Potential All-Stars from bad teams
Roy Oswalt, Fausto Carmona and David DeJesus among the most deserving
A little admission off the top: I like the concept of every team having a representative in the All-Star Game. I enjoy watching the odd Royal, Pirate or Oriole stand at the foul line and tip his cap and smile for the folks back home. I like the thought of beleaguered Cleveland sports fans having something to look forward to besides LeBron's next career move or the big Jake Delhomme-Seneca Wallace quarterback competition at Browns camp.
Of course, I understand the arguments against perpetuating this tradition. If you're going to make the All-Star Game a World Series litmus test and decree that "this time it counts," it stands to reason that the very best players from each league should determine the outcome. The thought of a token representative from a team with a .400 winning percentage striking out with the bases loaded to determine home-field advantage in the World Series is tough to swallow.
But Major League Baseball sends out lots of mixed signals on whether the All-Star Game is an exhibition or a matter of paramount importance. If we're going to put the squeeze on Indians and Pirates, the popular "Final Vote" Internet promotion should also hit the scrap heap, and Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson and Roy Halladay should all log multiple innings for the National League. On second thought, let's just dispense with the term "All-Star Game" and call it "A Midsummer Gathering for the Yankees, Red Sox and About Eight Other Teams That We See All the Time on National TV, Anyway."
At any rate, the rules are in place, so we might as well settle the question of which players on bad teams are most deserving of spots. In this installment of the Starting 9, we look at the nine (actually 10) teams with the worst records in baseball and determine who should represent them at the All-Star Game on July 13. Some clubs have two or three legitimate candidates and others don't have any. Like it or not, they'll all have a presence in Anaheim.
Roy Oswalt, Astros (3.08 ERA, 94 strikeouts in 99.1 innings)
Lucky Oswalt: He gets to go to Anaheim and answer dozens of questions on his no-trade clause, his geographical preferences and the difference between a trade "demand" and a "request." Maybe Roy Halladay can pass along a few tips from his media adventure last summer in St. Louis.
Houston's usual All-Star candidates, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, are putting up numbers well below their career norms, so Oswalt is clearly the man. His record is only 5-9, but the Astros have scored a total of 16 runs in his nine losses. His fastball still touches the mid-90s, he's pounding first-pitch strikes, and he's inducing more swings and misses than at any time since 2004. Oswalt turns 33 in August and has about $26 million left on his contract, but he's a guy who could have a big impact on a pennant race. Just ask Rangers president Nolan Ryan.
It remains to be seen if Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. will break from previous practice and ship him off for prospects. With his performance this season, Oswalt can only help the team's bargaining position.
"Roy has been tremendous," said Astros general manager Ed Wade. "This is the best he's thrown in the three years that I've been here. He's been the vintage Roy, holding the opposition in check and getting us deep into games. We've struggled to get him runs -- we've struggled to get everyone runs -- but he's battled and has given us a chance to win every time out."
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.310 BA, .386 OBP, 18 steals)
The Pirates have already assured themselves of an 18th straight losing season. They're 15th in the National League in attendance. And last week one Internet site speculated that manager John Russell might be fired, which led to a team statement that, uhh, Russell and GM Neal Huntington received contract extensions through the 2011 season last winter.
With a past this ugly, you can hardly blame the Pirates for looking toward the future. They've called up Brad Lincoln, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez in the past month, so they're putting all their player development chips on the table. Alvarez may or may not be able to hit lefties, but his power is undeniable. Walker has a picturesque swing, and he's received the Bill Mazeroski seal of approval at second base.
McCutchen, the only Pirate with his own Bobblehead Day this season, deserves a trip to Anaheim. He leads the Pirates in hits, runs, OBP, slugging and steals, and he's doing all the little things to make himself a more complete player. That includes hitting the ball to all fields and making better, more accurate throws from center field.
Although the Pirates probably don't have a prayer of sending two players to the All-Star Game, Evan Meek is quietly having a terrific season in relief. He's earned the right to take over for Octavio Dotel as Pittsburgh's closer in 2011. Or sooner, if the Pirates trade Dotel before the deadline.
Fausto Carmona, Indians (6-5, 3.31 ERA)
Cleveland is the only team in the majors to have five starters with at least one complete game. You might have won a few bucks taking that bet in spring training.
Carmona has been the best of the bunch. He's given himself a chance to go deeper in games by averaging an economical 15.2 pitches per inning, and he has more quality starts (11) than Zack Greinke and CC Sabathia. At 26, he looks a lot like the confident, hard-throwing young gun who won 19 games and kept his focus through an October Lake Erie midge infestation in 2007.
