Mauer among those worthy of All-Star nod

Remember when the Minnesota Twins looked cheap for taking Joe Mauer instead of Mark Prior with the first pick of the 2001 draft?

That's certainly not the case anymore.

Mauer, whose first two big league seasons were limited by a knee injury, has developed into exactly what Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff projected: a star player at a position that while critical produces few true stars. He's also a homegrown hero who is likely to have enough staying power with the franchise to still be around when it moves into the recently approved stadium.

And, oh yeah, he might be a batting champ, too.

Mauer has been the hottest hitter in the majors for a long time now, batting .386 in May and then kicking off June with a 20-for-40 stretch. His average has been as high as .388 within the last week. If he keeps this up and gets the 502 at-bats he needs to qualify -- never an automatic for a catcher -- he could become the first at his position to lead his league in batting since Ernie Lombardi in 1942.

While Torii Hunter isn't exactly an objective observer, it still gets your attention when someone who watches Mauer every day says he has surpassed Ichiro Suzuki as the American League's best hitter.

"It's Mauer, right now," Hunter said. "Ain't nothing sweeter than Mauer's swing right now. He's taking dirty pitches right now -- dirty, nasty pitches -- and they're being called balls. That's like having Barry Bonds' eye, and he's only 23. I feel for pitchers when he's 30. He's going to be very impressive, and he's already the franchise. I love the guy."

Mauer is the type of guy who would rather talk about his favorite movie or automobile, sometimes even possible revisions to the tax code, than himself. But he recently confessed to the Minneapolis Star Tribune that, ah, what the heck, I'm feeling "pretty good'' at the plate.

"I know it's not going to go like this the whole year, but you've got to ride it out as long as you can,'' Mauer said.

Mauer said he's become confident in his swing and is using his lower body and hands to do the work. That's the way a guy talks when his timing is perfect. He's starting swings at the exact right nanosecond, so he doesn't have to use his upper body to try to speed up or slow down the swing.

It's the way Ken Griffey Jr. always seemed to hit in a Seattle uniform, the way Bonds hit in 2001 and '02. It's got to be a blast to hit when you are in that zone.

"He's just got a great swing,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "People keep saying, 'Is he going to hit for power?' Well, who cares? The guy's got a chance to win batting titles. That's how good his swing is. So you just let him play."

Mauer had five homers in his first 206 at-bats this year. He has been as clutch as anyone in baseball, however, batting .474 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

The only problem Mauer creates comes when Gardenhire fills out the lineup card. He doesn't want to wear out the kid, but how do you take him out of the lineup?

Gardenhire had started him 15 consecutive games through Saturday, using him as the designated hitter when he was not catching. He does this even though he has only two catchers on the roster, a sign of how badly he wants to play Mauer. Why not?

If you were picking an All-Star team now, Mauer would have to be the AL catcher, ahead of players such as Ramon Hernandez, Ivan Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. (See sortable stats for AL catchers: Hitting | Fielding)

Here's a look at other deserving All-Stars as we close in on the July 11 game in Pittsburgh:

NL catcher
Johnny Estrada, Arizona. There's a temptation to go with Houston's Brad Ausmus, who is the smartest catcher going and has been a tougher out than usual this year. But it's hard to ignore Estrada's run production and connection to the league's first-half Cy Young, Brandon Webb. Others in the picture: Paul Lo Duca and Michael Barrett (with a mandatory deduction for fighting dirty).
(See sortable stats for NL catchers: Hitting | Fielding)

First Base
AL: Paul Konerko, White Sox. Like a day of good sailing, this guy is as steady as she goes. It's easy to overlook him in the middle of the White Sox's improved lineup, but he's a rock for the defending World Series winners. He's never going to be J.T. Snow, but he has also worked hard to make himself a plus defensive first baseman. He's got quick reactions and gets as much dirt on the front of his jersey as Scott Podsednik gets on the back of his pants. Others in the picture: Jason Giambi, Lyle Overbay and the much-improved Ben Broussard.

(See sortable stats for AL first basemen: Hitting | Fielding)

NL: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. The question isn't whether he's deserving but whether he will recover from his pulled oblique muscle in time for the game. It's a shame we won't know how high he could have piled numbers if he had stayed healthy, but Pujols remains the league's biggest difference maker, so a memorable October remains a strong possibility for the guy who is hitting .308 with 25 homers and 65 RBI in 53 games. Others in the picture: Ryan Howard, Lance Berkman and Nomar Garciaparra.
(See sortable stats for NL first basemen: Hitting | Fielding)

Second Base
AL: Jose Lopez, Mariners. Confidence isn't a problem for this well-kept secret. "You throw me a fastball, I'll kill it -- I don't care who's pitching," said the 22-year-old Venezuelan. "I'll hit it to left, to right. I respect pitchers, but sometimes I don't know who they are until maybe after the game.''

The guy is backing up his words, delivering nine home runs, 50 RBI and 30 extra-base hits in his first 63 games. He had been moved into the No. 3 spot in the order on a team that also has Raul Ibanez, Richie Sexson and Adrian "Remember Me?'' Beltre. Others in the picture: Tadahito Iguchi and Robinson Cano.
(See sortable stats for AL second basemen: Hitting | Fielding)

NL: Chase Utley, Phillies. The complete package, he's building off his World Baseball Classic experience. Now in his second full season as a starter, Utley leads all major-league second basemen in home runs (12), slugging percentage (.518) and runs scored (52) while also producing 40 RBI and 29 extra-base hits in his first 62 games. Others in the picture: Brandon Phillips and Dan Uggla.

