SweetSpot: Milwaukee Brewers

Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield will take your questions about this week's Power Rankings at 3 p.m. ET.

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The Brewers produced a fun video before the All-Star Game, a light-hearted “attack ad” encouraging fans to vote catcher Jonathan Lucroy into the National League starting lineup ahead of Yadier Molina. The video emphasized that Lucroy not only was the best catcher in baseball, but “most importantly, he is not a St. Louis Cardinal.”


Lucroy fell roughly a half-million votes short on the National League ballot (those St. Louis fans get out the vote), but he wound up starting anyway when Molina got hurt. He deserved to be the starter even if Molina had been healthy, though. For once, a political ad actually was accurate -- Lucroy, who was undrafted out of high school, is having the best season of any catcher in baseball this season (he also had two doubles and drove in two runs in place of Molina at the All-Star Game).

[+] EnlargeJonathan Lucroy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJonathan Lucroy's breakthrough as a star catcher could be the difference for the Brewers this year.


Among all major league catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, only Atlanta’s Evan Gattis has a higher OPS than Lucroy, and just barely (.884 to .881, and also with 100-some fewer plate appearances than Lucroy). Only Minnesota’s Kurt Suzuki has a higher batting average, and again, just barely (.312 to .310). Only Miguel Montero and Buster Posey have more RBIs. Only three catchers have more home runs than Lucroy’s 11. No other catcher has scored more runs (48). No other catcher has anywhere near as many doubles (33). No other catcher has as many hits. No other catcher has a higher WAR (4.2 according to Baseball-Reference.com, with Kansas City’s Salvador Perez the only other catcher above 2.9). He has almost as many walks as strikeouts.


He’s also very good behind the plate in addition to beside it, with exceptional skill in framing pitchers.


Lucroy had been in a slump in recent weeks, hitting just .200 in his previous 25 games, going 3 for his previous 30 at-bats and dropping his average from .341 to .308, but he had a big night Tuesday. He homered twice, including a game-winning shot in the bottom of the ninth off Cincinnati’s Sam LeCure that gave Milwaukee a 4-3 victory over the Reds. The victory edged the Brewers up to 1 1/2 games in first place, a spot they have held alone or in a tie every day since April 5. It also handed the Reds their fifth consecutive loss, just when it appeared Cincinnati was finally on track in the National League Central.


“Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come,” Lucroy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If we can keep playing this good, if guys keep pitching this good and we keep getting big ABs, we’ll get the job done.”


Milwaukee got off to a great start this season, surprising everyone by winning 20 of its first 27 games to take a 6 1/2-game lead in the NL Central in April. The Brewers went roughly .500 in May as the Cardinals crept closer. Then they got hot again in June, pushing their record 51-32 with a 6 1/2-game lead. And then they started tumbling in July -- while Lucroy was slumping -- losing seven in a row just before the break as the Cardinals briefly tied them for first.


But every time I start to write them off, here the Brewers come again. There are many reasons for this. Carlos Gomez is having another excellent, under-the-radar season (.304/.369/.504/.873 and 18 stolen bases). Ryan Braun’s power might be down a bit as Buster Olney wrote Tuesday, but he, too, is producing, as is most of the lineup -- Milwaukee is second in the National League in runs. Kyle Lohse (10-4, 3.16 ERA), and Wily Peralta (11-6, 3.58 ERA) have been solid in the rotation while Zach Duke has been great out of the bullpen.


Can they hold up over the final two months? We’ll see but if Lucroy keeps playing the way he has this season, I wouldn’t be surprised. The Brewers probably won’t feature him in any political ads this November, but it would be refreshing to see Milwaukee's superb catcher get some national air time in October.

OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

Atlanta Braves: Mike Minor
Well, we know it's not Dan Uggla. Minor began the season on the DL after a sore shoulder in spring training, and he hasn't been the same pitcher he was last season. The differences are small, but his stuff and command just haven't played up as well -- his swing-and-miss rate is down more than three percent and his overall strike rate is down 2 percent, and as a result his batting average allowed has increased from .232 to .295. The Braves are hoping that's simply tied to a high BABIP -- .348, seventh-worst among 124 pitchers with at least 75 innings -- but he's allowed 14 home runs in 83.1 innings.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
He's hit .150 since coming off the DL and had two home runs in 123 at-bats at the All-Star break. Is the thumb healed? Is he still too young to be The Man in the Nationals' lineup? It will be intriguing to see what happens here.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud
The Mets are counting on the rookie catcher as a big foundation piece for their future. He had trouble staying healthy in his minor league career and struggled at the plate early on, although hit well in his final 16 games before the All-Star break (.295/.338/.525), following a stint in Triple-A. He's proven he can hit in Las Vegas, but everyone can hit in Vegas. The question is if he can hit at the major league level.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton
Must-see TV. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, so all eyes will be focused on Stanton. Could he win an MVP award if the Marlins don't even finish .500? Probably not. But I'm still watching.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown
The focus on the Phillies will be on their veteran assets and whether general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will (or can) trade the likes of Marlon Byrd and others. But this might also be the most important two months of Brown's career. A year ago, Brown was an All-Star after hitting 23 home runs in the first half. In 2014, he was one of the worst players of the first half, with six home runs, a .279 OBP and poor defense -- a combination worth -1.4 WAR. Ouch. Can Brown salvage his season and give hope that he's part of the Phillies' future?

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
After dominating the NL Central for most of the first half, the Brewers left the All-Star break with a slim, one-game lead over the Cardinals. They've been all over the place with hot months and cold months and have probably settled near their true talent. In going through their roster, there aren't any obvious "over his head" candidates or "should play better" candidates. The one guy who has the capability of ripping it up for the next 60 games, however, is Braun. He had a good first half but not near his 41-homer level of 2012. Yes, you can assume and conclude whatever you want, but Braun could easily go out and hit 20 home runs the second half and carry the Brewers to a division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Two numbers tell the tale of the Cardinals -- or rather, two sets of numbers:

2013 runs per game: 4.83 (first in NL)
2014 runs per game at the break: 3.75 (14th in NL)

2013 average with RISP: .330
2014 average with RISP: .248

The point: David Price would certainly be nice, but the Cardinals are more likely to rely on improvement from within. Holliday, who homered Friday, is one guy who could improve his offense after hitting .265 with six home runs in the first half. Cardinals fans will remember that Holliday had a monster second half last year -- .348/.442/.552.

Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce
Joey Votto's injury issues have left him less than 100 percent and a question mark as he sits on the DL. That leaves Bruce as the guy who needs to power a Reds lineup that is also missing Brandon Phillips as the second half kicks off. At 27, Bruce is at the age that many players have their peak season; instead, after hitting 30-plus homers the past three seasons, he's struggling through his worst year, hitting .229 with 10 home runs at the break. Bruce's main problem is simple: He hasn't been getting the ball in the air. His fly ball rate is down 15 percent from his average since 2009. More grounders equals fewer homers and, against shift, not enough base hits to compensate.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano
This one's easy. A year ago, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and then won the wild-card game. This year, he's 1-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 16 starts after allowing an unearned run in five innings on Friday. The difference in performance is clear when looking at his year-by-year walks per nine innings:

2014: 5.1
2013: 3.5
2012: 5.0
2011: 5.0

Yes, wins are team dependent to some degree, but the Pirates need Liriano to pitch closer to the ace he was a year ago.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
Maybe it says something about the Cubs that the guy we care most about right now is in Triple-A. Then again, he entered the weekend hitting .350 with 32 home runs in the minors. Will we see him in September? He needs a higher league to give him a more difficult test.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Kemp began the second half with his agent Dave Stewart proclaiming that Kemp just wants to play every day and "his hope at some point is to get back to center." That's not going to happen, as the Dodgers finally realized Kemp's bad routes lead to too many bad plays in the outfield (he had the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in the first half at any position). So that means Kemp will have to hit -- and play left field. He had a solid June, hitting .317/.375/.525. The Dodgers will happily take that at this point.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain
The fact that Cain is starting the Giants' fifth game after the break tells where he now sits in the San Francisco rotation. He has to do better than a 2-7 record and 4.15 ERA if the Giants are going to catch the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres: Andrew Cashner
Cashner is important because the Padres need him healthy for 2015. He's currently on the DL with a sore shoulder and is supposed to start playing catch again. It's not so much what he does the rest of the season, but that he returns at some point and proves the shoulder is sound.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Another lost season for the Rockies has turned ugly, as owner Dick Monfort told a disgruntled fan that "if it is that upsetting, don't come to the games," and then, when asked who was responsible for the Rockies' poor first half, said, "You would have to say it’s [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett. He’s responsible for the major league team." In the midst of this mess is Tulo, who is having an MVP-caliber season for a lousy team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?

Count on seeing a great battle in NL Central

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19
12:26
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For years, the American League East has been considered the class of Major League Baseball. While that might have been true in the late '90s into the early 2000s, the past few seasons are proving to be a different story. While the AL East appears to be a shell of its former self (the top three teams entered play on Friday a combined 11 games above .500), the National League Central -- the only division that sent three teams to the postseason in 2013 -- may now be baseball's best group.

This year's version of the Central has four teams over .500 within a handful of games of each other. Currently, the division is paced by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals are a game behind, while the next two teams -- the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates -- are a good week away from climbing to the top.

The Brewers top the division thanks to a potent offense. Led by Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew entered the second half of the season with the second-most runs scored in the NL. Braun is the star, but the club has six players with an OPS above .780, including four above .800. The bullpen is anchored by the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez but is also getting fine performances by left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke.

Kyle Lohse has steadied the rotation, while prospect Jimmy Nelson will look to provide a late-season jolt. Top to bottom, the Brewers look to be the most complete team in the division.

If the Cardinals are to overcome Milwaukee, they will need to do the bulk of the work without All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. A torn ligament in his right thumb will shelve the backstop for the foreseeable future, leaving the heavy lifting to a trio of Matts: Holliday, Carpenter and Adams. NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the league, while Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are two of the best young hurlers. The Cardinals have two more starters on the disabled list in Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who will miss the rest of the season.

Former starter Trevor Rosenthal has control of the ninth inning, while All-Star setup man Pat Neshek has revived his once-stagnant career. The Cardinals have the resources to fill holes at second base and in the rotation, should they choose to, but may let young players like Kolten Wong and Marco Gonzalez cut their teeth in a pennant race. When healthy, the Cards are the most talented team in the division, but if and when they can get healthy is their biggest question mark.

The Reds opened the second half with a loss to the New York Yankees and without the right side of their infield as Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips sit on the disabled list. Still, the club has Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco --both All-Stars this year -- and Billy Hamilton, who appears to be improving every day. They also have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation with Johnny Cueto and his 2.13 ERA as the ace.

At the back end of their bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton have allowed a combined 11 runs in more than 60 innings of work. Mat Latos has made just six starts this season and could be the spark needed to make a move even without Votto and Phillips.

The Pirates needed two separate comebacks on Friday night in order to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Of the contenders in the Central, the Pirates need the most help. Ace Gerrit Cole sits on the disabled list, and the lineup has several holes, none more glaring than first base, which was all but ignored this past winter. General manager Neal Huntington has the chips to make a deal but might be reluctant to sacrifice the future on a team that's just four games above .500.

On the other hand, Andrew McCutchen is in the prime of his career, and stud prospect Gregory Polanco is now fronting the lineup.

Each contender to the Central's crown has flaws. At the same time, each has something on which to stake their claim to the throne.

The Brewers' rotation has underperformed in spots, but the lineup has outscored every non-Rockies team in the Senior Circuit. The Cardinals' staff has been infected with the injury bug and the offense is without its best player, but they have a guy named Wainwright, a bunch of live arms and a talented group of hitters, even in the wake of Molina's injury. Cincinnati is also missing its best player; however, it owns a quality rotation, a few mashers remaining and speed on the bases and in the bullpen. The Pirates might be the least talented group. Meanwhile, they have the best player in McCutchen and the system to make moves.

Milwaukee -- with the division lead -- appears to have the best shot, but this race is shaping up to be the best of them all.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report blog on the Rays and contributes to GammonsDaily.com.
Crash Davis: You be cocky and arrogant, even when you're getting beat. That's the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Right. Fear and ignorance.

Crash Davis: No. You hayseed. It's arrogance not "ignorance."


Yes, it's that time of year to start playing with fear and arrogance. Time to let it all out on the field. Time to start looking at the scoreboard. Pennant races will start to build in intensity. It's the second half, and we open with four great series between playoff contenders. (Pay special attention to that Saturday night Mariners-Angels matchup.)

Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals
Friday: Kyle Lohse (9-4, 3.26) versus Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.46)
Saturday: Matt Garza (6-6, 3.69) versus Gio Gonzalez (6-5, 3.56)
Sunday: Yovani Gallardo (5-5, 3.68) versus Doug Fister (8-2, 2.90)

Are we going to see the good Brewers or the bad Brewers? The Brewers have had wide swings all season -- they were 20-7 through April 27, went 10-15 through May 26, then had a 21-10 stretch before going 2-11 heading into the All-Star break, including a brutal four-game sweep at home to the Phillies. They had held sole possession of first place from April 9 until the Cardinals caught them July 12. A victory in the final game before the break put the Brewers back in first, but a one-game lead is disappointing, considering they had a 6-game lead on July 1.

Three Brewers questions:

1. Jonathan Lucroy leads all major league catchers in plate appearances. How will he hold up after an MVP-caliber first half?

2. Will Jimmy Nelson be an improvement over Marco Estrada in the rotation? (Well, he'll certainly allow fewer home runs.)

3. Does Ryan Braun have a monster second half in him?

On paper, the Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East -- FanGraphs' projected playoff odds gives the Nationals an 81 percent chance to win the division and the Braves a 19 percent chance. This irritates Braves fans to no end, who believe everyone keeps overrating the Nationals and underrating the Braves. And maybe they're right. The Nationals have their lineup back and healthy, so no excuses the rest of the season.

Three Nationals questions:

1. Bryce Harper has hit .150 with one home run and two RBIs in 40 at-bats since his return from the DL. What's he going to do?

2. Jordan Zimmermann left his previous start with biceps tendinitis. Will there by any lingering issues in the second half?

3. Strasburg's ERA in the first half was 3.46. But his FIP was 2.72 and his xFIP 2.48. In other words, his base numbers suggest a guy who should have an ERA a run lower. Can he do that the final two-plus months?

Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals
Friday: Dan Haren (8-6, 4.23) versus Lance Lynn (10-6, 3.14)
Saturday: Zack Greinke (11-5, 2.73) versus Joe Kelly (1-1, 3.44)
Sunday: Clayton Kershaw (11-2, 1.78) versus Carlos Martinez (2-4, 4.43)

Interesting that manager Don Mattingly will wait until Sunday to pitch Kershaw, who last started on July 10. He did pitch one inning in the All-Star Game, but this means he'll have nine days between starts. Compare that to manager Bruce Bochy's approach with Madison Bumgarner, who started on Sunday and will start the Giants' second-half opener. The Dodgers took 3 of 4 from the Cardinals in late June, shutting them out twice and holding them to one run in the third win.

Three Dodgers questions:

1. Where has Yasiel Puig's power gone? Since May 29, he has hit .269 with one home run in 42 games.

2. With Carl Crawford back the DL, who gets the playing time in the outfield and will prospect Joc Pederson eventually be part of that picture?

3. Will David Price move to the West Coast?

Everybody keeps wondering if the Cardinals will pony up for Price and I keep pointing out that the Cardinals need to score more runs. They're 14th in the NL in runs scored and Price isn't going to help that. They also now have to contend with the thumb injury to Yadier Molina that will leave him sidelined eight to 12 weeks; it's no surprise that they've been a much better club when Molina has started in recent years.

Three Cardinals questions:

1. Without Molina, will the Cardinals pursue a guy like Kurt Suzuki of the Twins?

2. Who steps it up on offense?

3. Will Michael Wacha return to the rotation at some point?

Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics
Friday: Chris Tillman (7-5, 4.11) versus Jeff Samardzija (3-8, 2.78)
Saturday: Wei-Yin Chen (9-3, 4.15) versus Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.01)
Sunday: Kevin Gausman (4-2, 3.29) versus Sonny Gray (10-3, 2.79)

The Orioles have played excellent baseball since May 31, going 26-15 and outscoring their opponents by 40 runs. A lot went right in the first half -- see Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce -- but a lot went wrong with the season-ending injury to Matt Wieters, the struggles of Chris Davis and Manny Machado and the disappointing numbers from Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez. But the O's also seem to have some of that 2012 magic -- they're 9-3 in extra innings.

Three Orioles questions:

1. Will they finally leave Gausman alone and let him stay in the rotation?

2. Davis won't hit .199 in the second half ... right?

3. What happens if Cruz and Pearce slow down?

A's general manager Billy Beane already made what may be the season's blockbuster trade in acquiring Samardzija and Hammel (the team won one of the three games those two have started). They were acquired in large part to help hold off the Angels but that division lead is down to 1 games. On the bright side: After this series, their next nine games are against the Astros and Rangers.

Three A's questions:

1. How will Gray (first full season) and Scott Kazmir (hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007) hold up?

2. Will they make a move to get more offense at second base?

3. Can Sean Doolittle cut down on the wildness and walk one batter instead of two in the second half?


Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
Friday: Hisashi Iwakuma (8-4, 2.98) versus Jered Weaver (10-6, 3.45)
Saturday: Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) versus Garrett Richards (11-2, 2.55)
Sunday: Chris Young (8-6, 3.15) versus Tyler Skaggs (5-5, 4.50)

How good is the Hernandez-Richards showdown on Saturday? The Mariners aren't as good as the A's or Angels, so realistically their playoff race is really with the Royals, Indians and the AL East runner-ups for the second wild-card spot. Obviously, they'll be looking to add a hitter or two -- All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager and the currently disabled Michael Saunders have been the only above-average hitters and they've been relying on ancient Endy Chavez as the leadoff hitter.

Three Mariners questions:

1. Marlon Byrd? Josh Willingham? They've got to do something to improve a league-worst .300 OBP and get some offense in the outfield and/or DH or first base.

2. With Roenis Elias suddenly struggling and Taijuan Walker unproven, will the fourth and fifth rotation spots be a problem?

3. The bullpen led the majors with a 2.39 first-half ERA. Can it hold it together for another 68 games?

Is it just me, or have the Angels been too widely ignored this year? There's a strong case to be made that they're the second-best team in the majors right now, and that's even with some concerns in the rotation and the bullpen. Of course, it helps to have the best player in the game and a deep lineup that led the AL in runs scored in the first half. But they've gone 19-4 since June 20 and they open the second half with a 10-game home stand -- and they're 32-15 at home.

Three Angels questions:

1. Can Richards repeat in the second half? Well, if anything, he seems to be getting better. In his past eight starts, he's 7-0 with a 1.27 ERA and .163 average allowed.

2. Does Jason Grilli establish himself as the setup guy for closer Joe Smith?

3. Will Josh Hamilton deliver more power? He has three home runs in 38 games since coming off the DL.

There you go. We also get Reds-Yankees and Indians-Tigers and others to whet your appetite. We've had four days without a game that matters. It's been too long.
Robin Yount was a great player: A two-time MVP, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, over 3,000 hits. Yet he made just three All-Star teams in his career.

Here are the fewest All-Star selections for position players who debuted after 1933, the year of the first All-Star Game:

Robin Yount: 3
Phil Rizzuto: 5
Frank Thomas: 5
Richie Ashburn: 6
Lou Brock: 6
Willie McCovey: 6
Willie Stargell: 6

(Monte Irvin made just one All-Star Game but had a short major league career after he started in the Negro Leagues.)

All-Star selections are certainly an imperfect process, but it's still odd that a player of Yount's caliber made it just three times. I mean, Paul Lo Duca was a four-time All-Star. So were John Stearns, Manny Trillo and Dante Bichette. Carlos Guillen and Ozzie Guillen made as many All-Star teams as Yount.

So what was the deal? Let's dig what happened.

1974-1979: Yount came up as an 18-year-old rookie and took a few years to establish himself. He was a good player from '77 to '79 but was bypassed as a reserve each season. He was worth 5.0 WAR in 1978, but it's easy to see why he didn't make it: He hit .281 with one home run and 25 RBIs in the first half but .301 with eight home runs and 46 RBIs in the second half.

1980: His first All-Star appearance, selected as a reserve along with Alan Trammell behind starter Bucky Dent.

1981: Didn't make it as Dent was again voted the starter and Rick Burleson selected as the backup. (Burleson was a four-time All-Star.)

1982: Yount had one of the great seasons ever for a shortstop, winning MVP honors while hitting .331 and leading the league in slugging percentage, and the fans recognized it by voting him in as the starter.

1983: Yount's final appearance, again voted in as the starter (over eventual MVP Cal Ripken).

1984: Yount was hitting .299/.370/.431 at the break with eight home runs and 42 RBIs. He had spent the previous week or so DHing for the Brewers because of a sore shoulder -- which would force a move to the outfield in 1985 -- so maybe that's why he wasn't selected. Ripken was voted as the starter and Trammell (.307, 8 HR, 44 RBI) the backup. When Trammell was unavailable to play, Alfredo Griffin was added to the roster -- mainly because he was already in town. (Griffin, hitting .241 with 19 RBIs, thus became one of the worst All-Stars ever.)

Keep in mind rosters were smaller than -- only 29 guys were on the AL squad as opposed to the 40 or so who eventually become official All-Stars these days.

