They've got the spirit of St. Louis
First-time All-Star hopefuls posting numbers worthy of consideration
Baseball's latest round of All-Star balloting reflects the usual mishmash of fans who vote based on performance and others who are swayed by star power and name recognition. Jimmy Rollins and Josh Hamilton, both of whom rank high in the voting, probably would be the first to admit they're not having the most All-Star-worthy seasons of their careers.
As the balloting also suggests, some teams either have had advantageous schedules or are doing a great job of cranking out the vote. When Chris Davis, Bill Hall, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy all are in the top five, you know the Brewers and the Rangers are getting significant backing.
As a public service, this week's installment of Starting 9 focuses on players who have performed extremely well but haven't gotten a lot of national attention for their achievements. Not one of the nine has made an All-Star team in his career, and only a few have a legitimate chance this time around. We call them our "stealth All-Stars."
Ben Zobrist, Rays 2B (14 HRs in 170 ABs, .694 SLG)
Zobrist is used to being anonymous. In the 2008 World Series, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon moved him from right field to a five-man infield with the bases loaded late in Game 3. When some national reporters asked whether he felt ill at ease, Zobrist politely informed them he's a shortstop by trade.
These days, he goes by the nickname "Zorilla," and Maddon says he's become a cult figure. Zobrist, a switch-hitter, has two grand slams and three pinch-hit home runs this season. His 1.123 OPS is third best in baseball behind Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols.
Some people in Tampa have noticed that when Zobrist completes his swing from the left side, he has a follow-through similar to Ted Williams'. We kid you not.
The Rays acquired Zobrist and Mitch Talbot from Houston in a trade for Aubrey Huff in 2006. Now Zobrist has evolved into a Mark DeRosa type. He's good enough to play 140 to 150 games a season, but it might be at four positions. After playing right field early this season, he took over at second base when Akinori Iwamura suffered a season-ending knee injury three weeks ago.
"I'm not shocked at anything that kid does," a National League scout said. "He was always a little slow to play short, and his infield mechanics aren't that good. But he's an athlete, he has great baseball instincts and his makeup is off the charts. And he could always hit a good fastball -- not just the average fastball."
Russell Branyan, Mariners 1B (15 HRs in 201 at-bats, 1.015 OPS)
Since his major league debut with Cleveland in 1998, Branyan has surpassed 300 at-bats only twice. It's no mystery why: Branyan averaged a strikeout every 2.91 at-bats before this season. For the sake of comparison, Rob Deer averaged 3.20 at-bats per strikeout in his career.
But the Mariners were desperate enough for power that general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu promised to give Branyan an extended look in return for their $1.4 million investment.
"I told him, 'You're going to get that opportunity, Russell. This is your chance to play every day for the first time in your career. Against right-handers, left-handers, it doesn't matter,'" Zduriencik said. "I think he still pinches himself."
Branyan has worked with hitting coach Alan Cockrell to lower his hands in his stance, and he's done a much better job of hanging in against lefties. According to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information, Branyan ranks fourth in the majors behind David Wright, Kevin Youkilis and Mark Reynolds with a .446 batting average when he makes contact.
"After Russell was out there for seven to 10 days this spring, Don told me, 'This guy has a good swing. How the heck does he strike out so much?'" Zduriencik said. "He's sustained it for this length of time, and I believe it's going to continue. I don't see anything fluke-ish about it."
Still, that probably is not going to get Branyan to the All-Star Game. With Mark Teixeira, Youkilis, Justin Morneau and Miguel Cabrera having big years and Ichiro Suzuki likely to represent Seattle in St. Louis, Branyan is a long shot at best.
Luke Scott, Orioles OF (14 HRs in 162 at-bats, 1.017 OPS)
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones is having a nice year, but he's a longtime golden child, and several national media outlets have taken note of his strong start.
Right fielder Nick Markakis was terrific in April, but he's been slumping for more than a month. Before going deep against Mike Pelfrey on Tuesday, Markakis was homer-less since May 21 and didn't have an RBI since May 29.
Scouts say Scott has done a better job of reading breaking balls and laying off pitches he can't hit. He also has developed a more consistent two-stroke approach; he is hitting .263 with two strikes, compared to .161 and .179 the previous two seasons.
Scott also is crushing left-handers. He has a .909 slugging percentage and seven homers in 44 at-bats against lefties. Not bad for a guy who once was considered a platoon player.
"I think teams are challenging him more, thinking, 'This guy has struggled against lefties in the past, and he's not that much of a threat,'" an American League scout said. "They've seriously paid for it."
Jason Bartlett, Rays SS (.376 BA, .600 SLG)
The Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers Association named Bartlett the team's MVP last season after he posted a .690 OPS, so that gives you an idea what he means defensively to the Rays.
Bartlett has added a new facet to his game this season with his hitting prowess. He was leading AL shortstops in multiple offensive categories when he went on the disabled list with an ankle injury in late May. He returned to the Rays' lineup Tuesday, about two weeks ahead of schedule, and contributed two hits in a 12-4 win over Colorado.
"He's my favorite player on that club because he does something different every day to beat you," an NL scout said. "He's a great baserunner. He's poised and under control in the field, and there's not a play he can't make. And as he's gotten stronger, he's added some bat speed. I don't think there's a better shortstop in the American League."
Bartlett is second in fan balloting behind Derek Jeter at short, and his peers in major league clubhouses are certainly paying attention. His manager also will have a role in rounding out the AL All-Star bench, and that never hurts a guy's cause.
Josh Johnson, Marlins pitcher (6-1, 2.76 ERA)
Stan Meek, Florida's scouting director, has a knack for scoping out young pitching talent. He found a good one in his native Oklahoma -- Johnson, who was making a big impression before blowing out his elbow at age 23.
