One relies on power, the other on precision. One predicted a Cy Young season, the other only that he would do the best he could. One is a hulking right-hander from South America, the other a mid-sized left-hander from Middle America.
Carlos Zambrano and Mark Buehrle are, in many ways, the alpha and omega of pitching. But the two Chicago aces are joined at the paycheck this season-both potentially in their last in town because their teams allowed them to enter 2007 without having made arrangements for 2008.
The Cubs eventually may blame the loss of Zambrano on the announced sale of Tribune Co. on April 2, which froze negotiations that were close to a five- or six-year agreement. But this was business that should have got done months earlier.
If Buehrle leaves there won't be any misunderstanding about the story line. It will be because White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was unwilling to pay him the going rate for a pitcher with his track record. It will be because the Sox didn't believe in Buehrle after he went through the roughest stretch of an otherwise smooth career.
Buehrle, after a terrible second half in 2006, entered this season with something to prove. He has reasserted himself in a major way, throwing the White Sox's first no-hitter since 1991 and leading a starting pitching revival on both sides of town.
In the past, Buehrle and Zambrano were almost automatic selections for the Tribune's All-City Team. This year, as it turns out, there are no automatic selections. Suddenly you can dial 312 for outstanding pitching.
The early-season performance of the White Sox and Cubs shows just how dangerous it is to take anything for granted in baseball. Zambrano, who seemed the city's best pitcher, is 4-3 with a 5.13 earned-run average and can't make the team. Neither can most of the hitters who seemed such locks for the Sox.
Picking only five starting pitchers is a tall order, given that both rotations rank in the top five in their league in ERA.
We're calling it Buehrle, Jason Marquis, Rich Hill, Ted Lilly and Jon Garland. You could make a case for the two starters whom the Sox, for reasons of affordability, have elected to build around: Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras.
The common bond among these guys is they all came into the season with something to prove, if not a chip on their shoulders.
Buehrle regained the velocity that gives him enough separation between his fastball and changeup to keep hitters on their toes. Marquis regained his confidence and command. Lilly thrived in the National League after surviving in the American League. Hill, picking up where he left off late last season, flashed the Barry Zito starter kit. Garland stayed as steady as always, making it even more of a mystery why the White Sox were offering him in trades last winter.
A look around the diamond at the other choices:
At first base: Derrek Lee
Nobody epitomizes the ongoing upgrade of the Cubs more than Lee, who has watched his team become much more athletic since he arrived in a trade before the 2004 season. Health is the only question for the 31-year-old first baseman, who has been leading the NL in hitting for most of the season. His 2006 was ruined by a broken wrist and he has had a scare with his neck already this season. Paul Konerko's slow bat (.191-5-20) has been the biggest problem for a lineup that has been spoiled by his steadying presence.
At second base: Mark DeRosa
While Ryan Theriot is poised to take his job any day now, DeRosa isn't far from the 2006 performance that landed him his three-year contract. His batting average is down, perhaps because he became power-hungry in April, but he has drawn enough walks for a .350 on-base percentage and has been better in the field than some scouts projected. Tadahito Iguchi has regressed in his three seasons as the White Sox second baseman, not making the strides as a hitter that were anticipated.
At shortstop: Juan Uribe
The White Sox figured Uribe would be better after a terrible 2006, and he has been. His arm remains a serious asset in the field and he has been driving in runs when more reliable hitters have failed. Pitchers love having him behind them. Cesar Izturis has played sporadically since the Cubs landed him in the Greg Maddux trade last season. Don't be surprised if Lou Piniella lets him settle in at shortstop, where he upgrades the infield defense.
At third base: Aramis Ramirez
After using an early-exit clause to leverage a $75 million contract from the Cubs, Ramirez is having an All-Star season. He's highly paid to be a complementary player but should put up big numbers in a lineup that includes Lee and Alfonso Soriano. The Cubs would have had a hard time replacing him. Joe Crede is shrinking after back-to-back big years. He could have a hard time getting his average over .250 after a slow start, hurting his trade value as Williams weighs a fiscally sound move to top prospect Josh Fields, who offers some badly needed speed.
