Heading into the break, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen (18 HR, 60 RBI, 58 Runs, 14 Steals, .362 BA) is likely the most deserving candidate for real-world and fantasy MVP in National League circles.
The following slideshow touts my painfully subjective picks for the Bleacher Report Fantasy All-Star Team.
To clarify, this 25-man listing honors all major league statistics through July 8 and does not necessarily reflect a player's status in the last 30 days or his ranking during the preseason.
With only 25 slots available here (15 hitters/10 pitchers), the competition for each spot was obviously intense. And yet, this should hardly mollify the embedded masses who might react harshly to the omissions, or snubs, with some hitters and pitchers.
But seriously, who has time to worry about that stuff? It's impossible to fit 60-plus worthy pieces into a 25-slot puzzle...so why sweat the omissions?
Enjoy the show!
2012 Stats: 13 HR, 46 RBI, 41 Runs, 3 Steals, .350 BA
It's impossible to deny Carlos Ruiz an All-Star slot at catcher.
Among backstops, Ruiz currently ranks first in doubles, batting average, slugging (.585) and OPS (.996), second in runs, hits, RBI and on-base percentage, third in steals and fourth in homers.
Consider this to be Exhibit A for why it's never wise to invest high draft picks on catchers in late March or early April. It's a temperamental position, with no Mike Piazza in his heyday assets to rely on, year after year.
If that was the case with this group, Mike Napoli (12 homers, .228 batting) wouldn't be languishing in the Rangers' vaunted lineup, sporting greatly diminished stats compared to last year, and being just one strikeout away from last season's total.
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
4. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox
5. Buster Posey, Giants
2012 Stats: 14 HR, 48 RBI, 50 Runs, 5 Steals, .348 BA
At first blush, it's easy to overlook Votto's season-long totals, especially since he's lagging behind the MLB home run leaders and hitting only .337 in the last 30 days.
But Votto has been a remarkably dominant presence in the Reds lineup.
Among first base-eligible assets, Votto ranks first in doubles, batting average, OBP (.469) and slugging (.620) and second in runs and hits. Most impressively, Votto is also the only player at his position who currently boasts an OPS mark above 1.000.
Throw in an absurd 1:1 walk-to-strikeout ratio (63 walks/63 K's), and it's proper to believe Votto will be an All-Star pick for the latter half of the season, as well.
2. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (gets his props later)
3. Adam Dunn, White Sox (gets his props later)
4. Prince Fielder, Tigers
5. Paul Konerko, White Sox
2012 Stats: 20 HR, 51 RBI, 57 Runs, 1 Steal, .313 BA, .953 OPS
Here's all you need to know about Cano's unimpeachable candidacy within this category:
Cano was my fantasy MVP among second basemen for May and June; and from a five-category perspective, he ranks either first or second in runs, homers, RBI and batting average.
For good measure, Cano is the only player among his positional brethren with an OPS above .900.
For the month of June, Cano's marks in batting average (.340), OBP (.416), slugging (.730) and OPS (1.146) were aided by a respectable walk-to-strikeout ratio (12/17) and seven-homer explosion from June 17-30.
Bottom line: Cano is a top-five fantasy asset whose trade value stretches beyond a standard 1-for-1 or 2-for-1 swap. He deserves the superstar treatment, in the form of 3-for-1 or 4-for-2 offers.
2. Jason Kipnis, Indians (gets his props later)
3. Ian Kinsler, Rangers
4. Brandon Phillips, Reds
5. Jose Altuve, Astros
2012 Stats: 18 HR, 71 RBI, 52 Runs, 3 Steals, .324 BA, .938 OPS
Miguel Cabrera has never been the type of player to endure prolonged peaks and valleys during a particular baseball season; but his extraordinary run since June 23 deserves special mention here:
Four homers, seven multiple-hit games, 12 runs, 16 RBI and a scalding-hot batting average of .436.
It's the type of explosion that tempts fantasy gurus into touting Miggy as a lock to match or eclipse last year's output in hits (197), doubles (48), homers (30), RBI (105) and maybe batting average (.344).
Bottom line: There's still plenty of time for Cabrera to recapture his preseason standing as the No. 1 overall asset in fantasy. His amazing consistency—and uncanny knack for never getting fooled on pitches—easily puts him in the running for MVP honors come October.
