Sunday July 4th, 2010

The idea of an hour-long show to announce the All-Star rosters seemed excessive, until one remembered that 66 players were to be selected and, with injuries, 70 players were actually named to the team on Sunday afternoon.

That's a rate of more than one All-Star per minute without even accounting for commercials, studio analysis or interviews with the managers. It's also a guaranteed record, since last year there were 71 total All-Stars and this year there are still the two final spots to be voted by the fans, not to mention replacements for the starters who are scheduled to pitch the Sunday before the July 13 game.

It is again the Era of the Bloated All-Star Game.

But, of course, no matter how many players make the team, there still will be uproar over who doesn't make it, with Reds first baseman Joey Votto, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Angels starter Jered Weaver and Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis leading the charge, though each was primarily snubbed because of a need to balance the roster by positions. Major League Baseball did, at least, implement the final-man ballot as a partial safeguard against incompetent All-Star selections (see Omar Infante; more on him later).

So, yes, this game does count for home-field advantage in the World Series, with the American League trying to preserve its 13-game unbeaten streak with dominant power and the National League hoping to ride its dominant stable of starting pitchers when the two leagues meet nine days from now at Angels Stadium.

Until then, here are some thoughts on the selection process:

• Voters did a better job selecting the AL starters.

One can nitpick and debate the merits of the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera versus the Twins' Justin Morneau at first base, but generally the voters picked all the best players to start for the AL. In the NL, however, some hearty arguments can be made against Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and outfielders Ryan Braun of the Brewers and Jason Heyward of the Braves. But in each case the more deserving starters -- the Braves' Brian McCann at catcher, Cardinals' Matt Holliday and Brewers' Corey Hart -- are not only on the roster as reserves but are from the same three teams.

• The NL has unbelievably good pitching.

It's a strange world when the NL has eight starting pitchers on its roster, and Tim Lincecum is the least deserving. The Giants ace and two-time Cy Young winner has the worst ERA of the bunch, even if it's a strong 3.28, and is leading the league in strikeouts, so this is no knock on his selection, just an observation that the NL will have great All-Star pitching, led by a trio of SI cover boys: the Marlins' Josh Johnson (8-3, 1.82 ERA), the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez (14-1, 2.27 ERA) and the Phillies' Roy Halladay (9-7, 2.42 ERA).

• The Bud Selig factor.

The image of the commissioner ending the 2002 All-Star game as a 7-7 tie after 11 innings is indelible, and that moment has its fingerprints all over this year's rosters. To safeguard against another tie or long extra-innings game, such as the 15-inning affair in 2008, the rosters have expanded, and there is the new dispensation of a one-time re-entry rule for a position player.

That alone ought to be enough protection against running out of players late in the game, so there's no need to pick a versatile reserve just for the sake of having one. In other words, there's no reason Omar Infante -- he of the .311 average, nine walks, one home run and 56 games of utility play -- should be an All-Star. He's not even an everyday starter on his own team.

• The rise of the middle reliever.

The set-up man has gained prominence in baseball, and this year that was reflected on the All-Star rosters. Neither league had a non-closing reliever on its 2009 roster, but three such players -- the White Sox's Matt Thornton, Reds' Arthur Rhodes and Pirates' Evan Meek -- were picked this year. That Meek and Thornton are their clubs' only representatives is an acknowledgement of their positions' importance, given that in both cases there was an outfielder (Chicago's Alexis Rios and Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen) who could easily have been selected.

• The Strasburg verdict.

The debate raged all week -- including pro and con stories in this space -- about whether Nationals rookie starter Stephen Strasburg deserved to make the All-Star team. NL and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel admitted that he gave Strasburg "quite a bit of consideration," but the young phenom was not selected, nor is he on the fan ballot for the final spot. Strasburg has made only six starts, with just one more scheduled before next Tuesday's game, which would have set a record for fewest first-half appearances by an All-Star. His overall numbers (2-2, 2.45 ERA, 53 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings) are very good, but he's been mortal in his two most recent starts (0-1, 3.97 ERA), his first outings against clubs with winning records at the time.

• The best bet to be an All-Star is to be on a winning team in the East (especially AL).

New York and Boston, the top two clubs in the AL East, pace the field with six selections each, followed by Atlanta, the NL East leader, which has five All-Stars and is tied with the Cardinals for most in the NL. The Braves, Red Sox and Yankees all have a candidate on the 34th Man ballot, too.

The Yankees have six players (Robinson Cano, Phil Hughes, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia) and could easily have two more join -- Nick Swisher from the final-man ballot and Andy Pettitte as a pitching replacement for Sabathia. One can never know for sure but Girardi, faced with choosing among his three best starters for the All-Star roster, may have engaged in some crafty accounting. He could easily have selected Sabathia to make the team now, knowing he's lined up to pitch Sunday, allowing for Pettitte to replace him and ensure that all three make the team.

Though no Red Sox position player will be starting for the first time since 2003, Boston will be represented in droves with Adrian Beltre, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Victor Martinez, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia all named All-Stars, and Youkilis having the chance to join them from the final-man ballot.

Add the three Blue Jays, two Rays and one Oriole, and the East has 18 All-Stars, just more than half of the 35 AL players so honored.

The NL is more hamstrung by the rule mandating a representative from each team, given that it has two more teams than the AL, and the Padres were hurt the most by this rule. Despite a 3½-game lead in the West, San Diego has just one All-Star, Adrian Gonzalez. Closer Heath Bell is on the final-man ballot, but several other pitchers -- most notably, starter Mat Latos (9-4, 2.62 ERA, 0.96 WHIP) -- warranted consideration.

The NL East has 11 All-Stars, edged slightly by the six-team NL Central, which has 13. Five of the 14 AL teams (A's, Angels, Orioles, Royals and White Sox) have only representative, while the same is true of five of the 16 NL teams (Astros, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Nationals and Padres).

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