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Starry guise over Cubs, White Sox

Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs

Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs

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Updated: August 6, 2013 6:32AM

The White Sox got a first-hand look at Chris Davis on Wednesday night when the Baltimore Orioles’ first baseman slugged his major-league-leading 32nd home run, along with a two-run double, in the O’s 4-2 victory. Davis, 27, wore the collar and struck out three times in the Sox’ 3-2 victory Thursday, but he shares the major-league lead in RBI with the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera with 83 in 86 games.

Orioles catcher Matt Wieters is also 27 and a two-time All-Star. Adam Jones, 27, is a two-way standout in center field. He finished sixth in American League MVP voting last season. Manny Machado, 21, might be the best player you’ve never heard of. He’s a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman with a .319 batting average and 38 doubles among his 118 hits.

A surprise playoff team last season and a credible contender this year, the Orioles are imbued with star power.

“For 14 years, we didn’t win, and it was no great mystery — the Yankees and Boston had better core players than we did,” said Jim Palmer, an Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher and a longtime team broadcaster. “Now the situation has sort of been reversed. We’ve got excellent core players.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates, who come to town for a three-game series with the Cubs beginning Friday, have gone 20 years without a winning season. But with a core of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Starling Marte, backed by an exceptionally well-armed pitching staff, the National League Central leaders bring baseball’s best record to Wrigley Field.

Only 10 players have surpassed Davis’ pre-All-Star Game home-run total, and he has 10 games left before the break. He’d be the story of the season if electrifying Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig hadn’t landed with such startling impact in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfield. Puig, 22, has thrust himself into the Mike Trout-Bryce Harper debate over baseball’s best young player. Machado belongs in it, as well.

“He’s like Brooks Robinson at third base,” Palmer said, “and wait till you see him at shortstop.”

Star power, it seems, is on the rise throughout baseball.

Everywhere except Chicago, and that helps explain the dispiriting malaise that has settled over both of the city’s teams at the Fourth of July benchmark. The disenchantment will intensify as citywide euphoria over the Blackhawks gradually fades.

Jeff Samardzija’s bravado notwithstanding, the Cubs have made no pretense of challenging this year, and they’ll get worse before they get better as they discard an indifferent present for the hope of a better future.

The White Sox don’t want to acknowledge that their last-place status is really them, but they don’t seem capable of ripping off the long winning streak it would take to prove otherwise. This team could and probably should have a different look by the end of the season.

Meanwhile, does either squad claim one star-quality position player capable of putting fannies in the seats? One guy who makes you delay your trip to the beer stand while he hits? The last Sox player of whom that can be said unequivocally was Frank Thomas. Sammy Sosa might have been one of the all-time divas, not to mention a proponent of better hitting through chemistry, but he rivaled Wrigley Field as a drawing card for the Cubs, in a way Alfonso Soriano simply does not.

Starlin Castro? The Cubs insist he’s a core player and he’s still only 23, but most players are who they are by their third or fourth major-league season and Castro is starting to resemble a bigger Shawon Dunston. Anthony Rizzo? A left-handed Derrek Lee, he of the one great year and lots of pretty good ones. Very solid complementary players you can win with, but not necessarily game-changers.

Absent anything of note on the field, the news this week came from the “international market,” with the Sox and Cubs investing millions in 16-year-old Latin players. Scouts and development people owe their living to their ability to project major-league talent and makeup in 18- to 21-year-olds. It’s an inexact science with few sure things, even fewer when those being assessed are the equivalent of high school sophomores.

“I won a World Series game when I was 20,” Jim Palmer said. “Al Kaline was 20 when he won a batting title. Talent is talent, but a lot of it is understanding what you have to do to get up here and what you have to do to stay once you do. Some guys have that at 19 or 20. Some figure it out later. Some never do.”

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