The ideal 25-man American League All-Star roster

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Indians' Terry Francona won't manage AL All-Stars after heart procedure
Friday July 7th, 2017

When it comes to the All-Star Game, one increasingly common refrain in recent years has centered around the oversized rosters. Even as Major League Baseball attached real stakes to the exhibition in the wake of the infamous 2002 tie, granting home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league's representative, the rosters ballooned to the point of spring training-level ridiculousness due to the requirement that each team be represented and the pressure on each manager to try to play everybody. The 2014 game featured a record 62 players but was merely one of four times in the last six years that at least 60 have played.

From 1933, the year of the inaugural All-Star Game, through '97, roster sizes for each league never topped 28 men. The 1998 expansion to 30 teams increased rosters accordingly, and they grew to 32 in 2003, 33 in '09 and 34 in '10. Thankfully, the Collective Bargaining Agreement agreed to last December not only removed the World Series tie-in but trimmed roster sizes back to 32, a small step in the right direction. Still, by the time injured and ineligible players are replaced, roughly 10% of all 25-man rosters will have been designated All-Stars, watering down the honor considerably.

With that in mind, Jay Jaffe (you'll notice this is his intro, which is far more edifying and lucid than I'd be able to deliver) and I have constructed 25-man rosters for each league with the following setup: eight starting position players, one designated hitter, one backup catcher, three backup infielders, two backup outfielders, six starting pitchers and four relievers. Not every team is required to have a representative. What follows here is my American League squad; Jay's picks for the NL are here. All statistics are through July 5, and unless otherwise noted, all WAR figures cited are from Baseball-Reference.com.

C - Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

Season Stats: .288/.318/.528 (117 OPS+), 17 HR, 55 RBIs, 1.8 WAR

Still just 27 years old, Perez will be appearing in his fifth consecutive All-Star Game. This season, he doesn’t even have serious competition for his starting spot: He’s the only qualified catcher in the AL and trails only Buster Posey among all qualified backstops with 117 wRC+. Perez’s 17 home runs lead all catchers, and he remains one of the most trusted defensive backstops in baseball.

The Yankees’ Gary Sanchez is a worthy competitor, but his 21-game absence from early April to the beginning of May make Perez the only feasible starting option. Sanchez earned an invitation to the Home Run Derby after hitting 13 home runs in 201 at-bats and will rightfully be Perez’s backup, but the Royals’ veteran's durability plus his power surge give him the slight nod over the Yankees’ standout youngster.

1B - Logan Morrison, Tampa Bay Rays

Season Stats: .267/.372/.584 (156 OPS+), 24 HR, 57 RBIs, 2.9 WAR

It feels cruel to omit Justin Smoak in favor of Morrison, but of the two resurgent seasons, Morrison’s is more valuable to a more competitive team. That may not be a great (or entirely fair) way to decide between starters, but Morrison edges Smoak with a 2.8 WAR and a higher on-base percentage (.372 to Smoak’s .364) despite a lower batting average (.267 to Smoak’s .299).

2B - Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

Season Stats: .338/.408/.538 (160 OPS+), 12 HR, 47 RBIs, 4.4 WAR

Even with players like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper on the All-Star ballot, Altuve might be the easiest annual vote of any player in the big leagues despite playing the same position as Robinson Cano. Like Perez, Altuve will appear in his fifth consecutive All-Star Game. Unlike Perez, Altuve will make a serious run at AL MVP honors if Yankees rightfielder Aaron Judge ever cools off. Altuve is already at 4.4 WAR in 2017, a full two wins above the next second baseman (Oakland’s Jed Lowrie), and leads all AL second basemen in batting average and OPS (.946), as well as the AL in hits (110).

SS - Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

Season Stats: .319/.397/.549 (159 OPS+), 17 HR, 58 RBIs, 4.3 WAR

I was tempted to select Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who is in the midst of a career season, but it’s simply too difficult to ignore Correa, who has returned to his dominant self after a mediocre (by his lofty standards) 2016. Still only 22 years old, Correa should easily break his career high of 22 home runs this year, but it isn’t his power that’s been most impressive. Correa has boosted his OBP to .397, a healthy increase from last season's .361.

