Who makes the cut for the best possible 25-man roster for the American League? Cliff Corcoran gives his choices for the starting lineup, reserves, pitching staff and bullpen.
From 1933, the year of the first major league All-Star Game, through 1997, the roster sizes for each side in the Midsummer Classic never topped 28 men. Starting in '98, when MLB’s latest round of expansion increased the number of teams to 30, the size of the All-Star squad began to balloon: To 30 that year, 32 in 2003, 33 in '09 and 34 in '10.
The result has been a game filled with more and more players who don’t deserve to be called All-Stars. Starters for this year’s game, which will be held at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, were announced Sunday, with the reserves revealed on Monday. (The Final Vote results will be revealed in a few days). We already know some players—like the injured Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton—will need to be replaced, so by the time of the game on July 15, there will be at least 70 men who are officially designated All-Stars this season, or nearly 10% of all players in the majors.
With that in mind, SI.com baseball writers Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe have decided to slim down the All-Star Game by constructing 25-man rosters for each league with the following setup: Eight starting position players, one designated hitter, one backup catcher, two backup infielders, two backup outfielders, six starting pitchers and five relievers. Both Corcoran and Jaffe focused on fielding the best possible team right now, though there are cases where a player's established levels beyond the past half-season were used to make tough choices. Here are the players Corcoran chose to comprise the American League's squad. You can find Jaffe's NL picks here.
With Cabrera on the disabled list, I have to turn to the next-best option here, but what an option he is. Pujols—who was last an All-Star in 2010, if you can believe that—leads the AL in home runs, is fourth in slugging, fifth in RBIs and has hit .301/.396/.744 with 18 home runs in his last 36 games.
An All-Star in 2013, the 28-year-old Kipnis has rebounded from a lousy '14 to become the best second baseman in baseball this season. Since the calendar flipped to May, he has hit .379/.465/.575 in 286 plate appearances and is leading the AL in hits (110) and the majors in doubles (27). He's also second in the AL in Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (4.8).
SS: Carlos Correa, Astros
Season Stats: .293/.322/.552, 7 HR, 19 RBIs, 140 OPS+
Sure, Correa’s major league career is just 27 games old, but in addition to that line above he has also gone a perfect five-for-five in stolen bases and played excellent defense at shortstop en route to 1.5 WAR. By that last metric, the only AL shortstop who has been significantly more valuable this year has been Boston's Xander Bogaerts (2.6). The top overall pick in the 2012 draft, Correa’s star preceded him to the majors and has shone bright ever since his arrival.
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The two best third basemen in baseball are Donaldson and Baltimore’s Manny Machado. The two have nearly identical numbers to this point in the season, with Machado batting .302/.361/.529 with 18 home runs and 47 RBIs. He is also 13-for-15 in stolen base attempts compared to Donaldson's 3-for-3. There’s no wrong answer here, so I’m letting Donaldson’s sustained excellence over the last three seasons break the tie—though we may be at the point at which Machado, who turned 23 on Monday, is passing the 29-year-old Donaldson as the best third baseman in the game.
C: Russell Martin, Blue Jays
Season Stats: .250/.338/.464, 12 HR, 39 RBIs, 122 OPS+
Stephen Vogt, Salvador Perez and Brian McCann have all received poor marks for their pitch framing this year from Baseball Prospectus, and Vogt has seen increasing time at first base and designated hitter. Give me Martin, who is the best defender of the bunch while out-hitting Perez (94 OPS+) and McCann (120 OPS+). Martin, incidentally, should be a perennial All-Star at this stage of his career, but his selection to the actual roster this year is his first since 2011.
Gordon went 1-for-16 to start the season, but has hit .295/.397/.485 since, and while the advanced metrics say his play in the field has declined relative to his usual level, I’ll trust his ability more than three months of stats to put him in this spot. Note that Gordon makes it over teammate Lorenzo Cain because he allows me to play all three of my outfielders at their natural positions.
CF: Mike Trout, Angels
Season Stats: .302/.396/.584, 22 HR, 48 RBIs, 177 OPS+
Since joining the Tigers in late April of last year, Martinez has hit .305/.353/.561 (150 OPS+) and averaged 38 home runs and 107 RBIs per 162 games played. His batting average is down a bit this year compared to last (he hit .315 in '14), but his walk rate and power are up, and he’s playing better defense. No longer a fluke, he’s a downright monster, hitting .367/.410/.867 with 15 home runs in his last 25 games and ranking second in the AL in homers and RBIs, third in slugging and fourth in OPS (.917).
The choice here was between Fielder and Seattle's Nelson Cruz. I went with Fielder because his production this season has been less front-loaded than that of Cruz, who has hit .250/.322/.364 over his last 36 games. On top of that, Fielder's return to stardom following neck surgery is a great story, and Cruz already received All-Star honors last year.
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IF: Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles
Machado deserves to start for this team, but he just happens to be in the same league as the only other third baseman in baseball who is as good as he is. An outstanding defender who played shortstop almost exclusively in the minors, he’ll make an excellent backup infielder.
The temptation was strong to go with Brock Holt’s defensive versatility in this spot, but, like Machado, Dozier was a shortstop in the minor leagues, so I feel covered there on the unlikely occasion that I decide to pinch-hit for Correa. Dozier, who has 17 home runs, seven stolen bases and is an above-average fielder, is simply more deserving of this spot after also playing at an All-Star level last year.
Thought of as a speed-and-defense guy, Gardner is hitting .296/.373/.478 this year and is on pace to collect 17 home runs for the second season in a row. Of course, he’s also third in the league with 15 stolen bases (in 18 attempts, an 83% success rate) and remains an outstanding outfielder. Off the bench, he’s a huge weapon as a pinch-runner who won’t hurt you at the plate or in the field if he stays in the game.
OF: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
I’m taking Bautista over Cain here, because with Gordon, Trout and Gardner, I have plenty of glove men in the outfield. What I want here is a bat. Looking at the top-10 qualified hitters in the AL by OPS+, the only men not already on this team are Cruz (158), Bautista (148) and Alex Rodriguez (146). Rodriguez is out because he’s not an outfielder, and one could argue that the same is true of Cruz given the quality of his play in the field. Mix in Cruz’s slump, and I have no qualms about taking a player who is now in his sixth season as one of the best hitters in the league.
C: Stephen Vogt, Athletics
On his raw numbers, Vogt should start this game, but he’s not a particularly good catcher: His framing and pitch blocking are below average, and nearly a quarter of his starts this season have come at first base or DH. Even at that, his 54 starts behind the plate this year are a major league high for Vogt and the second-highest single-season total of his professional career. To me, he works better on an All-Star roster as a backup who can also play first base and the outfield corners.
Keuchel (11–3, 2.14 ERA) is having the best season of these five, but Sale (7–4, 2.80 ERA, 11.8 K/9) is the best pitcher and biggest star, so he draws the start from me. The top four were easy picks. Hernandez and Price just edge Clay Buchholz, as well as Yovani Gallardo and Corey Kluber, both of whom are starting on Sunday and thus couldn’t pitch in this game anyway. Price gives me three lefties and three righties, which is nice, but he earned that final starting pitcher slot, which equates to the long-relief role on this team.
Again, the top four here were relatively easy picks: They have been absolutely dominant both this year and last and give me an even set of two righties and two lefties. Smith was a tougher call if only because he’s a rookie with just 43 1/3 major league innings under his belt, but he has been consistently great, ascending to the closer job in Seattle with a 7.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the season. For his career, he has a 1.45 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and 1.98 FIP.