2. David Wright, Mets (gets his props later)
3. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (gets his props later)
4. Adrian Beltre, Rangers
5. Mike Moustakas, Royals
6. Trevor Plouffe, Twins
7. David Freese, Cardinals
8. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
9. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
10. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
2012 Stats: 17 HR, 51 RBI, 46 Runs, 11 Steals, .285 BA
Of the 25 assets listed here, no one made a greater push in the final 45 days than Ian Desmond, who curiously homered on Saturday...after Major League Baseball announced that he wouldn't be able to fulfill his All-Star duties with the National League squad, due to injury.
On Sunday, Desmond then capped the first half with an exhilarating day that included one homer and two steals. Just imagine how he'll fare with a healthy oblique!
Since June 5, Desmond has stealthily boosted his batting average by 23 points.
In the last 30 days, Desmond is hitting at a .340 clip, with five steals, nine homers, 23 RBI and 18 runs—amazing numbers for any player, regardless of position.
For those who don't track Desmond with regularity, he is far from an overnight sensation. After posting middling stats for three seasons, Desmond's explosion has mirrored that of the No. 2 shortstop in this category, who busted out for 25 homers, 92 RBI and 17 steals last season.
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
3. Starlin Castro, Cubs
4. Derek Jeter, Yankees
5. Elvis Andrus, Rangers
6. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins (enjoy the SS/3B eligibility for three more months)
2012 Stats: 11 HR, 59 RBI, 56 Runs, 9 Steals, .351 BA
As a long-standing rule that dates back to the late 1980s, I don't whine (or care) about All-Star snubs, or even worse, the "starters vs. bench-warmers" type of snub.
But I was shocked to see that David Wright didn't get elected to start at third base. We're talking about a high-profile asset playing in the No. 1 media market who's also having a career year.
And yet, Pablo Sandoval draws the start for the National League at the hot corner, with Wright presumably finishing the game at that spot. In the grand scheme of things, it's not a big deal.
The same cannot be said about Wright's June production, which included a .426 OBP, .563 slugging and elite OPS (.989) that was just a dinger or two away from quadruple digits.
From day one of the regular season, Wright has consistently ranked among the top three at his position.
Going one step further: no other National League third baseman can touch him in the fantasy realm.
2012 Stats: 11 HR, 49 RBI, 53 Runs, 20 Steals, .277 BA
Due to the prolific fantasy nature of Robinson Cano, superb second basemen like Jason Kipnis have struggled to get their rightful share of the limelight this season.
But Kipnis gets a timely reprieve at the 2B/SS slot, a credit to his four-category success in homers, RBI, runs and especially steals.
In fact, of the 17 MLB players with 16 or more steals—a list that includes Mike Trout, Michael Bourn, Jose Reyes, Shane Victorino, Elvis Andrus, Drew Stubbs and Starlin Castro—Kipnis is the only star with double-digit homers and least 45 RBI through July 8.
2012 Stats: 18 HR, 60 RBI, 58 Runs, 14 Steals, .362 BA
As if there was any doubt about Andrew McCutchen's status on the Fantasy All-Star Team, he capped the first half of the MLB season with two homers, three runs, three hits and four RBI on Sunday.
How's that for ending on a high note?
From an individual standpoint, McCutchen is having one of the most remarkably balanced seasons of any hitter, morphing from viable All-Star to no-brainer superstar in just one season's time.
From a team prism, it's a mini miracle the Pirates are in first place in the National League Central (48-37) and cruising toward a playoff berth 20 years in the making. After all, the club featured just three other hitters with on-base percentages above .300 back in mid-May.
But just like the Indians from Major League: The Movie, these Pirates are contenders now, thanks to a real-world and fantasy MVP who's a healthy bet for 33 homers, 107 RBI, 110 runs, 30 steals and a .345 batting average by season's end.
2012 Stats: 17 HR, 58 RBI, 61 Runs, 11 Steals, .330 BA
It's not a shock that Carlos Gonzalez leads the Troy Tulowitzki-less Rockies in runs, hits, homers, RBI, batting average, on-base percentage, OPS and steals.
But the separation between CarGo and the runner-up in each category (excluding steals) is quite profound.
Here's another absurd factoid: Gonzalez's 30-day run of three homers, 13 RBI, 16 runs and .367 batting is actually at the midsection of a prodigious hitting bubble that's been mushrooming in size since April 24.
And that includes a ho-hum (for him) stretch of 9-for-27 in the seven games, or .333 batting.
Bottom line: even when he's mortal at the plate, Gonzalez remains an infinitely better option than just about every MLB outfielder. He could be the most prolific four-category stud by season's end.
2012 Stats: 24 HR, 61 RBI, 56 Runs, 15 Steals, .306 BA
Let's take the positive from Ryan Braun's seven-day and 15-day spells of batting .220 or less: He averaged two homers every 7.5 days during that span.
