Given his performance this season, as well as the storyline of his final year and the game being in New York, Mariano Rivera is already a lock for the All-Star Game.
Let's be honest. The Major League Baseball All-Star Game is nothing more than a popularity contest.
Unlike a lot of popularity contests, where being the best isn't always recognized—for instance, the Emmy and Academy Awards—playing favorites for MLB's Midsummer Classic is not a bad thing.
On the contrary, it is actually quite healthy for the growth of the sport, as long as it is done in an appropriate way. The fact that Derek Jeter is on the ballot even though there is no chance he will play in the game is a joke, yet he will probably end up among the top vote-getters at shortstop because he is Derek Jeter.
In filling out my way-too-early All-Star ballot, I looked at a few things. First, you have to be a star. This game is simply a marketing ploy for the sport of baseball despite the stakes that Bud Selig tries to attach to the winning side. In order for it to properly work, you have to showcase the best of the best.
Next, and this is very critical, I do not believe that each team should be represented, and a fluky first half from a journeyman player does not merit an All-Star selection. You need players who are not only the best in the sport but will maintain that performance, so when you look back at this game 20 years from now, you don't have a situation where Bryan LaHair is on the National League roster.
The final rule is that in order for a player to be picked, it has to be for his position. This really only applies to outfielders, who are usually selected as a group. We will take three players whose primary positions are left field, center field and right field.
For pitching, I will list one starter and a few other names that could also be in that role. I will do the same thing for closers, but I am not diving deep to fill out an entire relief corps by taking the 12th man in a bullpen that has been able to post a 1.00 ERA with 15 K/9 IP in mop-up duty.
Those are the rules that I have established, so with that in mind, here is the ballot I would fill out as of May 3, 2013.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Carlos Santana is finally hitting like the star everyone thought he would be.
Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians
Cleveland has waited to see this version of Carlos Santana since calling him up in 2010. He has always been able to get on base and hit for power, but now that the average appears to be a part of his game, there might not be a more valuable catcher in the American League.
The 27-year-old leads the AL in average, on-base and slugging percentage entering Friday. Obviously he won't hit .395 all year, but even if he can keep his average around .300 while playing 130 games at catcher, you are talking about an MVP candidate.
Reserve: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Unlike the American League, which has solid depth at catcher and few stars, the National League has an embarrassment of riches behind the plate.
Russell Martin has had the hottest start of anyone in the league, but history suggests things will slow down in a big way for the Pirates catcher.
On the other hand, Yadier Molina continues to produce at a high level on both sides of the ball. He is hitting well over .300 with a .350 OBP and .450 slugging in addition to throwing out 29 percent of potential base-stealers and being the best defensive player at a position that demands it.
Reserve: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
Joey Votto remains the best all-around first baseman in the NL.
Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers
It is strange to think that Prince Fielder, an established superstar in the league, could have a quietly strong season, but that is one of the pitfalls of hitting in the same lineup as Miguel Cabrera.
Fielder is off to one of his best starts, with a .297/.421/.564 line and seven home runs already. Again, just to reiterate, even though Chris Davis is off to a red-hot start, he has never shown this kind of offensive performance in the past and has to prove he has changed his approach in order to enter what I call the All-Star stratosphere.
First base is in a state of transition in the American League right now. Albert Pujols can't walk without hurting himself. Mark Teixeira hasn't played a game this season. Brandon Moss is hitting right now, but like Davis, he has had a lot of contact issues in the past that will likely catch up to him.
Fielder, Davis and Mike Napoli are the only players on the board who have hit anything. Of course, some secondary stats suggest that Davis and Napoli are due for a fall soon.
Reserve: Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
One of the big questions this season has concerned the power output of Joey Votto. He struggled down the stretch last year trying to drive the ball coming off knee surgery, and the lineup really struggled in the postseason.
While Votto isn't driving the ball as consistently as he did in 2010 and 2011, he is slugging .453 with four home runs. And when the power comes back, the Reds first baseman will lap the field in value and production.
We have already seen his incredible approach and plate discipline at work, as evidenced by his .441 on-base percentage. His .292 average is solid, and his defense at first remains a huge asset.
Reserve: Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers
In arguably the closest position battle, Robinson Cano gets the nod in the AL.
Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
This was the toughest call on the ballot, as three players have a very real argument to be the starting second baseman in this game.
Dustin Pedroia isn't hitting for power yet, but he is getting on base at a ridiculous rate (.417), adding the most value on the bases and playing the best defense of any AL second baseman.
Ian Kinsler has the best batting average of the bunch (.330), gets on base at a higher rate than Robinson Cano and slugs 162 points better than Pedroia (.532 to .370).
What puts Cano ever-so-slightly ahead is his home-run pop. When you have a race this close, it is basically a pick 'em. Since the All-Star Game is an exhibition, why not have some fun and take the player most likely to hit the ball over the fence?
Cano's .613 slugging percentage is more than 80 points better than Kinsler, and his eight homers are three more than any other second baseman in baseball.
