Pujols leads '09's hitting All-Stars

Baseball coverage continually advances. Statistics are more diverse and more readily available than ever -- fantasy baseball certainly has played a part in both of those -- and even casual fans can now spout off statistics that fans couldn't even dream of 30 to 40 years ago. Fans have more access to games and highlights (on television or online); I think I've seen that Luis Castillo game-losing dropped popup against the Yankees no fewer than 19 times. There are online forums to debate the sport, more blogs and columns to read about it, radio talk shows to talk about it, more access to tickets to go watch it, and even a greater range of merchandise (even underwear) to wear it.

All this has led the average baseball fan to be smarter than his predecessors, and subsequently, All-Star voting has become less a popularity contest and more a performance-related barometer.

That suits fantasy owners just fine.

Not that popularity doesn't play a major part; it just plays less of a part. The All-Star rosters have become a truer gauge of who has performed the best during the first three-plus months of the season. And fantasy owners should take pride in seeing their players' names on that roster.

Winning in fantasy baseball involves attempting to project the future, but it's not as much fun if you can't stop now and then to pat yourself on the back for what you've done right. And if you have any of the players on the official Hit Parade first-half All-Star teams below, you've done something right. Consider this my virtual pat on the back. You deserve it.

At each position and in each league, I'll list a true fantasy All-Star, which is essentially the most valuable player at that position, thus representing the real All-Star Game. I'll also list the bargain fantasy All-Star who has performed the best versus preseason expectations. As always, your comments are welcomed in the Conversation section.

American League fantasy All-Stars

True fantasy All-Star: Joe Mauer, Twins. A case could be made for him to be the best bargain as well, considering he's the top catcher on the Player Rater and was selected 94th in the average ESPN.com standard league.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Brandon Inge, Tigers. He's no longer a catcher, but he qualifies there, making his 38-homer pace all the more helpful.

First base/designated hitter
True fantasy All-Star: Justin Morneau, Twins. Unlike Mark Teixeira, Morneau didn't get off to a slow start. And he has three homers and 17 more RBIs than Miguel Cabrera.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Russell Branyan, Mariners. Well, duh. Fantasy owners have been expecting him to fall apart any day now, but he has batted better than .300 in the past seven days.

Second base
True fantasy All-Star: Ian Kinsler, Rangers. Aaron Hill deserves legit consideration, but Kinsler has 13 more steals and the same number of homers. Instead ...
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Aaron Hill, Blue Jays. Has kept right on ticking out of his 18th-round draft slot.

Third base
True fantasy All-Star: Evan Longoria, Rays. Kevin Youkilis is in the conversation, but Longoria has more homers and way more RBIs.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Chone Figgins, Angels. You just can't underestimate how valuable his 24 steals (fifth-most in the majors) and 55 runs (tied for ninth) have been, especially when it comes from the middle draft rounds.

True fantasy All-Star: Derek Jeter, Yankees. He has accrued a quiet (if there is such a thing for a high-profile Yankee) 17 steals this season. If he maintains his 37-steal pace, it will be a career high.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Jason Bartlett, Rays. In reality, Bartlett probably should be named the true fantasy All-Star, too. He's second among shortstops on the Player Rater.

True fantasy All-Stars: Carl Crawford, Rays; Torii Hunter, Angels; Jason Bay, Red Sox. If you have all three on your team, which is possible, chances are you're among the league leaders in your offensive categories.
Bargain fantasy All-Stars: Nelson Cruz, Rangers; Ben Zobrist, Rays; Shin-Soo Choo, Indians. I'll bet a high percentage of fantasy owners didn't even know who these three were two years ago.

National League fantasy All-Stars

True fantasy All-Star: Brian McCann, Braves. This isn't saying much; there's not really much to choose from here.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Bengie Molina, Giants. A perennial bargain, Molina was selected, on average, during the 20th round of fantasy baseball drafts, despite establishing himself as a solid offensive catcher.

First base
True fantasy All-Star: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. I've actually thought about leaving the No. 2 spot in my hitter rankings blank in honor of Pujols' amazing dominance.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Todd Helton, Rockies. After years of being the true All-Star, Helton has bounced back nicely with Helton of old numbers: He is batting .312 and is on pace for 20 homers and 116 RBIs. That said, I still think he's a good sell-high guy.