But Braun is no Adam Dunn. He has the requisite five-category dominance to garner a cushy spot on the All-Star list.
Through 80 games, Braun ranks first in runs, hits, homers, RBI, steals, on-base percentage (.391), slugging (.599) and OPS (.990) among the Brewers hitters.
For June, Braun had at least one hit in all but three games, and from June 10-16, he racked up five homers and 10 RBI. Throw in three separate days of three RBI in that window...and it's easy to see why Braun's a no-brainer pick here.
Looking ahead, Braun is no worse than the No. 5 overall player; and from a five-category perspective, he's the quite possibly the most perfect asset to pursue in trade talks.
2012 Stats: 27 HR, 75 RBI, 54 Runs, 6 Steals, .313 BA, 1.030 OPS
We've covered Josh Hamilton's nine-homer, 18-RBI explosion from May 7-13 in great detail here, so we'll just look past that for this short segment.
Of the three players with at least 25 homers and 60 RBI—Hamilton, Jose Bautista, Adam Dunn—Hamilton is the only one with an OPS mark above 1.000.
Need we say any more about his All-Star inclusion?
Hamilton is not only a consistent fantasy force, he's also baseball's most explosive asset in short bursts.
2012 Stats: 12 HR, 40 RBI, 57 Runs, 26 Steals, .341 BA
Mike Trout's accomplishments since earning a late-April MLB promotion are the stuff of legend:
1. Of the top-25 steals leaders (through July 8), Trout is the only speed demon with a slugging rate above .500.
2. For the 30-day window of June 8-July 8, Trout ranks first in runs (31), second in hits (40), 17th in homers (six) and first in steals (17). For good measure, he batted .360 in that time frame.
3. In just 64 games, Trout already ranks first in runs, triples, steals, batting average, on-base percentage and hits (tied with Albert Pujols/Mark Trumbo), second in slugging and OPS and third with homers and RBI, among Angels hitters.
As a result, the 20-year-old phenom is a dark-horse candidate for American League MVP this season; and for 2013, he's the strongest pick to conquer the immortal threshold of 40 homers/40 steals.
Other outfield considerations:
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (gets his props later)
2. Matt Holliday, Cardinals (an unkind omission)
3. Melky Cabrera, Giants (ditto for Melky)
4. Alex Rios, White Sox
5. Adam Jones, Orioles
6. Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
7. Michael Bourn, Braves
8. Hunter Pence, Phillies
9. Curtis Granderson, Yankees
10. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
11. Mark Trumbo, Angels
12. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
13. Jason Kubel, Diamondbacks
14. Austin Jackson, Tigers
15. Martin Prado, Braves
16. Josh Willingham, Twins
17. Josh Reddick, Athletics
18. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
2012 Stats: 27 HR, 65 RBI, 59 Runs, 4 Steals, .244 BA
I've already written scores of entries devoted to Jose Bautista this spring and summer.
But the piece I'm most proud of is one that never got written: Linking the words "Bautista" and "Disappointment," even when the slugger had three homers and 10 RBI in April...and a sub-.200 batting average for 21 consecutive days (April 26-May 16).
The reasoning for my blind optimism was twofold:
1. Bautista had a positive walk-to-strikeout ratio for April, an almost-unheard-of feat for a pull-hitting slugger mired in a terrible hitting slump. This was a prime indicator that JB's poor numbers hadn't flustered him at the plate.
2. The on-base percentage for Bautista has consistently been at .320 this season, with noticeable upticks in successive months.
Throw in the fact that Bautista's 97 homers from 2010-11 have no peer, and it's difficult to feign surprise over his 30-day burst of 12 homers and 24 RBI.
Book it: Bautista will take honors in the MLB homer race by season's end.
2012 Stats: 23 HR, 58 RBI, 55 Runs, 9 Steals .295 BA
I'm done predicting when Encarnacion might experience a dramatic downturn in the realm of all five major categories.
The man has obviously proven himself to be a prominent figure in real-world and fantasy circles. He has also evolved into the perfect running mate with Jose Bautista in Toronto...to the point that I'm willing to bet they lead the league in home-plate high-fives this season.
(Does anyone at Stats, Inc., the Elias Sports Bureau or ESPN track such a stat?)
Whatever the case, Encarnacion's five-category dominance is likely to sustain through Sept. 30. In fact, he's a lead-pipe cinch to match or eclipse personal-best marks in runs (75), hits (145), homers (26), RBI (76), walks (61), batting average (.289) and OPS (.831).
