- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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The answer, Ozzie Guillen said, is no one.
The question: Who is the best baseball player in Chicago right now?
"Best baseball player? The way we play, I don't think any," the White Sox manager said. "Either team."
It has been that kind of season so far in the Windy City, an ultimately forgettable 2½ months of baseball for fans of the Cubs and White Sox. The only thing either team has done consistently is aggravate its respective manager.
Guillen did amend his downcast conclusion to include his player Jermaine Dye, a popular pick, as it turned out, but Guillen's point is as dark as his colored hair.
There are many great players in the city, and maybe more than one Hall of Famer, but no one is really having a year to celebrate from the rooftops outside Wrigley to the upper reaches of U.S. Cellular Field. Not yet, anyway.
Last year's brief vision of a Red Line World Series is now as distant as the final sale of the Cubs. This certainly isn't a time to be crowing about the city's good baseball fortunes, but with the first city series of the season set to start Tuesday, it's time to take stock of our stars.
On Sunday, before the Cubs broke a four-game losing streak with a 3-2 win over Minnesota, Cubs skipper Lou Piniella said that maybe everyone ought to start being positive.
"We need to allow these guys to relax," Piniella said. "Instead of talking about their deficiencies, we should talk about their strengths. It could be beneficial and help turn around our fortunes here."
So with Positive Lou's advice in mind, I decided to compile a highly subjective, completely unofficial list of the top five baseball players in Chicago. I was debating making a "Who's in your five?" joke to kick this off, but then I read my AT&T cell phone contract, and I'm pretty sure it's not allowed.
This is where I probably should explain my cavemanlike methodology. To be considered, a player has to be excelling this season (although I made one exception for injury) and have a career history to back him up. Because we're ranking the players in 2009, the players who are doing well right now earn obvious weight.
I asked a handful of players, some friends, one wife, a Joe Crede and one very garrulous broadcaster about their picks. None of their choices carries any weight whatsoever, but it's always nice to make friends (except for current Twins third baseman Crede, who offered a terse "I don't want to get into that," which made me think he just didn't want to be on the receiving end of a snide A.J. Pierzynski text message).
Most of the people I talked to were in fair agreement about the top six or seven players, but there were some outliers. Sox reliever Matt Thornton named outfielder Scott Podsednik as one of his guys because of the unexpected contribution Pods has made since the Sox re-signed him this spring. Sox TV broadcaster Steve Stone said Bobby Jenks because "he's the best closer in the city, and nobody's even in second place." Cubs first baseman Micah Hoffpauir said "our entire five-man rotation," though I didn't think to ask whether he was including Randy Wells or Sean Marshall.
"It's obvious," Sox outfielder Dye said of my quest. "You pick the best players from the teams."
Dye just about blew my mind with his Zen-like declaration, but still, this is hard work.
So before I get to the list, I must honorably mention a host of players who for various reasons didn't make the top five. As they say in spring training, it's a numbers game, boys.
A lot of players, and one Stone, named Carlos Quentin on their lists, based on his breakout performance last season. Quentin was on a lot of writers' short lists for American League MVP last year before he broke his wrist in a self-destructive, and mostly unlucky, pouty moment at the end of August. Quentin was a hitting machine, driving in 100 runs in 130 games while batting .288 with 36 homers. He had a decent start to the season, driving in 20 with eight home runs in 38 games, but he's currently on the disabled list with plantar fasciitis, and his injury history and lack of overall history leave him relegated to the Honorable Mention All-Stars.
The city's possible Hall of Famer, Jim Thome, didn't make the list, though he's an all-time top-five guy in pretty much everyone's book.
"Jim Thome's had a pretty good career, right?" Sox hitting coach Greg Walker said when I posed the question to him. "He should be on there."
Thome is the 500-homer gentleman of baseball, but as an aging designated hitter, he gets relegated to the HMs. I will say this: No DH in the game works harder to prepare himself than Peoria's finest.
Derrek Lee earned perhaps the second-most informal votes from players of both teams and more plaudits than I have time to type. D-Lee gets criticized for his dearth of home runs, but Lee's reputation carries a lot of weight in clubhouse circles. Heck, Guillen called him his favorite player on the Cubs. Lee has been hitting pretty good lately, though not with runners in scoring position (.234 with one home run and 20 RBIs), for a resoundingly crappy Cubs offense. Still, Lee is not even my top first baseman in the city, so he can't make the cut.
