Picking this year's most deserving first-time All-Star candidates
Another day, another three-hit game for Brett Gardner. Though the Yankees lost in Anaheim on Monday night, Gardner went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles, his eighth multi-hit game in his last 11. That stretch has pushed the 31-year-old outfielder to a .355/.417/.636 line in June and lifted his season line to an All-Star caliber .305/.377/.502 with nine homers and 15 steals.
Surprisingly enough, Gardner has never made an All-Star team during his eight-year career. Despite playing in the majors' largest media market, he's always taken a back seat to Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and others in terms of visibility, and much of his value has come from his defense, something that doesn't necessarily translate to All-Star votes. Case in point: Gardner leads all Yankees position players with 2.9 WAR, and only four other AL outfielders—Mike Trout (4.3), Kevin Kiermaier (3.8), Lorenzo Cain (3.5) and Yoenis Cespedes (3.0)—are higher. Yet via the most recent round of balloting updates, released Monday, he doesn't even rank among the top 15 AL outfielders, while fellow Yankees Jacoby Ellsbury (who hasn't played since May 19 due to a knee injury) and Carlos Beltran (hitting a modest .263/.312/.433 in his second straight subpar season) are 10th and 15th.
In fact, only two active position players have compiled more WAR than Gardner (26.1) without making a single All-Star team: Coco Crisp (29.5), who has played just 13 games this year due to a neck injury, and Nick Markakis (26.2), whose .300/.387/.355 line is solid but not All-Star worthy. Gardner is, and while he's not going to make it to Cincinnati via the fan voting, he deserves to go as a reserve. He's not the only potential first-timer who merits a trip, either. Counting him as the team's leftfielder (though he's lately been covering centerfield in Ellsbury's absence), what follows here is a look at the rest of the team, picking one player per position from among the as-yet-unrecognized veterans who are currently playing well enough—often better than the vote leader—to merit a spot.
Catcher: Stephen Vogt, Athletics
It's been a rough season for the A's (35–44) thus far, but as an everyday player for the first time, the 30-year-old Vogt has been a revelation, hitting .304/.395/.532 for a 157 OPS+ with 13 homers and an AL-high 53 RBIs. His 3.2 WAR isn't just tops for Oakland, but also tops among AL catchers—0.8 ahead of Russell Martin, who's second in the All-Star voting at the position, and 1.1 ahead of Salvador Perez, who's first. Vogt is running third, about a million votes behind Martin and six million behind Perez, so he'll need a little help from his friends to get to Cincy.
First base: Eric Hosmer, Royals
Until he was overtaken by Miguel Cabrera in last week’s voting results, the 25-year-old Hosmer appeared to be one of the beneficiaries of the Royal blue-crazed masses. He's now second by some 2.4 million votes, and while he's having a good season by his standards (.290/.354/.445 for a 120 OPS+), his 1.8 WAR is merely fourth among AL first basemen behind Cabrera (3.9), Albert Pujols (2.4) and Mark Teixeira (2.3). While his first All-Star berth seems quite possible, it's not among the strongest cases here.
Second base: Brian Dozier, Twins
The list of AL second basemen having better seasons than Omar Infante stretches from Kansas City to Cincinnati, and Dozier ranks second among them with 2.9 WAR, trailing only overall AL leader Jason Kipnis (who's already been an All-Star once). What’s more, he’s on pace to better last year’s 5.2 WAR career best. The 28-year-old is hitting .297/.381/.452 with 15 homers for a 136 OPS+ and playing average defense at the keystone, yet he's not even among the top five in voting, with Infante, Jose Altuve, Kipnis, Ian Kinsler, Devon Travis and who knows how many others ahead of him. The representation rule could work in his favor: Third baseman Trevor Plouffe (2.7 WAR) is the only other Twins regular with at least 1.0 WAR, though three pitchers (Mike Pelfrey, Kyle Gibson and Glen Perkins) fit that bill.
Shortstop: Brandon Crawford, Giants
The Giants have overcome a slew of injuries and their recent odd-year blues to go 42–35, good enough for the second Wild Card spot and just half a game behind the Dodgers in the NL West. The 28-year-old Crawford is a key reason for that, thanks not only to his exceptional defense (+9 Defensive Runs Saved) but also a breakout with the bat (.275/.354/.477 with 10 homers, matching his career high). Given what an automatic out he was when he broke into the league in 2011, the transformation has been remarkable. Consider his sequence of OPS+: 63, 86, 93, 106, 135. His 3.8 WAR has already surpassed last year's 3.3 and is not only a team high, but also fifth in the league and tops among all shortstops. Currently second in the voting—about 2.9 million votes behind Jhonny Peralta and some 200,000 ahead of the more established Troy Tulowitzki—he stands a reasonable chance of being selected, but he's no lock.