"He's given us a chance to win every five days," Cleveland manager Manny Acta wrote in an e-mail. "His consistency has been impressive, despite our lack of offense and facing top-of-the-rotation starters. He has been very good."
There's lots of credit to go around for Carmona's revival. Rather than tinker around the edges, the Indians took the bold step of sending him to rookie ball in Arizona for a bottoms-up review in 2009. New pitching coach Tim Belcher has made a point not to overwhelm Carmona with scouting information. Mike Redmond, Carmona's personal catcher, is entrusted with making sure Carmona refrains from rushing and maintains a nice tempo. And during Carmona's winter ball season in the Dominican, his friend Jose Lima suggested he shift from the right side to the left side of the rubber. The adjustment has made Carmona's slider more effective down and in to lefties and away from righties.
Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners (96 hits, 20 stolen bases)
By all rights, a team that ranks fourth in the American League in ERA and 13th in runs scored should send a pitcher to the All-Star Game. The Mariners have several worthy starters.
Felix Hernandez has thrown three clunkers, but he's third in the AL with 97 strikeouts. Cliff Lee has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 67-to-4. Doug Fister was a revelation before going down with shoulder fatigue, and Jason Vargas has pitched consistently well from Day 1.
They might all be out of luck, given the Mariners' 29-41 record, the wealth of pitching in the American League and the fact that Ichiro leads outfielders with 1.5 million votes and is almost assured of making his 10th straight All-Star Game appearance.
Here's all you need to know about Ichiro's performance: In 2005, he finished with a .350 on-base percentage and 206 hits and scored 111 runs. This year he has a .389 OBP and is on pace for 222 hits and only 69 runs scored. When Chone Figgins was hitting .198 in late May, Milton Bradley and Casey Kotchman are nonentities, Ken Griffey Jr. and Eric Byrnes have already retired, and Mike Sweeney and Franklin Gutierrez lead the team with six home runs, there's only so much that a leadoff hitter can do.
Chris Young, Diamondbacks (49 RBIs, 12 stolen bases)
Young can be exasperating at times. He's a fast guy with a low career on-base percentage (.312) and a penchant for hitting the ball in the air. It's a fine approach for Chase Field, where he has 10 homers and a 1.004 OPS, and not so functional in San Francisco, San Diego and the NL West graveyards. Young has only two homers and a .637 OPS on the road this season.
But after taking a step back in 2009, when he fell into such a funk that the Diamondbacks sent him to Triple-A Reno for a refresher course, Young has taken two steps forward. He looks more comfortable at the plate after lowering his hands and making other mechanical adjustments. He's taking a better two-strike approach, and he's delivered some big hits for manager A.J. Hinch.
Pitcher Ian Kennedy has 82 strikeouts in 95 innings, and Kelly Johnson ranks second to Robinson Cano in slugging percentage by a second baseman. But Johnson's power totals have gradually waned in May and June, and he doesn't give the D-backs the same caliber glove at second base that Young provides in center field.
David DeJesus, Royals (.322 BA, 22 doubles)
Sorry, Zack Greinke. We know that 2-8 record is deceptive, but the strikeouts are down, the home run balls have increased and you're not the same guy who cut a swath through opposing lineups in 2009.
"The stuff is down a little bit -- not drastic," said an AL scout. "The command is not as good. I just don't see the same mound presence. I don't see the same confidence level that he had a year ago. He's such a quirky guy, you never know exactly what's going on there."
Closer Joakim Soria would be a satisfactory choice, although you could throw his numbers in a pot with Mariano Rivera, Jose Valverde, Neftali Feliz, Rafael Soriano and Jon Rauch, pick two or three and be fine. Last year the American and National League managers carried a combined 11 relievers, so they tend to go closer-crazy.
People who watch the Royals every day say DeJesus has been the team's best, most consistent player. DeJesus and Billy Butler have remarkably similar numbers across the board. But DeJesus wins extra credit points as a better defender in the outfield than Butler is at first base.
"If you see him for two or three games, you think, 'He's OK.' Then you see him over the course of a season, and you say, 'This guy gets the job done day-in and day-out pretty well,' " said a scout, who believes that DeJesus could hit 20-22 homers a year if he left the spacious environs of Kauffman Stadium for Yankee Stadium, Citizens Bank Park or another hitter-friendly park.
Although DeJesus' name has come up in trade speculation lately, sources say the Royals are looking for an impact, major league-ready player and a lower-level prospect in return. DeJesus will probably earn a reasonable $6 million or so next year, so the Royals won't rush to trade him.