1985 -- Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield and Jim Rice started in the outfield, with Harold Baines, Phil Bradley, Tom Brunansky and Gary Ward the outfield reserves. Bradley, Brunansky and Ward were their teams' only rep and Yount didn't tear it up in the first half (.275, 7 HR, 39 RBIs).

1986 -- Kirby Puckett, Henderson and Winfield started with Rice, Baines, Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield and Jose Canseco the outfield reserves. Yount was hitting .330 at the break but with just three home runs and 20 RBIs.

1987 -- Henderson, Winfield and George Bell started and Puckett and Dwight Evans were the backups. The AL squad included three backup first basemen and two DHs. Winfield played the entire 13-inning game. Yount was hitting .301 with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs at the break, but got pushed out by Baines (.301, 12, 49, White Sox only rep), Pat Tabler (.301, 7, 48, Indians rep) and Larry Parrish (.274, 20, 60, Rangers rep).

1988 -- Henderson, Canseco and Winfield started with Puckett and Mike Greenwell (who would finish second in the MVP voting that year) the backups. Johnny Ray and Harold Reynolds both made it as backup second basemen but were their teams' only rep. Yount was hitting .304, 8, 46 at the break.

1989 -- This was Yount's second MVP season, when he edged out Ruben Sierra. He was hitting .299 with 10 home runs and 49 RBIs at the break and then hit .339 in the second half. The All-Star starters were Sierra, Puckett and Bo Jackson, with Greenwell (.300, 10, 55), Canseco (he must have been voted in as a starter because he had missed the entire first half) and Devon White (.259, 9, 39) the reserves. White was the Angels' only All-Star.

So you can what happened here. The fans never voted Yount in after he moved off shortstop, his numbers were rarely "automatic" quality and he got squeezed a couple times by teams needing their token All-Star.

1990-1993: He fell off after his MVP season and was no longer All-Star-quality.

It's interesting, Yount's career WAR is 77.0 -- higher than Derek Jeter's, even though the two had similar careers, minus Yount's position change. Yount had the awesome 1982 season and was worth 7.2 WAR in 1983 and 7.1 in 1980 and had five other seasons at 4.9 or higher. That's eight seasons of 4.9 WAR or higher compared to six for Jeter.

They're players of near identical offensive ability -- Jeter has a 116 career OPS+ and Yount 115. Their career plate appearances are currently within 100 of each other. Jeter, however, is appearing in his 14th All-Star Game. One player will be remembered as a legend and the other is remembered for his great '80s 'stache.

I'm not trying to knock Jeter when I say this: The difference between the two is really in their quality of their teammates and the city they played in. Yount, once that 1982 Brewers World Series team quickly faded, spent the rest of his career playing for mostly mediocre Brewers teams. He simply never caught the public's fascination like Jeter or even other players of his era like Henderson, Puckett, Canseco and, even briefly, Jackson.











Making case for Brewers to win NL Central

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
10:00
AM ET
You can forgive people if they've been waiting for the other shoe to drop concerning the Milwaukee Brewers. They weren't expected to win the National League Central, after all, let alone threaten to own the circuit's best record at the All-Star break. And they've been in a bit of a slump in July, contributing to the sense that maybe this is one of those half-season mirages that burns off in the heat of summer. The Brewers are 1-9 in their past 10 and just suffered the indignity of a four-game series sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies. The St. Louis Cardinals are supposed to win the Central, after all, and with the Brewers taking on the Cards in the final weekend before the break, that supposedly inevitable outcome is something more than a few folks might expect to take shape, starting now.

But for all that, every team has its ups and downs over 162 games, and you shouldn't get too down on the Brewers. Instead, there are a bunch of reasons to count on them to come out on top and win the division, not because of whatever else is going on with the other teams but because of what the Brewers themselves bring to the table.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Gomez
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesCarlos Gomez leads the Brewers in runs scored (53) and is tied for the team lead in home runs (14).

Where to start? Why not with the starters.

1. Depth in the rotation. The Brewers might not have a Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright, but what they lack in star power, they're making up for in depth and health. The Brewers' front four of Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza and Wily Peralta have cranked out quality starts in more than two-thirds of their turns. The Brewers rank fourth in the league in quality starts behind three other contenders' rotations -- the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers. And only one start has been made by a hurler outside of the Brewers' regular five-man rotation.

What is perhaps equally noteworthy is that nobody is massively over- or underperforming in terms of expectations relative to FIP. While you can always hope that Gallardo or Garza turns into the ace some expected each of them to be at some point in their careers, or that Peralta's electric stuff starts translating into even better results, the key is that the Brewers have depth, health and talent, and over the season's long weeks, that matters, producing lots of winnable ballgames well within reach of a team armed with a lineup that's scoring 4.4 runs per game (second-best in the NL).

Speaking of which, that's our second reason the Brewers will win: Legit star power in the lineup.

Carlos Gomez might have been everybody's favorite undermentioned star player after last year, but this year he's joined by Jonathan Lucroy. And both join Ryan Braun among the top 20 players in the NL ranked by OPS and OPS+ (which adjusts for park effects). Nobody else has more than two of those guys, and while Braun and Gomez are accepted as players this good, some still might question Lucroy. You shouldn't. Lucroy might have really only hit national radars this season, but his rate stats over the past three seasons are .304/.363/.487, which suggests that this year's breakout is more just part of a normal crest of a young star who, at 28 years old, is simply a guy in his prime.

Which is another thing to bring up about this Brewers team: Lucroy and Gomez are in their primes now, within that 25-to-29 range where you can expect the best. Braun at 30 isn't far outside it. And with veteran Aramis Ramirez, plus homegrown goodies Scooter Gennett slugging close to .480 (in an excellent second-base platoon with Rickie Weeks) and Khris Davis (providing a .220 Isolated Power clip from left field), this is a lineup firing on at least six cylinders. The Brewers are failing to get offense from just two slots: first base (with a .677 OPS) and shortstop. Which brings us to our next point ...

They have an impact player due for a big second half. Jean Segura had a huge year for Milwaukee in 2013, hitting .294/.329/.423 with 20 doubles, 10 triples and a dozen homers while stealing 44 bases. This year, he's posting an OPS south of .600, with significantly less thump (almost a 50-point drop in isolated power). A big part of the problem is shorter at-bats: Segura is seeing 3.4 pitches per plate appearance, the third-worst mark in the league for impatience behind Adeiny Hechavarria (3.2) and Andrelton Simmons (3.3). The other problem is that he's getting lousy results in those short at-bats, generating the second-worst batting average on balls in play in the league (.257), a huge drop from the .326 BABIP he generated last year.

Now, let's skip jabbering about regression, like it was an immutable law of physics that will drag his performance back toward league average. Different kinds of hitters create different levels of expectations; Segura puts a lot of balls in play, but he's not just some slappy speedster. That said, he clearly has work to do in terms of managing his at-bats. But with a season as big as last year's on his résumé, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that he can be that player again. Which contributes to another of their virtues ...

An offense with the virtues we still associate with a Ron Roenicke lineup. As ever, Roenicke likes to push his baserunners, and the risks the Brewers take on the bases pay off, as they rank second in base running runs according to Baseball Prospectus and fourth in FanGraphs' ultimate baserunning. And surprising nobody, they're one of the few teams to have pulled off a couple of successful squeeze plays this year. It's all part and parcel with a tactical playbook that maximizes opportunities instead of waiting on them, something that Roenicke helped deliver as a coach with the aggressive World Series-winning Angels of 2002 as well as when he skippered the division-winning Brewers of 2011.