Third base: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
At 33–42, the Rockies are headed nowhere yet again, but it's hardy the fault of their 24-year-old third baseman. A two-time Gold Glove winner, his outstanding defense is a known commodity, but he's currently in the midst of an offensive breakout, batting .293/.326/.632 with 24 homers—eight in his last eight games, three of which have been multi-homer games—and an NL-high 68 RBIs. Even after adjusting for Coors Field, his 142 OPS+ ranks 10th in the league, and his 4.0 WAR is third. Via Monday's update, he's currently fourth in the voting behind Matt Carpenter, Todd Frazier and Kris Bryant, but the representation rule works in his favor, and he stands a strong chance of being the Rockies' flag-bearer.
Centerfield: Lorenzo Cain, Royals
Last year's amazing postseason run gave a national audience a taste of Cain's dazzling combination of speed and defense, and he's been even better this year, batting .289/.346/.435 with six homers, 15 steals and a career-best 115 OPS+. Meanwhile, his 3.4 WAR ranks ninth in the league and first on the team with the league's best record, that on top of last year's 5.1 WAR, which was the second-highest mark on the squad. A beneficiary of whatever it is that Royals fans are up to at the ballot box, Cain appears to be on track not only for his first All-Star appearance but also for a starting berth, as he's second among AL outfielders behind only Trout.
Rightfield: J.D. Martinez, Tigers
On the heels of going from the waiver wire to a breakout season, the 27-year-old Martinez is showing that 2014 was no fluke. Already he has 19 homers, four short of last year's total, and his .270/.327/.525 line is good for a 132 OPS+, second on the team behind only Cabrera. His 2.1 WAR is fourth among AL rightfielders behind Jose Bautista (2.6), Nelson Cruz (2.5, and on the ballot as DH) and former teammate George Springer (2.2), over whom he gets the nod here on the basis of a more consistent season and a longer track record. That said, he's among the weaker selections here and currently ninth in the AL outfield balloting, so the chances of him making the team are probably slim.
Designated hitter: Kendrys Morales, Royals
The 32-year-old Morales has never made an All-Star team in his nine-year career, and he's come back from the brink of oblivion not once but twice. He missed most of 2010 and all of '11 due to a severe leg injury, then flopped mightily last year after a qualifying offer cooled his free agency to the point that he didn't sign with the Twins until June. He's currently hitting .287/.349/.459 with nine homers, a 122 OPS+ and 1.0 WAR. While that's modest by the standards of the DH field—fourth in OPS+ and WAR behind A-Rod, Prince Fielder and Jimmy Paredes—he gets the nod here because the latter, with 1.9 WAR and a 139 OPS+, never had a season of more than 180 PA at the major league level before and had just 65 PA in the bigs last year. Currently second in the voting behind Cruz (who's actually played more rightfield than DH) by just over 200,000 votes, he's close enough that he could retake the lead before the final results are announced on Sunday.
Righthanded pitcher: A.J. Burnett, Pirates
Burnett has never made an All-Star team in his 17 big-league seasons, sometimes for good reasons, but he's enjoyed quite a resurgence since his escape from New York. The 38-year-old righty ranks fourth in the league in both ERA (2.01) and FIP (2.63) and fifth in WAR (3.0). Given that he's likely in his final season, it would be fitting if NL players, coaches and managers find a spot for him, and given reports of a lobbying effort from manager Clint Hurdle and his teammates, there's a reasonable shot it will pay off. Apologies to AL ERA leader Sonny Gray, who loses out on seniority here but stands a strong chance of being selected.
Lefthanded pitcher: Dallas Keuchel, Astros
Like Burnett and Gray, Keuchel is probably in good shape among the voters given his emergence as one of the game's top pitchers over the past year. Now in his fourth major league season overall, the 27-year-old southpaw leads AL pitchers in WAR (4.1), innings (116 1/3), complete games (three) and shutouts (two) while running second in ERA (2.17), all for the AL's biggest surprise. He'll be as deserving a first-time All-Star as any here.
Closer: Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
Solid but erratic in his first full season as closer in 2014, the 25-year-old fireballer has been much better this year, cutting his walk rate nearly in half (from 5.4 per nine to 2.9), boosting his ground-ball rate (from 38% to 46.4) and trimming his ERA from 3.20 to a minuscule 0.52. Where he blew six out of 51 save opportunities last year, he’s let slip just one out of 24 this year, that in one of the two games in which he allowed a run. He’s currently second in the league in saves and leads all relievers with 2.0 WAR; bet on him to make the NL squad.