NL All-Star first-guessing

To earn the privilege of second-guessing, you should be willing to first-guess. So in the spirit of fairness – and to open the door for us to complain about All-Star Game selections after Sunday's announcement (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) – we will now go through the entire thought process involved in choosing the National League team. (For the American League team, click here.)

Keep in mind, this is more complicated than most people realize. There is the fan voting, which involves strong, irrational favoritism; voting among players, managers and coaches for a backup at each position, with no consideration of matters like roster depth and team representation; All-Star manager Tony La Russa's picks, which have to make up for others' omissions; and then the fan vote from everyone left over. Oh, that pesky third catcher …

Here's a look at how I believe the process should unfold, taking all the complications and inconveniences into account. The final lesson? Picking the All-Star team is almost as hard as making it:


FANS' PICK: Albert Pujols (Cardinals). Grade: B+. I would personally go for the Cubs' Derrek Lee, whose statistics (.379-23-65, 1.163 OPS) are simply better than Pujols' (.339-20-64, 1.026 OPS). But Pujols is an established star and a fan favorite, and he has always been less likely to cool down. Lee might catch Pujols in late fan balloting anyway.

RESERVE: Lee, period. The Nationals' Nick Johnson (.320-8-44) simply has no shot here.


FANS' PICK: Jeff Kent (Dodgers), who has kept the injury-depleted Dodgers' offense afloat by hitting .302-15-58. Grade: A. Kent has simply been better than the Braves' Marcus Giles (.292-7-25 with 52 runs, 11 steals and excellent defense), and it's asking way too much from fans to strongly consider the Phillies' Chase Utley (.309-11-38), who wasn't even a regular until recently.

RESERVE: Utley has been fantastic for Philadelphia, but it will be hard for players not to recognize the well-rounded game of the veteran Giles.


FANS' PICK: Cesar Izturis (Dodgers). Great defender but ghastly at the plate, with a .660 OPS. Sorry, that's too big a liability for an All-Star. Grade: C. Not that other options are vastly better, but they exist – such as the Reds' Felipe Lopez (.312-13-45), the Cardinals' David Eckstein (.289-2-23 with 35 walks), the Giants' Omar Vizquel (.302-1-28) or even the Brewers' not-always-a-shortstop Bill Hall (.288-12-33). As much as we like to watch the Mets' Jose Reyes, he still makes way too many outs for ultimate consideration.

RESERVE: Give credit to Eckstein, who has played admirably in taking over for Edgar Renteria and is getting to many more grounders than he did last year. But Lopez, while perhaps a one-year wonder, has been too productive at the plate to not select here. (Please don't talk about a sentimental choice of injured Rockies rookie sensation Clint Barmes, whose .329-8-34 line is drastically distorted by Coors Field.)


FANS' PICK: Scott Rolen (Cardinals), who just returned from shoulder problems and is batting just .246-5-20. But he has been the best, and best-known, third baseman of the past several years, so this is the realistic (and perfectly worthwhile, if you ask me) cost of letting fans pick the starters. Grade: B.

RESERVE: What a competition here. The Cubs' Aramis Ramirez (.301-17-49) kept it up after signing his contract. The Mets' David Wright (.292-11-41) has been rock-solid in his first full season. And Morgan Ensberg (.276-20-54) and Troy Glaus (.258-17-48) have been very valuable. Picking one only slights the others, but I'll go with Ramirez, whose threat in Chicago's No. 4 hole can't be hurting Derrek Lee.


FANS' PICK: Mike Piazza (Mets). He looks preposterously languid out on the field and ain't what he once was, but at .267-9-34 Piazza still tops the Marlins' Paul Lo Duca (.302-2-31) as the league's most productive catcher at the plate. Behind it, Piazza's 5-of-57 performance in nailing baserunners is abominable, but it's not like Lo Duca's 18-of-64 is that much better. We would have preferred Lo Duca getting the nod because he has played 100 more innings than Piazza behind the plate, but that's getting awfully picky. Grade: B+.

RESERVE: Lo Duca, even though the Cardinals' Yadier Molina has shut down his opponents' running game, allowing just 11 steals all year and nailing 20 guys in the process. Tough call there.

FANS' PICKS: Bobby Abreu (Phillies), Jim Edmonds (Cardinals), Carlos Beltran (Mets). Grade: B-. Congratulations to Abreu (.314-17-52) for breaking into fan consciousness. You can understand fans picking Edmonds (.287-15-49) for his track record and because Atlanta's Andruw Jones (.281-25-56) got hot only recently. But you still wish they'd left off Beltran for Marlins sensation Miguel Cabrera (.344-16-58), who's been on fire since day one.