Reserve: Ian Kinsler (Texas)
Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
(Note: Originally, I put Houston's Jose Altuve in this spot. Still getting used to the team being in the AL. Apologies.)
Matt Carpenter is one of those players who just needed to find a position, because there was no question about him being able to hit.
The Cardinals had an immediate need at second base, recognized Carpenter's potency with the bat and gave him a chance to play there quite frequently.
Off to a very good .287/.353/.472 start, Carpenter should have no problem holding that performance, or possibly improving upon it, and catching the eye of a lot of casual baseball fans along the way.
Reserve: Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds
David Wright remains the star of the show for the New York Mets.
Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
The thinking when the Orioles called up Manny Machado last September to man third base for their playoff run was that it was too soon. He was just 19 years old and not performing out of his mind at Double-A, even though he was one of the top prospects in baseball. He had hit a respectable .266/.352/.438 at the time he was brought up.
What fools we look like, because Machado, in the very small sample of 29 games this year, has been one of the best players in the league. He is hitting .317/.359/.504 with 16 extra-base hits and has been the best defender in baseball, regardless of position, so far this year.
Last year at the All-Star break, all the talk was about Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Machado has to prove he can sustain this performance, but he could enter the conversation for best 20-year-old seasons in baseball history if he keeps playing like this.
Reserve: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
David Wright, New York Mets
One of the problems with being the "old" star on a team that features one of the best young pitchers in baseball is that people might forget just how great you are.
David Wright continues to be the best-hitting third baseman in the National League, boasting an astounding .308/.423/.527 line and six stolen bases through 26 games. Even if he is off to a slow start with the glove, his offensive performance has been so great that he has earned the starting spot.
Wright is 30 points ahead of the No. 2 NL third baseman (Atlanta's Chris Johnson, a platoon player) in wOBA and 25 points ahead of Johnson in wRC+. He has been dominant, which is exactly what the Mets expected when they signed him to that big extension in the offseason.
Reserve: Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants
In a top-heavy season for NL shortstops, Troy Tulowitzki gets the edge.
Jed Lowrie, Oakland Athletics
When debating the starting shortstop for the American League, the question came down to whether you want a great defensive player at the position off to a slow start with the bat or a below-average defender who has been ripping it with the bat.
Ultimately, since a one-game exhibition doesn't really need to be heavily focused on defense, the bat wins out. And that is in no way meant to slight what it means to be a great defensive shortstop.
Lowrie has always had the ability to be a good hitter, but staying healthy long enough to show it was the problem. In five seasons, he has never played more than 97 games. Hopefully he has gotten past that bug, because he has been fun to watch with a .327/.412/.529 line for the A's.
Reserve: Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals
Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies
I really wanted to give Milwaukee's Jean Segura the edge in this race. His offensive performance so far has been close enough to Troy Tulowitzki's, and their defense has been nearly identical.
But Tulowitzki is slightly ahead in a few categories, like on-base (.404 to .398) and slugging percentage (.610 to .531). So with no discernible advantage for Segura, we are forced to go with the best all-around shortstop in baseball to start for the National League.
With Tulowitzki, the story remains all about his health. When he plays 140 games, he is an MVP candidate and the best player at his position in baseball. It is great to see him at full strength and doing the things that only he can at shortstop.
Reserve: Jean Segura, Milwaukee Brewers
Justin Upton or Bryce Harper. How can you go wrong?
Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Even though Trout has gotten off to a slow start, at least by his lofty standards, there are two reasons he is the starting left fielder for the American League in the All-Star Game.
First, as mentioned already, star power counts for something. Trout is one of the biggest stars in the game and performing at a level high enough to be in a showcase game. It's not like he has been terrible either, hitting .263/.336/.466 with plus-plus defense.
Second, left field in the American League is pretty bare right now. No, I don't believe that Vernon Wells' start is for real. Alex Gordon is hitting great, but he also strikes out five times for every walk. Daniel Nava would be in consideration, but he has only started eight games in left field so far.
Trout will turn things on very soon, and then we can laugh about how "slow" he started the season by the time All-Star voting is over.
Reserve: Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals
Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
This is where my belief of only taking one player per position to start in the outfield haunts me, because there is no reason that Bryce Harper and Justin Upton shouldn't both start for the National League.
I know that Upton was a right fielder and is only in left because the Braves have Jason Heyward, but rules are rules.
As great as Upton has been this season, Harper has just been better. It's not by a significant amount, but it is clear. Harper has a 36-point edge in average, 30-point edge in OBP, nine-point edge in wOBA and eight points in wRC+.
Upton has the edge in homers and slugging percentage, baserunning and defense. But if there is one player MLB absolutely wants/needs to showcase in this game, it is Harper. He is the superstar of the present and future.
Reserve: Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves
Dexter Fowler's star continues to rise with Colorado.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox
Center field in the American League has one clear standout at the top (Oakland's Coco Crisp) who probably isn't likely to keep his performance up, and a couple of other players who could go either way depending on health (Jacoby Ellsbury) or approach (Adam Jones).
