Baseball’s Showcase Should Highlight the Future (Like Kris Bryant)

The debate is not new to baseball. We had it in 2010, when Stephen Strasburg made the big leagues on June 8 and had a 2.32 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 42.2 innings at the All-Star break. We had it again in 2012 when Bryce Harper took an injured Giancarlo Stanton‘s spot on the All-Star roster, and then again in 2013 when Yasiel Puig took the league by storm.

I am talking, of course, about the age-old debate of the place of rookies in the All-Star Game. We will likely have the same debate as this season’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati approaches, with Chicago Cubs’ rookie Kris Bryant likely to come up short in the fan vote for a spot in the National League’s starting lineup.

Bryant is currently over 500,000 votes behind Matt Carpenter (is there not much else to do in St. Louis but vote your favorite Cardinals into the All-Star Game?). Right behind Bryant is Todd Frazier of the hometown Cincinnati Reds. Two spots behind Frazier is Nolan Arenado. David Wright sat between Frazier and Arenado at last count, but his potentially career-ending back condition will keep him out of the All-Star Game.

Frazier is deserving of a spot on the roster for more reasons than the fact that he plays for the Reds. Frazier has 16 home runs and 31 RBIs to lead the Reds’ offense. Arenado has wowed with his defense this year, but has also been quite good at the plate with 12 home runs and 35 RBIs. The Colorado Rockies don’t really have anyone else, so Arenado will likely claim their one and only sympathy spot.

The National League had three third basemen on its roster last season, and there is not much reason to suspect that will change this year. With Frazier and Arenado both deserving of All-Star nods and Carpenter likely to win the fan vote, that leaves Bryant on the outside looking in.

That’s not good for baseball. Bryant’s numbers don’t quite match those of Frazier, and Arenado is a human highlight reel at third, but that does not mean he should be turned away at the gate of the Great American Ballpark.

That Bryant will be left on the sidelines will likely spark a huge national debate about his place in the game, but I think I have the perfect solution to avoid this and future debates surrounding the place of top rookies in the All-Star Game. Say what you want about the All-Star Game’s place in deciding home field advantage in the World Series, but the fact remains that this is an exhibition game for the fans. Yes, players are cut a nice bonus check for making the All-Star game, but this game was created way back when to serve as an exhibition for the fans to see the league’s best players before television and the Internet made it possible to see virtually every player at any time. It remains a nice mid-week diversion to celebrate the game’s biggest stars. It is nothing more, nothing less, and it is definitely not to be used as a referendum for earning one’s place in a sport.

The initial purpose of the All-Star Game has become outdated. Now, if fans from Seattle want to see Kris Bryant in action, they simply need to pick up their iPhone. That being said, the All-Star Game is the league’s best chance to showcase its stars, including its youngest players. If baseball really wants to reverse the flood of Millennials away from the game, then it needs to have the 23-year-old who hits 477-foot home runs off the tops of scoreboards at its showcase event.

There’s a very good chance that even if Bryant is left off the initial roster, he would be included in the Final Vote. If his name is on that ballot, I think he wins easily. However, I don’t think it should even come to that. My proposal for Major League Baseball is to add an extra ballot for rookies only. One rookie from each league makes the All-Star Game, plain and simple, no belly aching.

This would work perfectly, and of course, could be sponsored by some multi-national corporation (the 2014 version of the Final Vote was happily brought to us by Experian!). This final vote would shine another light on Major League Baseball’s showcase event and give fans another chance to debate and learn about the future stars of the game. As an aside, none of the National League’s top-ten finishers in the 2010 Rookie of the Year voting made the All-Star team. Perhaps it was a weak class for the National League rookies, but still, some of these new stars need to be represented on the All-Star roster.

This vote could fall right in line with the Final Vote. This way, rookies like Puig, who were not on the roster on Opening Day, would receive an equal shot at a spot in the All-Star Game. Call me crazy, but I think this is a perfect opportunity for Major League Baseball to spark interest in its youngest players.

I realize that plenty of rookies make the All-Star Game every year. In fact, three made the American League roster last year alone. Every year, however, at least of late, it seems like there has been one lightning-rod rookie who has sparked a debate around the All-Star Game. Adding a rookies-only vote like this would keep this debate going on a more positive note and allow Major League Baseball to show off one of its shiny new toys.

In 2012, 19-year-old Harper became the third-youngest All-Star in the Midsummer Classic’s history, behind only Bob Feller and Dwight Gooden. At the time, Harper had only eight home runs and 25 RBIs. The player he was replacing, Stanton, had 19 home runs and 50 RBIs. Naturally, quite a hullabaloo ensued about Harper’s addition to the All-Star roster. At the time, Harper was seen as the cocky rookie who needed to earn his place in the game. I think a few balls were thrown in the vicinity of his backside and rib cage to help him get this through his thick, rookie skull. Everything had been handed to him, of course. Playing the game in gold-plated cleats didn’t help Harper make a case for himself, either.

At least that’s what the “get off my lawn” crowd tells me.

What the grumpy old men won’t tell you, of course, is that Chipper Jones was also on the All-Star roster that season. Jones, in his final Major League season, was having himself a respectable send-off year, batting .318 with six home runs and 33 RBIs at the All-Star break. Those are much better numbers than the .240/.270/.324 line Cal Ripken brought with him to the 2001 All-Star Game in Seattle. Ripken, like Jones, was making his final All-Star appearance and earned MVP honors after taking what may or may not have been a meatball from Chan Ho Park into the Safeco Field bullpen.

There are plenty of examples of players being trotted out for a ceremonial All-Star appearance in their final season. No one questioned Derek Jeter‘s place in the lineup last year as he slugged his way to a replacement-level final season. This makes you wonder, does playing twenty seasons in the Major Leagues bequeath some birthright to playing in the All-Star Game?

Yasiel Puig was the most exciting player in the first half of the 2013 season. He was the mysterious Cuban import that most of us on the East Coast, by virtue of being productive human adults with full time jobs, were unable to get a look at as he played most of his games right as our heads were touching down on the pillow for the night. In 38 games after debuting in June, Puig slashed .391/.422/.616 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs. But was he an All-Star?

Of course not! It would be so silly to let an exciting young rookie show off for the entire country in an exhibition game!

If the players who are about to become a part of baseball’s past, like Ripken, Jones, and Jeter, can be honored at the All-Star Game, why can’t its future be honored right alongside them. Baseball has long been rooted in the past, and its time-honored tradition of kicking rookies to the curb needs to change. The world would not have ended if Yasiel Puig had been selected to the 2013 All-Star Game, but I can guarantee that more eyeballs in the ever critical 18-to-34 age bracket would have been glued to Fox watching the game.

I’m not calling for an NBA-style Rookies vs. Sophomores sideshow. That’s not necessary for baseball, but what the game does need to do is recognize that the All-Star Game is for the fans. If the fans want to see Bryce Harper in the All-Star Game after only 63 career games, then so be it. The All-Star Game has already been diluted (15 pitchers for nine innings, really?). Would it really take away from the game to add one deserving rookie to the roster each season. I think not.

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