Second base
True fantasy All-Star: Chase Utley, Phillies. So much for that major offseason hip surgery; he has played in all but two games this season.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Freddy Sanchez, Pirates. Orlando Hudson and Clint Barmes were candidates here, but Sanchez has thrown a whopping 95 hits, eighth-most in the majors, into your aggregate batting-average pool out of his 23rd-round draft slot.

Third base
True fantasy All-Star: David Wright, Mets. Tristan Cockcroft notes that Wright has lost six homers to his new ballpark. But so what if his homers are down? He's still finding ways to be a fantasy stud.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks. He has put 180 balls in play on the season, and 38 have gone for extra-base hits. That's 21.1 percent of his balls in play. For comparison's sake, Pujols' extra-base-hit/at-bat percentage is 20.9 percent.

True fantasy All-Star: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins. At third on the overall Player Rater, Ramirez hasn't disappointed a bit.
Bargain fantasy All-Star: Miguel Tejada, Astros. The homers and steals have gone bye-bye, but this former fantasy stud is hitting a nifty .332.

True fantasy All-Stars: Ryan Braun, Brewers; Raul Ibanez, Phillies; Matt Kemp, Dodgers. Ho-hum on Braun and Kemp, but Ibanez? He's already just one short of his 2008 homer total.
Bargain fantasy All-Stars: Justin Upton, D-backs; Michael Bourn, Astros; Juan Pierre, Dodgers. Pierre's gold went simply to the first guy who picked him up after Manny Ramirez's suspension. Meanwhile, Jason Grey hyped Upton, and I and others hyped Bourn before the season. According to their average draft positions, few agreed with us.

Fortunes rising

Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers: We often talk about how long it takes hitters to learn certain pitchers at the plate, but how about base stealers? OK, so history suggests good base stealers tend to be good base stealers from the get-go. But in some cases, usually with very young players, base stealers get off to rather slow starts. Witness Elvis Andrus, who was surprisingly tentative on the base paths early in the season. But under the tutelage of Gary Pettis, he has begun running more and is getting more and more confident on the bases. After stealing two bases in April and four in May, he stole nine bases in June, including four in a game June 30. He's on pace to earn 35 swipes, but I wouldn't be shocked if he ended with closer to 45.

Franklin Gutierrez, OF, Mariners: Longtime readers of the Parade know I've liked Gutierrez as a hitter from the moment I laid eyes on him. Apparently I wasn't alone. The Mariners traded for him and have trotted him out there nearly every day all season despite subpar performances, and it's finally paying off. He's 17-for-45 in his past 11 games, and I think it's only a sign of things to come. Remember, he projects to have decent power, and he's still only 26 years old. I foresee a fine second half from him.

Emilio Bonifacio, 3B/2B, Marlins: It's almost frustrating because I want to see Gaby Sanchez manning third base for the Marlins, but every time Bonifacio's starting job has been threatened this season, he has responded. He has hit in all nine games since taking June 21 off and has stolen five bases during that time. As much as I have bashed this guy as a mirage, I have to admire that he has hung in there and continued to help fantasy owners. He's on pace to steal 36 bases and score 93 runs, and I can't take that away.

Fortunes falling

Vernon Wells, OF, Blue Jays: Last week, I called for a bounce-back from a slumping Ryan Ludwick. I liked what I saw in his at-bats, and I still do. This week's bounce-back call is Wells. I've made a concerted effort to watch him in the past week, and I still like what I see despite his recent slump. He's still hustling all over the field and doesn't look overmatched at the plate. Hidden in his low batting average is a batting average on balls in play that is well below his career average, a 41-doubles pace, an increased walk percentage compared to last year and a career-high 24 steals pace. Sooner than later, I think a few more balls will start to drop in and a few more of those doubles turn into homers, leading to another strong second half for him.

Juan Pierre, OF, Dodgers: So should Pierre be outright dropped once Manny Ramirez returns? Unfortunately, yes. As a Pierre owner (in a mixed league), I have been trying all week to find a reason, any reason, to justify keeping him, but I just can't. Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp are both durable everyday players, and Manny Ramirez has something to prove. No way will Pierre start more than one game, maybe two, per week. And he just doesn't provide enough power off the bench to justify hanging on to him for the occasional steal. In mixed leagues with small benches (four or five guys), I've always felt you don't own a player unless there's a chance he could start in any given week. As it is now, you have no reason to start Pierre. As I noted above, he has been a fantasy bargain, but it's time to cut him loose.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Gordon Beckham, 3B/SS, White Sox. OK, the balls are starting to drop for him now; he's an astounding 12-for-21 with six RBIs in his past six games. And he qualifies at shortstop. Yet somehow he's owned in just 5.2 percent of ESPN.com standard leagues.

