Surprise Stars Who Deserve 2016 MLB All-Star Game Spots

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2016

Surprise Stars Who Deserve 2016 MLB All-Star Game Spots

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    Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

    Just about a month from now, the American and National Leagues will send their best and brightest to San Diego's Petco Park for MLB's 87th All-Star Game.

    Unsurprisingly, fan voting has become nothing more than a popularity contest. In some cases, it's about how many votes fans can stuff into a virtual ballot box for members of their favorite team (we're looking at you, Kansas City).

    That tends to work against players who aren't well-known commodities. Yet their lack of name recognition or popularity doesn't make them any less deserving of a spot in July 12's Midsummer Classic. After all, the whole idea behind what used to be the game's grandest exhibition was to highlight—and celebrate—the most impressive performers of the regular season's first half, regardless of whether they're household names.

    Here, we'll look at 10 surprising All-Star candidates—one pitcher and four position players from each league. Players we consider to be surprises you may not, and vice versa. Like the voting itself, there's no perfect system when it comes to the All-Star Game.

CF Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Two years ago, Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a paltry .198 with an equally abhorrent .531 OPS over 127 games for the Boston Red Sox. Not even Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field cancels out those kinds of numbers, leading many to label the then-24-year-old a bust of Green Monster-sized proportions.

    With Mookie Betts taking over in center field and the team handing a seven-year, $72.5 million deal to Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo late in the season, it appeared as though Bradley Jr. had worn out his welcome in Beantown. 

    “A lot of us thought he needed a change of scenery,” a National League scout told the Boston Globe's Peter Abraham. “They [the Red Sox] could have easily moved him.” But they didn't, not after his miserable 2014 campaign nor last year, after he regained some trade value by hitting .249 with a .832 OPS over 74 games.

    Boston's faith in Bradley Jr. has paid off, as the tools that made him a highly touted prospect have finally emerged.

    He owns baseball's longest hitting streak of the season thus far, a 29-game stretch from April 24 to May 25 during which he hit .415 with 20 extra-base hits (8 HR), 30 RBI and a 1.271 OPS. The 26-year-old sits third in the AL in OPS (.975) and slugging percentage (.587), seventh in RBI (44) and 10th in batting average (.310).

    It's no surprise then to find Bradley Jr. second among AL outfielders in the latest All-Star voting update, trailing only perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout. He's well-deserving of his place in the voting—and a spot in the AL's starting lineup for the Midsummer Classic.

SS Aledmys Diaz, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Like Dante Hicks in the Kevin Smith classic Clerks, Aledmys Diaz wasn't even supposed to be here.

    But injuries to both Jhonny Peralta and Ruben Tejada forced him into action, and he's played so well that the Cardinals shifted Peralta to third base upon his return from the disabled list.

    "The opportunity presented itself and it's a young player stepping in and taking advantage of it," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told the Associated Press' R.B. Fallstrom. "He's done a terrific job to open our eyes to potentially not just what he is right now but what he can be in the future."

    While his bat has cooled some since a torrid April, which saw him hit .423 with a 1.186 OPS, Diaz still leads all NL shortstops with a .315 batting average (the sixth-highest in the senior circuit) and .868 OPS. He also ranks second in on-base percentage (.359) and third in slugging percentage (.509) at the position.

    Diaz didn't crack the top five in the NL's latest All-Star voting update, making his path to San Diego more difficult. But it doesn't make him any less deserving.

LF Adam Duvall, Cincinnati Reds

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Typically, relatively unknown 27-year-old outfielders getting their first chance at regular playing time who are hitting .258 with a .290 on-base percentage aren't serious contenders for an All-Star selection. But Cincinnati's Adam Duvall isn't your typical, relatively unknown 27-year-old.

    His name is all over the NL leaderboards, trailing only Colorado's Nolan Arenado in home runs (19 to 18) and Washington's Daniel Murphy in slugging percentage (.593 to .589). Duvall sits sixth in RBI with 44, behind his teammate, Jay Bruce, Colorado's Arenado and Trevor Story and Chicago's Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

    While it'd be easy to point to the cozy confines of Great American Ballpark as a reason for Duvall's sudden offensive explosion, he's actually been more productive on the road than at home.

CF Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    Bleacher Report's Danny Knobler wasn't lying—or incorrect—when he wrote last month that Philadelphia's Odubel Herrera was the best MLB player you don't know about.

    Herrera, who Philadelphia selected from Texas in the Rule 5 draft prior to last season, put together a solid rookie campaign, hitting .297 with 41 extra-base hits (8 HR), 41 RBI and a .762 OPS over 147 games. A year later, he looks like an even bigger steal than he did then.

    The 24-year-old's .415 on-base percentage trails only Chicago's Ben Zobrist and Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt on the NL leaderboards, while he ranks fifth in stolen bases (eight), sixth in walks (39) and and ninth in batting average (.311).

    Of those numbers, perhaps none are more impressive than his 39 walks, 11 more than he drew over his 537 plate appearances last year. He's nearly tripled his walk rate (from 5.2 percent to 14.4 percent) while slashing his strikeout rate (from 24 percent to 17.8 percent).

    Still, that improvement hasn't been enough to gain Herrera any traction in the All-Star voting, as he didn't crack the top 15 among NL outfielders in the latest update. However, having Terry Collins, skipper of the division rival New York Mets, leading the NL squad could work in Herrera's favor to make it as a reserve.