This all accentuates the positive, but what about the negatives? They're there, but there's even a silver lining on this score. Why is that?

The Brewers have correctable flaws: What is it that the Brewers really lack, if they have stars, an offense that cranks and rotation depth?
  • A quality lefty bat at first base, because after years of reproving it, Lyle Overbay is still done, and still auditioning for a remake of "Re-Animator";
  • In the bullpen, they could use a quality righty setup man to put in front of Francisco Rodriguez;
  • While the rotation is deep, it lacks the obvious No. 1 with whom you want to lead off a postseason series.


And those are reasonable targets to shoot for, even in a deadline market where buyers will outnumber sellers. For first base, they might try to get Justin Morneau from the Rockies, Adam Dunn from the White Sox or Kendrys Morales from the Twins, or even Padres third baseman Chase Headley (moving Ramirez to first base, and still using Mark Reynolds in the corners against lefties). There are always veteran right-handed relievers available on noncontenders every July. And getting that No. 1? Well, that isn't as easy, but when is it ever?

Which brings us to what might be the Brewers' final virtue for why I think they'll win the NL Central: their track record of paying the price when there's a chance of winning. This is the team and the GM who traded for CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke when the opportunities were there.

Unfortunately, general manager Doug Melvin doesn't have a lot to work with, considering that before the season Keith Law ranked the Brewers' farm system 30th in baseball. That isn't good news. But at the same time that it suggests that they don't have any other option than to win now, it also doesn't mean they lack a negotiating position.

That's because money -- and the willingness to spend it -- is another critical form of leverage. With a payroll that rates 16th in baseball (lower than both the Reds and Cardinals), if the Brewers have negotiating strength in any department, it might have to be owner Mark Attanasio's pocketbook. That, plus a willingness to absorb the tail end of contracts of free-agents-to-be, can buy them a pennant.

So going out and getting Morneau or Dunn or Morales, or a right-handed reliever? Doable. Getting David Price or Cliff Lee? Probably impossible, although I would never bet against Melvin trying. Getting A.J. Burnett or Jake Peavy as an upgrade from Estrada in the rotation is probably within reach.

That might not bring the Brewers a top gun, but every little bit of improvement helps, because the difference between winning the division and settling for a one-game wild-card play-in game is huge. Here's thinking that the Brewers have the right stuff to do just that.
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The Milwaukee Brewers looked so out-of-sync and vulnerable in losing four straight games to the Philadelphia Phillies at home this week, it's only natural that St. Louis and Cincinnati would aspire to reach the All-Star break in first place.

They're certainly not going to arrive in one piece.

Injuries have a way of mucking up the storyline and altering the conventional wisdom in sports, but Thursday unfolded in an especially chaotic way in the National League Central. The carnage began when the Cardinals lost catcher Yadier Molina for 8-12 weeks with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Shortly thereafter, the Reds announced that second baseman Brandon Phillips will miss six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Phillips' absence, coupled with the loss of Joey Votto to the DL, will put an additional crimp in a Reds offense that has had trouble getting much traction. Even though his .701 OPS this season is the lowest of his 8 -year run with Cincinnati, Phillips has hit second, third and fourth in the Reds' lineup and made a cameo appearance in the fifth spot. He's averaged 150 games a season since his arrival in Cincinnati in 2006, and he's a four-time Gold Glove Award winner with an aggregate defensive runs saved of plus-55 since 2007.

But the loss of Phillips still pales in comparison to the impact and potential fallout of Molina's injury in St. Louis.

The numbers and Molina's settling influence behind the plate combine to place him near the top of baseball's "most indispensible player" list. Since 2011, Molina leads big-league catchers in WAR (17.5) and batting average (.309) and ranks second to Buster Posey with an .827 OPS. During that span, the Cardinals have a 275-203 record (for a .575 winning percentage) when he starts and a 50-51 mark (.495) when he doesn't.

As the Elias Sports Bureau notes, the Cardinals have a staff ERA of 3.53 with Molina and 3.81 without him over the past five seasons. They've erased 40.9 percent of opposing base stealers during that time frame, compared to 31.9 percent with all their non-Molina catchers.

So when Molina stood at his locker at Busch Stadium on Thursday and told reporters that he "almost cried" when he learned the extent of his injury, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, his teammates and the front office all could relate.

"It's the equivalent of losing Adam Wainwright," said an American League scout. "Yadi is one guy in the lineup, but this affects 12 guys on the pitching staff. Tony Cruz is a great backup and I guarantee you he's learned a ton from Yadi just by osmosis. But there's no way he can replace Yadi offensively, and Yadi is by far the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. It's going to be a challenge."

Like several of his front-office peers, St. Louis GM John Mozeliak is aiming at a moving target in his quest to make upgrades by the July 31 deadline. There was an on-line frenzy this week over the possibility of a Jake Peavy-to-St. Louis trade. But the reality is, the Cardinals' rotation is second in the National League with a 3.20 ERA and a .238 batting average against, and Joe Kelly should give the team a lift when he returns from a hamstring injury Friday against the Brewers. The Cardinals will also have a better handle after the All-Star break whether Michael Wacha can return from a stress reaction in his right shoulder and help them in August and September.

Of late, Mozeliak has given just as much thought to upgrading an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored. But where do the Cardinals make changes? They're awash in outfielders, and first baseman Matt Adams and shortstop Jhonny Peralta aren't going anywhere. One possible scenario involves shifting Matt Carpenter to second base and making a run at, say, Chase Headley, to play third. The Cardinals could also leave Carpenter at third and try to add a second baseman. But Kolten Wong is 6-for-14 with three homers since his return from the disabled list last weekend, so maybe he's part of the solution at second.

Asked about the team's next course of action in an email exchange, Mozeliak replied, "We have time to determine our next step." But Mozeliak will almost certainly be on the lookout for a veteran catcher to help take some pressure off Cruz. There aren't an abundance of options.

A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by Boston, is not on the Cardinals' radar, according to a baseball source. Although the Red Sox probably aren't keen on the idea of moving David Ross after dumping Pierzynski (and irritating free-agent-to-be Jon Lester in the process), one NL scout thinks Ross would be an ideal fit in St. Louis.

"He won't hit much and he can't catch every day, but he handles pitchers as good as anybody in the major leagues," the scout said. "That's who I would go after in a heartbeat."

John Buck, cut loose by Seattle earlier this week, is a possibility. Carlos Ruiz is on the disabled list with a concussion and has more than $20 million left on his contract with the Phillies, so he's not an option. Kurt Suzuki would be a wonderful fit, but one baseball source said the Twins aren't ready to trade him "just yet." Suzuki is also an American League All-Star who's hitting .303 with a 2.1 WAR this season, so it wouldn't be out of line for the Twins to ask for a Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk from St. Louis' ample supply of outfield prospects. Good luck with that.

The Cardinals aren't the only NL Central team in shopping mode. Cincinnati was already in need of a left-field upgrade before Votto and Phillips went down and further weakened the lineup. Pittsburgh could use a veteran starter, and Milwaukee made the decision Thursday to shift Marco Estrada to the bullpen and summon top prospect Jimmy Nelson from Triple-A Nashville, where he was 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 111 innings. Brewers GM Doug Melvin has maintained that he has no plans to trade for another starter, but he's likely to at least try and fortify the bullpen for the stretch run.

