Kerry Wood is on the disabled list and Mark Prior is in Iowa on a rehab assignment, which means that the baseball season can finally begin. Baseball is back with a game on Sunday night and then in full force around the country on Monday. (Annual Rant: I’ll once again enter my annual plea to Bud Selig to move all Opening Day games to the first Sunday in April. There’s no reason why Opening Day for most of baseball should be (a) the same day as the National Championship Game in college basketball and (b) on a weekday where those fans with jobs (i.e. anyone that isn’t a Cubs fan) aren’t able to partake in the festivities. With the Final Four having a Saturday/Monday schedule, it would seem to me that Major League Baseball would benefit greatly from filling in the gap with a full slate of games on Sunday. Logic doesn’t seem to work well with this commissioner, though. /Annual Rant) The Chicago baseball world has seen a number of changes on both sides of town, with the White Sox upending their pitching staff and the Cubs dropping Benjamins like drunken frat boys in, well, Wrigleyville. Let’s take a look at the City of Chi along with the rest of baseball. (Note: For much more in-depth baseball coverage along with around-the-clock analysis of MLB’s decision to move Extra Innings exclusively to DirecTV – for the record, this is no skin off my back since I’m a DirecTV subscriber that lives in the home market of my favorite team – be sure to check out Siberian Baseball penned by the brilliant Minneapolis Red Sox.)
(1) Hesitant About the White Sox Moves – I’m not quite sure what to expect from the White Sox this season. Kenny Williams decided to trade workhorse Freddy Garcia and supposed future ace Brandon McCarthy for a bunch of prospects. While this might out well in the long-term, I’m concerned that the window for the Sox to contend in the upper echelon of the American League with its current lineup isn’t going to last much longer than this season. The 3-4-5-6 punch of Jime Thome, Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, and Joe Crede (Ozzie Guillen has indicated that he might switch around the middle of the order) is as strong as any in baseball, but it still remains to be seen whether we can really expect Dye to replicate his MVP-type numbers from last year. We also see former Angel Darin Erstad dug up from the grave, who would have been a fine spot player off of the bench, yet instead is plugged in as our starter in centerfield as well as taking the #2 spot in the order.
Still, the hitting doesn’t concern nearly as much as locking down the fifth starter role, which was a curse for the Sox prior to 2005. It looks like it’s going to be newcomer John Danks, who came over from the Rangers in the McCarthy trade. Also, with Garcia gone, there is a ripple effect where Javier Vasquez and Jon Garland each move up a spot in the starting rotation, and with how Vasquez has been particularly shaky after the pretty much the fifth inning of every game, that’s not a prospect that warms my heart. The bullpen should be in decent shape with Mike MacDougal in a setup role, but Bobby Jenks needs to get back to the form that he showed in the second half and postseason of 2005.
All of that being said, the White Sox are still a pretty good team overall. If Danks is able to step in and at least eat innings in the fifth starter spot and Jenks is consistent enough at closer, I think the Sox will make it to the postseason. In the rest of the American League Central Division, I believe that the Detroit Tigers are headed for a significant drop-off this season with another year tolled on you’ve got to know when to hold ’em Kenny Rogers and the ever-expanding waistline of Todd Jones. However, the Cleveland Indians seriously scare me. Assuming that they avoid further injuries to their starting rotation, I think they’ll recover from last season’s setback and be the biggest challenge once again. I always seem to discount the Minnesota Twins every year and then they subsequently find some way to get to the playoffs again (where they are promptly tossed aside in the division series), but I don’t see it happening for them this year with Francisco Liriano’s injury and Brad Radke’s retirement setting the team’s pitching staff back. Granted, Johan Santana is a pitching genius, yet just having an ace is not going to be enough. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals are finally going to make their move to the Pacific Coast League this season. So, all in all, I believe the AL Central in 2007 is going to end up looking like the AL Central in 2005.
(2) Lou and the Fonz – I’m extremely excited to see Ozzie Guillen go head-to-head with Lou Piniella when the Sox and Cubs meet up this summer. If it wasn’t for the stoic presence of Lovie Smith, Chicago would be considered the center of combustible sports coaches with the presence of Ozzie, Lou, and Scott Skiles. Piniella, however, can only do so much for the Cubs. More interesting was the spending spree by the club highlighted by the signing of Alfonso Soriano to a two-decade contract worth just under a billion dollars. Seriously, though, the top of the Cubs’ batting order will be a monster with Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez in the mix. Whether any of their outfielders will be able to catch any routine fly balls, however, is an entirely different matter. Plus, for all of the money that the Cubs have blown this offseason, their pitching staff still pretty much sucks save for Carlos Zambrano. Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly? Really?
