Kinsler, Sandoval early Final Vote leaders

Kinsler, Sandoval early Final Vote leaders

Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler and Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval are the early leaders in the 2009 All-Star Game Sprint Final Vote, which is under way through 4 p.m. ET on Thursday exclusively at MLB.com.

Kinsler -- who had led in starter balloting nearly the entire way before being passed by Boston's Dustin Pedroia at the wire -- is followed in a tightly packed American League group by third baseman Brandon Inge of the Tigers, Chone Figgins of the Angels, Adam Lind of the Blue Jays and Carlos Pena of the Rays.

Sandoval has a slim lead in the National League race over center fielder Shane Victorino of the Phillies, center fielder Matt Kemp of the Dodgers, third baseman Mark Reynolds of the D-backs and shortstop Cristian Guzman of the Nationals.

This eighth annual event, which has gained in popularity each year, allows fans to decide the 33rd and final roster spot for the American and National Leagues leading up to the 80th All-Star Game on July 14 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

The first "alliance" of this year's Final Vote was also revealed on Monday, when the Angels and Dodgers agreed to back each other's Los Angeles-market candidate. So the Angels are asking fans not only to vote for Figgins, but also for Kemp. And vice-versa with the Dodgers.

Alliances became a new wrinkle in Final Vote campaigning last year, when the White Sox and Giants agreed to back each other's candidate. That was because Aaron Rowand, the former White Sox player, was on the 2008 ballot for the Giants. San Francisco in turn backed Jermaine Dye's candidacy. Neither candidate won.

Fans also can vote again by mobile device -- exclusive in the U.S. to Sprint, Nextel and Boost subscribers. To receive the 2009 All-Star Game Sprint Final Vote mobile ballot text the word "VOTE" to 1122. To vote for a specific player, simply text message your choice to 1122. For example, text "A3" to vote for AL Player 3 or "N3" to vote for NL Player 3. Standard rate messaging fees also may apply; check with your carrier. Mobile voting in Canada is open to all carriers; fans should text their choices to 88555.

Recent history shows mixed results for those who have taken early leads in the Final Vote. Last year, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Brewers right fielder Corey Hart were the narrow leaders after the first day, and they went on to the Midsummer Classic at old Yankee Stadium. In 2007, Padres pitcher Chris Young led after the first update -- but early leader Jeremy Bonderman of the Tigers ultimately was overtaken by winner Hideki Okajima of the Red Sox.

In 2006, Nomar Garciaparra was the first announced leader and he eventually won the selection. But it was Minnesota wunderkind pitcher Francisco Liriano who was the AL's leader through much of the early voting, only to be passed by winner A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox on the morning of the last day of voting.

Managers Joe Maddon of the AL and Charlie Manuel of the NL each presented you with their five nominees per league this time, at the end of Sunday's 2009 All-Star Game Selection Show presented by Pepsi on TBS.

A record total of 47.8 million votes were cast in the 2008 Final Vote, more than double the previous year's total of 23.2 million votes. Longoria won with a record nine million, and Hart received the second most in Final Vote history, roughly eight million.

The 2009 All-Star Game Sprint Final Vote follows another record run of balloting by fans to determine the starting lineups, which were announced on TBS along with the rest of the rosters during the 2009 All-Star Game Selection Show presented by Pepsi. Fans submitted 223.5 million votes and 17.8 million ballots -- both the largest figures recorded in the nine years of online balloting at MLB.com, surpassing the previous records set in 2008.

Here's a closer look at the candidates:

American League

Chone Figgins, 3B, Angels
The Angels are perennial postseason contenders, and entering Sunday they were tied at the top of the AL West due in no small part to the consistent contributions from Figgins. He is batting .316 with 24 steals, which ranks fifth in the Majors. An on-base machine, Figgins ranks 10th in the Majors in hits with 97, more than any Final Vote candidate.

Figgins said he would be happy to move around to multiple positions for Maddon if fans let him, and he added this about the All-Star Game: "That's center stage. It doesn't get any better. For that one time, to say I was an All-Star, it would be such an honor. I can't even begin to tell you how much that would mean to me."

"Chone has been as good as any leadoff hitter in the league," testified his manager, Mike Scioscia. "He's also playing great defense at third base."

Brandon Inge, 3B, Tigers
Inge, still looking for his first All-Star selection, has earned his reputation as one of baseball's best defensive third basemen, and his fielding skill was a big reason behind his return to the hot corner this season in a revamped lineup on a resurgent Tigers team that has been steady atop the AL Central. His 154 assists and 25 double plays topped all AL third basemen entering Sunday, and his regular appearances on highlight reels for his acrobatic plays can't hurt in a balloting battle that lasts just four days.

