About 60 National League players could arguably be deserving of berths on the All-Star roster when it's announced on Saturday night, but only 34 are going to be happy when the selections are revealed.
It's not easy to pick the ideal roster, although that's the intent of the following exercise. This is not in any way based on the projected winners of the fan vote. The goal is to pick the most deserving offensive starters and reserves, as well as the most deserving pitchers, while adhering to all the rules (such as the need to represent each of the league's 15 teams).
The reasons it is not easy to pick the roster are that positions like first base, outfield and pitching are loaded with deserving candidates, while second base, third base and catcher are a bit lacking.
Let's take our best shot:
C: YADIER MOLINA, ST. LOUIS (.345, 6 HR, 44 RBI): The San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey is the defending NL Most Valuable Player, and he's having another All-Star season. Still, Molina deserves to start ahead of Posey in the All-Star Game. Molina is the best defensive catcher of his era, and he currently leads the league in hitting.
1B: JOEY VOTTO, CINCINNATI (.325, 14 HR, 38 RBI): The league leader in on-base percentage, Votto deserves to be in the NL's starting lineup. So does Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. It doesn't matter who plays first and who is the designated hitter.
2B: BRANDON PHILLIPS, CINCINNATI (.272, 11 HR, 61 RBI): Phillips' batting average is nothing special, and those who don't think he should be the starter here will point out that the only reason he leads all NL second basemen in RBI is that the league's two best on-base percentage guys - Votto and Shin-Soo Choo - hit in front of him. Hey, at least he frequently delivers with men on base. His 61 RBI are 29 more than any other NL second baseman.
SS: JEAN SEGURA, MILWAUKEE (.325, 11 HR, 33 RBI): Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki would have likely been the deserving starter had he been healthy, but Segura is putting up exceptional numbers, too. He's a bit under the radar because of the Brewers' miserable season, but the 23-year-old shortstop has been one of the league's brightest young players.
3B: DAVID WRIGHT, NEW YORK (.300, 12 HR, 42 RBI): There are fewer All-Star- worthy players at third base than at any other position in the NL. Wright is an exception, though. He's basically doing what he always does.
OF: CARLOS GONZALEZ, COLORADO (.296, 22 HR, 60 RBI): Yes, he plays half his games at Coors Field, but Gonzalez is not merely a product of that environment. If anything, his numbers are ever so slightly better on the road. Still only 27, CarGo could have a Triple Crown season in his future.
OF: CARLOS GOMEZ, MILWAUKEE (.309, 12 HR, 37 RBI): It took a little longer for him to develop than some scouts expected initially, but the "other" CarGo - a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder who is within reach of a 30-30 season - has become as fine an all-around player as there is in the NL.
OF: MICHAEL CUDDYER, COLORADO (.344, 14 HR, 48 RBI): It's a bit rare to have a career-best season when you're 34, but that's what's happening for Cuddyer. This third starting spot in the outfield could go to a number of players, but Cuddyer is the most deserving. He ranks second in the league in hitting and first in OPS (on base plus slugging percentage).
DH: PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT, ARIZONA (.303, 20 HR, 69 RBI): You're probably looking at the first-half favorite for NL Most Valuable Player honors. He leads the league in RBI and, although he bats No. 3 for the Diamondbacks, he'd probably be the best cleanup candidate in this lineup.
C: BUSTER POSEY, SAN FRANCISCO (.319, 12 HR, 48 RBI): Posey and the Cardinals' Molina are two of the league's best players this year, but the catching position drops off significantly after them in the NL. We're going to go with just a two-catcher roster here to try to reward a more deserving player at another position.
1B: FREDDIE FREEMAN, ATLANTA (.307, 9 HR, 53 RBI): This roster has four first basemen on it because it's a loaded position in the NL and we can utilize a couple of them at the DH position. The Los Angeles Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez and Freeman are having strikingly similar seasons. Freeman gets the slight edge here because he's just a little better in all the key categories, like batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
1B: ALLEN CRAIG, ST. LOUIS (.318, 9 HR, 63 RBI): He'd be getting this spot on the team ahead of some bigger names (like the aforementioned Gonzalez of the Dodgers), but Craig can flat-out hit. He ranks second in the league in RBI, taking advantage of becoming an everyday player for the first time. Has a player ever more quietly been on pace for 125 RBIs through the first half of a season?
2B: MATT CARPENTER, ST. LOUIS (.322, 7 HR, 32 RBI): The most impressive thing about Carpenter's season is how smoothly his transition to second base has gone. He played a total of five major-league games at the position prior to this season, but you wouldn't know he's that inexperienced. Offensively, he's been even more of an asset than most would have expected.
SS: EVERTH CABRERA, SAN DIEGO (.305, 4 HR, 24 RBI): It turns out he's the Padres' lone representative on this roster, but it will not be a charity pick if Cabrera gets his first All-Star nod. Always a slick fielder and productive base stealer, Cabrera is now a formidable hitter, too. The only question is whether he will be healthy enough to play in the game.
SS: IAN DESMOND, WASHINGTON (.275, 15 HR, 49 RBI): Had the Rockies' Tulowitzki been healthy, Desmond would likely be home for the All-Star Game. Still, his stats are pretty impressive. While injuries and underperformance have held back the Nationals in the first half, Desmond has not been one of the problems.
3B: PEDRO ALVAREZ, PITTSBURGH (.241, 20 HR, 53 RBI): This would be a controversial selection, given Alvarez's low batting average, high strikeout rate and below-average defense. There's no clear-cut choice to back up the Mets' Wright. The other top candidates are the Atlanta Braves' Chris Johnson (.323 average, but a platoon player for the first two months of the season) and the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman has an OPS edge over Alvarez (.829 to .814), but we'll take the guy on pace for 40 homers.