RESERVES: Jones and Cabrera, definitely. For the last spot, it's difficult to pass up the Pirates' Jason Bay (.307-15-40) – even over Brewers masher Carlos Lee (.274-22-72) – but the edge goes to Lee because of the league-leading RBI total (although Bay has performed just as well as Lee with runners in scoring position but has far fewer at-bats in that situation, 61 to Lee's whopping 97). Lee also beats out crazily deep and close competition among the Giants' Moises Alou (.324-12-38), the Cardinals' Reggie Sanders (.281-17-40), the Mets' Cliff Floyd (.289-21-53), the Nationals' Jose Guillen (.303-15-44) and the Phillies' Pat Burrell (.291-16-60), all of whom have excellent cases.

The vote among players, managers and coaches selects the first eight pitchers. These would be the best picks, in alphabetical order:

Pitchers who got squeezed out here were Washington's Livan Hernandez (11-2, 3.32), who while being a workhorse allows way more baserunners than every other candidate (12.5 per nine innings). We wanted to pick two closers – the second between Billy Wagner (Phillies) and Trevor Hoffman (Padres), as Jason Isringhausen (Cardinals) and Brad Lidge (Astros) have allowed a bunch of runners, too – but we couldn't leave off either Carpenter, Peavy or Smoltz to make room.

So that's the NL's starting eight, backup eight and core pitching staff. La Russa now will pick seven more players (four pitchers and three position players), with the understanding that he must give each of the NL's 16 teams at least one representative. That means first looking at the Pirates, Diamondbacks, Giants and Rockies.

Pittsburgh's best candidate is definitely Bay, over utilityman Rob Mackowiak. The Rockies' Brian Fuentes (nine saves, 2.75 ERA, two homers in 36 innings) has kept the ball down well in Colorado, so he makes it (we'll assume Fuentes isn't traded before the game). And Moises Alou is the more deserving Giant (over Vizquel).

That leaves three pitchers and one position player, with one of them having to be a Diamondback and the position player probably needing to be an infielder. It's easy to careen ahead and kill two birds by going for Glaus, but there's more at play here. We have only one National (Cordero) and one Padre (Peavy) on the squad so far, and that would look awfully odd, given those teams are leading their divisions. We also could use a third emergency catcher (and you know La Russa will lean toward that anyway with Molina out there). Then we have to consider that we've got only two lefties, Willis and Fuentes, in the bullpen – and of course we want to win the game, given how losing the home-field advantage in the World Series hurt the Cardinals last year. It's these competing interests that grow far more complicated than most Monday Morning Balloteers appreciate.

To take care of the Padres and my left-handed relief, I'm going for Chris Hammond, who has absolutely smothered lefties this year, giving up a stunning three hits in 43 at-bats. I'm going for that insurance catcher, and Molina is a perfectly reasonable choice. Now I still need a Diamondback (rules) and a National (conscience), who must also be pitchers (rules). No Glaus? Come to think of it, I also have five backup outfielders and just four infielders, and given that Lee or Pujols will be my starting DH, that leaves me thin on the infield. Uh-oh.

Something earlier has to be changed – basically, either Bay or Alou. Which is preferable, or least fair: Bay-Vizquel or Alou-Mackowiak? I can't have Bay-Glaus, unless I make the Giant selection be Jason Schmidt. I can't win the PR game – talk shows will say either Bay or Alou got screwed, while never looking back to understand why the decisions have to be made – but the real game can be won, so I'm going with Bay and Vizquel (because Bay's the best candidate of the four, and Vizquel for late defense, if only at shortstop). Sue me if you don't like it. Alou's out.

That leaves two pitchers, one of which must be a Diamondback and the other, if at all possible, from Washington. We can do this: Brandon Webb (8-4, 3.24) is Arizona's pitcher, as he's had a fine year, and Washington's is Livan Hernandez. Bingo. Webb and Hernandez are on, even though cases can be made that Glaus and Jose Guillen are more deserving representatives from those clubs, all else being equal.

But all is unequal at this point. It's my team. My heat. Bring it on.

And bring on the fan ballot, too. The public can decide which position player I screwed worst. They can choose from:

I hope that Guillen wins, if only to tick off Mike Scioscia. But I leave it to the fans to decide. If they only knew how much easier it was to pick just one from five.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.