SP Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    Aaron Nola opened some eyes during an impressive rookie campaign in 2015, going 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA and 1.197 WHIP over 13 starts for the Philadelphia Phillies.

    Nola has avoided the dreaded sophomore jinx this season, going 5-5 with a 2.98 ERA over 13 starts. His 88 strikeouts rank 10th in the NL, while his 1.04 WHIP is 11th. Perhaps even more impressive than Nola's numbers is his makeup and mental fortitude.

    “He doesn’t make any excuses,” Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure told Sports Illustrated's Stephanie Apstein. “It’s all about, Well, we lost 3–2, but I could’ve been better. And [I know] it’s not eyewash because I’ll see him go out there the next time and not make the same mistakes.”

    While there's no guarantee that Nola would get to pitch in the All-Star Game, it doesn't make a trip out to San Diego any less beneficial. Not only would Nola's efforts for a rebuilding club be appreciated, but he'd get an idea of the atmosphere he'll one day be dealing with as the NL's starter in the Midsummer Classic.

IF Eduardo Nunez, Minnesota Twins

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Eduardo Nunez doesn't begrudge the New York Yankees for never giving him a chance to show what he could do as an everyday player. “They had so many guys there—[Derek] Jeter, [Alex Rodriguez] A-Rod, [Robinson] Cano—how they could play me?” Nunez facetiously asked the Pioneer Press' Charley Walters. “There was no way.”

    But the 29-year-old has taken advantage of his opportunity to play everyday in Minnesota this season.

    He's hitting .317 with 20 extra-base hits (9 HR), 15 stolen bases and a .842 OPS, leading the Twins in all of those categories except extra-base hits, where he trails Byung-Ho Park by one and home runs, sitting two behind Park and Miguel Sano.

    Nunez has built a strong case to represent the last-place club at this year's All-Star festivities. “That’s a dream for any player,” Nunez told Walters about the possibility.

    With Nunez not cracking the top five at either third base or shortstop in the latest voting update, he'll likely need AL manager Ned Yost to name him to the roster. Seeing as Nunez has hit .400 (8-for-20) with a 1.029 OPS over six games against Kansas City this season, Yost may be incentivized to do just that.

LF Michael Saunders, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    With 12 AL outfielders ahead of him in the All-Star voting, Toronto's Michael Saunders faces an uphill battle in making his first trip to the Midsummer Classic. But that doesn't make the 29-year-old any less worthy of a selection.

    Healthy for the first time in what seems like, well, his entire eight-year career, Saunders is among the AL leaders in multiple categories, including batting average (.310, 10th), slugging percentage (.563, sixth) and OPS (.952, sixth).

    He's been the most productive bat in a Toronto lineup that's littered with current and former All-Stars, a list that includes Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and the reigning AL MVP, Josh Donaldson.

    That's no small feat—and it's one deserving of the accolades that come along with an All-Star appearance.

SS Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    As MLB.com's Tracy Ringolsby points out, Trevor Story's first All-Star Game appearance as a member of the Colorado Rockies will be his first All-Star Game as a professional ballplayer. With the way the 23-year-old has swung the bat, he should be about a month away from making that a reality.

    Story leads all big league shortstops in home runs (17) and RBI (45) and ranks second in slugging percentage (.553) behind only Baltimore's Manny Machado. He's among the early favorites to take home National League Rookie of the Year honors.

    Not bad for a player who, entering the season, was thought to be nothing more than a placeholder for the more highly touted Brendan Rodgers, Colorado's first-round pick in last year's MLB draft.

RF/DH Mark Trumbo, Baltimore Orioles

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    We knew a move to the cozy confines of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and a cushy spot in the middle of Baltimore's potent lineup would help Mark Trumbo's production trend upward in 2016. But not even the biggest Trumbo fan could have expected this.

    Trumbo's 20 home runs lead the majors, while he sits among the AL leaders in slugging percentage (fourth), RBI (fourth) and OPS (10th). That last statistic—a .914 OPS which is nearly 160 points above his career mark (.758) entering the season—speaks loudest about his transformation from all-or-nothing slugger to a more complete hitter.

    As Bleacher Report's Zachary D. Rymer wrote earlier this month, "the 30-year-old slugger seems to have turned a corner."

    He's still averse to drawing a walk, frequently goes down swinging and has exhibited no real change in his plate discipline, whether it be chasing balls out of the strike zone or making more consistent contact. But he's also hitting fewer groundballs than he ever has before, increasing his fly-ball rate as a result.

SP Steven Wright, Boston Red Sox

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    It's not surprising to see a Boston pitcher leading the AL in ERA (2.09) and complete games (three)—but that pitcher was supposed to be David Price, the team's $217 million offseason addition. Instead, it's 31-year-old Steven Wright who leads the way.

    "I definitely sometimes pinch myself," Wright told ESPN.com's Scott Lauber last month, "like, 'Man, is this real?'"

    While much of Wright's success is tied to his knuckleball, which remains his go-to pitch, per Brooks Baseball, he's been mixing things up with a fastball and curveball just enough to keep batters from sitting on it.

    Whether Wright can keep this up over a full season remains to be seen, but what he's done over the first two-and-a-half months is worthy of recognition and celebration in San Diego next month.

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs and are current through games of June 14. All contract information courtesy of Cot's Contracts (via Baseball Prospectus).

    Hit me up on Twitter to talk all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR.

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