3B - Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Indians

Season Stats: .330/.382/.597 (147 OPS+), 16 HR, 45 RBIs, 3.4 WAR

Looking for the most underappreciated All-Star in 2017? Ramirez is an easy choice for that distinction. The addition of slugger Edwin Encarnacion was supposed to be the Indians’ key to return to the World Series, but the emergence of Ramirez—all 5’9” and 165 pounds of him—has been central to Cleveland’s strong recent play after an underwhelming start to the season.

Ramirez has improved his power stroke (he’s already at 16 homers after hitting 11 in 152 games last season), is third in the AL in batting average (behind only Altuve and Judge) and leads the league in extra-base hits (48). Maybe he won’t get his due until the playoffs arrive, but Ramirez—at 24 years old—is a worthy addition to the fantastic crop of young players in the bigs.

LF - Justin Upton, Detroit Tigers

Season Stats: .271/.356/.507 (129 OPS+), 15 HR, 54 RBIs, 3.0 WAR

It’s been a dreary season for the Tigers and an uncharacteristically bad one for star Miguel Cabrera, but Upton has avoided the kind of horrendous slumps that have hounded his career to become the team’s most stable offensive option in 2017. If he maintains his newfound consistency, he’s on his way to his best season since ‘11, when he finished fourth in the NL MVP voting. All due credit to the Orioles’ Trey Mancini, who would likely be the Rookie of the Year favorite if not for Judge and is currently batting .312/.356/.551 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs, but Upton’s resurgence is the only thing that has kept the Tigers from blowing up the entire operation (which they still might).

CF - Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

Season Stats: .274/.353/.488 (118 OPS+), 15 HR, 51 RBIs, 4.1 WAR

This would be Mike Trout’s spot had he not hurt his thumb, and the voters were right to honor the game’s greatest player. But it is surprising that Betts, a budding superstar and one of the game’s most dynamic players in a popular market, didn’t get the vote to start over Houston’s George Springer. Betts currently leads the AL in doubles (28), ranks fourth in overall WAR and third in defensive WAR (1.6) and is tied for seventh in stolen bases (15). He also leads the AL in at-bats per strikeout (10.6). This spot may have rightfully gone to Springer, but I’m giving the nod to Betts because of his defense.

RF - Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

Season Stats: .331/.449/.697 (195 OPS+), 29 HR, 65 RBIs, 5.2 WAR

Judge has been the primary topic of any baseball fan all season long, so instead of rehashing how successful he's been this season, let’s just take a look at Baseball Reference’s AL stats leaderboard:

Judge’s power stroke is astonishing, but his selectivity and general plate discipline in his rookie season is what has veterans gawking and pitching coaches flustered. He strikes out plenty (104 in 352 plate appearances), but his 1.145 OPS is 95 points ahead of second-place Joey Votto, whose career is defined by his expert batting eye and power. Maybe Judge can’t maintain a pace reminiscent of peak Barry Bonds, but he has become the game’s must-watch player in a half-season—an incredible feat when he’s eclipsing the popularity of players like Trout and Bryce Harper.

DH - Corey Dickerson, Tampa Bay Rays

Season Stats: .317/.362/.556 (146 OPS+), 17 HR, 41 RBIs, 2.9 WAR

The current frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year, Dickerson has morphed from a platoon player into one of the AL’s most feared lefthanded power hitters. As Michael Beller documented last month, Dickerson’s change in his hitting mechanics has helped him successfully hit southpaws, which he was never able to do before this season. His 105 hits are good for second in the AL, and his 146 OPS+ places him among the elite hitters in the league this season after he wheezed to a .245/.293/.469 slash line in 2016.

