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Phil Rogers' All-City team
Outside of being, say, Barry Bonds' public relations man or one of the guys who collects urine samples, there aren't many jobs in baseball worse than the ones Ryan Dempster and Bobby Jenks have.
Closeras in last one out the door after a fire or explosion.
If you come in with enough games on the line long enough, and somehow survive with your nerves and sense of humor intact, you could find yourself immortalized. A member of the fraternity, Bruce Sutter, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
But for every Hall of Fame relieverall four of them nowthere are hundreds who wind up remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Until Dempster gave up that three-run home run to Mike Piazza, who knew he had converted 26 save opportunities in a row? Given that most of those came in the second half of the Cubs' woeful 2005 season, you can be forgiven for not paying attention.
But given how the Piazza home run ruined what would have been a 3-1 victory for Greg Maddux, it was must-have footage for highlight shows and became the first thing currently that flashes to mind when Dempster is mentioned. Hey, that's the job.
In the two years Dempster has made it his specialty, he has converted 40 of 43 save chances. That's a 93 percent success rate, which is so remarkable that he has been selected as the closer on the ninth annual Chicago Tribune All-City team over Jenks, who is showing that he has both the fastball and mental toughness to have a long career in this trying role.
Jenks entered the season with something to prove. After all, he didn't become the primary closer until last September so his October run was a revelation of historic proportions. Jenks' earned-run average is soaring, but he has been good in the only stat that really matters, save success (11 of 12). Most years that would have been enough to land an All-City spot but Dempster is setting that bar high.
Leave it to the Cubs to have a good closer with a weak team.
Maybe next year
Bobby Jenks, Sox: Everyone except hitters has fun watching him work.
A look around the diamond at the other choices:
At first base: Paul Konerko, Sox
There's no "C" on his jersey. Nor is there any doubt he's the captain on the best team in the majors. Instead of feeling under the gun because of his five-year, $65-million contract, Konerko has appeared at ease. Perhaps that's because newcomer Jim Thome is shouldering much of the power load that fell primarily to Konerko with Frank Thomas out a year ago. He has averaged 32 homers and 96 RBIs the last five seasons and could hit those levels by Sept. 1 this year.
Derrek Lee was quietly off to a solid start when he broke his right wrist in a collision with Los Angeles' Rafael Furcal on April 19. The Cubs have used Todd Walker and John Mabry at first base, and they're hitting below .200 with less than one RBI every 20 at-bats in Lee's place. Yikes.
Maybe next year
Todd Walker, Cubs: Doing nothing special, but still one of the tougher outs in the Cubs' lineup.
At second base: Tadahito Iguchi, Sox
Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is not going to sell him as his MVP this season, but Iguchi continues to show why his teamsin Japan and heregenerally have won. He has hiked his batting average while continuing to field his position excellently. He and Juan Uribe are an extremely solid double play combination.
Todd Walker probably would have given the Cubs a solid second baseman but he has started fewer games there than at first. Jim Hendry has assembled a 25-man roster inexplicably loaded with Neifi Perez, Jerry Hairston Jr., Freddy Bynum and, for the last two weeks, Ryan Theriot. Glenn Beckert could post 'em all up.
Maybe next year
Todd Walker, Cubs:See first base.
At shortstop: Ronny Cedeno, Cubs
Yes, we do know this is a guy who threw a live ball into the Cubs dugouton purpose. But the rookie from Venezuela is a good player who is going to get better. He hasn't been coming through with men on base but Baker still has batted him about everywhere except cleanup. He could be the shortstop for the next 10 seasons.
Juan Uribe, one of the many White Sox heroes last October, is under the team's control through 2008 but is in danger of losing his standing based on how he has gone backward as a hitter. As long as others in the lineup keep hitting, his batting average shouldn't be a huge issue. His ability to get outs on balls all over the left side of the infield give him lots of supporters on the pitching staff. Alex Cintron is a long-term option, as are prospects Robert Valido and Pedro Lopez.
Maybe next year
Juan Uribe, Sox: White Sox thought he had figured something out as a hitter: wrong!
At third base: Joe Crede, Sox
This guy is the chia pet of All-Star third basemen. He has bloomed right before our eyes, getting a little better every year untilwow!look at him now. Crede covers the infield like Michael Buble covers Frank Sinatra, and he has become money in late-inning at-bats. If Crede stays healthy all season, he will hit .290 with 30 home runs and 90-plus RBIs. Then he probably will do his best work in October. That's the way it worked in 2005, anyway.
What has happened to Aramis Ramirez? He has turned into a good-field, no-hit contact hitter who no longer fits in the middle of a lineup, especially one as thin as the Cubs'. He has been the biggest disappointment to the organization, and he still has 2½ years and almost $30 million left on the contract extension he received before last season. Didn't see this coming, especially not in spring training when he hit .483 with five homers and 20 RBIs in only 58 at-bats.
