American League Idol: Predicting the AL All-Star Team's Starting Lineup
The arrival of Opening Day inevitably leads to speculation about which players will take home trophies at the end of the season.
In the MVP races, many have raised questions about Joe Mauer's ability to replicate his fantastic 2009 numbers and whether Albert Pujols can sustain his god-like pace for another year.
There is no consensus pick for the AL Cy Young, but in the NL it looks to be a showdown between incumbent Tim Lincecum and newcomer Roy Halladay.
As for Rookie of the Year—well, that's anyone's guess.
But the first round of individual recognitions—the All-Star Game—is a horse of a different color. The fans' votes for the starting lineups are influenced just as much by their players' popularity as they are by their statistics.
With that in mind, here are the AL players with the best combinations of skill and popularity who I expect to start at the 2010 Midsummer Classic.
Catcher: Joe Mauer
Even before signing a massive contract extension that will keep him Minnesota for almost a decade, Mauer was one of the most likable players in the game.
The peripheral numbers from his 2009 MVP season suggest that a regression is in the cards for Mauer in 2010, but it would take a pretty big drop for him to lose his place as the best catcher in the game.
First Baseman: Mark Teixeira
In his first year with the Yankees, Teixeira wasn't quite as good as advertised (5.2 WAR in 2009, down from 6.8 in 2008), largely due to inferior defense (-3.7 UZR, down from 10.7).
He's not a sure bet to truly outperform a slugging Miguel Cabrera, a maturing Kendry Morales, or even a healthy Carlos Peña. But playing in the Bronx means he'll have the passionate support of one of the biggest fanbases in the country.
Second Baseman: Dustin Pedroia
Say what you want about Pedroia being overrated, but he's an elite second baseman even if he never again reaches his 2008 MVP numbers.
He might not be the best second baseman in the division, let alone the league. But he's the face of one of the best franchises in the game.
Third Baseman: Alex Rodriguez
Love him or hate him (personally, I'd go with the latter), there's no denying that A-Rod is one of the greatest hitters of our generation—even if the source of his talent wasn't entirely natural.
Rodriguez didn't win a spot in the lineup last year; he spent April on the DL while Evan Longoria was earning a 1.134 OPS. Assuming he's injury-free, the Yankee advantage should be enough for him to earn a starting nod.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter
Assumed to be washed-up heading into 2009 after two years of decline, Jeter broke out and put up the best WAR (7.4) of his career.
His immense popularity should carry him to the Midsummer Classic even if age finally starts to catch up to him.
No. 1 Outfielder: Carl Crawford
The anticipated prize of next winter's free agent market, Crawford is the epitome of a five-tool player.
With stellar defense, blazing speed, and a demonstrated knack for clutch hitting, Crawford combines definite skill with the flashiness of a fan favorite.
No. 2 Outfielder: Grady Sizemore
He's not the defensive wizard people think he is, and his speed numbers may take a hit as he makes an extra effort to keep healthy. But a drop from the Indians' leadoff spot should allow Sizemore to further develop his already prodigious power.
Maybe my perception is skewed from living in Cleveland, but I think he's popular enough to land a starting spot if he goes 15/10 in the first half.
No. 3 Outfielder: Ichiro Suzuki
Yes, what he did in 2009 was largely luck, and we should expect a decline this season. But even a down year for Ichiro, who has never hit below .303 or stolen fewer than 26 bases, is still pretty darn good for a baseball player.
He's admired all over the world for his infallible glove and unique style of hitting. There's a reason he's been an All-Star nine years in a row.