Regarding steals, Encarnacion is merely setting a new career best with each successful theft.
2012 Stats: 22 HR, 56 RBI, 62 Runs, .313 BA
Steals aside (duh!), there is not one downside to David Ortiz's fantasy contribution this season.
From a seven-day (.409 batting), 15-day (four homers, .354 BA) and 30-day standpoint (nine homers, 19 RBI, 24 runs, .333 BA), Ortiz is the unquestioned king of designated hitters.
He's also one of the most systematic talents on a weekly basis, a golden trait in the eyes of head-to-head league owners.
Put it all together, and Big Papi is the right choice to fill the last offensive spot of this exclusive countdown.
2012 Stats: 12-1, 2.40 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 123/26 K-BB
From May 22-June 18 (covering six starts and 45.2 innings), R.A. Dickey had a 5-0 mark, 0.79 ERA, 0.64 WHIP and otherworldly ratio with walks and strikeouts (58-4).
In that span, Dickey also cruised through five straight starts without surrendering one earned run.
And of his last 14 starts, Dickey has yielded two or less runs 10 times, with just 21 total runs in that span (1.85 ERA).
Put it all together, and Dickey is the easy midseason choice for National League Cy Young.
The only thing missing from Dickey's 2012 resume? A no-hitter. (The expiration date on that joke ends today.)
2012 Stats: 9-4, 2.82 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 128/28 K-BB
On Sunday morning, while listening to a Chicago-based radio show, I heard Washington GM Mike Rizzo reaffirm his promise to shut down Stephen Strasburg at some point in August or September—as a means of preserving the star pitcher (and his reconstructed elbow) for seasons ahead.
But he also left some wiggle room for when the curtain on Strasburg's season would officially close, especially if the Nationals clinch the franchise's first playoff berth since 1981 (as the Montreal Expos).
All this begs the fantasy question: Should Strasburg owners attempt to trade him in the next three weeks, or roll the dice on a top-five pitcher posting top-five stats from this point forward—even with a reduced number of outings (or innings)?
As a Strasburg owner in three leagues (one roto/two weeklies), here's my stance: If offered a Tier II pitcher, in the class of James Shields, Cliff Lee, Mat Latos, Yovani Gallardo, Yu Darvish, I would certainly consider the proposal.
But I'm also willing to stick it out with Strasburg, riding his per-outing averages of eight strikeouts and two runs allowed until his season gets shelved. IF it gets shelved.
After that, I'll simply pick up the greatest threat for six strikeouts and three runs allowed on waivers.
2012 Stats: 9-5, 2.58 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 128/30 K-BB
At first blush, Justin Verlander's game-by-game numbers really don't stand out from his fellow pitchers.
But that progress deserves a second look.
Verlander was denied victories in his first two starts, despite owning a 2-0 lead in the ninth inning twice. He has racked up eight or more strikeouts in back-to-back outings three times. And on May 18, he was a measly ninth-inning single from his third career no-hitter.
And yet, fans of Verlander are still waiting for a big-time breakout that may confirm his endorsement as fantasy baseball's top ace.
In Verlander's last seven starts (spanning 51.1 innings), he boasts a 4-1 record, 2.64 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 46/14 K-BB ratio. For most starters, that would be cause for celebration. For Verlander, it's just a ho-hum affirmation of his stellar consistency.
Bottom line: Verlander is a good bet to post top-six numbers in wins, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts from July 14-Sept. 30.
2012 Stats: 9-3, 2.62 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 118/24 K-BB
I've already taken a bow for assigning Cain the highest preseason ranking of any national fantasy guru, but is that enough of a reward?
After all, we're talking about a certifiable stud with three 10-strikeout efforts, eight outings of zero or one run allowed and eight victories in his last nine decisions.
He's also a lock to shatter previous career highs in wins (14), ERA (2.88), complete games (four), WHIP (1.09) and strikeouts (186).
Verdict: The best pitcher from fantasy baseball's best staff has done plenty to warrant an All-Star berth...and maybe the No. 1 pitching ranking from this point forward.
2012 Stats: 10-2, 2.19 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 98/25 K-BB
As great as Chris Sale has been in his second MLB season, the kid deserves a little extra credit for the journey that proffered this lofty status.
From April 9-May 1, Sale was happily cruising along as a starting pitcher, holding the opposition to three or less runs in all five starts. One week later, Sale abruptly debuted as the White Sox closer, blowing a save in his only relief appearance of the year (to date).
