Wrigleyville Preview: the All-Star Game

Like most things in life, the MLB All-Star Game is what you make of it. If you want, you can be cynical about it and credibly put it down–the silly red carpet run-up, the stretching of commercial breaks, and especially, the fact that 41 players were officially named NL All-Stars this year.

On the other hand, it’s still a showcase of the best players in baseball, and one of the perks of the huge rosters and the bevy of injury replacements is that there are fewer key snubs, fewer stars you want to see who might slip through the cracks. On Tuesday night, David Ortiz will play in his final All-Star Game; Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts will start on the left side of the AL infield; Mike Trout and Bryce Harper will get chances to build their young legacies; Carlos Beltran and Bartolo Colon will take victory laps near the end of their brilliant careers; and the Cubs will make history.

Probable Starters

We don’t know who will start yet, but there are clear favorites for the honor on each side. Chris Sale has had a Jake Arrieta-like series of struggles over his last nine starts, with a 5.56 ERA and 12 home runs allowed, but he still leads the AL in innings, wins, and complete games, and in a relatively aceless league, he stands out. There’s a good case for starting Cleveland’s Danny Salazar, but Sale would bring the legitimate star power. Whoever starts, after three or four innings the AL will begin a parade of dominant one-inning relievers (Zach Britton, Kelvin Herrera, Will Harris, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, etc.) that will make life very hard on the NL’s backup position players. Translation: the four Cubs in the starting lineup need to find a way to help their side get to Sale, Salazar, Cole Hamels, or whoever it is who pitches in the early innings. No pressure.

On the NL side, there are a whole bunch of guys who would be the clear starter for the AL this year: Johnny Cueto, Max Scherzer, maybe even Arrieta. But the guy who runs away with it, as things stand right now, is Jose Fernandez. The combination of stunning stuff and mind-blowing numbers make Fernandez the clear choice. We’re talking about a starter–a starter!–who has fanned over 36 percent of opposing hitters this season. With Clayton Kershaw hurt and Madison Bumgarner having pitched Sunday, no one but Fernandez is even in the conversation. He should give the NL a couple of scoreless innings, though whenever the opposing team has Trout and Ortiz and Manny Machado and Jose Altuve, it’s hard to guarantee anything.

What to Watch For

The Cubs’ entire infield will start for the NL, something that has happened just once before in All-Star Game history, to the 1963 Cardinals. Addison Russell isn’t truly the best shortstop in the National League, not yet, not by a long shot, but there’s a good case for the other three players, and in particular, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are beginning to trace a historic arc together.

For that matter, there’s looming historicity in the great season Ben Zobrist is putting together. Zobrist once led MLB in WAR over a four-year period (2009-12), which non-Hall of Famers rarely do. He got a very late start on the assembly of a Cooperstown resume, though, so in Zobrist’s case, a really good, really long tail will be more than necessary to get him over the hump. He’s holding up his end of that bargain so far, though, and the addition of a few historical elements–like winning a World Series ring, as he did with the 2015 Royals, or being part of an infield that could become not just the answer to a trivia question, but one of history’s famous groups.

Remember the article questioning Kris Bryant’s ability to hit elite starters or get big hits in big moments? However misguided it was, it will ensure that Bryant’s plate appearance(s) earns an especially bright spotlight. It will be especially fascinating if he faces Sale, against whom he is infamously 0-for-6 with six strikeouts in two previous games.

These rosters are striking. The AL has better positional talent at the top (Trout, Ortiz, Altuve, Machado, Bogaerts, Josh Donaldson), but beyond that, the NL has a wide edge. They really ought to win this game, which hasn’t been true going into the All-Star Game more than one or two times in the last decade. The AL’s superiority as a circuit seems, to me, to be eroding. And just at the right time, from the Cubs’ perspective, since a possible NL win would have more prospective value for them than in any season since 2008.

Don’t expect to see Jon Lester on Tuesday night, by the way. It’s likely that he’ll get back on track in the second half, but unlikely that the Cubs want him taking the mound to try and rediscover his form for a single inning in an exhibition. Arrieta, though, could pitch the fourth or fifth.

Game Time, Broadcast Info: FOX always carries the Midsummer Classic; this year is no exception. The official start time is 7:00 PM Central, but it probably won’t get underway until 7:15 or so, going on precedent.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.

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