Maybe next year
Aramis Ramirez, Cubs: It's hard to believe this is the same guy who killed the ball in the spring.
In left field: Scott Podsednik, Sox
This guy always looks like a slump waiting to happen, but he is locked into something good lately, raising his average from .206 on April 24 to nearly .300. What he does is play an excellent left fieldnot many balls hit the grass between him and Brian Andersonand drive pitchers to distraction when he's on base. At the end of the day, he makes a lot of outs for a guy who doesn't drive in many runs, but he fits the leadoff profile, which probably has a psychological impact that can't be measured by his production numbers.
Matt Murton has been more consistent than any Cubs' hitter who has not gone on the disabled list. That's impressive for a guy in his first full season. He is a smart hitter with a great knowledge of the strike zone and an ability to shorten his stroke when needed. He's not a great left fielder but has made some big plays.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
Matt Murton, Cubs: Understands hitting and has a great approach when ducks are on the pond.
In center field: Aaron Rowand, Sox/Kenny Lofton, Cubs
Come back, please. Your old bosses wish you never had left.
As slowly as Anderson has started, it's the Cubs' Juan Pierre who has been the bigger disappointment. At least Anderson is a solid defender. Pierre, with an arm that has been worse than advertised, has had problems in all areas of the game. The most conspicuous shortcoming has been that sub-.280 on-base average. He almost never walks, which means he needs to hit .300 to be a good leadoff man, and he has been hitting way too many balls in the air for a guy with pop-gun power. The Cubs gave up pitchers Ricky Nolasco, Sergio Mitre and Renyel Pinto to get Pierre, who can be a free agent after this season. Pierre is a pro, and he's only 28; don't be surprised if he becomes a force this summer.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
Brian Anderson, Sox: Still trying to recover from .161 April made tolerable by Sox winning.
Juan Pierre, Cubs: In such a funk he makes Scott Podsednik look like an RBI machine.
In right field: Jermaine Dye, Sox
Here's a difference between Chicago's two organizationsboth found themselves needing right fielders after losing perennial All-Stars, but the White Sox were better shoppers. Dye is not only more productive than Jacque Jones, but he came for less money and a shorter commitment. General manager Ken Williams took a gamble on a guy with a history of injury and it has paid off in a big way. Jim Hendry went for a safer play, overlooking a downward career arc, and has put Jones in what is proving to be a tough place for him to succeed.
With a deep lineup, Guillen was able to keep Dye hitting sixth for most of last season, which helped him get established. Jones has been under greater scrutiny for the Cubs, especially since Lee was injured. Dye quietly is having his best season since 2000, and projects to be one of three (and possibly four) 100-RBI men for the White Sox. The other two outfielders overshadow him defensively but Dye is solid in right field.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
Jacque Jones, Cubs: Cubs kidded themselves if they thought he suddenly would hit lefties.
As the catcher: A.J. Pierzynski, Sox
This was a tough call, maybe even tougher than picking a closer. Barrett is a more productive hitter but Pierzynski is a tough out and much betterreputation asideat the other parts of the job, like handling a pitching staff.
It's easy to see how his constant yapping made him an easy target in San Francisco, but along with Chris Widger he has been an ideal extension of the White Sox pitching staff. He enjoys the interaction of people, which has helped him understand the different personalities of pitchers. Thus he handles a Mark Buehrle differently than he does a Javier Vazquez. He knows American League hitters and works with advance scouts, pitching coach Don Cooper and Widger to formulate a plan to get them out. He can be run on, yes, but not as easily as Barrett.
One of the difficulties Dusty Baker labors under is that while Barrett is generally one of the three best hitters on the team, many of the pitchers like working with backup Henry Blanco, who every year kills the ball in winter ball and turns into an easy out in the big leagues.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
Michael Barrett, Cubs: Opponents never shy to try to steal a base with him behind plate.
Henry Blanco, Cubs: He's the preferred receiver of Mark Prior, Greg Maddux and many other Cubs.
Chris Widger, Sox: Ideal backup who delivers occasional sucker punch off bench.
As the DDM (designated difference maker): Jim Thome, Sox
In fairness to the Cubs, we don't pick an All-City designated hitter. But there's no way to leave Thome off this roster. He's an early candidate for American League Most Valuable Player, putting himself on an early pace for 60-plus home runs and more than 150 RBIs. There's no question his addition has been most responsible for the White Sox scoring more than one run per game above their 2005 average. He and Konerko give Guillen a David Ortiz-Manny Ramirez combination without the drama. Thome is thrilled to be back near his Peoria home, and it shows.
As bats off the bench: Pablo Ozuna and Alex Cintron, Sox
While the more highly advertised Rob Mackowiak tries to adjust to the AL, Ozuna and Cintron have been valuable parts for Guillen. Ozuna has been on base more than half the time this season, a remarkable feat for anyone and almost impossible for someone playing irregularly. He has gotten most of his playing time in left field but also has played third base, second base and right. The switch-hitting Cintron, acquired from Arizona in a trade for expendable reliever Jeff Bajenaru, lets Guillen rest Uribe against tough right-handers. He's a great insurance policy while Valido and Lopez mature.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
Freddy Bynum, Cubs: Late spring acquisition hasn't helped.
