Votebook: NL race loaded with talent
Yankees' Jeter appears to be early lock for AL shortstop ballot
Five years removed from being part of the American League's Holy Trinity of shortstops, Derek Jeter may have to only shadow box to secure his ninth All-Star Game selection, and fifth as a starter.However, the National League will pick up the fight with a free-for-all rumble, as a dozen A-list hopefuls for the honor are expected to hatch the spring's most intense competition without a Simon Cowell sitting in judgment. Major League Baseball's 79th Midsummer Classic will adorn storied Yankee Stadium on July 15, and the contrasting battles for the honor of being at the heart of the respective leagues' defenses is under way. Erstwhile Boston icon Nomar Garciaparra has gone as far away from Jeter as possible, to another position in the other league, and Alex Rodriguez is as close as possible, the adjacent position in the Yankees' infield.
Both former adversaries are out of a picture in which Jeter appears isolated during a bearish season for the AL at the position.But in the National League ... stand back and let the blows, and the ballots, fly. Illustrious past and high-profile present aside, Jeter is having another All-Star caliber season, carrying a .308 average with 36 runs produced (RBIs plus runs minus his lone homer). Jeter stands out more than he ordinarily would with those relatively modest numbers. None of the AL's other shortstops are hitting for a higher average. Oakland's Bobby Crosby, who should benefit from the A's surprising contender status, is the only one who has produced more runs (38), but is hitting 55 points less with comparable defensive numbers. For a brief aside, consider that seven NL shortstops are batting above .308, and four have produced more runs. More on this disparity later. Another huge edge for Jeter, who is in his 13th season as Yankees shortstop: Half of the shortstops listed on the AL All-Star ballot are at new locations, ranging from veterans Edgar Renteria (Detroit) and Orlando Cabrera (White Sox) to rookie Luis Hernandez (Baltimore). Thus, Jeter was given a visibility boost that he probably did not need when chosen, along with Yogi Berra, as an official spokesman for the DHL All-Star FanFest that will be one of the centerpieces as venerable Yankee Stadium takes a deep bow on the way to retirement. But even with all his perceived advantages, and the seductive notion of running out as an All-Star on the Yankee Stadium field, Jeter refuses to count his votes before they are cast. "It's always fun," Jeter said of the All-Star experience, "and I think this one will be even more special because it's in Yankee Stadium. I'm a little biased, obviously, but with this being the last season, I think it's only fitting that the All-Star Game is here this year." Jeter, and Crosby, can still expect to be pushed by the slow-starting field, which already has left some large footprints in the All-Star sand. Renteria is a five-time NL All-Star with three starts (2003-04, 2006), Texas' Michael Young is a four-time All-Star and one-time All-Star hero -- it was his two-run triple in the ninth that gave the AL a 3-2 win in 2006 in Pittsburgh -- and Toronto's David Eckstein is a two-time All-Star. The Angels' Erick Aybar (.291) and Boston's Julio Lugo (.285) can challenge for their first All-Star selections -- although the Red Sox shortstop would consider a disadvantage having two more errors (11) than RBIs. Eckstein is currently off the field, disabled with a strained hip flexor. Jeter, too, has already missed six games -- matching his total for all of 2007 -- with a strained quad muscle. But those hiccups by some of the AL's finest are nothing compared to the siege on shortstop in the NL, which has been a definite danger zone. The league's shortstops have mounted the aforementioned strong showing despite the extended injury absences of three giants -- Philadelphia's reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins and San Francisco's Omar Vizquel, both of whom finally checked back in last weekend, and Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, not expected to recover from a torn tendon in his left quad until after the All-Star Game. Rollins' emphatic comeback -- 3-for-5 with three ribbies in his first game in five weeks suggested he isn't going to miss a beat -- clearly launched him back into contention for his fourth All-Star berth and second start. Another magnetic choice in Rollins' own division is the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez, the five-tool weapon who has been front and center of the Marlins' unexpected thrust to the top of the NL East. Ramirez's eight homers lead the league's shortstops, and his .336 average is tops in the Florida lineup. So we've got an engrossing East-West duel with the Dodgers' Rafael Furcal, off to the best start of his distinguished career. Batting .366 and having produced 45 runs, Furcal has established himself as a rock in the middle of Los Angeles' infield and at the top of its lineup. Within days of torching an eight-game winning streak, Furcal went on the shelf with lower-back tightness. The Dodgers have scored seven runs in dropping four straight during his absence. Dodgers manager Joe Torre doesn't know where to begin a list of Furcal's assets: "We miss a lot of things about him. We miss his offense, his defense and his leadership ability on the field." Between the two coasts, there is no shortage of worthy candidates: The Mets' Jose Reyes, voted as the NL's starting shortstop in 2006 (which he missed due to injury) and 2007, is off to a slow start, but still leads the league in triples (5) and ranks fifth in steals (12).
Miguel Tejada, a four-time AL All-Star and 2005 starter, has had no transitional woes, batting .342 and leading shortstops with 28 RBIs for the Astros in the first NL season of his 12-year career. The Cubs' Ryan Theriot, an underrated defensive vacuum, has a .400-plus on-base percentage. The Nationals' Cristian Guzman is in the midst of a convincing comeback season, batting .300-plus in hopes of reclaiming the All-Star status he enjoyed in 2001 with the Twins. Atlanta's Yunel Escobar and the Reds' Jeff Keppinger are also batting .300-plus, with the latter setting the defensive pace with only one error in his first 36 games and 117 chances. So, good luck separating that blue-ribbon list of NL candidates. This All-Star Game will be the eighth in New York City. Fans can cast their votes for starters up to 25 times with the Monster All-Star Online Ballot at MLB.com and all 30 club sites until Wednesday, July 2, at 11:59 p.m. ET. Starting rosters will be announced during the 2008 All-Star Game Selection Show presented by Chevrolet on TBS on Sunday, July 6. Baseball fans around the world will then be able to select the final player on each team via the Monster 2008 All-Star Final Vote at MLB.com.
The voting doesn't end there. Fans will have the opportunity to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet at the All-Star Game via the Monster 2008 All-Star Game MVP vote at MLB.com.The All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports and around the world by Major League Baseball International. ESPN Radio will provide exclusive national radio play-by-play, while MLB.com will offer extensive online coverage.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.