Nick Markakis, Orioles (.393 OBP, 23 doubles)
Most of the public sentiment in Baltimore probably leans toward hustlin' Ty Wigginton, who provided a beacon of light amid the deluge of bad news for the Orioles in April and May. Wigginton hit 13 homers and drove in 32 runs in the first two months, but time and too much exposure eventually caught up with him; Wigginton has four extra-base hits since May 15, and his other numbers have taken a nosedive.
Sure, it's hard to make a case for Markakis on the basis of those three home runs and 23 RBIs. Some scouts are puzzled why Markakis seems so passive at the plate and hesitant to let it rip. Jason Bay has put up similar power numbers for the Mets in a much more challenging hitter's ballpark, and he's endured a month's worth of "What's wrong with Jason Bay?" stories as a result. When Markakis signed a six-year, $66.1 million contract extension in January 2009, the Orioles thought they were getting more than a patient, gap-hitting, complementary player in the order.
That said, Markakis has been day-in and day-out the Orioles' most consistent offensive player. He leads the Orioles in hits and ranks among the American League's top 10 in doubles, walks and on-base percentage. And scouts agree that opposing staffs are giving him very little to hit. Given the composition of the Orioles' lineup, why would they?
Ryan Braun (.310 BA, 21 doubles), Corey Hart (18 HRs, .583 SLG) or Yovani Gallardo (6-3, 2.59 ERA), Brewers
Braun has only five homers in 180 at-bats in May and June, but he's still a doubles machine and the best pure hitter in the Milwaukee lineup. He's been jockeying back and forth with Atlanta's Jason Heyward at the top of the NL outfield voting, so the Hebrew Hammer has a good chance of making it on the fan ballot.
Can two Milwaukee outfielders make the NL roster? That might be a tough sell, but Hart keeps stating his case in 400-foot increments. He has 34 extra-base hits and 27 singles this year, so there hasn't been much subtle about his game.
After a disappointing 2009 season, Hart looked so bad in spring training that he was in danger of platooning with 39-year-old Jim Edmonds. Then Hart got contact lenses, made some swing adjustments with the help of hitting coach Dale Sveum and started hitting rockets. Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin recently observed that Hart might be on the verge of a Jayson Werth-type breakthrough in his late 20s. While Hart lacks Werth's plate discipline, he's fast, athletic and can hit the ball a long way.
Gallardo, 24, ranks third in the league in strikeouts. The downside is that he's averaging 17.4 pitches per inning and has thrown 1,637 pitches overall -- third most in the majors behind Roy Halladay and Dan Haren. Gallardo is a workhorse, but Brewers manager Ken Macha and pitching coach Rick Peterson might want to keep an eye on him in the second half.
Gallardo's biggest obstacle to an All-Star berth is the sheer depth of starting pitching in the National League. Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson, Halladay, Adam Wainwright and Roy Oswalt (as the lone Astro) appear to be locks at this point. Lincecum, Matt Cain or both will go from San Francisco, and Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter, Mike Pelfrey, Clayton Kershaw, Mat Latos, Jaime Garcia and Carlos Silva are among the other names meriting consideration. Throw in the obligatory complement of relievers, and it's hard to find room for Gallardo on the roster.
Option A: Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals (13 HRs, .529 slugging percentage)
There's a movement afoot to get Stephen Strasburg to the All-Star Game after three whole starts. Hey, the kid's appeal is undeniable. But you try telling St. Louis rookie Jaime Garcia, who has a 1.79 ERA in 14 starts, that he has to stay home so America can celebrate Strasmas in July.
The Nationals would probably prefer to give Strasburg a breather after a very hectic month. And Strasburg, a shy kid by all accounts, can't relish the thought of the dog-and-pony show that would await him in Anaheim.
Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Matt Capps and Tyler Clippard have all enjoyed nice first halves, but Zimmerman, Washington's best all-around player, is the most deserving National. He ranks third among major league third basemen in OPS behind Scott Rolen and Evan Longoria, and he's the best defender in the game at his position.
Option B: Carlos Marmol, Cubs (58 strikeouts in 31.2 innings)
Marmol still walks too many hitters, but it's tough to overlook those 16.48 strikeouts every nine innings. It's not his fault that his setup contingent is bad and he sometimes goes a week or two between save opportunities.
Marlon Byrd and Carlos Silva, two nice offseason additions by GM Jim Hendry, both merit consideration. But it's tough to see multiple Cubs in Anaheim after such a sorry, dispiriting first half at Wrigley.
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