By JAY LeBLANC
May 31, 2008
Now that my excessively premature American League All-Star picks are public knowledge, it’s time for the Senior Circuit selections. Enjoy.
Catcher: Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves
McCann, one of baseball’s best and most underappreciated young players, handles a pitching staff like a 10-year veteran and hits for both average and power. He has bounced back nicely after a moderately disappointing 2007 campaign and entered the day hitting .326 with 9 home runs and 32 RBI. There are several outstanding National League backstops you could make an argument for, but McCann gets the nod because he is a better defender than the Cubs’ Geovany Soto and has more pop than the Dodgers’ Russell Martin.
First Base: Lance Berkman, Houston Astros
There isn’t a hitter in baseball enjoying a better season so far than Astros slugger Berkman. After an outstanding April in which he hit .303 with 8 home runs and 25 RBI, he’s having a May for the ages, hitting at an absurd .475 clip with 9 jacks and 22 RBI. He is especially enjoying the comforts of Minute Maid Park, where he is batting .425 so far this season. Berkman is an easy choice over the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, whose balky elbow apparently isn’t bothering him that much since he’s hitting a robust .364 with 14 home runs.
Second Base: Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies
Utley provides a solid average and good pop year in and year out at a position not known for offensive firepower, and this season is no exception. Right smack in the middle of his prime at age 29, he came out of the gates on fire by hitting .352 with 10 home runs and 21 RBI in April. He has cooled off just a bit in May, but still enters the day at .312 with 18 longballs and 48 RBI. Utley edges Florida’s Dan Uggla, who is batting .306 with 16 home runs and 38 RBI but has struck out a whopping 59 times in 196 at-bats.
Third Base: Chipper Jones, Atlanta Braves
The 36-year-old continues to defy Father Time and is solidifying his case for a plaque in Cooperstown with another outstanding season. Jones is always dealing with one nagging injury or another at this point, but the switch-hitter continues to rake, entering the day with an unheard of - since 1941, anyway - .409 average to go along with 12 home runs and 35 RBI. Now just two homers shy of 400 in his illustrious career, Jones is the pick at the hot corner over a trio of outstanding younger players - the Mets’ David Wright, the Cubs’ Aramis Ramirez and the Rockies’ Garrett Atkins.
Shortstop: Jose Reyes, New York Mets
After a forgettable April in which he hit just .240, the speedy Reyes has come on in a big way in the Big Apple, hitting .310 with 5 home runs, 15 RBI and 10 steals this month. It’s taken his current 14-game hitting streak to do it, but he earns the starting nod over another of the best young players in baseball, Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins, and Miguel Tejada, who’s hitting .323 with 6 jacks for Houston and is still an outstanding player no matter how old he really is.
Outfield: Nate McLouth, Pittsburgh Pirates
The emergence of the 26-year-old McLouth has been one of the biggest surprises of the young season. A slap-hitting speedster in the minor leagues, McLouth has reinvented himself as a slugger as a big leaguer. He showed signs of a power breakout by hitting 10 home runs from Aug. 1 on last season, but few could have predicted he’d enter the day with 13 home runs to go along with a .308 average and 40 RBI. He’s swiped just 5 bags so far, but it’s probably because he’s tired from trotting around the bases so often.
Outfield: Jason Bay, Pittsburgh Pirates
After a dreadful 2007 season in which he hit just .247 with 21 home runs and struck out 141 times, thus far in 2008 Bay is looking a lot more like the player who hit more than 30 home runs and drove in over 100 runs in 2005 and 2006. Bay has cut down on the K’s and is having a stellar season to this point, entering the day with a .293 average, 13 longballs, 28 RBI and 40 runs scored. While it’s amazing that N.L. Central cellar dweller Pittsburgh contributes two starting outfielders to the Senior Circuit squad, it’s the Bucs pitching, not their talented young hitters, keeping them down.
Outfield: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
The only thing about Braun’s rookie season for the ages that didn’t thrill the Brewers was his shoddy defense at third base, and fortunately, the move to the outfield hasn’t affected his sweet stroke. After a subpar April in which he hit .276 with 3 home runs and 17 RBI, Braun has turned it on this month and is now hitting .299 with 14 home runs and 39 RBI on the season. Braun is choice for the final outfield spot because Matt Holliday - who, with apologies to Jimmy Rollins, should have been the 2007 N.L. MVP - is on the D.L. and Houston’s Carlos Lee, despite his 12 home runs and 46 RBI, is hitting only .269 with a .309 on-base percentage.
Did I get it right, or would you fill out your N.L. lineup card differently? Is it just me, or does the National League lineup look a lot more fearsome than the American League’s? Please share your thoughts below, and by the way, you can fill out your own official All-Star ballot by clicking on this link.