Some other big names fall to the HMs, including arguably three of the most talented baseball players in the city.
Alexei Ramirez is still developing as a hitter, but he looks right at home at shortstop. Along with Quentin, the Cuban Missile looked as though he was forming the core of a new, young White Sox lineup when he finished second in the rookie of the year voting last year. Ramirez has shaken off a horrible start, just like last year, but we'll see whether he can duplicate his amazing debut season.
Here's where I'll hear about it, because I have Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano on the HM All-Stars. Yes, that's right, about a quarter-billion dollars in contract cash, and neither is considered among the top players in Chicago. And just in case you think I'm biased, these probably are two of the only baseball players I would actually pay to watch.
Zambrano missed a few starts with a hamstring pull and had another pushed back because of that totally idiotic, and completely hysterical, meltdown at Wrigley. Zambrano needs to enjoy himself while acting more mature on the mound and in between starts. Everyone's getting sick of his apologies, and he owes it to himself and his team to pitch to his ability. Still, he's a bad, bad man.
Soriano is the most dynamic hitter in the city, a one-man rally. But after an MVP start, he's mired in a monthlong slump, plausibly connected to a lingering left knee injury.
On May 17, Soriano hit his 12th homer and picked up his 25th RBI while batting .280. As of Sunday, he was hitting .229 with 14 homers and 27 RBIs. I'm hearing the drumbeats to move Soriano down the lineup again. Take a look at his numbers, and you might think twice. Soriano has 47 at-bats with runners in scoring position almost split between two outs and fewer than two outs, and he's hitting a whopping .128 in those situations. I think he's best at the top. At least there you get the occasional solo home run.
"I don't know, I don't know," Soriano said. "I know I've been struggling for like a month. But I know I believe in myself and I know that sooner or later, when I get out of this slump, I'll be fine."
Kosuke Fukudome had a shot at the top five before his recent free fall, which brings back memories of his dreadful summer and fall. "It's about that time," a Japanese reporter joked to me Sunday.
But enough about the honorable mentions, let's get to the top five.
No. 5: Paul Konerko.
Konerko, a pure hitter, just edges out his teammate Pierzynski, the smartest baseball player in the city and my 5-A guy, because of his production at the plate.
Although naysayers have been waiting for Konerko to calcify, the slugger is putting together a very nice season for a team that has been shut out more than any in the majors. He's hitting .294 with eight home runs (a bit low) and 41 RBIs.
The White Sox's captain has impressed me by hitting inside the park. He doesn't have a home run with runners in scoring position but is hitting .375 with 30 RBIs. Seven of his 18 hits in those situations are doubles. Of current regulars in Chicago, his 21.9 line-drive percentage (according to the FanGraphs.com chart I looked at Sunday) is the best. I'm no stathead, but I think line drives are pretty good.
"Paul's had a great career," Dye said. "He's the leader of this team, and he's a professional. And that's the player you need to have and build around in an organization."
No. 4: Ted Lilly.
Pretty much every Cubs fan knows the full name of the fourth-best baseball player in Chicago: Theodore Roosevelt Lilly. As the best Cubs pitcher named after a president, edging out Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lilly is 39-21 with a 1.14 WHIP in two-plus seasons with the Cubs. That's three wins better than Zambrano and his 1.31 WHIP.
Lilly came to Chicago during general manager Jim Hendry's drunken sailor spend-a-thon leading up to the 2007 division title. In his only playoff start in 2007 or '08, he provided a picture of the Cubs' struggles when he spiked his glove after giving up a home run.
Now he's the Cubs' most consistent starter, currently 7-4 with a 2.94 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP, and most likely their only All-Star. The fans, from the blue hairs to the bloggers, love him because he's serious, steady and looks as though he could beat anyone in a staring contest on the mound. He also works his tail off to prepare before games.
"He's been really good," Stone said. "I really believe Ted maximizes his ability."
No. 3: Mark Buehrle.
Buehrle probably wouldn't care about being on this list, but he's third, and I'm not going to gush about him. All I'll say is that Buehrle is the one pitcher in the city I'd want on the mound for any big game. He works fast, lives slow and wins a lot of games -- 128 and counting for the 30-year-old.
"I don't think I've ever met him," Marshall said Sunday. "I need to go say hi to him, because I've always been a real big fan of the way he pitches, all of his stuff, the way he works fast, goes about his starts and takes the ball every five days. That's cool. I like that. He pitches, works fast and keeps his defense on their toes, and the results show up."
