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At the beginning of this season, the Chicago White Sox thought they knew what to expect from the heart of their order. Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye have powered the lineup since Thome arrived in 2006. Joe Crede was expected to return from a back injury, which ruined his 2007 campaign. Two high-profile trades brought in center fielder Nick Swisher and shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who had built successful careers on the West Coast. But the player who has had the biggest impact on Chicago’s offense — and cemented himself in the third spot in the batting order — in the first third of the season, was an afterthought as spring training began: left fielder Carlos Quentin.

Quentin came over from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the offseason in exchange for minor-league first baseman Chris Carter. The move didn’t get a lot of attention at the time, because Carter wasn’t in the Sox’ immediate plans, and Quentin hadn’t established himself on the Snakes’ roster over parts of two seasons. Arizona had an outfield overcrowded with young players, and whenever Quentin got a shot, he either didn’t hit or got hurt. Now with steady playing time and a solid short-term health record, he’s tearing up the American League to the tune of a .281 batting average, 18 homers and 54 runs batted in. Until the last week, when Crede got blazing hot at the expense of the Minnesota Twins and took the lead in batting average and slugging percentage, Quentin led the team in all major offensive categories.

The first time I watched Quentin was in the 2003 College World Series, when he was Stanford’s right fielder. At that time, he was a tremendously fearsome hitter, but he had injured his elbow earlier in the year. He’d already been drafted by the Diamondbacks, but Stanford wanted to ride his bat as far as they could, so they had Quentin postpone his Tommy John surgery until after the end of the college season. He was still a decent outfielder, but his arm strength made Johnny Damon look like Vladimir Guerrero. I remember one play in particular where a ball was hit off the right field wall, and Quentin ran out to retrieve it. The cutoff man had to run nearly to the warning track to receive Quentin’s lob. The Cardinal made it to the CWS final series against Rice, but they ran out of pitching and went home with a runner-up finish.

Quentin spent the rest of 2003 rehabbing from the elbow surgery, and made his pro debut in 2004. He split his season between high-A Lancaster and double-A El Paso, combining to hit .332 with 21 homers. He spent all of 2005 with AAA Tucson, and had nearly identical numbers to 2004, making him one of the top prospects in the game heading into the 2006 season. However, he played another half-season at Tucson before making his big-league debut in mid-July. After a hot start with the big club, he went into a bit of a slump the rest of the season and finished with a .253 batting average and more than twice as many strikeouts as walks, which was way out of line with his minor-league track record. 2007 was another frustrating year for Quentin, as he shuffled back and forth between Tucson, Phoenix, and the disabled list, finishing with a .218 average in 228 at-bats with Arizona as the D’Backs won the NL West without much contribution from him. They decided to trade him in the offseason to free up playing time for their other young, talented outfielders.

Talk about making the most of an opportunity. The Sox started nine different players in left field last season, and the position was wide open after the departures of Scott Podsednik and Rob Mackowiak, who combined for 101 of those starts. Given the opportunity, Quentin has been a rock in left this year, starting 61 of the team’s 64 games. He moved into the #3 position in the order about a month ago, as Thome’s April struggles bled into May. He’s walked more than he’s struck out in 2008, which is more in line with his minor league track record and bodes well for his future performance. He’s also shown a knack for getting hit by pitches; he’s tied with Jason Giambi for the American League lead with 8 this year. His unorthodox batting stance, with a deep knee bend and his hands hanging over the inside part of the plate, caused at least one Chicago sports-radio caller to compare him to 80’s A’s third base stalwart Carney Lansford. That’s not bad company to start out in, but if Quentin keeps hitting like he is, the comparisons will get even more flattering.