Yet what has separated this season from many for Inge is his bat, powering a career turnaround at the plate. He has 19 homers and 54 RBIs, both on course for personal bests. Only Longoria and Toronto's Scott Rolen had a higher OPS among AL third basemen through Saturday than Inge at .868.

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers
"We're going to hit it hard on TV and radio," said John Blake, the Rangers' vice-president for public relations. "I've talked to all of our rightsholders and we're putting together some TV spots for him. We're looking at other things but most of it right now is TV and radio." Blake said the club also will push the Kinsler vote on several electronic billboards in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Here is the supporting evidence again: the Rangers are still tied for the lead in the AL West; 19 homers, 51 RBIs, 16 steals and a .494 slugging percentage. The Players Ballot choices were Aaron Hill (a reserve) and Kinsler, in that order, with Pedroia not in the top two. Kinsler made it clear that he wants to go, and he said Pedroia unquestionably had an advantage in his market.

"The Final Vote is a little weird but it's cool the fans get a voice," Kinsler said. "There's always someone who is deserving to be in the All-Star Game who misses out. I'm not saying I'm deserving, but to have the fans involved is a good process. It definitely gets fans involved, gets more viewers for the game and creates more attention to baseball. You can't frown about that."

Adam Lind, DH, Blue Jays
Lind was the one Toronto player whose name was noticeably missing on the All-Star ballot this year, and now it will be up to fans here if he gets to St. Louis. The 25-year-old opened the season as Toronto's primary DH, but has been receiving starts in left field since rookie Travis Snider was returned to Triple-A Las Vegas earlier this season. As the projected DH heading into the year, Lind was not eligible for the All-Star ballot, which had Snider's name listed among the AL's outfielders.

That hasn't stopped Lind, though. Through 80 games for the Blue Jays, the left-handed hitter was batting .309 with a .384 on-base percentage and a .553 slugging percentage. Lind had produced 17 homers, 25 doubles, 48 runs and 55 RBIs, earning a recent promotion to the third spot in the Blue Jays' lineup.

"It's like being on the bubble for the NCAA tournament," Lind said with a smile after his team's 10-8 loss to the Yankees on Sunday. "I've got a one-in-five chance and hopefully Canada comes out and votes. Hopefully more people vote for this than they did the Prime Minister."

Carlos Pena, 1B, Rays
Pena enters Monday's action as the AL's leading home run hitter with 23 and he also leads the league in runs with (58) and walks (54). The question now is whether he can make it two straight Rays Final Vote winners, in the year after teammate Evan Longoria won it. Johnny Damon and Jason Varitek won it while with Boston in 2002 and 2003, respectively, and Scott Podsednik and A.J. Pierzynski won it for the White Sox in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

National League

Cristian Guzman, SS, Nationals
One of the bright spots for Washington this season undoubtedly is the play of Guzman, who was batting .316 through 65 games. He went on a real tear last month during three consecutive Interleague Play series against the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox, producing eight multi-hit games and going 20-for-47 during that 10-game stretch.

It would be the third All-Star selection for Guzman, who was chosen in 2001 with Minnesota and then went 0-for-3 off the bench during the NL's 15-inning victory last summer. He would join teammate Ryan Zimmerman, a reserve at third base, if selected.

"I don't care if I go or not go," Guzman said. "I've been there twice already. There are too many people going over there. I want to take my three days off and get ready for the second half. I'm proud of [Zimmerman] because he needed it. He did a good job this year."

Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers
Think back to June 16, when Kemp singled in the 10th inning against Oakland to give the Dodgers what then was their Major League-best eighth walk-off win -- and the reaction of a full Dodger Stadium crowd. The Dodgers have celebrated more than any team this season, and he has been a big reason. Kemp is batting .305 with 10 homers, 44 RBIs and 19 steals, meaning he could be a 20-40 man this year.

It is somewhat surprising perhaps that the Dodgers have been baseball's top team almost the entire season yet have only a few reserves so far -- second baseman Orlando Hudson and pitchers Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton. Will Kemp be the fourth?

