Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard is the best first baseman in the
National League sans-Pujols.

He winced and clutched at his side, the baseball that hovered above his head landing with an inaudible thud, the sound being drowned out by the pain. As Cardinal fans saw their slugger pull up lame, the dream of Albert Pujols' run at Barry Bonds' single-season homerun record (73) and Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record (191) vanished as if that thought bubble had been poked by a pencil. MRI tests returned inconclusive, so Pujols' return date from his strained oblique is questionable, but it won't be anytime soon. His 25 HR and 65 RBI are still best in Major League Baseball, leading second place Alfonso Soriano by three homeruns and Andruw Jones by eleven RBI, but the question just seven days into the third month of baseball is, "Who will take his spot in the All-Star Game?"

Easy: Ryan Howard.

Not according to the voters. Fans think Carlos Delgado is the best first baseman after Pujols, who has nearly three-and-a-half times the votes Delgado has (1,041,466 to 304,287). Howard sits fifth in line with 187,202 votes behind Lance Berkman and Nomar Garciaparra.

Top 5 NL First Basemen
  AVG HR RBI Votes
Albert Pujols .308 25 65 1,041,466
Carlos Delgado .248 16 37 304,287
Lance Berkman .299 16 47 228,465
Nomar Garciaparra .363 7 40 203,239
Ryan Howard .293 20 51 187,202

Howard's 20 homeruns and 51 RBI each rank third in the National League, and his .293 batting average is still great considering his strikeouts (58 in 208 at-bats) and the mere fact that he is a power hitter (Mark McGwire had a .263 batting average, for example). And besides, what better way for the reigning National League Rookie of the Year to show he isn't just a flash in the pan than by starting in the All-Star Game in his first full season as a Major Leaguer?

Currently, Howard is on pace to finish the season with 57 HR, which would be the most since Alex Rodriguez hit 57 in 2002, and 147 RBI, one behind the Major League-best 148 David Ortiz drove in last year. Barring a dramatic comeback, Pujols figures to sit at least past the Midsummer Classic, making Howard the most deserving first baseman.

Most Popular Cardinals by the Numbers
Pujols .308 25 65
Rest* .277 3.25 25
*Eckstein, Edmonds, Molina, Rolen

Should Howard be put on the team as a reserve, or not make the team at all, the All-Star Game would be revealed as the joke that it is. In 2002, the All-Star Game was called a draw by commissioner Bud Selig after both the American and National Leagues drained their pitching staves. Selig then tried to make the Game meaningful by giving the winning league home-field advantage in the World Series. The game is supposed to be for the fans, but the majority of fans clearly just vote for recognizable names, which would explain Yadier Molina garnering the third-most votes among National League catchers with a .206 batting average, one homerun, and 20 RBI. So Toguchi is among the leaders in outfielders (13th) but is only hitting .285 with 1 HR and 20 RBI. The Cardinals trend continues with Jim Edmonds at fourth in votes among outfielders with a .247 average, 5 HR, and 31 RBI. Scott Rolen, while hitting .339 with 6 HR and 34 RBI, has clearly abdicated New York's David Wright (.327, 10, 39) or Florida's Miguel Cabrera (.349, 9, 43).

There is still about one month left before the voting booths are closed, so to speak. Optimistically, the voting will balance itself out, pushing the undeserving Cardinals to the side and putting the more deserving players in. Realistically, though, that won't happen. The starting lineup for the National League will likely be half Cardinals, half everybody else, and Ryan Howard will undeservedly sit in the top of the first inning, watching Carlos Delgado take infield practice from Scott Rolen.

The glass is still half-full, but a refill is sorely needed.