CLOSER: DUSTIN HERMANSON, Sox
Who seems to be aging faster these days, Dusty Baker or Ozzie Guillen?
That's an easy question, isn't it?
Nothing ages a manager quicker than an unreliable bullpen. Nothing makes a team and a manager feel better about itself than relievers who come in and slam the door on a nightly basis.
The differences in their respective bullpens are largely why Guillen seemingly is 41 going on 14 while Baker feels all of his 55 years.
The White Sox, relegated to the middle of the pack in most preseason predictions, enter this weekend's City Series with 11 more victories than the Cubs. Seven of those have come in one-run games. They win them; the Cubs lose them.
The Sox are 14-5 in one-run games, the most victories in the majors. The Cubs are 6-9. Take one-run games out of the equation and Guillen's White Sox would be only three victories better than Baker's Cubs.
Where would the Cubs be if they, and not the Sox, had gone out this winter and signed Dustin Hermanson?
No newcomer in town has had a bigger impact than Hermanson, whom White Sox general manager Ken Williams quietly signed to a two-year contract with a 2007 option last December. His presence has excused a faltering start by Shingo Takatsu, the Sox's incumbent closer, whose 5.56 ERA has overshadowed his going 8-for-9 in save situations. The Cubs, who really had no incumbent closer, already have put six relievers in save situations as Baker continues his long search.
Hermanson is basically perfect-for-2005. He has thrown 191/3 innings without allowing an earned run. Minnesota rookie Jesse Crain (13 innings) is the only other big-league pitcher who has done that for more than seven innings.
Hermanson is holding opponents to a .175 batting average and has a 3-to-1 strikeout-walk ratio. He's 9-for-9 in save situations, making him 26-for-29 since San Francisco manager Felipe Alou took him out of the Giants' rotation to replace Matt Herges as closer last August.
Here's the really important stat: He has played a significant role in 14 victories (nine saves, five holds). No Cubs reliever has more than four combined saves and holds. So, no, it didn't take much internal agonizing to make Hermanson the closer on the eighth annual Chicago Tribune All-City team.
A look around the diamond at the other choices:
Starter: Jon Garland, Sox
Starter: Mark Buehrle, Sox
Starter: Mark Prior, Cubs
Starter: Orlando Hernandez, Sox
Like Esteban Loaiza in 2003, Garland has emerged as an unexpected All-Star for the Sox. He has completely turned around a career in which he basically ran in place for three seasons, going 36-36 and averaging 200 innings. He has been better in every category possible this season, but the most telling stat might be his ratio of grounders to fly balls1.75 to 1, up from 1.27 to 1 last season. He has been getting ahead of hitters, which has allowed him to cut down his walks, and has forced batters to slap his hard sinker on the ground rather than waiting for something up in the strike zone. Buehrle also has positioned himself as a serious All-Star candidate, making a name for himself with his rock-and-fire pace. The highlight was his 1-hour-39-minute game against Seattle's Ryan Franklin. Hernandez is pitching well and has been an asset for his fellow pitchers, especially Jose Contreras.
Despite another spring-training scare, Prior has been a bright spot for a Cubs pitching staff that hasn't had much go right. He has given up more than two runs only once while holding opponents to a .194 batting average and striking out 10.2 per nine innings. Baker hasn't allowed him to throw more than 110 pitches in a start, however, as the Cubs continue to monitor his health. Too bad Baker hasn't always been this cautious with him.
Setup man: Cliff Politte, Sox
Setup man: Damaso Marte, Sox
When Politte had his appendix removed late in 2004, doctors may have slipped him some additional guts. He has been a different pitcher for the Sox this season, attacking hitters rather than nibbling. It helps that he's working in a more comfortable role as the third right-hander in Guillen's bullpen, not the second or first, as he was early last season. Marte makes this team because, well, he always does. This is his fourth year in a row, matching the record runs by Ray Durham (1999-2002) and Keith Foulke (1998-2001).
First base: Derrek Lee, Cubs
More than anyone else on the roster, Lee is responsible for keeping the Cubs within a short winning streak of .500. Through Wednesday, he's in the top three in the National League in the Triple Crown statistics, meaning he would be the league's early most valuable player if the Cubs' pitchers were matching expectations. He drove in 98 runs a year ago, just missing being the first Cubs first baseman with a 100-RBI season since Bill Buckner in 1982. He should surpass that mark easily this year if he stays healthy. He's a terrific fielder and a classy guy who should be on his way to the All-Star Game for the first time.
Like Seattle's Richie Sexson and the Mets' Mike Piazza, Paul Konerko is having a much more productive season than his batting average suggests. He has a .211 batting average but has 29 RBIs. Guillen reminds those with short memories that Konerko carried the Sox the first two weeks of the season and expects him to do it again later in the season, maybe for two months this time.
Second base: Tadahito Iguchi, Sox
A surprise to many, the Tribune suggested Iguchi could be an All-Star in his first season in the United States. He has been the most consistent hitter in the Sox's lineup and has better statistics than any other AL second basemen except Brian Roberts and the ham-fisted Alfonso Soriano. He has joined Juan Uribe to make the Sox solid defensively up the middle.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry counted on getting a lot of run production from second base, but it hasn't happened, with Todd Walker's knee injury the biggest reason. Jerry Hairston, one of three replacements Baker has used, is having a tough transition to the NL. He has more errors, with three, than RBIs, with one. As a result, the Cubs have had fewer runs scored by second basemen than any team in the NL.