The Dodgers already launched a "Meet Matt" contest on dodgers.com where fans who vote up to 25 times are entered into a sweepstakes to meet the outfielder before a game. There also will be a tie-in with the promotion for Matt Kemp Bobble Head Day, August 19, where some fans will win tickets to that game for voting for him. The club created a Facebook group called "I Voted for Matt Kemp in the Final Vote" that will spread to the 70,000 friends the Dodgers have on their Facebook page, and they are trying to enlist the help of two of Kemp's NBA friends, Trevor Ariza and Shelden Williams, via their Twitter accounts in hopes they will spread the buzz to their followers.

Mark Reynolds, 3B, D-backs
Reynolds will try to join right fielder Justin Upton and pitcher Dan Haren as reserves on the NL team from Arizona. In his third year, Reynolds is continuing a huge Major League progression by going from 17 homers as a rookie to 28 last year to already 24 at this point. He also has 61 RBIs and 13 steals, a fantasy mainstay for many.

He also blew his top after Arizona's 5-0 loss to Colorado on Saturday, and if you want another way to measure him, consider the passion in his comments calling out his team after that game. "I know I care," he said amid the postgame tirade. "I'm out there busting my tail every night trying to win."

Most of his teammates apparently agreed with him, with catcher Chris Snyder saying Reynolds comments were needed and "dead on." Hey, maybe that is the kind of fire the NL needs after losing every year since 1996.

Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants
"I just focus on playing my game," the Venezuelan switch-hitter said after homering twice recently at Milwaukee. "I don't focus on the numbers." That's OK, we are. Sandoval has positively burst upon the scene in his first full season, ranking fourth in the NL in batting with a .333 average and leading the Giants into contention despite the Dodgers' breakaway first half. He also has 12 homers and 44 RBIs.

The Giants' "Kung Fu Panda," just 22, also ranked among the NL top 10 in doubles (23), multi-hit games (30), slugging percentage (.566), extra-base hits (38), hits (93) and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage -- .954) going into this past weekend. He entered Saturday leading the Majors with a .393 batting average in two-out situations.

Sandoval, who was playing at high-Class A San Jose a little more than a year ago, said merely being eligible for the Final Vote was "one of the biggest moments of my life." Winning it, he said, would be deeply meaningful, especially given his humble roots in Venezuela. He said he plans on voting for himself, and teammate Matt Cain said he will have huge support from the club.

"We did it with [Aaron] Rowand last year," Cain said, referring to the Giants' 2008 Final Vote nominee. "Everybody was like, 'Mandatory text on the bus.' "

Shane Victorino, OF, Phillies
Everyone knows the Flyin' Hawaiian from the last postseason, when he was a key player in the Phillies' run to the World Series title. So the question is, how has he done as an encore to that? Good enough that his manager nominated him for your consideration here. Although his stolen-base numbers are down a bit at the halfway mark (13, compared to a total of 37 in 2007 and 36 in 2008), his average and on-base percentages are peaking at .300 and .363. He also has 96 hits, on pace for a career-best.

Victorino will try to join starters Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez and reserve Ryan Howard on the All-Star Team. He also will try to become the second Final Vote winner from Philly, following Bobby Abreu in 2004.

"I'm very excited," Victorino said. "I guess I never expected something like this to come. Now we leave it up to the Philly faithful. I think I've got a good chance. I've got faith in the Phillies fans."

There never has been a second baseman nor shortstop to win a Final Vote. So if Kinsler holds on to his first-day lead, that would take care of the shortstop void.

The 2009 All-Star Game Sprint Final Vote program has seen nearly 140 million votes cast since its inception in 2002. Previous winners of the All-Star Game Sprint Final Vote, in addition to Longoria and Hart, are: Okajima (AL, 2007); Young (NL, 2007); Pierzynski (AL, 2006); Garciaparra (NL, 2006); Podsednik (AL, 2005); Roy Oswalt (NL, 2005); Hideki Matsui (AL, 2004); Abreu (NL, 2004); Varitek (AL, 2003); Geoff Jenkins (NL, 2003); Damon (AL, 2002); and Andruw Jones (NL, 2002).

It is the second big step in the process for fans everywhere, following their record-shattering input to determine All-Star starters. Once the Final Vote has been decided, there is still work to do. Fans will have the opportunity to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevy at the 80th All-Star Game through the 2009 All-Star Game Sprint MVP Vote on MLB.com.

The 80th All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and Sportsnet HD and televised around the world by Major League Baseball International, with pregame ceremonies beginning at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN Radio will provide exclusive national radio coverage, while MLB.com will provide extensive online coverage. XM will provide satellite radio play-by-play coverage of the XM All-Star Futures Game.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.