Reserves

SS Andrelton Simmons, Angels

Season Stats .286/.337/.432 (108 OPS+), 9 HR, 38 RBI, 3.7 WAR

C Gary Sanchez, Yankees

Season Stats: .289/.376/.517 (132 OPS+), 13 HR, 40 RBI, 2.0 WAR

OF Mike Trout, Angels

Season Stats: .337/.461/.742 (220 OPS+), 16 HR, 36 RBI, 3.4 WAR

OF George Springer, Astros

Season Stats: .298/.372/.588 (160 OPS+), 25 HR, 55 RBI, 3.6 WAR

1B Justin Smoak, Blue Jays

Season Stats: .299/.364/.587 (145 OPS+), 23 HR, 55 RBI, 2.5 WAR

1B/3B/DH Miguel Sano, Twins

Season Stats: .277/.370/.540 (139 OPS+), 20 HR, 61 RBI, 1.8 WAR

Simmons has long been known as the game’s best defensive shortstop, but he’s been an essential part of keeping the Angels in the playoff hunt while Trout has remained out with an injury. It’s time he earned recognition as not just an all-field, no-hit player. Springer is the most glaring omission from the starting lineup, as he joins teammates Altuve and Springer as three of the top five leaders in AL WAR this season. To try and contextualize how amazing Trout is, understand that for all the praise the public has heaped on Judge, Trout was outpacing him in most categories before his injury. Sano has struggled recently, but his power is one of the reasons the Twins are one of the season’s great surprises after losing 103 games in 2016. Smoak is having a career year and was barely edged by Morrison for my team, but won the fan vote and will start the actual game.

Starting Pitchers

SP Chris Sale, Red Sox (11–4, 2.75 ERA, 2.10 FIP, 12.5 K/9, 3.8 WAR)

SP Jason Vargas, Royals (12–3, 2.62 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 6.6 K/9, 4.1 WAR)

SP Ervin Santana, Twins (10–6, 2.99 ERA, 4.69 FIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.4 WAR)

SP Dallas Keuchel, Astros (9–0, 1.67 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.4 WAR)

SP Corey Kluber, Indians (7–3, 2.85 ERA, 2.48 FIP, 11.7 K/9, 3.3 WAR)

I’d be tempted to start Vargas as a reward for his stupendous first half that has helped keep the Royals in the playoff hunt, but if the opposition is Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer, then Sale has to be on the hill. As Tom Verducci noted in his Mid-Year Report, Bill James once said that players get a one-year exemption when arriving in Boston because of the change in environment; Sale hasn't needed such grace period. He’s achieved double-digit strikeouts in 12 of his 18 starts and hasn’t walked more than three hitters in a game this season (and has only reached that number twice).

Vargas has simply been a master of getting soft contact this season and currently leads the American League with a 174 ERA+. It’d be nice to see him start the game, but it remains unlikely. Santana continues his role as the rubber-armed ace in Minnesota, where he’s finished four complete games and three shutouts. He’s never spectacular, but he’s sure dependable. Keuchel would have been the starter had he not been injured at the beginning of June, and Kluber has rediscovered his dominant form—he’s logged double-digit strikeouts in five consecutive starts—after scuffling through April.

Relief Pitchers

RP Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox (23 sv, 1.23 ERA, 0.90 FIP, 16.0 K/9, 2.2 WAR)

RP Chris Devenski, Astros (3 sv, 2.09 ERA, 2.19 FIP, 12.5 K/9, 1.9 WAR)

RP Brandon Kintzler, Twins (23 sv, 2.35 ERA, 3.63 FIP, 5.6 K/9, 1.2 WAR)

RP: Andrew Miller, Indians (2 sv, 1.49 ERA, 1.62 FIP, 13.8 K/9, 2.3 WAR)

If the NL is trailing in the sixth or seventh inning, then it’s difficult to see how it will log hits against the 7-8-9 order of Miller, Devenski and Kimbrel. As Tom Verducci noted in his feature on the Red Sox closer, Kimbrel doesn’t just strike out a ton of players, he barely allows the opposition to make contact. Devenski has morphed into the late-inning shutdown setup man, much like Miller, who is delivering another outstanding season. Kintzler gets the nod for his reliability. He has appeared in 35 games and logged 23 saves, and barely makes it over White Sox reliever Tommy Kahnle.

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