That's where things stand at the moment. But in a tightly-bunched Central, the four contenders know they're just an awkward slide, a pulled hamstring or an achy elbow away from seeing their best-laid plans altered. For the division's general managers, the three weeks leading up to the trade deadline will be a waiting game and a chess match. For the players, it's a war of attrition.
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

Contenders: Brewers, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.

The bad teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Padres, Mets.

That leaves only the Marlins in the mediocrity of the middle.

Some of those bad teams are likely to get worse. The Cubs just traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Diamondbacks lost Bronson Arroyo and traded Brandon McCarthy. The Rockies' pitching staff has been decimated with injuries. The Phillies are some form of unwatchable wretchedness right now.

All this means the remaining schedule for the playoff contenders could play a vital role in who wins the divisions and who wins the wild cards. So let's see how many games each of the contenders has remaining against our six bad teams.

Nationals (33) -- Mets (13), Phillies (13), Rockies (3), Padres (4).
Braves (27) -- Mets (8), Phillies (9), Cubs (3), Padres (7). They also have three against AL weakling Texas.

Brewers (19) -- Mets (4), Phillies (2), Cubs (10), Padres (3).
Cardinals (26) -- Phillies (3), Cubs (10), Padres (7), Rockies (3), Diamondbacks (3).
Reds (18) -- Mets (3), Cubs (8), Rockies (4), Diamondbacks (3).
Pirates (23) -- Phillies (4), Cubs (6), Padres (3), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (4).

Dodgers (31) -- Cubs (7), Padres (13), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (5).
Giants (37) -- Mets (4), Phillies (7), Cubs (3), Padres (7), Rockies (7), Diamondbacks (9).

Strength of schedule can be overrated, but you can clearly see the potential ramifications here. With four good teams, the NL Central teams have much tougher remaining schedules than the Nationals/Braves and Dodgers/Giants. The NL Central teams may beat up on each other, opening the door for the two wild cards to come from the NL East and NL West.

Digging deeper into the NL Central, here's how many games each has remaining against the other three contenders:

Brewers (28) -- Cardinals (13), Reds (9), Pirates (6).
Cardinals (31) -- Brewers (13), Reds (10), Pirates (8).
Reds (28) -- Brewers (9), Cardinals (10), Pirates (9).
Pirates (23) -- Brewers (6), Cardinals (8), Reds (9).

Something tells me those 13 remaining Brewers-Cardinals games will go a long ways towards deciding the division title.
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

Some quick thoughts:

Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.
We're going division by division to look at what each team needs to do at the trade deadline and what may actually happen. As always, you can keep up with the latest trade talk at Rumor Central.


Chicago Cubs

Status: Moving parts to build the farm. Friday night's trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A's removed two of the biggest names that were available.

Biggest needs: Right now the Cubs have enjoyed some recent success, sporting a four-game win streak that included a sweep over the defending champion Boston Red Sox. However, it’s important to remember where this team is in the rebuilding process. Right now their biggest need is minor league talent, regardless of position, but with an emphasis on near major league-ready starting pitching. They didn't get that with Addison Russell, the 20-year-old shortstop in Double-A, but he was too talented to pass up.

Other possible trade chips: With the blockbuster deal with the A's, the Cubs' available pieces have been considerably depleted. There are still names on the roster that can be had, but they aren't impact players. Guys like Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney and Carlos Villanueva are all available, but all figure to be role players designed to help a team fill out the back part of a roster.

The future: The Cubs now have a logjam in the infield, with Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Russell all capable of playing shortstop. You can eventually move one to second base and one to third, but Kris Bryant is also there at third. Since being drafted with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Bryant has been a freak of nature with the bat and has accelerated quickly through the system. The rise has been so fast and the success so big (.357, 29 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A) that a lot of Cub fans have begun to wonder if Bryant could see Wrigley this season. It will be interesting to see how all this works itself out and if Baez or Castro will eventually be used to acquire pitching.

-- Joe Aiello, The View from the Bleachers



Cincinnati Reds

Status: Bargain shoppers.

Biggest needs: The Reds are tenth in the National League in runs scored, so upgrading the offense should be the first priority for GM Walt Jocketty. Shortstop has been the least productive position, but at least Zack Cozart has been playing elite defense. Cincinnati would be better served trying to land a left fielder to replace the three-headed Ryan Ludwick/ Chris Heisey/ Skip Schumaker combination. The Reds also need to find an effective relief pitcher or two, as the bullpen has been one of the worst in the league, by almost any measure.

Possible trade targets: OF Seth Smith, OF Matt Joyce; a seventh-inning-type bullpen arm.

That prospect everyone will want but the Reds won’t want to trade: RHP Ben Lively tore through the California League before his promotion to Double-A Pensacola, posting a 10-1 record with a 2.28 ERA, 95 strikeouts, and only 16 walks in 13 starts. He has a live arm, and stands a good chance of competing for a spot in Cincinnati's rotation at some point in 2015.

Likely scenario: Seth Smith, an impending free agent, would look good in red and white, but it has been a long time since Jocketty took any direct action to improve the Reds by bringing in real talent from outside the organization. The most likely scenario, frankly, is that budget constraints and lack of trade bait cause him to continue sitting on his hands. Look for the Reds to seek to land a set-up reliever, possibly a lefty in light of Sean Marshall's continuing injury problems.

-- Chad Dotson, Redleg Nation



Milwaukee Brewers

Status: Trying to lock up the NL Central.

Biggest needs: The Brewers opened play on Saturday with a four-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central, which was tied for the largest lead in any division. They've done it by getting contributions from up and down the roster, so there really aren't a lot of big holes to fill here. The main areas of need are the bench, specifically a left-handed power bat who can play first base or a corner outfield spot and a utility infielder who can play short and third. They could also possibly use a right-handed reliever for setup.

Possible trade targets: OF Nate Schierholtz; 1B Adam Dunn; IF Kelly Johnson; RP Koji Uehara.

The untouchables: The Brewers' much-maligned farm system has taken a significant step forward this year, headlined by the breakout performance of starter Jimmy Nelson in Triple-A. Down in A-ball, OF Tyrone Taylor, SS Orlando Arcia and C Clint Coulter are having the kinds of seasons that would make them attractive players to ask for in trade. That being said, it's hard to imagine them giving up any of these players to fill these second- and third-tier needs the team has to fill.

What probably won't happen ... but might: Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin haven't been shy about making big, splashy moves when contending in the past, so we shouldn't completely rule out the earth-shattering blockbuster. The Brewers did send a scout to watch a recent David Price start, and he would give them the obvious ace that their more balanced rotation lacks. It's not likely because they could easily be outbid by teams with better systems and they don't really need to do it, but don't rule it out.

What probably will happen: Melvin has talked quite a bit in the local media about his desire to add a right-handed reliever who can pitch late in games, so unless either Tyler Thornburg or Jim Henderson get healthy over the next month something will probably happen on this front. Despite some recent protestations from Melvin that they don't have big needs for bats, it's hard to see them standing completely pat without adding at least one player who can hit off the bench.

-- Ryan Topp, Disciples of Uecker



Pittsburgh Pirates

Status: After a slow start, they're back in it. Since May, the Pirates are tied with the A's for the best record in the majors.

