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.
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