(See sortable stats for NL second basemen: Hitting | Fielding)

Third Base
AL: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees. There's no right or wrong answer at this position, in either league. Deserving third basemen are going to be left off All-Star rosters because there are simply too many of them, and nobody is head and shoulders above the crowd. Rodriguez gets the call here because he remains a shortstop playing third base, which is a very good thing. He's a strong fielder and has been a reliable presence in a lineup that has often been without Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield.

But you could go four or five other ways. Also in the picture: Joe Crede, Eric Chavez, Hank Blalock, Mike Lowell and Ty Wigginton.

(See sortable stats for AL third basemen: Hitting | Fielding)

NL: David Wright, Mets. The choice here is every bit as tough as in the other league (when did third base get so deep?). Wright, like Rodriguez, gets the benefit of the doubt for being such a well-rounded player. He's only 23, but will get some MVP votes if he and his team can keep this up for a full season. Others in the picture: Miguel Cabrera, Scott Rolen, Morgan Ensberg, Bill Hall and Freddy Sanchez.

(See sortable stats for NL third basemen: Hitting | Fielding)

AL: Miguel Tejada, Orioles. After creating an offseason stir by saying he wanted to be traded, the former Oakland star is having his usual solid season in the semi-obscurity that is Camden Yards these days. Yes, the O's would be dead without him; but they're dead with him, too. They should wise up and move him for a package of young, inexpensive players and invest the savings on the free-agent market -- if not at the deadline then early next winter. Also in the picture: Derek Jeter, Michael Young and Carlos Guillen.

(See sortable stats for AL shortstops: Hitting | Fielding)

NL: Edgar Renteria, Braves. If you want to see the difference between the AL and NL, look at their shortstops. Renteria is the best of a weak cast. Coming off a forgettable season in Boston, Renteria has been a bright spot in his first year with the Braves, leading the team in batting average (.327) and on-base percentage (.403). Others in the picture: Khalil Greene, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez.

(See sortable stats for NL shortstops: Hitting | Fielding)

AL: Jermaine Dye, White Sox; Vernon Wells, Blue Jays; and Magglio Ordonez, Tigers. All of these guys are key pieces to some of the league's best lineups. You could argue for Manny Ramirez on the list -- he'd have bigger numbers if he didn't take so many walks -- but these guys are more complete outfielders. Ordonez's production has been muted somewhat by being based at Comerica Park. There's no doubt his consistency has been a major key for the Tigers, just as Wells' has been for the Blue Jays. Others in the picture: Alex Rios, Nick Swisher, Vladimir Guerrero and Raul Ibanez.

(See sortable stats for AL outfielders: Hitting | Fielding)

NL: Jason Bay, Pirates; Alfonso Soriano, Nationals; and Andruw Jones, Braves. The trade deadline bidding for Soriano could be fierce. He's the type of talent that could tip a division race. Bay, a terrific hitter having a terrific year, will get a chance to be an All-Star in his own ballpark and could turn the event into his own coming-out party. Jones remains a two-way force. Also in the picture: Carlos Beltran, Carlos Lee (another big name at the trading deadline), Bobby Abreu, Matt Holliday and Pat Burrell.

(See sortable stats for NL outfielders: Hitting | Fielding)

Designated Hitter
There's no DH in this year's game, but in talking about first-half All-Stars it's impossible to leave three guys out of the discussion. Travis Hafner, Jim Thome and David Ortiz are having huge seasons and deserve to be squeezed onto Ozzie Guillen's AL team. Ortiz has room for improvement, as his average is down, but that's nit-picking when you deliver as often as he does. Add these former first basemen to the cast of players under consideration at that position and you know there is going to be howling in some cities when the AL All-Stars are announced.

(See sortable stats for designated hitters: Hitting)

Starting Pitchers
AL: Jose Contreras, White Sox. Only a minor back problem has slowed down Contreras, who's 7-0 with a 2.62 ERA after Monday's victory over Texas. He missed three starts while on the disabled list but otherwise has been a monster since the second half of last season. He's 15-0 in his last 19 regular-season starts and 21-3 overall, including the playoffs, since the All-Star break last season. Also in the picture: Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Scott Kazmir, Barry Zito, Curt Schilling and Kenny Rogers.

(See sortable stats for AL starters: Pitching)

NL: Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks. No starter in the majors has been better than the surprising Webb, who has never won more than 14 games in a season. He not only is 8-1 but also was the first major leaguer to reach 100 innings pitched. Others in the picture: Bronson Arroyo, Jake Peavy, Tom Glavine and Carlos Zambrano.

(See sortable stats for NL starters: Pitching)

AL: Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox. Give Red Sox manager Terry Francona credit for seeing this guy's potential to convert him from starter to closer. He flashed his stuff as a setup man in September 2005 and has arguably meant more to his team than any other pitcher in the majors this season. He went into this week 20-for-21 in save situations and has allowed only one earned run in 30 1/3 innings pitched. It's not beginner's luck. Also in the picture: Bobby Jenks, B.J. Ryan and Akinori Otsuka.

(See sortable stats for AL closers: Pitching)

NL: Tom Gordon, Phillies. There's not much separating this group, but Gordon has been money for manager Charlie Manuel. He's outpitched Billy Wagner, who left Philadelphia to sign with the Mets. Others in the picture: Jason Isringhausen, Trevor Hoffman, Brian Fuentes and Wagner.

(See sortable stats for NL closers: Pitching)

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or direct order from Triumph Publishing (800-222-4657).