In left field: Alfonso Soriano
Yes, he puts up numbers. But the most impressive thing about Soriano is his winning pedigree and professionalism, which he learned in his Yankees days at the feet of Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams. He was willing to try center field and will hit second if manager Lou Piniella finds a way to make the versatile Ryan Theriot his regular leadoff man. Hamstring problems haven't allowed Soriano to use his speed as a weapon, but it's still a treat to watch him run the bases. Ken Williams made a bad decision when he failed to upgrade in left field, counting on Scott Podsednik.
In center field: Darin Erstad
Without spending much money, Williams did improve the situation in center. Erstad wanted to prove he still could play center and he does that on a daily basis. He also has supplanted Podsednik as the Sox's leadoff man. Injuries have been a problem in recent years for the North Dakota native but so far, so good. Jacque Jones has been adequate since Soriano moved to left field. Felix Pie would be a nice fit if the Cubs hadn't loaded up on veteran outfielders.
In right field: Jermaine Dye
No, this hasn't been a big year for Dye. He's hitting .216, but at least it's a hard .216. He's also a legitimate right fielder, which gives him the edge over the Cubs' miscast collection of players at the position. Cliff Floyd and Matt Murton are good hitters but neither is really a right fielder. Murton is starting to look like trade bait, especially if Theriot takes over at second base, leaving DeRosa as the right-handed-hitting portion of a platoon that includes Floyd.
At catcher: A.J. Pierzynski
Michael Barrett is having a good year for the Cubs but the lack of an adequate backup has made Pierzynski more indispensable than any other regular on a Chicago roster. Pierzynski has started 29 of 37 games and has played in all but one. He has done a good job working with rookie John Danks and the rest of the pitching staff, but it's his hitting that brings the most value. Barrett isn't the smoothest catcher behind the plate but is a tough out at a position where a lot of teams have automatic outs.
Off the bench: Ryan Theriot and Cliff Floyd
The Cubs never have been sure what they had in Theriot. They signed DeRosa to be their second baseman even though Theriot hit .328 and stole 13 bases in 53 games last year. But his arrival from the farm system, and the addition of Floyd, Daryle Ward and DeRosa, has given the Cubs their deepest bench in years. Jim Hendry eventually may trade from that surplus to help fill needs in the bullpen, but it has been a blessing for Piniella. Theriot, like Murton, is just a tough out (career on-base percentage: .385). He's a great baserunner and has shown the kind of mental toughness Corey Patterson lacked. Floyd should hit 20-plus homers if he doesn't pout about being in a platoon. The White Sox bench has been abysmal. Rob Mackowiak, Pablo Ozuna, Alex Cintron and the since-departed Brian Anderson and Gustavo Molina combined to hit .178.
Set-up men: Mike MacDougal and Matt Thornton
The White Sox bullpen has been a strength, as Williams designed it to be. Earned-run averages don't tell the story for Thornton and MacDougal, each of whom rank among the league leaders in a seldom-tracked statistic: holds. MacDougal and Thornton can get strikeouts when they are needed. MacDougal's control is a problem, as hitters create opportunities with walks, but he can get big outs. Bob Howry and Scott Eyre might not have tired arms but Piniella certainly is tired of how they are pitching.
Closer: Bobby Jenks
Before the New York Mets' five-run ninth Thursday, you could have made a case for either Ryan Dempster or Jenks. Dempster, who inherited a four-run lead, was charged with all five runs and watched his earned-run average essentially double. It spoiled an otherwise solid season for the Cubs' closer. Jenks doesn't have Dempster's experience but has a far superior arm and continues to show remarkable resiliency. He has converted 90 percent of save chances in his career. That makes him one of the best in his business.
As the manager: Ozzie Guillen
Somehow Guillen is above .500 with a team that doesn't hit and has been outscored by 13 runs. Piniella, meanwhile, is below .500 with a team that has outscored its opponents by 26 runs. Bill James' Pythagorean standings had the Cubs only one game behind Milwaukee after Wednesday but the real standings show a gap of seven games after Thursday. So far Piniella isn't having as much of an impact in his first season in Chicago as his predecessor, Dusty Baker, did in his.
firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times