Biggest needs: Starting rotation. The rotation has been better since May 2, but even then the 3.90 ERA is just ninth in the National League. Among position players, first base remains the biggest hole, as Pirates first basemen (mostly Ike Davis) have been worth 1.4 wins below average. They already made the Jason Grilli-Ernesto Frieri trade but could use another bullpen arm for depth.

Possible trade targets: SP A.J. Burnett ($15 million mutual option or $7.5 million player option for 2015); 1B Justin Morneau ($6.75 million in 2015); SP Jon Lester (free agent); SP David Price (under team control for one more season); RP Chad Qualls ($3 million in 2015); RP Tony Sipp.

Likely scenario: Jeff Locke and Vance Worley have helped solidify the rotation of late with Francisco Liriano on the DL, but you probably can't rely on those two to keep this up (although Locke's walk rate has been much improved from last season). The rotation is OK enough that it makes sense for the Pirates to only go after one of the big guns -- which means Price or Lester, now that the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Pirates have pitching prospects like Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow that are certainly interesting, but the Pirates have to get closer to the Brewers before management would consider such a big trade and added salary. As for first base, maybe Clint Hurdle should see if super utility guy Josh Harrison could handle the position to at least platoon with Davis.

In the end, the Pirates probably stick with what they have and hope Liriano and Gerrit Cole have better second halves and that one of Locke or Worley manages to hold his own.

-- David Schoenfield



St. Louis Cardinals

Status: Chasing the Brewers while in the thick of the wild-card race.

Biggest needs: It's easy to point to the rotation now that Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia are on the disabled list, but the offense is just 13th in the NL in runs while ranking last in home runs. Second base has been a disaster, with a combined line of .201/.268/.260.

Possible trade targets: SP David Price; SP Jon Lester; 2B Aaron Hill ($12 million per year in 2015 and 2016); 2B/OF Ben Zobrist ($7.5 million in 2015); 3B Martin Prado ($11 million in 2015 and 2016).

The big chip: OF Oscar Taveras remains one of baseball's top prospects, despite a lackluster .196 mark in 15 games with the Cardinals earlier this season (he's hit .318/.370/.502 in Triple-A).

Likely scenario: The Cardinals and Dodgers remain the two teams most often tied to Price, largely because they have quality and depth in the farm system to deal from. A lot depends on the prognosis of Wacha; if he can't come back, the Cardinals are more likely to go after Price or maybe Lester if he becomes available. That said, Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis haven't produced at second and that could be filled much easier (Matt Carpenter can always move back there if they go after a third baseman like Prado). Either way, considering the ages of guys like Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Allen Craig, there's some imperative for St. Louis to make a deal this year.

--David Schoenfield


Jim Bowden, Jerry Crasnick, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and myself presented our 34-man All-Star rosters today. Here are our National League selections and here are our American League selections. Of course, our choices aren't affected by fan balloting or the players choosing the wrong backup (although we did stick to the rule of requiring one rep from each team), so the real rosters will likely include some names that none of us included.

I thought I'd explain my selections in a little more detail.

National League

I thought the NL selections were much easier than the AL. In fact, I struggled to find obvious candidates for the final couple of spots.

Starters
C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
1B -- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B -- Chase Utley, Phillies
3B -- Todd Frazier, Reds
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
LF -- Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
CF -- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
RF -- Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
DH -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
SP -- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

I thought this was pretty straightforward, with the only debate being Puig or Carlos Gomez for the third outfield spot. I settled it this way: Who would I rather see? And that tiebreaker goes to Puig. I could have made Gomez the DH, but the NL was lacking in other outfield candidates, so I cleared some of the logjam at first base by making Freeman the DH and bringing Gomez off the bench. Sorry, Carlos.

Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright certainly have strong arguments to start and if you want to disagree with Kershaw, I won't put up much of a fight. Yes, he missed a month, but he's back, he's dominating and he's the best pitcher in the game.

Reserves
C -- Yadier Molina, Cardinals
C -- Devin Mesoraco, Reds
C -- Buster Posey, Giants
1B -- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
2B -- Daniel Murphy, Mets
2B -- Dee Gordon, Dodgers
3B -- Anthony Rendon, Nationals
3B -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
OF -- Carlos Gomez, Brewers
OF -- Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF -- Justin Upton, Braves

I went three catchers because all are deserving. Molina and Posey maybe aren't having their typical seasons but they're two of the biggest stars in the game and Mesoraco makes it over the injured Evan Gattis for his monster first half. Rizzo was an easy call over Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau, as nice a story as it would be to see Morneau go back to Minnesota (I have a feeling that he'll somehow make the real All-Star team). Murphy makes it as my lone Mets' rep and I took Hanley over Starlin Castro and Jhonny Peralta, although any of three are justifiable. Rendon is a rising star and second among NL third basemen in WAR. Carpenter isn't having the year he had last year but still has a .378 OBP and 53 runs scored. He's a better player than Aramis Ramirez or Casey McGehee, plus he can play second if needed (the game counts after all!)

After Gomez, the outfield choices were more difficult. In the end, I went with Braun and Upton over Hunter Pence, Jason Heyward's defense and rookie speedster Billy Hamilton. I was the only one to pick Braun, but he's hitting .293/.342/.515 and, like him or not, it's called the All-STAR Game and Braun is a star. My final choice was one of tactics: It came down to Gordon or Hamilton over Pence, to have a pinch-running option late in a close game if needed. Gordon has the better success rate (and has been a little better at the plate), so he gets the nod.

Pitching staff
SP -- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
SP -- Johnny Cueto, Reds
SP -- Julio Teheran, Braves
SP -- Zack Greinke, Dodgers
SP -- Madison Bumgarner, Giants
SP -- Tim Hudson, Giants
SP -- Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
SP -- Jake Arrieta, Cubs
RP -- Craig Kimbrel, Braves
RP -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
RP -- Huston Street, Padres
RP -- Aroldis Chapman, Reds

We had to pick four relievers and these four were pretty clear. Street gives me a Padres rep and Chapman, while missing time after his spring training line drive to the head, is one of the game's star relievers and has struck out 46 batters in 23.2 innings. For the starters, the first six listed above were pretty clear selections. I went with Zimmermann over teammate Stephen Strasburg and then Arrieta for the final spot. Maybe that's dubious choice since he's really had just the one dominant month, but he is 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA and has terrific periphals. If you want to go with Strasburg or his Cubs teammate Jason Hammel instead, that's fine with me.

The one concern here is that with Kershaw starting, there are only two lefties in the pen in Bumgarner and Chapman. For that reason, I did consider Cole Hamels, who has been great even if his 2-5 record isn't. The actual roster will likely include a couple replacements like it always does, so I could see a lefty setup guy like Tony Watson (0.93 ERA) of the Pirates eventually making it.

Just missed: Hamilton, Pence, Strasburg, Hammel, Henderson Alvarez.

