I saw something in one of the spring training reports the
other day that suggested the Cubs were not attracting much national media
coverage this spring. And, of course, the White Sox never do, and have lost the
only character who would have attracted any.
The news about lack of news comes as Sports Illustrated,
which has to pay at least a little attention, has picked the Sox to lose 95
games and the Cubs to lose 96.
If all was quiet on the Arizona front, that's fine by me. I
don't think either of our teams will get anywhere near the postseason this
year--even with the expanded format. However, I do think that both will at least
manage not to suffer 90-loss seasons.
I guess that pins me as an optimist. In regard to the Cubs,
I'm not crazy about that label because you get the sense there is still a lot
of unfinished business, with at least three key players--Alfonso Soriano, Matt
Garza and Marlon Byrd (maybe Ryan Dempster, too?)--possibly ready to be moved
once other teams start seeing the need for in-season trades.
As the Cubs stand now, there's the potential for slight
improvement over last year, maybe up to 76 or 77 wins, maybe even 80. The
best-case outlook depends a lot on whether or not the veterans mentioned above
stay in place and do well. It also depends heavily on the performance of Carlos
Marmol, who rebounded after starting the spring in terrible fashion.
With the line-up, the biggest questions are at the corners.
At first, Bryan LaHair won the job based on last year's slugging between the
minors and majors, but promptly went on to suffer a power outage during the
spring. Instead, Jeff Baker, starts at first on Opening Day. Joe Mather, who
can play third, was the Cubs' best hitter this spring, but recently-soft-hitting
Ian Stewart gets the Opening Day start.
Beyond Dempster and Garza, the starting rotation is all new
additions. The biggest surprise of the Cubs 2012 roster, of course, is the
ascendance of Jeff Samardzija to become the No. 3 starter. I never would have
thought we would see the day, but Spellcheck sure earned his spot. Chris Volstad
and Paul Maholm join the rotation as well. I'm still a little surprised that
the Cubs pushed former starters Randy Wells and Rodrigo Lopez down to the
minors--or I should say, surprised that both of them went down. I thought either
one could have played the role of long reliever and spot-starter (because you
know the latter need while arise).
In any case, I can't say the Cubs aren't putting their best
foot forward with the starting rotation, "best" being a relative term, though.
If the Cubs start making moves early in the season, I'll
take most of what I've said back. With Theo & Co., we have already seen a
change in attitude and many roster changes, but there is also a strong sense
that the rebuilding is not even half over. If there are more trades to come, we'll
have to be satisfied with watching Starlin Castro strive for another 200-hit
season or predicting when Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo will debut.
When it comes to the Sox, I'll accept the optimist
label. I didn't feel very optimistic when Sox GM Kenny Williams rushed to hire
Robin Ventura as manager last fall, as if half the league might steal him
first. I didn't feel any more optimistic when the Sox started spring training
with atrocious pitching and confusion about where Alex Rios and Dayan Viciedo would
play. But, as the spring went on, starting pitching improved and a sharp, young
bullpen began to take shape. Meanwhile, Adam Dunn looked like a new man, Paul
Konerko looked like the same solid pro he's been for years, Brent Morel showed improvement
at the plate, Chris Sale was very effective as a new starter and Ventura
himself displayed a natural confidence in going about his job.
There are reasons to be concerned, of course. The Sox may
surprise a lot of people if that bullpen is effective, but if guys like Addison
Reed, Hector Santiago, Nate Jones and Zach Stewart don't adjust their major
league workloads, the bullpen could be this team's undoing. I think most people
would say the line-up, so horrible last year, is the main reason to be
concerned. Viciedo showed flashes of power in the last week, but had a bad
spring. I don't know about Rios or Gordon Beckham, either, but I've seen enough
from Dunn, Morel, Konerko an even Brent Lillibridge, as well as some evidence
that A.J. Pierzynski still has some life in his bat, to believe the line-up won't
leave the starters hanging.
Among starters, I still question if Jake Peavy can get
30-plus starts, and if 20 of those can be quality starts, but with the addition
of Sale to the rotation, this looks like yet another Sox team whose most obvious
strength is its starting pitching.
What does this all add up to record-wise? I think 78 or 79
wins, for starters, which isn't great, but considering the changes--not only the loss of Guillen and Buehrle, but Carlos Quentin and to some extent
Juan Pierre, plus the fact of a first-time manager--it's not bad. The thing is,
I wouldn't be surprised to see the Sox squeeze by slightly over .500. The
postseason really is out of the question, but this is one year when I'll accept
a pleasantly average team working its way to better things next year.
What this all adds up to for GM Kenny Williams remains to be seen. A record around .500 might be enough for Sox fans to call for his head, but it's also probably enough for his boss to keep him in charge.