On May 12, Sale resumed his role as a fixture in the Chicago rotation. What happened after that is the stuff of legend—or Screenwriting 101 in Hollywood:
From May 12-June 9 (six starts and 62.1 innings), Sale had a 5-0 mark, 0.98 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 43-7 K-BB ratio. In that span, he also ranked second in wins, third in ERA, fourth in K/BB ratio, second in opponents' batting average (.150) and second in WHIP among starting pitchers.
One final note: in his last three starts, Sale has two wins, a 1.22 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 16/3 K-BB ratio. Don't expect any regression in the second half.
2012 Stats: 10-1, 1.96 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 73/22 K-BB
Forget that Jered Weaver owners endured a painful stretch of 26 days (May 24-June 19) where the pitcher didn't complete one inning (due to injury).
Forget that Weaver got bludgeoned for eight runs and 10 hits against the Rangers on May 13.
In his 13 starts since April 16, Weaver has allowed three runs or less 12 times; he has yielded three or less walks 12 times; and he has also stifled the opposition for zero runs five times in that span.
Here's another reason for second-half optimism: Weaver has only had two outings of six or more strikeouts since May 1. That pedestrian trend will not continue in the coming weeks.
In fact, assuming full health, it's a given that Weaver will have at least five starts of eight strikeouts for the last three months.
2012 Stats: 12-3, 2.92 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 118/42 K-BB
I find it a bit troubling that Gonzalez hasn't gone more than 6.2 innings in his last seven starts; but then again, he has five victories in that span.
In other words, let's not be too damning about this short-term malaise.
Before June 26, Gio owned a streak of 13 consecutive starts with three runs or less; and of his 17 seasonal outings, he has recorded six-plus strikeouts 13 times.
Can Gonzalez sustain the success of this season, or are the last 40 days a precursor to a slump that might carry on past the All-Star break?
Historically speaking, Gio has cumulative winning records for July and September. On the flip side, he has an ERA of 4.43 or higher for July and August.
2012 Stats: 7-5, 2.85 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 108/26 K-BB, .213 OBA
In a transparent effort to objectively fill the last slot among starting pitchers, I grouped Jake Peavy with eight other pitchers (below), using wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and even opponents' batting average (OBA) as a tiebreaker:
Johnny Cueto (10-5, 2.39 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 91/27 K-BB, .250 OBA)
Matt Harrison (11-4, 3.10 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 70/27 K-BB, .263 OBA)
Clayton Kershaw (6-5, 2.91 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 119/32 K-BB, .221 OBA)
Cole Hamels (10-4, 3.20 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 118/29 K-BB, .233 OBA)
David Price (11-4, 2.82 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 105/37 K-BB, .237 OBA)
Madison Bumgarner (10-5, 3.27 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 99/23 K-BB, .237 OBA)
Lance Lynn (11-4, 3.41 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 105/36 K-BB, .235 OBA))
Zack Greinke (9-3, 3.17 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 106/24 K-BB, .255 OBA)
Bottom line: David Price and Clayton Kershaw posted top-three finishes with three categories; but Peavy was the only pitcher to garner a top-three ranking in four categories (ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, OBA).
As a result, Peavy earns a much-deserved All-Star berth; and now, statistically speaking, he is one-half of baseball's No. 2 pitching tandem (along with Chris Sale).
2012 Stats: 0-1, 1.36 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 25-of-26 Save Opps
My preseason pick for top reliever (Craig Kimbrel) has cruised to an easy All-Star berth, based on his prolific numbers in ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and saves.
Bottom line: while I would seldom move heaven and earth to land a closer in a blockbuster trade, Kimbrel is the closest thing to perfection in that realm.
As a bonus, Kimbrel (56/10 K-BB ratio) will probably log more seasonal strikeouts than your No. 5, 6 or 7 starting pitchers.
2012 Stats: 2-1, 0.93 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 38/5 K-BB, 25-of-26 Save Chances
Fernando Rodney has been a top-three reliever since Opening Day, but check out this stretch from May 1-July 4.
In that span, covering 27 appearances and 27. 1 innings, Rodney surrendered only 15 hits and four runs, while converting on 15 of 16 save chances.
Throw in a pair of sub-1.00 ERA and WHIP marks for the season, along with a 7.75-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and it's easy to see how Rodney earned the most esteemed honor among the cluster of efficient, highly competitive relievers.
Other All-Star considerations:
Jim Johnson, Orioles (the unkindest cut)
Joel Hanrahan, Pirates
Chris Perez, Indians
Jonathan Broxton, Royals
Jason Motte, Cardinals
Santiago Casilla, Giants
Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Rafael Soriano, Yankees
Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
Aroldis Chapman, Reds