Ultimately I am betting more on Ellsbury, because his rate stats seem more sustainable over the coming months, and his defense in center field has been vastly superior to anyone else in the American League.
Jones is hitting out of his mind right now, at .331/.352/.521 through 29 games. But his .396 BABIP and 26-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio does not suggest long-term sustainability.
Reserve: Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies
Dexter Fowler has been on the verge of stardom for two years. All he had to do was let his raw power play in games and hit away from Coors Field.
Perhaps I am reading a bit too much into a small sample size, but Fowler looks like has has figured things out. He is hitting .305/.438/.593 with five of his eight home runs on the road.
Even defense, which has been a weakness for Fowler throughout his career so far, looks to be a strength. He has already saved five runs with his glove. The 27-year-old could challenge Troy Tulowitzki as the best player in Colorado, though he has a long way to go to get there.
Reserve: Shin-Soo Choo, Cincinnati Reds
Gerardo Parra has shown stellar defense and impressive offense.
Torii Hunter, Detroit Tigers
Torii Hunter appears to have found the fountain of youth following a successful campaign in 2012 and a red-hot .355/.398/.473 start this year. While his .409 BABIP isn't sustainable, no one else in the AL has put up even a good-enough season to match what Hunter has done.
Jose Bautista is starting to hit better but still has a long way to go to get his average and OBP up enough to merit consideration for the All-Star roster. Nick Swisher splits time between first base and the outfield.
In a year that hasn't started out great for a lot of right fielders in the American League, Hunter has been the best of the bunch and is a fan favorite thanks to his highlight-reel plays in past All-Star Games.
Reserve: Nelson Cruz, Texas Rangers
Gerardo Parra, Arizona Diamondbacks
Having a corner outfielder whose best skill is defense doesn't usually translate into an All-Star—you want players in left and right field who can really hit. But Gerardo Parra is an exceptional case, because his defense is so good and his bat is starting to play better.
Parra doesn't have a lot of power, but as long as he can hit for average and get on base over the next two months, his value will be too great for the National League All-Star roster to ignore.
There is a good case for Carlos Beltran to start the game, as his offense has been stellar to start the season. But I still want to see what Parra has left in him, because he has more defensive upside than the St. Louis outfielder.
Reserve: Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals
Yu Darvish is exactly the kind of pitcher you want starting an All-Star Game.
Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
With pitching being the name of the game right now, Yu Darvish might be the most electric and exciting starter to watch in baseball. He started putting all of his skills together at the end of 2012 and has continued that domination early in 2013.
Darvish leads all MLB pitchers in strikeouts (58), and ranks third in FIP (1.59) and xFIP (2.22). In this kind of game, you want to start a pitcher who can bring the heat and intimidate the best hitters on the planet.
No one has the kind of arsenal and strikeout stuff that Darvish does. The stats easily reflect that, and his worldwide popularity makes him an easy candidate to start the game for the AL.
Other candidates: Max Scherzer (Detroit), Justin Verlander (Detroit), Felix Hernandez (Seattle), Clay Buchholz (Boston)
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
There has been a lot of great pitching in baseball so far this season, but Adam Wainwright has been the best of the bunch. He isn't striking hitters out at the rate of someone like Darvish or Scherzer, yet his ability to keep the ball on the ground and not walk anyone is exceptional.
Plus, even without the gaudy totals, Wainwright still strikes out more than eight per nine innings pitched. The right-hander has walked just three in 44.1 innings pitched while allowing no home runs.
If you want a young, electric arm to start the game, there won't be much of an argument against Matt Harvey. But if we reward a star pitcher for being the best at his job, Wainwright is the king of the castle right now.
Other candidates: Matt Harvey (New York), Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles), Cliff Lee (Philadelphia), Jeff Samardzija (Chicago)
It is only appropriate that Mariano Rivera, in New York, closes out his last All-Star Game.
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
This was the easiest pick of the bunch. Not only does Mariano Rivera have the numbers to support being an All-Star, but sentiment should not be lost in a game like this.
All the stars (horrible pun intended) have aligned for Rivera this year. He has already announced his intention to retire at the end of the year. So what better way for the best players in the game, as well as the fans in New York (where the game will be played at Citi Field) and watching around the world, to say goodbye to an icon?
Hopefully the American League leads the game in the ninth inning, so Rivera gets a chance to record the final out in his final All-Star Game.
Other candidates: Casey Janssen (Toronto), Andrew Bailey (Boston), Greg Holland (Kansas City)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
One of the two most dominant relief pitchers in the National League, Aroldis Chapman is off to a blazing start in 2013. He has struck out 21 in with just three walks in 13.1 innings. He is also limiting opponents to a .111 batting average against.
Hopefully Chapman is able to get in the game, because like seeing Darvish start the game, you want to see someone with his electric stuff going up against the best that the American League has to offer to see who wins.
Other candidates: Craig Kimbrel (Atlanta), Jason Grilli (Pittsburgh), James Russell (Chicago)