OF: JAY BRUCE, CINCINNATI (.281, 18 HR, 56 RBI): After a slow start, Bruce was one of the league's most productive players in June. A home run champion waiting to happen, Bruce should top 100 RBI for the first time and threaten to hit as many as 40 homers.
OF: DOMONIC BROWN, PHILADELPHIA (.274, 21 HR, 57 RBI): During his first three big-league seasons, which all included stints in the minors, Brown's star had been dimming. Once thought to be the minors' top offensive prospect, Brown was decidedly mediocre from 2010-12. Now he's living up to his vast potential, and this All-Star nod is richly deserved. He's been the standout in an otherwise undependable Phillies offense.
OF: CARLOS BELTRAN, ST. LOUIS (.308, 19 HR, 50 RBI): The definition of "professional hitter," Beltran shows no signs of slowing down in his age 36 season. As great a career as he's had, Beltran has never batted .300, hit 30 home runs and driven in 100 runs in the same year. He's on pace to do it this season, though.
OF: SHIN-SOO CHOO, CINCINNATI (.264, 12 HR, 26 RBI): One of only two NL regulars with an on-base percentage above .400, Choo deserves to be rewarded for doing an excellent job of being the Reds' table-setter.
OF: ANDREW MCCUTCHEN, PITTSBURGH (.292, 9 HR, 42 RBI): The Rockies' Dexter Fowler has small edges in on-base and slugging percentage, but Fowler is helped significantly by his ballpark, and he's also been bothered by a wrist injury recently. McCutchen isn't having nearly the season he did in 2012, but he's still one of the best all-around players in the game.
MATT HARVEY, NEW YORK (7-1, 2.00 ERA): If you're too young to have watched a young Roger Clemens pitch in his first few seasons with the Boston Red Sox, just watch Harvey pitch for the Mets. It's quite a resemblance. Only 24 and in his first full big-league campaign, Harvey might just be the best pitcher in the league. It would be fun to see him get the starting nod in front of his home crowd at Citi Field.
JORDAN ZIMMERMANN, WASHINGTON (12-3, 2.46 ERA): Teammates Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez were the bigger Cy Young Award candidates coming into the season, but Zimmermann has been the NL's first-half wins leader, even though the Nationals have underachieved as a team.
CLAYTON KERSHAW, LOS ANGELES (6-5, 2.08 ERA): If he would get any offensive support, Kershaw would be right there among the league leaders in wins. He has allowed just 84 hits in 121 1/3 innings, so he's as unhittable as usual.
JEFF LOCKE, PITTSBURGH (7-1, 2.06 ERA): If he takes the mound in the All-Star Game, a million or so viewers will collectively say the same thing: Who? Locke did little in his minor-league career to indicate he could dominate at the big- league level. An uninspiring strikeout rate this year (67 in 96 1/3 innings) makes it unlikely such success could continue over the long haul, but how can any pitcher with Locke's stat line be left off the All-Star team?
PATRICK CORBIN, ARIZONA (9-0, 2.22 ERA): He battled for the No. 5 starting job during spring training, but now he's in the argument for starting the All-Star Game. Brandon McCarthy has been injured and Trevor Cahill has struggled, but Corbin has held the first-place Diamondbacks' rotation together.
ADAM WAINWRIGHT, ST. LOUIS (11-5, 2.22 ERA): Now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2011 campaign, Wainwright is back to being an ace. He's excellent in every way, but the most impressive stat, perhaps, is his amazing 114-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
CLIFF LEE, PHILADELPHIA (9-2, 2.59 ERA): Teammate Cole Hamels has underperformed and Roy Halladay has been sidelined with an injury, but Lee keeps rolling along for the Phillies. He has a chance for his first 20-win season since 2008.
TRAVIS WOOD, CHICAGO (5-6, 2.85 ERA): The Cubs don't have a surefire All-Star representative. We'll give Wood the edge over Jeff Samardzja and Kevin Gregg simply because he's been incredibly consistent with 15 quality starts in 16 tries.
JOSE FERNANDEZ, MIAMI (5-4, 2.72 ERA): The Marlins don't really have too many All-Star candidates. Giancarlo Stanton would be, but he missed more than a month with a hamstring injury. Fernandez has been impressive, especially for a 20-year-old rookie who never pitched above Single-A before this season. One suspects this would be his first of many All-Star appearances.
SHELBY MILLER, ST. LOUIS (8-6, 2.79 ERA): The league's best rookie (unless the Dodgers' new star Yasiel Puig keeps up his unbelievable pace), Miller gets a spot on the team. He has a tremendous 101-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has been as good as the man he's replaced, former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, would have been. Cincinnati's Mike Leake (7-3, 2.52 ERA) would be the odd man out, but Miller gets more strikeouts and is stingier in allowing base runners.
JASON GRILLI, PITTSBURGH (0-1, 1.72 ERA, 27 saves): The 36-year-old Grilli had five career saves heading into this season. The journeyman, however, is 27- for-28 in converting save chances this year. He's been the best closer in the league. He made his big-league debut in 2000, but he never enjoyed much success until joining the Pirates in 2011. He has persevered, though, and it would be great to see him rewarded with an All-Star appearance.
CRAIG KIMBREL, ATLANTA (2-1, 1.48 ERA, 23 saves): In this scenario, although Atlanta's pitching has been excellent from top to bottom, elite closer Kimbrel would be the lone All-Star representative from the staff.
EDWARD MUJICA, ST. LOUIS (0-0, 2.20 ERA, 21 saves): He's not as talented as Aroldis Chapman, Rafael Soriano or Jonathan Papelbon, but it's hard to argue with a 21-for-21 success rate in converting save opportunities. If 2013 first- half performance is what counts, Mujica should be an All-Star.