The only saving grace for the North Siders is that it’s entirely conceivable that they can bash in enough runs to win in a severely depleted National League Central Division. Last season’s World Series championship by the Cardinals was an exercise in a team getting hot at exactly the right moment for three weeks in October as opposed to having the apparatus in place to have multiple seasons of success. When a team is lamenting the loss of Jeff Weaver, of all people, you know that the situation is fragile, particularly on the pitching front. The Houston Astros still have Roy Oswalt and a solid bullpen, but without Andy Pettitte and presumably Roger Clemens (I hope that ESPN spares us the wall-to-wall coverage of his minor league tuneups in June this year), this is a shell of the club that made it to the World Series only two tears ago. Chicago’s beer guzzling and sausage race loving neighbors to the north in Milwaukee are an intriguing team to me. With Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano, and Jeff Suppan in the starting rotation along with Prince Fielder and my personal fantasy baseball favorite Bill Hall (35 HR/85 RBI last year for a player who qualifies at 2B, SS, 3B, and OF – I love that guy) , the Brewers might actually be the most balanced team in the division. The Cincinnati Reds could surprise some people with Aaron Harang as the ace and Adam Dunn doing his best impression of a mid-90s Sammy Sosa by either blasting a home run or striking out swinging at balls in the dirt, with absolutely nothing in between. (Steve Phillips actually used his meathead to pull up a fascinating stat this week: Dunn has had a grand total of 12 sacrifice flies in 5 full seasons, while the Twins’ Justin Morneau had 11 sac flies just last year) Finally, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be joining the Royals in the Pacific Coast League.
(3) Predictions – So, here are my predictions for the upcoming baseball season (I’d advise you to promptly throw these in the trash):
AL East: (1) Boston Red Sox (Dice-K is the real deal), (2) New York Yankees (finally too old and too slow), (3) Toronto Blue Jays (America Jr. comes up just short again), (4) Tampa Bay Devil Rays (healthy Scott Kazmir = out of the cellar), (5) Baltimore Orioles (just sad)
AL Central: (1) Chicago White Sox, (2) Cleveland Indians, (3) Minnesota Twins, (4) Detroit Tigers, (5) Kansas City Royals
AL West: (1) Oakland A’s (Moneyball wins the division and fails in the playoffs again), (2) Los Angeles Angels of an Orange County Town Not Too Far From Laguna Beach (see note on the Yankees above), (3) Texas Rangers (the Chicago Tribune needs to stop printing stories about Sammy Sosa – no one here cares anymore), (4) Seattle Mariners (if Felix Hernandez comes out of his funk, we might have to move Seattle to the top of this division)
NL East: (1) New York Mets (they continue to seem like paper tigers to me, but they’re the best of a subpar lot), (2) Philadelphia Phillies (Ryan Howard rules), (3) Atlanta Braves (John Smoltz is still kicking), (4) Florida Marlins (Joe Girardi won the NL Manager of the Year award and was promptly fired – you stay classy, Marlins organization), (5) Washington Nationals (just waiting for their new ballpark)
NL Central: (1) Milwaukee Brewers, (2) Cincinnati Reds, (3) Chicago Cubs, (4) St. Louis Cardinals, (5) Houston Astros, (6) Pittsburgh Pirates
NL West: (1) Los Angeles Dodgers (the final resting place for late-90s/early-00s members of the Red Sox organization), (2) San Francisco Giants (there’s absolutely no potential news story here regarding some type of home run record – really, there’s nothing to see here, Mr. Pedro Gomez), (3) San Diego Padres (Jake Peavy – your 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner), (4) Colorado Rockies (Todd Helton is still alive), (5) Arizona Diamondbacks (the return of Randy Johnson’s mullet to Phoenix, which is the world’s second greatest mullet after that guy in the UPS commercials that draws on the whiteboard)
AL Division Series: Chicago White Sox over Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox over Cleveland Indians
NL Division Series: New York Mets over Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies over Los Angeles Dodgers
AL Championship Series: Boston Red Sox over Chicago White Sox
NL Championship Series: New York Mets over Philadelphia Phillies
World Series: Boston Red Sox over New York Mets
So, as much as I’d like to see the White Sox get back to the pinnacle of the baseball world, the Red Sox have got the best overall team going into the season.
(Images from Triumph Books, The World of Grant)