Sports Outside the Beltway

Baseball Nirvana in Chicago

More than six million people packed the two baseball parks in the city of the big shoulders in 2006. Not bad for two teams that didn’t make the playoffs. But the rough and tumble Chicagoans will not tolerate lovable losers. The White Sox can bask in the glow of their first title in 88 years. The Cubs though are on notice – another Cubs season that goes south will mean more anger on the north side of Chicago. Nothing inspires spending like the sword of Damocles tottering above a GM’s head. And Jim Hendry has fired his only scapegoat, Dusty Baker. He’s on the line with this team, and the moves show it.

Meet Alfonso Soriano, savior of the Cubs. Hendry better hope Alfonso can walk on water, because it will take miracles to pull the Cubbies together into a world beating team in 2007. A quick analysis of the starters and backups for the Cubs points to a team that reasonably expects score 775 runs next year. That’s okay. Not bad, but not great. Last year’s Cub team scored 716 runs, so that is a decided improvement. Some of that improvement is the return of a full season of Derrek Lee. But it is still only good for 16th best in the big leagues. Pitching clearly matters, a lot to the Cubs.

And the staff should be pretty good. The regular breakdowns of Prior and Wood should both be expected and planned for as well as serve as an opportunity for the Cubs to promote the club.

Hey Cubs fans, come on out to Wrigley on Wednesday afternoon. It’s Kerry Wood sore shoulder day at the park. Fans complaining of aches and pains will receive a coupon for a discounted MRI from North Side Radiology, the official MRI providers to the Chicago Cubs. And one lucky fan will get his medical expenses paid for a year. Remember that’s next Wednesday afternoon when the Cubs host the Rockies at Wrigley.

The signings of Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to eat innings are useful. They plus Rich Hill, who was alternately was frustratingly bad and brilliant last year, will give the Cubs three league average starters. If Prior and Wade Miller can stay healthy for a half season each, the Cubs have starting pitching. Huge if. That leaves the unresolved question of Carlos Zambrano’s impending foray into free agency. The Cubs priority between now and spring training is to get the big fella under contract for the foreseeable future. In addition to having electric stuff, Carlos Zambrano is just as durable as Barry Zito has been and is two years younger. The seven year deal that the Giants gave Zito is the low point that Zambrano will accept to remain in Wrigley. As heralded as Wood and Prior have been, Zambrano has gotten the job done year after year and is the key to future Cub success.

But the X-factor is Prior, again. Cubs fans know he is a special pitcher. He was terrible last season, save for one remarkable performance, five and two-thirds no hit ball against the Mets in July. He walked five and threw 103 pitches. Not an ideal performance. If Prior can harness his considerable talent, the Cubs could run away with the division. As Miracle Max might say, “It’d take a miracle.” As noted earlier, Jim Hendry brought Alfonso Soriano in for big money, and he better hope he can walk on water.

The northside whirlwind has not the ChiSox who while not sitting idly by, have shown more of an eye to sustainable success, than instant gratification. Starting the offseason with a minor cross town deal that netted hard throwing but control challenged David Aardsma and hard throwing but control challenged Carlos Vasquez in exchange for Neal Cotts, you can get an idea of the direction the ChiSox are going. The offseason dealing continued with the trade of Freddy Garcia to the Phillies for pitchers Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, who had been dealt by the White Sox to the Phillies last year in the Aaron Rowand trade. Floyd is an okay talent, but his mediocre fastball makes him a nibbler. And in Philadelphia’s bandbox, his every misplaced pitch was crushed. That kind of whiplash tends to make a pitcher more timid, and leads to more nibbling and ever expanding walk rates. Unfortunately, he is going to a league with a DH instead of a a weak hitting pitcher and a park where pitchers can watch balls fly over the wall in a hurry, too. The key to the deal had to be Gio Gonzalez, right? Absolutely. Gonzalez struggled at Reading, adjusting to a new league, a new organization and a higher level of competition. His walk and homerun rates jumped. Spending a year in Charlotte – a neutral park in terms of effects – will give him an opportunity to right the wobble of last season.

White Sox GM Ken Williams made another pair of deals. The first was a small one with Kansas City moving blocked 1B/RF/DH Ross Gload for Andrew “Sisquatch” Sisco. Sisquatch (so nicknamed because of his imposing 6-10 stature) mixes a nasty slider with serious heat. His problem has been, you guessed it control. Gload wasn’t going to beat out Dye, Konnerko or Thome, so getting an arm with serious talent for him is the smart move. Sico’s weaknesses might work out as he gets older. He is frequently compared to Randy Johnson whose control finally kicked in when he was with Seattle at age 29.

The stockpiling continued with the Brandon McCarthy deal. McCarthy had not found a way to displace any of the other starters in Chicago. He’ll start for sure in Texas. McCarthy goes from a bad homerun park to the worst, though. In exchange the White Sox acquired John Danks who would fit the Tom Glavine profile of a solid if not dominating lefty. In short, Chicago picked up three intriguing young arms who could all start in 2008. Plug Floyd into 2007 with Conteras, Buerhle, Garland and Vasquez and you still have a good rotation in ’07, while you wait for the kids to mature. A full season of Mike MacDougal setting up Bobby Jenks gives them an excellent late inning combo. The rest of the bullpen though has questions. But every bullpen ahs questions and if you can bring heat, then you can get out of trouble a lot quicker.

They have a strong rotation, questionable bullpen and solid lineup. They do not get on base as much as they should. That’s their organizational philosophy and it worked out well enough in 2005. They should win 90 games and contend for a playoff spot. But even better for the White Sox, they have a crop of young hitters either breaking in or that should be ready for the bigs in 2008 or 2009. Those talents include current starter CF Brian Anderson and projected reserve OF Ryan Sweeney, who did not hit a lot in a brief call up. In addition, 3B Josh Fields, and former bright stars CF Jerry Owens and SS Robert Valido are in the running for spots in ’08 or ’09. The White Sox have little organizational depth, but their moves this offseason maintain a competitive roster while re-arming at the highest organizational levels to extend that competitiveness until their Latin American scouting infrastructure improves.

A tale of two teams in one city; both hoping it will be the best of times.

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