Jerry Hairston, Cubs: He has played on a lot of bad teams in his career.
John Mabry, Cubs: Baker was too slow to give him an extended look after Lee was injured.
Rob Mackowiak, Sox: Starting slow and getting fewer at-bats then used to in Pittsburgh.
Neifi Perez, Cubs: After getting two-year extension, he's playing like guy Giants released.
Ryan Theriot, Cubs: Added when team was in the tank and still hasn't played.
In the rotation: Jose Contreras, Sox
Greg Maddux, Cubs
Mark Buehrle, Sox
Javier Vasquez, Sox
Carlos Zambrano, Cubs
You can't tell it by the Cubs' won-loss record, but these are great days for Chicago fans who love pitching. It says a lot that the White Sox's Freddy Garcia, riding a six-game winning streak, can't make All-City when the bad health of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood has created openings on the staff. Some years we recognize only four but this year could have gone seven deep, as Sean Marshall also has had his moments.
Contreras, who is expected to come off the disabled list Sunday after missing two starts with a pinched nerve in his lower back, has been the best pitcher in baseball since last July. He benefited from the presence of Orlando Hernandez last season but has been just as effective with his Cuban role model in Arizona this season.
Maddux, sharper after working hard on his conditioning, and Buehrle (who might one day have to pay more attention to his) are masters of making more with less. They work fast and throw strikes, using fielders to get the outs. Both have had ugly moments this season but have accounted for a lot more good than bad. If there is any other pitcher in baseball who could have gotten a victory after giving up seven runs in the first inning, it's Maddux. Well, it would be if he played for a team that could score eight runs.
Vazquez, a pitcher's pitcher, has flirted with one no-hitter and just might get one before the season is over. Freed from the responsibility he has carried for most of his career, he's capable of emerging as a stretch-run ace for the White Sox, as Contreras did a year ago. Zambrano was winless in April, when the Cubs could have used some dominating performances, but has been sharp lately. After his last start, he had worked struck out 26 more men than any other pitcher in town.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
Freddy Garcia, Sox: Sox are averaging 6.5 run per game behind him, and he has needed them.
Jon Garland, Sox: He's getting killed but hasn't started nibbling on the corners; that's a good sign.
Rich Hill, Cubs: His stuff is almost always better than the results; could he be the Cubs' Neal Cotts?
Sean Marshall, Cubs: Confident rookie has been tough to hit but sometimes suffers control lapses.
Glendon Rusch, Cubs: He's filling the all-important Mike Remlinger role.
Kerry Wood, Cubs: Patient approach with his latest rehab could pay second-half dividends.
As the set-up men: Scott Eyre and Bob Howry, Cubs
It's tough to leave off Neal Cotts, who has been invaluable for the White Sox, but Eyre and Howry have done a textbook job for the Cubs. The bullpen is one of the reasons the Cubs have a chance to dig themselves out of their hole, and these guys have done the job Hendry envisioned when he signed them as free agents, surrendering draft choices in the process. Eyre's extroverted nature has come in handy in recent weeks, helping to keep others' loose as the Cubs try to find themselves. It would have been nice if he hadn't flipped that ball to Lee with his glove a month ago in Los Angeles, but he's an excitable guy and bad things happen. It wasn't his fault Lee was caught flat-footed.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
Neal Cotts, Sox: As good as his arm is, it's amazing he remains happy in a set-up role.
Boone Logan, Sox: He won't stay on the staff much longer if he doesn't show something.
Brandon McCarthy, Sox: Forced into an important role while learning bullpen ropes.
Roberto Novoa, Cubs: Late start put him behind but he could get better as season develops.
Will Ohman, Cubs: He has been a disappointment so far after encouraging 2005 season.
Cliff Politte, Sox: Hasn't been nearly as effective as a year ago, when he threw zeroes.
Matt Thornton, Sox: Mariners aren't kicking themselves yet for letting him go.
Scott Williamson, Cubs: With 1.3 strikeouts per inning, he's a good fourth bullpen option.
As the manager: Ozzie Guillen, Sox
Starting pitchers can get away with saying that their job is to keep the game close, but not managers. They have to win the close ones. Since the start of 2004, Guillen's White Sox are 72-42 in one-run games; Baker's Cubs are 48-55.
Guillen has been blessed with a much healthier team than Baker, although he does his part in keeping it healthy by handling his pitching staff wisely. He won with a thin lineup a year agoalthough, yes, it helped to have Carl Everett when Frank Thomas went downand set a good tone for 2006 in spring training, emphasizing the need to start over.
Baker, like Hendry, has been slow finding a response to the Lee injury. He might look a lot smarter in July and August, provided he has Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Lee back.