Shortstop: Juan Uribe, Sox
Williams got a tremendous bargain when he signed Uribe to a $9.75 million contract for three guaranteed years and a 2007 option. The most important position on the field should be in solid hands for years to come. If Robert Valido or another prospect pushes Uribe for the shortstop's job a couple of years from now, Uribe is versatile enough to move or even to serve as a utility man. He's an unconventional player but gets the job done. Look for a power spike in the summer.
Neifi Perez has been solid as a replacement for Nomar Garciaparra, keeping the probable loss of Garciaparra for the season from being a death blow to the Cubs. But an extended slump in May could prompt Hendry to pull the trigger on a deal for a shortstop. He could fill two needs if he could get Julio Lugo and reliever Danys Baez from Tampa Bay. Enrique Wilson is a stopgap move.
Third base: Aramis Ramirez, Cubs
Ramirez isn't approaching the 2004 level that prompted Hendry to give him a four-year, $42 million contract, but he's still a very valuable part. Nagging injuries have contributed to his reduced production, and the Cubs know a healthy Ramirez is vital if they are to make a run at the St. Louis Cardinals.
Joe Crede remains a solid all-around player and seems more comfortable than in his previous three seasons. He has worked to become a much tougher out, giving away a lot fewer at-bats than in the past. Perhaps because he's looking to make better contract, he hasn't been driving the ball as well as he could, but that will come if he maintains his focus.
Left field: Scott Podsednik, Sox
You know about his speed, but what about his bat? Podsednik had 105 strikeouts and 58 walks with Milwaukee in 2004. He has more walks than strikeouts this time around, which has allowed him to turn a . 285 batting average into a .390 on-base percentage. His addition alongside Aaron Rowand has improved the Sox's outfield defense tremendously. And, oh, he's also on track to steal almost 100 bases. If he's healthy, he's going to shatter Rudy Law's club record of 77. For what it's worth, Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio led the "Go-Go Sox" of 1959 with 56 steals.
If Baker had made Jason Dubois his regular right away, he would have made this a difficult choice. The Cubs hurt themselves by committing to Todd Hollandsworth, who last got 300 at-bats for a good team in 1996. As a group, the Cubs' left fielders are last in the NL in production numbers. It didn't have to be that way.
Center field: Corey Patterson, Cubs
You have heard this before, but Patterson is not a leadoff hitter. He just plays one on TV. Baker's lineup would look a whole lot better with Patterson down there in the land of Lee, Ramirez and Jeromy Burnitz, and that's where he has been the last two games. But the Cubs don't have much choice but to keep the free-swinging Patterson at the top of the order. The puzzling part is why Baker had him there to start the season when he could have made Walker and Garciaparra his 1-2 hitters. Patterson is much more valuable than his hitting totals because he has Gold Glove skills in the field and speed.
Aaron Rowand got off to a slow start (.233 in April), but you knew he would come around. He is one tough player mentally and has been more himself recently. He still is hitting the ball on the ground more often than in the past, however.
Right field: Jeromy Burnitz, Cubs
Hard to believe the Cubs would replace Sammy Sosa with a drifter, but they didand it was a good move. Burnitz, with his fifth team in five years, has outproduced Sosa despite earning $12.5 million less. He's a fun-loving type who's unlikely to put too much pressure on himself, and that has helped him defuse a potentially difficult situation. Burnitz has been better in the field than Sosa, largely because he doesn't give up extra bases because of consistently missing cutoff men.
Jermaine Dye hardly has done as well replacing Magglio Ordonez. He seems to have a slider-speed bat, which could make it tough for him to hold his spot in the lineup after the All-Star break. Not only will Guillen have to be more creative when Frank Thomas returns, but Brian Anderson also could be a factor. He is hitting well at Triple-A Charlotte and could add young legs for the dog days.
Catcher: A.J. Pierzynski, Sox
You could go either way here, as the Cubs' Michael Barrett has had a similar start to his season, but Pierzynski gets the credit for working well with Sox pitchers. Mark Buehrle credits Jon Garland's 8-0 start to his working well with Pierzynski and backup Chris Widger. Pierzynski had been fighting himself at the plate until hitting a home run in each of the last four games, highlighted by Monday's grand slam off Texas' Chan Ho Park. He has had trouble shutting down the opposing running game, especially with Orlando Hernandez on the mound.
Barrett remains a significant improvement over all Cubs catchers since Jody Davis faded.
Utility man: Pablo Ozuna, Sox
Since playing his way onto the roster in spring training, Ozuna already has played six positionsthe outfield corners in addition to everywhere in the infield. He has shown signs of being a clutch hitter, batting .400 with men on base.
Bat off bench: Jason Dubois, Cubs
Bat off bench: Chris Widger, Sox
Dubois could have pouted when Baker failed to hand him a job in spring training but instead just kept hitting. He's going to strike out a lot and won't win any Gold Gloves, but he could hit 20-plus home runs if he gets 300 at-bats now that he has become a regular in left field. His strike-zone judgment should increase as the season goes along. Widger, like Ozuna, came from nowhere to win a job with the Sox in spring training. He proved his desire to play by spending 2004 with the Camden Riversharks in the independent Northern League and has fit in well.
Manager: Ozzie Guillen, Sox
Between interviews filled with spicy language, Guillen is showing he can run a game. He has done a much better job handling his pitching staff his second year around, partly because it is a better pitching staff but also because he knows his pitchers better. His light tone has helped the Sox get off to a good start and could become a critical factor down the stretch. Unless the manager gets uptight, which is unlikely, his team should be able to handle the heat of August and September. Baker has had nothing but adversity to deal with since winning in 2003.