AL-only: Eric Hinske, OF, Yankees. He might come off the bench, but Hinske figures to have some role on the Yanks with Xavier Nady done for the season.

NL-only: Jeff Salazar, OF, Pirates. Likely will earn a start or two per week following the Nyjer Morgan trade to Washington, and he hit 10 homers in the minors before being called up.

Stats watch

Alberto Callaspo, 2B, Royals: Thinking Callaspo is due to fall apart at any time? Well, here's a stat that suggests he won't: Callaspo is hitting .380 against divisional opponents (with four of his five homers and 16 of his 27 extra-base hits in 100 at-bats) and .247 in 158 at-bats against everybody else. So why is this good news? Of the Royals' remaining 85 games, almost half (40) are against divisional foes.

Ballpark watch

Occasionally, I still hear Minute Maid Park referred to as a hitters' park. That's no longer true, and it really hasn't been since 2007. This season, the ballpark in Houston ranks 23rd in runs on our park factors page, in large part because the Astros have an ERA that is 89 points better at home than on the road. I wouldn't call it a pitchers' park, by any means, but certainly don't consider it a favorable hitters' park. So is there anything you can take from Minute Maid? Yes. Presumably because of the short Crawford box seats in left field, Minute Maid is still susceptible to homers from right-handed hitters. The at-bats/homer ratio is much lower for right-handed hitters, and 52 of the 68 homers hit there in 2009 have come from righty swingers. But that's about the only conclusion you can draw.

Points watch

Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Indians: I liked Choo a lot heading into the season and he's even better than I thought he'd be. He's on pace for 21 homers, 94 RBIs and 25 steals, but he's even more valuable in points leagues, in which his walks and gap power can be more exploited. Choo is very patient at the plate; he does strike out every 3.8 at-bats because he takes himself to two-strike counts, but he also is a quiet 10th in the majors in walks, with more bases on balls than such players as Bobby Abreu, Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis. And because he has 24 extra-base hits and a decent average, he's 48th in OPS, higher than Carlos Lee and Matt Kemp. Not bad for a 26-year-old, eh?

On the docket

There's no such thing as a bad time to point out a Rockies homestretch. Beginning Friday, Colorado will play 16 of its next 20 games at favorable Coors Field. That ought to make your Rockies hitters look much better by the end of July, considering they have played just 32 of their 77 games at home to this point. Might be a good time to inquire about such Rockies as Brad Hawpe, Clint Barmes, Seth Smith or Todd Helton.

On the farm

Jordan Danks, OF, White Sox: The White Sox haven't had someone lock down their center-field job, which is why I have my eye on Danks in an AL-only league. He's not a power hitter, but he has decent speed and projects as a potential .290 to .300 hitter in the big leagues with gap power. The team moved him to Double-A recently, and he hasn't skipped a beat, hitting .308 with a .387 OBP there. I'm thinking he'll get a cup of coffee if the team packs it in later this season.

Eric Patterson, 2B/OF, A's: I continue to believe Corey's little brother could have at least deep-mixed value if he's given the chance to play every day. (He has 146 career major league at-bats.) He's 26, far from the ideal age for a prospect, and isn't great at any one position defensively, but he continues to hit well at Triple-A in anticipation of being called up. He's hitting .308 with 32 extra-base hits in just 71 games for Sacramento after hitting .323 last year at the same level. Mark Ellis is back for the A's, but if (when?) the A's fall out of the AL West race, perhaps they'll give this guy a shot.

Final thoughts

Fantasy owners should have some fun with the All-Star Game. In the league I care about most, I like to keep track of how many All-Stars I can get from my team each season, then see whether that directly correlates to my position in the standings. (It does.)

Heck, you could even put together a little side contest in your league, preferably before the season, to see who can get the most All-Stars. And if you want to get more specific with it, you could even create a point system, for instance awarding four points for All-Star starters, two points for reserves and one point for having a player who pulled out of the competition because of injury. I love the "side contests," as my ESPN colleagues can attest, and the All-Star Game provides a good opportunity for 'em. Why not take part and make the game a bit more enjoyable?

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.