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All-Stars...So Far What the first half of the season has lacked in pennant-race excitement it has more than made up for in individual brilliance. SI's Tom Verducci has selected--and artist Phillip Burke has illustrated--a gallery of three-month wonders

July 06, 1998
July 06, 1998

Table of Contents
July 6, 1998

All-Stars...So Far What the first half of the season has lacked in pennant-race excitement it has more than made up for in individual brilliance. SI's Tom Verducci has selected--and artist Phillip Burke has illustrated--a gallery of three-month wonders

FIRST BASE
Mark McGwire, Cards
HRS 36 RBIS 86 BA .312

This is an article from the July 6, 1998 issue

McGwire stands alone as a power hitter, but he's just one of the
stars at baseball's most loaded position, first base. Consider:
Mo Vaughn has made as many All-Star Games (two) as journeyman
outfielder Roberto Kelly; Rafael Palmeiro hasn't been to one in
seven years. The emergence of Darin Erstad (whose future is in
the outfield) further upgrades the position. Arizona's Travis
Lee has the highest ceiling among an unusually large rookie
class that includes Montreal's Brad Fullmer, Colorado's Todd
Helton, Florida's Derrek Lee, Minnesota's David Ortiz and
Cincinnati's Sean Casey

CLOSER
Robb Nen, Giants
W-L 5-1 ERA 1.05 SAVES 23

A chart of the typical career path of a closer would look like a
roller coaster. Last week Mark Wohlers, who had 72 saves in the
past two seasons, was working out with a rookie league team; Tom
Gordon, who was cuffed around as a starter in recent years, was
among the major league leaders in saves. The top four saves
leaders in the National League at week's end--Trevor Hoffman,
Robb Nen, Jeff Shaw and Ugueth Urbina--had exactly zero All-Star
appearances combined. The best of them has been Nen, a
32nd-round pick and a failed starter who has been traded twice.
Of course.

SHORTSTOP
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners
HRs 27 RBIs 66 BA .314

Imagine you are Oakland's enormously talented rookie Miguel
Tejada. You dream of playing in the All-Star Game one day. You
might as well try getting Packers season tickets. The line is
long, and it's not moving. Nomar Garciaparra, who turns 25 this
month, Derek Jeter, 24, and Rodriguez, 23 this month and the
best of the bunch, may already be better than the
Ripken-Yount-Trammell triad that preceded them. They've
transformed shortstop into the game's glamour position. Tejada,
22; the Marlins' Edgar Renteria, 22; the Rockies' Neifi Perez,
23; and the White Sox's Mike Caruso, 21, can only add to the
luster.

SECOND BASE
Damion Easley, Tigers
HRS 19 RBIS 58 BA .292

This was supposed to be the golden age of second basemen. The
1992 American League All-Star team included Carlos Baerga,
Roberto Alomar and Chuck Knoblauch, all of whom turned 24 that
year. Now, when they should be hitting their prime, all three
seem to be on the decline. Not so Easley, age 24, who has had a
breakthrough first half and typifies the premium placed on
offense at what used to be a defensive-minded position. However,
though Easley has outperformed him at the plate in the first
half of this season, Craig Biggio remains the best all-around
second baseman in baseball.

OUTFIELD
Sammy Sosa, Cubs
HRs 32 RBIs 78 BA .328
Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners
HRs 32 RBIs 71 BA .283
juan gonzalez, Rangers
HRs 24 RBIs 96 BA .297

Thirteen of the last 22 Most Valuable Player awards have gone to
outfielders. Yet of the first 12 players to crack the 60-RBI
mark this season, only four were outfielders--Gonzalez, Sosa,
Griffey and Greg Vaughn--suggesting a shift in the balance of
power. Gonzalez and Sosa played in the same outfield for four
different minor league teams over their first three-plus pro
seasons before the Rangers traded Sosa to the White Sox. Yet
Gonzalez is more closely linked to Griffey (the two, along with
Alex and Ivan Rodriguez, are our only All-Stars to have spent
their careers with a single team). Born 36 days apart in 1969,
constantly chasing home run and RBI titles together, Gonzalez
and Griffey could be the Aaron and Mays of their generation.

CATCHER
ivan rodriguez, Rangers
HRS 10 RBIS 43 BA .358

Jorge Posada of the Yankees is slowly developing into a solid
young catcher--and six-time All-Star Rodriguez is three months
younger than Posada. At 26, Rodriguez just keeps getting better.
Mike Piazza may want to be known someday as the best offensive
catcher ever, but Rodriguez has the whole game. The shortage of
topflight talent at the position would be acute if not for
Puerto Rico, the cradle of catchers. The small island has
produced a boomlet of backstops: Rodriguez, Posada, Sandy
Alomar, Javy Lopez and Minnesota's Javier Valentin.

STARTING PITCHER
Greg Maddux, Braves
W-L 11-2 ERA 1.64 K's 107

Let's get one thing straight: There is Maddux, and then there is
everyone else. Tom Glavine? Andy Ashby? Aaron Sele? They're
having nice seasons, sure, but as usual, no one has pitched
better than Maddux. Even the greats have a clunker of a season
once in a while. Not Maddux. He has run off six straight
sub-3.00 ERAs--Ford, Gibson and Koufax never did--and is on his
way to a seventh. He is 109-44 (.712) with a 2.14 ERA in
1,424 1/3 innings during his six-year run. No pitcher has been
that dominant since Koufax went 129-47 (.733) with a 2.19 ERA in
1,632 2/3 innings between 1961 and 1966.

THIRD BASE
Vinny Castilla, Rockies
HRS 23 RBIS 70 BA .299

Just call it the not-so-hot corner. The roll call of third
sackers having off years is lengthy: Cal Ripken, Matt Williams,
Ken Caminiti, Travis Fryman, Robin Ventura, John Valentin, Ed
Sprague and Edgardo Alfonzo. Castilla, though, just keeps
rolling along. After consecutive 40-home-run seasons, he could
challenge Mike Schmidt's record of 48 dingers by a third
baseman. The future, though, belongs to Chipper Jones and Scott
Rolen, whose blow-a-gasket drive on the bases and afield is a
pure joy to watch.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHILLIP BURKE COVER BASEBALL TAKES OFF! The Grand Old Game Has a Gangbuster First Half '98 DREAM TEAM THE BEST PLAYER AT EVERY POSITION SOLVING GREG MADDUX HANDICAPPING THE HOME RUN DERBY Shortstop Alex Rodriguez[Drawing of Alex Rodriguez running]FIVE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: PHILLIP BURKE [Drawings of Mark McGwire; Robb Nen pitching, Alex Rodriguez running and Damion Easley batting; Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez batting; Ivan Rodriguez; Greg Maddux pitching and Vinny Castilla batting]