Johnson now is 22 months removed from Tommy John surgery and pitching like a Cy Young candidate. At 6-foot-7, 252 pounds, he has the imposing presence of a young Brad Penny -- only bigger.
Think that 6-1 record is impressive? It should be better. Johnson has a 3.71 ERA in his six no-decisions and one loss, but he's been victimized by a lack of run support and a bullpen blowup or two.
"He's everything you'd want in a bona fide No. 1," said an assistant GM from the AL. "He has the ability to out-stuff opponents or out-pitch them, and he has the kind of frame that should carry him over 200 innings every year."
Johnson has been economical this season, averaging 14.9 pitches per inning, but the Marlins will be keeping track of his workload. He already has pitched 98 innings after throwing only 116 2/3 last year during his comeback from surgery.
Nelson Cruz, Rangers OF (17 HRs in 225 at-bats, .564 SLG)
At the start of spring training, the Rangers suspected Cruz might be poised for a breakthrough. He was coming off a productive September 2008, with 15 extra-base hits, and followed it with a positive winter ball experience in his native Dominican Republic.
So far this season, Cruz has given the Rangers everything they could have asked for. He leads the team in home runs and slugging percentage. He's stolen 10 bases in 11 attempts, and now he's batting cleanup while Josh Hamilton recuperates from an abdominal injury.
Cruz, who played basketball in the Dominican Republic in his late teens, is "baseball young," but there's no denying his tools. He has a cannon arm, covers a lot of ground in the outfield and can hit the ball out of sight. Cruz, Hamilton and Chris Davis can put on some of the most inspiring batting practice displays in the game.
Amazingly, no one claimed Cruz when the Rangers took him off the 40-man roster and exposed him to waivers in spring 2008. Cruz returned to Triple-A ball, went back to his old open stance and slugged his way back to the big leagues via Oklahoma City.
"There's a lot of motion for him to get into the hitting position," an AL scout said. "If you break it down, 99 percent of the guys in the big leagues couldn't hit like that. But he's so darned strong, it doesn't matter where he starts. He's still going to be able to get to the fastball."
Marco Scutaro, Jays SS (.390 OBP, 19 doubles)
"He's another example of how the real baseball players have caught up with the cheaters as they've detoxified," an NL scout said, only half in jest.
Scutaro, who bounced from Cleveland to Milwaukee to the Mets to Oakland before landing in Toronto, is swinging the bat with the patience of a guy who had to wait until age 32 for his big opportunity. Only 11.1 percent of pitches he has swung at have been outside the strike zone -- the lowest rate in baseball. He also puts the ball in play 58.1 percent of the time, the fourth highest percentage in the game.
That makes Scutaro a nice fit at the top of the Toronto order. He ranks third in the American League in runs and walks. Put Scutaro's numbers next to Derek Jeter's, and they're eerily similar across the board.
Regardless of whether Scutaro makes it to St. Louis, his timing is good. He's a free agent in November, and he's looking for a nice raise over the $1.1 million he's making this season.
Ryan Madson, Phillies reliever (37 K's in 33 1/3 innings)
It's tough to slip through the cracks when your team's bullpen is featured in an MLB Network reality show. But Madson logged less airtime than Chad Durbin, Scott Eyre and Jack Taschner in the initial episode Sunday.
Madson blew a save in an 8-3 loss to Toronto on Tuesday, but judging from the late and awkward swings he's inducing, he has plenty of stuff to fill in for the injured Brad Lidge as Phillies closer.
After tearing the teres major muscle in his right shoulder in 2007, Madson heeded teammate Tom Gordon's advice and visited an Arizona-based physiotherapist, Keith Kocher, who helped him regain the strength in his shoulder and add several mph to his fastball.
Madson developed a comfort level as a reliever after years of bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation. He junked his curveball for a cutter, which can be formidable when it's boring in on lefties at 92 mph. And he tinkered with his mechanics and made an effort to "stand tall" on his back leg, which allows him to drive off the mound and use his 6-foot-6 frame to maximum effect.
Madson also derived some major benefits from pitching a lot of high-stress innings for the Phillies this past September and October.
"When you have success like that, you come to believe in yourself," Madson said. "I can't give enough credit to pitching in the playoffs and World Series and the confidence it gave me. I feel more in control, more calm and focused out there now."
Mark Reynolds, D-backs 3B (17 HRs in 234 at-bats, .576 SLG)
After whiffing a record 204 times in 2008, Reynolds is on pace for 224 this season. He's a one-man wind farm.
But there's an awful lot to like about his game. Reynolds is first among major league third basemen in homers, and third in both OPS and stolen bases. His 13 steals in 16 attempts are testament to the early work he's put in with Diamondbacks bench coach Kirk Gibson.
"I give him a lot of credit," Arizona GM Josh Byrnes said. "Everybody focuses on the strikeouts, but he plays good defense, he runs the bases and he's one of our toughest players. He does a lot of things to help us win."
Dan Haren and Justin Upton both are likely to go to St. Louis, and it's tough to see three Diamondbacks making it when Arizona is 10 games below .500. But Reynolds continues to make a strong case for himself.
Others worthy of consideration
Brad Hawpe, Rockies; Ryan Franklin, Cardinals; Zach Duke and Freddy Sanchez, Pirates; Johnny Cueto, Reds; Wandy Rodriguez, Astros; Andrew Bailey and Josh Outman, Athletics; Adam Lind and Scott Downs, Blue Jays; Hunter Pence, Astros; Pablo Sandoval, Giants; Brandon Inge, Tigers; Shin-Soo Choo, Indians; J.P. Howell, Rays; Alberto Callaspo, Royals.
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