In baseball, it is legal to stuff the ballot box. In fact, such behavior is encouraged. When it comes to the All-Star Game, the diehards vote more than once.
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The fans have their say, and all philosophies are welcome. There is the Homer Vote. (I’m voting for my team’s players.) There is the Meritocratic Vote. (I’m voting for the most deserving candidates.) There is the Disgruntled Seattle Fan Vote. (I’m voting for the All-Stars we traded away, because I want to feel more miserable.)
With three and a half weeks left in the balloting, I would like to champion a different school of thought.
The Rightful Recognition Vote.
The All-Star Game ought to be more than a showcase of players who enjoyed the best first halves. It should be a celebration of the game’s biggest stars. (To wit: Jose Bautista, back-to-back Hank Aaron Award winner, deserves a trip to Kansas City despite his slow start.)
But fresh stories are good for baseball. So are grassroots All-Star campaigns. The serendipitous season has a place in the Midsummer Classic, as long as we don’t fill the rosters with names the casual fan wouldn’t recognize.
With that in mind, here are nine names to punch on your next ballot. All of them were unheralded, to varying degrees, when the season began. (Translation: There are no Red Sox, Yankees or Phillies here.)
I’m not suggesting all nine should start. But they belong in the conversation for roster spots.
C – A.J. Ellis, Dodgers
Who needs Matt Kemp?
Well, the Dodgers do. That is obvious: They are 1-6 in their last seven games, which includes Kemp’s latest absence with a strained left hamstring. But after Kemp and Andre Ethier, Ellis has been the Dodgers’ most consistent offensive player this year.
Ellis ranks second in OPS among qualifying NL catchers — behind only Carlos Ruiz — even though he usually bats seventh or eighth. His willingness to take walks is part of that, but patience alone doesn’t produce a .934 OPS. It’s been a remarkable first half for a onetime backup who didn’t appear in more than 10 games in a major-league season until age 29.
1B – Bryan LaHair, Cubs
Speaking of sleepers: LaHair’s only big-league experience prior to last year was a 45-game cameo with the Seattle Mariners in 2008. The power-starved Mariners let him go as a minor-league free agent after the ’09 season. He’s been a Cub ever since. He returned to the majors last year and has lately established himself as one of the league’s premier power threats (10 homers, .986 OPS this season).
With Anthony Rizzo — a favorite of general manager Jed Hoyer — mashing at Class-AAA Iowa, it seems inevitable that LaHair will be traded, perhaps sooner rather than later. For now, he’s working on a strong All-Star résumé. He ranks among the top 10 major-league hitters in OPS and is the Cubs’ strongest candidate overall.
2B – Jason Kipnis, Indians
Kipnis is giving the Indians an element they had lacked since injuries felled Grady Sizemore: He’s a left-handed hitter who brings a combination of power and speed to an up-the-middle position. Kipnis has 13 stolen bases — tied for the most in the American League entering Sunday — to go along with a team-leading nine home runs. Some would argue he’s become even more vital to the team than Asdrubal Cabrera, an All-Star shortstop last year.
Kipnis, 25, faces a difficult battle to make the American League roster. He must get in line behind established stars like Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler. But he’s playing like an All-Star — and will be recognized as one, sooner or later.
3B – Mark Trumbo, Angels
I realize Trumbo hasn’t started at third base since May 3. But that’s his position on the ballot. And much like Mike Scioscia, I’ve concluded that he belongs in this lineup despite his defense.
Among the reasons for the Angels’ resurgence, consider this: Trumbo has played every game since May 11 at first base, designated hitter, left field or right field. Over that span, he has a 1.077 OPS — and the Angels are 14-9. They are firmly entrenched in the American League playoff race, and Trumbo (not Albert Pujols) is their most productive hitter.
SS – Jed Lowrie, Astros
The Astros acquired Lowrie from Boston in a December trade for reliever Mark Melancon. Lowrie has the best OPS — .877 — among qualifying National League shortstops. Melancon’s ERA with the Red Sox is 49.50, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since April 17.
Feel free to point out the difference in pressure/expectations between Boston and Houston. Fact is, Lowrie leads NL shortstops in home runs and has an excellent chance to make the All-Star team — given his positional flexibility and the recent injury to Troy Tulowitzki.
OF – Melky Cabrera, Giants
The Giants were wise to acquire Cabrera from Kansas City for unpredictable left-hander Jonathan Sanchez. Cabrera, who will be eligible for free agency after this season, has been equally prudent to withhold signing a contract extension while posting career-best numbers this year.
Cabrera leads the majors in batting, triples and hits. He’s been the switch-hitting outfield force the Giants thought they were getting when they traded for Carlos Beltran last July. Particularly because of his age — only 27 — Cabrera could be one of the most coveted free agents this offseason, although some GMs may wonder why he’s played for four teams in four years.
OF – Josh Reddick, A’s
It doesn’t make much sense, does it? Reddick went from Fenway Park (which is a hitter’s haven) to The Coliseum (which isn’t), and his OPS jumped from .784 to .888. Reddick has clubbed 14 home runs, good for sixth in the AL entering Sunday.
To put this in perspective: Reddick has hit more home runs than any Red Sox player this year. (And it’s not as if David Ortiz is struggling.) Aside from starter Brandon McCarthy, Reddick is the strongest candidate to represent Oakland at the Midsummer Classic.
OF – Dexter Fowler, Rockies
Fowler isn’t even the best outfielder on his own team. (That title belongs to the dazzling Carlos Gonzalez.) But Fowler’s production has been one of the few encouraging signs for the disappointing Rockies. He’s hitting for increased power — his eight home runs are already a career high — and has done so without upping his strikeout rate.
Some context to consider: Fowler, 26, was optioned to Class-AAA Colorado Springs around this time last year. As of Sunday morning, he ranked eighth in the majors in OPS — between perennial All-Stars Ryan Braun and David Ortiz.
DH – Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
In the midst of his renaissance from part-time player to 50-homer slugger, I asked Bautista to give me the name of another player capable of a similar transformation. His answer: Edwin Encarnacion. In 2012, that has come to pass.
Encarnacion has slugged 17 home runs this season — equaling his total last year — and ranks right behind Ortiz and Adam Dunn in any discussion of the American League’s best designated hitters. Encarnacion has embraced the DH role — something Dunn struggled with last year — and has shown he can handle first base when needed. Encarnacion will be in demand this July (if Toronto drops out of the race) and as a free agent this offseason.