the year's two most controversial stars, allowing the sport to celebrate its All-Star Game in St. Louis next week without an unnecessary media circus while still being able to reward the accomplishments of a deserving group of players who have done their part to move baseball once and for all beyond all talk of steroids and back to an age where RBIs and OPS are talked about more than PEDs.

Here are some other quick thoughts on the All-Star Game rosters.

• Despite the presence of 42-year-old All-Star rookie Tim Wakefield, the All-Star Game still belongs to the young stars. Among the elected starters, only Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki from the AL and Raul Ibanez from the NL are older than 30 (Carlos Beltran, 31, hasn't played since June 21 and may miss the game due to injury), and aside from Miguel Tejada and Torii Hunter, the reserves are similarly stacked with young talent. Perhaps the most intriguing player is Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton, who will be making his All-Star debut at just 21 years of age.

• The star power remains concentrated in the AL East. The Red Sox (six players), Yankees (three), Rays (four), Blue Jays (2) and Orioles (1) combined for 16 spots -- or half the overall total -- on the American League roster, by far the most of any division in baseball. Part of this is due to the fact that an AL East mamanger (Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon) was in charge of picking eight reserves, one of which he used on his own Ben Zobrist (more on him later). But it's hard to quibble with any of the AL East stars who were selected, and there's a decent chance they'll be adding a 17th member when the fan Internet voting is completed, which includes both Toronto's Adam Lind and Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena, the AL's leading home run hitter.

• As the American League attempts to extend its unbeaten streak in All-Star play to 13, it will have an edge in experience, at least among position players. Every AL starter is an All-Star game veteran, while two NL players -- catcher Yadier Molina and outfielder Raul Ibanez -- are making their first appearance.

• The AL roster is very well balanced, which could come in handy in an NL ballpark that will see numerous double-switches and pinch-hitting moves. Virtually every AL reserve is capable of handling another position. Indians catcher Victor Martinez has played almost as many games at first base this season (40) as he has at catcher (41), where he will be the only AL reserve. But Kevin Youkilis can play first as well as third, Michael Young can play three different infield positions, Ben Zobrist can play anywhere in the infield or outfield and the four outfield reserves -- Adam Jones, Curtis Granderson, Torii Hunter and Carl Crawford -- give the AL excellent speed and a variety of options for late game defense.

• By contrast, the NL roster is not nearly s flexible. For starters, there are three first baseman on the bench. Manager Charlie Manuel admitted that this was his most difficult choice, and he clearly didn't feel comfortable leaving his own Ryan Howard home fro the All-Star Game, Given the fact that last year's All-Star Game went 15 innings, it's always a good idea to have as many movable parts as possible.

• Left-handed relief pitchers are supposed to be baseball's version of cockroaches, species that will live forever, but there is only one among the 10 relief pitchers picked for the All-Star Game, and once again, it could provide a boost to the American League. Brian Fuentes, formerly an All-star closer for the Rockies, made the squad in his first year with the Angels. He could be called upon to match up in the late innings with any of the NL's left-handed thunder, including Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard, Brad Hawpe or Brian McCann. The NL only has two lefties altogether, Johan Santana of the Mets and Ted Lilly of the Cubs.

• There may be no more telling indicator of the Chicago Cubs' struggles than this: last year they sat comfortably in first place in the NL Central and were rewarded with seven All-Stars, including three starters. This year, they are struggling along with a .500 record and have just one: Lilly. In fact, despite enjoying the most condensed pennant race of the year (all six teams are within seven games of first), the NL Central produced just 10 All-Stars, the fewest of any division in the NL.

• The list of snubs always makes for interesting discussion, but the expanded rosters make it increasingly difficult to find truly deserving players who have been left out. The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera may have the best case, batting .324/.387/.544 with 16 home runs and 47 RBIs but he wasn't even listed as a Final Vote possibility. But Cabrera can't complain too loudly. Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena, another first baseman, was left off by his own manager. Among pitchers with legitimate gripes: the Twins' Kevin Slowey, the only starter with 10 wins not to make the roster, and the Giants' Brian Wilson, the only closer with 20 saves, to be left out.

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