AL should have many new faces

As a sport, baseball defies hype. The games come and go so quickly that even the late Tex Schramm would have had a hard time selling them as epic struggles.

The one exception to that rule is the All-Star Game, which generates a month's worth of buildup, largely because of debates about who belongs on the team. The arguments, and the reaction of players, are often more fun than the game itself.

That could be the case this season for Joe Torre and the various voters who will determine the American League team. Some of the familiar faces, like Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra, should be staying home (although right now they are 1-2 in fan voting) while newcomers Victor Martinez, Lew Ford, Juan Uribe and maybe even a Jake Westbrook or two enjoy the perks that come from being an All-Star.

Here's an early look at the team that will be charged with extending the dominance of the AL, which has gone 12-3-1 since 1988.

Starting pitchers
There's no Roger Clemens in the AL -- an automatic guy to not only make the team, but also to start the game. Depending on their schedules leading into the July 13 game, Oakland's Mark Mulder (8-2, 2.97) and Tim Hudson (7-2, 2.78) are the leading options. Curt Schilling deserved equal billing a couple of weeks ago, but the mounting concerns about his right ankle suggest that he might not even make the trip to Houston.

Pedro Martinez, Mark Buehrle and Kenny Rogers deserve to be All-Stars. Cleveland's Westbrook began the season in manager Eric Wedge's bullpen, but has taken the AL's ERA lead (2.70) since being moved into the rotation. He could slip onto the team if he keeps it up. Seattle's Freddy Garcia presents an interesting case. He has a 3-6 record, but is sixth in the league in ERA (3.23). The Mariners are scoring less than two runs per game with him on the mound.

Relief pitchers
Torre won't be accused of favoritism for putting Mariano Rivera on the team. Rivera's once again been the best closer in the AL, followed by Boston's Keith Foulke. Texas closer Francisco Cordero (19-for-20 in save situations, 2.08 ERA) and Minnesota's Joe Nathan (18-for-19 in save situations, 1.42 ERA) have also put themselves in position to be on the team.

Ditto the AL's top set-up men, Anaheim's Francisco Rodriguez and the Yankees' Tom Gordon. The guy complicating this is Seattle's Eddie Guardado. He's blown three saves, but is holding opponents to a .147 batting average.

Raise your hand if you picked Martinez over Jorge Posada as your fantasy league catcher. You're officially a baseball genius.

It's too bad for Martinez that he used up his Rookie of the Year eligibility a year ago because he'd be an easy choice this time around. The Cleveland switch hitter has easily been one of the top two catchers in the AL, hitting .308 with 10 homers to join Detroit newcomer Ivan Rodriguez (the league's leading hitter at .359) among the league's elite. Opponents run on Martinez, but he's the best hitting catcher to come into the game since Mike Piazza.

Posada is having a typically productive season, but this year he's the third best catcher in his league.

First base
The usual suspects are Jason Giambi, Carlos Delgado, Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Sweeney, but there are no first basemen having monster seasons this time around.

The most deserving first basemen are Ken Harvey, Sweeney's teammate in Kansas City, and the White Sox' Paul Konerko, who hit only .234 a year ago.

Harvey, third in the AL with a .352 batting average, is hitting almost 100 points better than Sweeney. Konerko is leading AL first basemen with 14 homers while hitting .280 with a .380 on-base percentage.

Second base
Bret Boone and Alfonso Soriano are the name players.

You could argue for Soriano, who has helped fuel Texas' attack with a .293 average, nine homers and 38 RBI but his unwillingness to take a walk puts him a tick behind Mark Bellhorn and Uribe, who have played their way out of reserve roles. Boone is hitting .231, which doesn't get you on this list.

Bellhorn has a .400 on-base percentage with 51 walks. The White Sox' Uribe is hitting better away from Coors Field. He's been a catalyst for the Sox' Double Digits 'R Us lineup, batting .310 with 29 extra-base hits, including nine home runs. He's also stolen seven bases.

Thanks to age, injury and position changes, there's been a changing of the guard at baseball's most glamorous position. Unless they're somehow voted on, Jeter and Garciaparra won't be going to Houston; Alex Rodriguez will be there as a third baseman, not in his accustomed position.

But that doesn't mean there's a void here. Carlos Guillen, an intriguing free agent in waiting, has made Seattle regret trading him to Detroit. Michael Young has moved over from second base to do a terrific job succeeding Rodriguez as the Rangers' shortstop. Miguel Tejada has the best production numbers (.297-10-51), as you'd expect with his moving to Camden Yards.

Third base
A-Rod got off to a slow start after his spring training in the spotlight. But he hit .333-8-22 in May to build a body of work worthy of a trip to Minute Maid Park. He's going to have to step on it if he's going to lead the league in homers for a fourth consecutive year, but that's quibbling.

Melvin Mora and Hank Blalock are deserving of spots on the team. Aubrey Huff could go as Tampa Bay's lone representative, complicating the picture for Mora and Blalock.

After having him on its side so many times, we'll see how the National League likes facing Vladimir Guerrero. He's probably been the first-half MVP in the AL, keeping the Angels in contention despite their having to use makeshift lineups. He and Manny Ramirez are the only two slam-dunk picks in a field of candidates that includes Gary Sheffield, Carlos Beltran and several surprises.

Given his all-around skills, including home-run rejecting ability in the field, Beltran gets the nod over Sheffield as the third starter. Minnesota's Ford, the leading Rookie of the Year candidate, and two Comeback Player of the Year contenders, Cleveland's Matt Lawton and Oakland's Jermaine Dye, are good picks to round out the bench. Another player worth strong consideration is Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford (.304 with 29 stolen bases), whose speed could be a valuable late-inning weapon for Torre.

Designated hitter
With the game in Houston, the designated hitter is not on the fan ballot but that doesn't mean it's fair to ignore the position.

Frank Thomas deserved a spot on the 2003 team at the White Sox' U.S. Cellular Field, and is likewise worthy for this year's game. His league-leading walk total limits his run-production totals (17 homers, 43 RBI) but have boosted him to the top of the OPS rankings (1.087), ahead of players like Ramirez and Guerrero. Boston's David Ortiz is also playing like an All-Star.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.