American League

C -- Salvador Perez, Royals
1B -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2B -- Robinson Cano, Mariners
3B -- Josh Donaldson, A's
SS -- Derek Jeter, Yankees
LF -- Michael Brantley, Indians
CF -- Mike Trout, Angels
RF -- Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
DH -- Victor Martienez, Tigers
SP -- Felix Hernandez, Mariners

Derek Jeter? OK, Derek Jeter. Of course he doesn't deserve to make the team on his 2014 merit, but in lieu of a Tulowitzki or even half of a Tulowitzki in the AL, he's the guy I want to see start. At third, you could go Donaldson, Adrian Beltre or Kyle Seager. Donaldson holds a slight edge over Seager in FanGraphs WAR and a bigger one on Baseball-Reference, with Beltre well behind on both, so Donaldson gets my nod. Left field could be Brantley or Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes or Nelson Cruz, who is listed on the ballot as a DH although has started 38 games in left. I went with Brantley but, really, any of the four are reasonable selections. DH was just as tough with Martinez, Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. Again, any of three work. Maybe we can just play Encarnacion at shortstop and hope nobody hits the ball to him.

OK, King Felix versus Masahiro Tanaka. Tough call since their numbers are about identical. Flip a coin. Yes, I'm a Mariners fan, but the difference for me was Hernandez has allowed four home runs and Tanaka 13. I know Tanaka is a great story but Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers for many years now and has never started the All-Star Game. Hey, there's also the chance that Tanaka could turn into a Jack Armstrong pumpkin (just kidding, Yankees fans).

Reserves
C -- Derek Norris, A's
1B -- Jose Abreu, White Sox
1B/DH -- Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
2B -- Jose Altuve, Astros
2B -- Ian Kinsler, Tigers
3B -- Adrian Beltre, Rangers
3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
SS -- Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
OF -- Alex Gordon, Royals
OF -- Adam Jones, Orioles
OF/DH -- Nelson Cruz, Orioles
OF/1B -- Brandon Moss, A's

It will be interesting to see how the real AL roster shakes out. I assume since Cruz and Moss were listed as DHs on the ballot that they weren't considered outfielders for the player vote. So, assuming Cespedes holds on to the fan lead for the third spot, your minimum of three backup outfielders will come from the Brantley/Gordon/Jones group -- except Jones got off to a terrible start and Brantley isn't a big name, so the players may instead vote in guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera (who got off to a strong start). If Brantley then makes it as the Indians rep and David Ortiz fares well in the player vote, it's possible that Martinez and Encarnacion both get squeezed off the roster (Cruz is leading the fan voting at DH).

As for the other backup, I actually cheated by including just one backup catcher when we told to include two. (Sorry, boss.) So three catchers from a weak AL group would further squeeze a deserving player off the team. I would have loved to have found room for hometown Twins second baseman Brian Dozier to make it, but I can't justify his selection over Altuve or Kinsler. The second shortstop could be Ramirez, Erick Aybar or Alcides Escobar; I don't really care which one. My final spot came down to Moss or teammate Cespedes. In part, this is a strategic move: Having that big lefty bat off the bench could be important (not that managers actually manage strategically in the game).

Pitching staff
SP -- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
SP -- Yu Darvish, Rangers
SP -- David Price, Rays
SP -- Jon Lester, Red Sox
SP -- Chris Sale, White Sox
SP -- Max Scherzer, Tigers
SP -- Garrett Richards, Angels
SP -- Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
RP -- Greg Holland, Royals
RP -- Glen Perkins, Twins
RP -- Koji Uehara, Red Sox
RP -- Sean Doolittle, A's

Love this staff. Great righty/lefty balance. My automatic selections were Tanaka, Darvish, Price, Lester and Sale, with Scherzer next in line even if his ERA is a little high. Richards and Buehrle got the edge over a strong pool of candidates that included Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, Rick Porcello, Dallas Keuchel, Anibal Sanchez and even Phil Hughes. Like I said, a lot more difficult calls in the AL.

For the bullpen, Perkins makes it on merit, not just as the Twins rep. He does have a 3.41 ERA but has a 46/7 strikeout/walk ratio and just two home runs allowed and has been very good for four years now. Doolittle is a second lefty and you know his crazy numbers: 57 strikeouts and two walks. Apologies here to Yankees setup man Dellin Betances and his dominant strikeout rate. I'm guessing he finds his way on to the actual roster.

Just missed: Cespedes, Dozier, Kluber, Keuchel, Betances.

Jonathan Lucroy talks clutch hitting

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
6:55
PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- At the beginning of the season who would have thought, with the well-established careers of Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, that another catcher in the National League would make the strongest case to start the All-Star Game?

Molina has been to the last five All-Star Games, Posey the last two. When fan voting for the 2014 game ends on Thursday at 11:59 p.m. ET, Molina will likely be named the starter -- in the latest results, he led Jonathan Lucroy by over 400,000 votes. And if Lucroy is left off the "Player Ballot" choices, or isn't selected by NL skipper Mike Matheny, the best catcher in 2014 in the National League will not be at the All-Star Game.

There is no unanimous definition of an All-Star since some believe you should only look at first-half results while some believe you should consider a player's career, but an All-Star appearance is certainly a stamp of approval for a great first half. Entering Wednesday, Lucroy leads all major league catchers in batting average (.331), on-base percentage (.401), slugging (.510) and WAR (4.4). (Devin Mesoraco has a higher slugging percentage although not enough plate appearances to qualify for the rate stats just yet.)

Lucroy's stand-out year doesn’t end there. Looking closer, in high-leverage situations -- those times when one swing of the bat can change the game -- Lucroy is batting .406 in 79 plate appearances.

"I've been told by a psychologist before that I have the ability to hyper-focus," Lucroy said before a recent game in St. Louis. "For some reason I enjoy those situations."

Talk about clutch hitting not being a skill all you want, but the bottom line is the first-place Brewers are coming through when the game is on the line. Lucroy is a big part of this. He has 23 hits in high-leverage moments, third-most in MLB.

Lucroy said hitting for a high average in a clutch situation is not luck. He also thinks, despite conventional wisdom that clutch hitters do not exist, that there are guys who can be defined as clutch hitters.

"Guys get mad because you can't quantify that," Lucroy said. "[Stats people] can't put a number on that. But I think within the human brain you have an ability to go, 'OK, I've got to get locked in here.' I just can't go up there and go, 'I'm going to do whatever.' [You have] to lock in and do this. That's hyper-focused."

His approach in high-leverage situations, then, comes down to his mental ability, not mechanics or muscle memory. "This game is really more mental than anything," Lucroy said. "It's amazing how mental this game can get."

Aside from Lucroy's offensive numbers, he is considered one of the best pitch-framers in the game. Along with the extra game-preparation catching requires, there's also the constant not-too-distant reminder that the position of catcher can be dangerous.

"I've had two concussions," Lucroy said. "I haven't had any since I've been in the big leagues, but I had one in college. ... I know what it's like. It sucks. It's one of those things where I'm glad [MLB] addressed it because it's an issue."

As he discusses how catching has unique challenges other positions do not have, a former catcher comes to his mind. "A great guy to talk to about that is Mike Matheny across the way here," Lucroy said of the Cardinals manager. "Mike went through a lot of stuff. Thank god he's OK now. You do think about that stuff though."

Funny that Matheny crosses his mind first, especially now that Matheny may hold the key to Lucroy's All-Star bid should the fans not vote him in.

Still, Lucroy wouldn't have it any other way. He loves being a catcher.

"What I love about it that we're involved in every play," he said. "That we're not just sitting waiting for a reaction, we're actually the action. You know, we start the chain reaction by calling a pitch and whatever happens after that we have a direct line in. So, it's a direct affect on it. So for me, I enjoy that part of it."
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield took your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

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