On Sunday we’ll learn the results of fan voting for the All Star Game starters and those players selected by their peers as reserves. With the game just a mere two weeks from tomorrow, Washington’s hopes of having a strong contingent representing the organization remain up in the air as there are zero Nationals in the running to win a starting spot. That doesn’t mean, however, there won’t be a few players invited to participate in the annual event.
Great pitching has been the catalyst keeping the Nationals atop the NL East so far this season, so it seems only natural to wonder who from the staff might represent the organization in Kansas City on July 10th.
Gio Gonzalez has been nothing short of impressive in his first go-around in the National League, posting a 9-3 record with a 2.55 ERA through 14 starts with career bests in BB/9 (3.6) and K/9 (10.7). At various points this season one could argue that the left-hander was the best pitcher in the National League, though that honor (and I’m guessing the honor of starting the AS Game) would likely go to New York’s R.A. Dickey at this point in time. Gonzalez, an All Star last year with Oakland, seems certain to end up in Kansas City and deservedly so.
His right-handed counterpart atop the Washington rotation, Stephen Strasburg, is also a strong candidate to land on the NL pitching staff. Strasburg, 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA and a league leading 110 strikeouts, has been just as dominant in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The organization said before the season that they’d hold Strasburg to a strict innings limit this season, believed to be in the neighborhood of 160-180 innings, in an effort to not re-injure the phenom’s arm.
In a recent post, ESPN.com’s Jim Bowden recently argued that Strasburg has done enough to warrant a spot on the NL roster. He focuses much of the argument, however, on whether Strasburg should actually pitch in the game if he is added to the roster. Bowden cites “conventional wisdom among many Nationals fans, media members, and baseball operations staffers” in saying that the growing sentiment is to keep Strasburg from pitching in the game because it would allow them to “save those innings” for the regular season games as the team tries to make the postseason.
First and foremost, I have yet to hear or read anything suggesting that Nationals fans would prefer that Strasburg not pitch in the All Star Game. There’s no way of knowing where Bowden first heard such an idea, or what causes him to believe it, but the idea itself just simply doesn’t make much sense. Participating in an All Star Game is a great honor for these players, regardless of the fact that many of them don’t truly take the game or experience seriously in recent years. A young star like Strasburg should likely be a fixture in these games over the coming years, but this would be his first, making it just a little more special. To let him go but not let him pitch almost seems counterproductive. Let’s not forget the national interest in seeing Strasburg pitch, as not everyone has the luxury of watching all of Washington’s games.
Futhermore, if you were to look back at the box scores for All Star Games in years past you’ll notice a trend in how each side utilizes their pitching staffs. Generally speaking, only the starting pitcher for each side will throw more than one inning in the game. Managers continually rotate pitchers in, usually for an inning apiece, in an effort to maximize how many guys on the roster he can work into the game because again, it’s an honor for these players to be there. Based on all of this, the odds that Strasburg would be asked to pitch more than one inning are minimal at best – further rendering this argument a moot point. Don’t forget that he’d likely be throwing a bullpen session that day anyways (as most starters do in between starts). Strasburg should also make the team and should get his inning of work, without any effect on the innings limit he’s facing this season.
Arguments could be made for Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, or Craig Stammen to make the team considering the work they’ve done at the backend of the Washington bullpen. None have necessarily stood out as one of the top relievers in the NL, however, and given the need to represent every team in the league there might not be enough openings on the roster for one of them to end up getting selected.
Offensively speaking, there are two candidates with viable chances of making the All Star roster.
The obvious choice for one of them is Bryce Harper. Much of the Strasburg argument holds true for Harper as well – he’s primed to have a career filled with regular appearances at the All Star game and fans across the baseball nation would be excited to see a player they can’t always watch. Harper’s also quickly proving that he’s one of the better outfielders in the National League. Through his first 50 career games (215 plate appearances), he’s batting .286/.367/.497 with 7 HR and 20 RBI. More importantly, he’s been the player that everyone has expected him to be once he reached the Major Leagues. Statistically he might not be the top outfielder in the NL (yet) but there’s still a likelihood that he could be included in the game.
Shortstop Ian Desmond also may garner some consideration, though it might be more of an injury-replacement type role. Right now the leading vote-getters at the position in the NL are Rafael Furcal, Troy Tulowitski, and Starlin Castro. However, with Tulo’s groin injury likely keeping him out until the end of July at the earliest there is going to be a need for another shortstop in addition to Furcal and Castro.
Desmond is among the league leaders in a number of offensive categories among shortstops, as our own Andrew Flax discussed about a week ago, but even that may not be enough. For all of his improvements at the plate, Desmond is still held back by inconsistencies on defense and there is little about his play that screams “All Star” to most people. Again, thanks to the need to represent each team, Desmond might ultimately lose out to someone like Jed Lowrie, who leads all shortstops in home runs and could be Houston’s lone representative in the game.
We’ll know for certain on Sunday who made the initial rosters. Based on recent years, there will be a number of changes and additions as we learn which pitchers are starting the Sunday prior to the game (meaning they won’t be available) and which other players come up with some “prior obligation” that keeps them from participating. Washington has three players who seem likely to head to Kansas City and there’s a chance it could be more.