Buehrle's teammate, Thornton, said, "He's a pitcher. He's not like Carlos Zambrano, a 'stuff' pitcher who has an electric, moving fastball and a sharp, tight slider. He knows how to pitch, knows the league and gets the job done, day in and day out."
No. 2: Aramis Ramirez.
The second-best baseball player in Chicago is so sweet that they named a cologne after him. Unfortunately, he's also so banged-up right now that he's wearing Mark Prior's old shoulder wrap. How valuable is Ramirez? Have you seen the Cubs' offense lately? Well, neither have they. I bet the recently fired Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry can attest to what Ramirez can do for a middling offensive attack.
Ramirez dislocated his left shoulder playing defense in his 18th game of the season on May 8. The Cubs third baseman was hitting .364 with four homers and 16 RBIs. As usual, he was swinging at everything in the strike zone (75.5 percent, according to FanGraphs) with a line-drive percentage of 27.7. He's a .285 career hitter (.298 with runners in scoring position) who should get to 400 home runs within the next five years.
"Of course it hurts when he's not in the lineup for us," Mike Fontenot said. "He's one of our clutch performers. Over the years, he's proved that."
Said Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol, "Aramis always gets the big hit at the end of the game."
Ramirez, who will turn 31 years old on June 25, has stayed fairly healthy for the Cubs during his tenure, never playing fewer than 119 games since 2004. He played in 149 games last year and, unfortunately for him, 157 in 2006. Throughout the years, he has worked on his fielding, and his ultimate zone rating (UZR), the most popular defensive metric among the statistically inclined, is -0.2, which means he's basically average. (To compare, the UZR of White Sox embattled third baseman Josh Fields is -5.8, and that number projected over 150 defensive games would jump to -13.5, while Ramirez's would stay pretty constant.)
"I think he takes pride in his defense," Stone said. "I also believe out of that entire team, he would be the last guy you want to face with the game on the line."
That's true, unless you count the postseason, and you can't ignore Ramirez's consecutive failures in the playoffs. Going 2-for-23 with no RBIs won't rattle the ghosts, Rammy. Will he earn a chance this season to improve those numbers? His return is essential to any thoughts of playoffs.
No. 1: Jermaine Dye
Speaking of playoffs, the only World Series MVP in town is our No. 1 player in the city.
Stone, who knows a few things about life on both sides of town, said that Dye, who is hitting .274 with 15 homers, is the hidden jewel of Chicago's baseball diamonds.
"Everyone takes the contributions of Jermaine Dye for granted," Stone said. Although he didn't specify who "everyone" entails, Stone basically means Cubs fans and the general media.
"He's probably the most overlooked superstar player we have in the city. Everyone is well aware of everything Kosuke Fukudome does. Everyone is aware of all the futility of Milton Bradley, whatever the case may be. Everyone is aware whenever Fontenot gets a hit, and all that stuff on the other side. But here, Jermaine goes about his business on a day-to-day basis, makes solid plays in right field and hits the ball out of the ballpark."
Dye said he feels a kinship with his buddy on the other side of town, Lee. Both of them, he said, don't mind being underappreciated because they are so low-key.
I wanted to bring up the respective salaries of each player, and Lee's past and present popularity on the North Side, but I let it go. I did ask Dye if he minds that he has been somewhat overlooked in these kinds of conversations.
"Why should I care about what other people think?" he said. "As long as I go out there and perform, as long as my players in the clubhouse know how I am and what I'm about, that's all that matters."
One quibble: Although the 35-year-old, slow afoot Dye still can make some memorable plays in right, his UZR is -7.3 (through Sunday), which means he's currently seven runs worse than the average right fielder. In statistical minds, that puts him near the bottom of qualified players at his position. In the past three seasons, he has been between -19.4 and -22.6 in UZR. But hey, outfield defense doesn't win World Series MVPs, right?
"I've had a good five years here," said Dye, who could be major trade bait soon if the Sox continue to falter, as he's in the last year of a contract extension that includes a six-team no-trade clause. "We won a World Series, you can't ask for much more."
Sure you can, Jermaine. You're the best baseball player in Chicago. And although we at ESPNChicago.com can't send you to Disney World right now, you get to go to the second-most wonderful place on Earth: the visitors clubhouse at Wrigley Field!
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Ozzie Guillen says there aren't any Chicago baseball players who should make our top five, but we rank them anyway.