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Baseball Preview: 10 Reasons to Look Forward to Chicago Baseball, Other Than It Being Baseball

This year might not be the horror show lots of people are predicting—the White Sox might even have an outside shot in a weak division. But the most interesting player to watch could be a Royals minor-leaguer out in Kane County.

Chicago Cubs

 

Chicago sports columnist and ChicagoSide EIC Jonathan Eig has given up on the baseball season here before it’s even begun:

Seriously, this baseball season could be the worst Chicago has seen since 1980, when the Cubs lost 98 games, the Sox lost 90, and the two teams combined to finish 53 games out of first place.

Then again, so have the White Sox:

“The thought of the [Appreciate the Game] campaign is not (the White Sox) telling the fan to appreciate the game, but it’s more of a Robin Ventura philosophy of how he approaches the game … play hard and smart and appreciate the opportunity to play in the big leagues for the Chicago White Sox. We, as fans, also should all appreciate … an opportunity to spend time with friends and family. … Winning is the most important thing, but hopefully people will say when they leave the ballpark, ‘Wow, that was a lot of fun.’”

“Appreciate the game": the PR equivalent of “be glad you have food on the table.”

I would have gone with “’tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.”

When the White Sox signed declining outfielder Kosuke Fukudome—just off disappointing stints with not one but two Sox rivals—my friends were even more harsh than Eig:

“white sox brand essence for 2012: trolling”

“this must be how it feels to be an indians fan”

But there are things to actually anticipate, as opposed to appreciate, about both the Cubs and the White Sox. Neither team is likely to be better than they were last year, but they’re more interesting.

1. Chris Sale

A 6’-6", 22-year-old lefty whose fastball peaks at 98 mph and who has a good change to take the edge off: Sale might be the best young starter in the American League behind Matt Moore, Michael Pineda, and David Price. Moving from the pen will inevitably make his stats worse, but there’s a good case to be made that his skills translate better than most young pitchers in his position. Stats nerds love Sale; his projections suggest that this year or next he could give the Sox a season they haven’t seen since the great 2005 staff.

2. Starlin Castro

It’s not just that he broke 200 hits at age 20, it’s that there’s no reason he won’t get better in every aspect of his game: from stolen bases (he has the speed, but not the instincts yet) to fielding (ditto) to power (which improved over his first two seasons) to plate discipline (he walked less but also struck out less last year).

3. Adam Dunn

I don’t understand the big deal about “good” players. The most interesting storyline in baseball last year was Adam Dunn following up a career of unvaryingly good seasons with the worst season by a good player ever. This was tremendously disappointing for a team that was supposed to be good, but for a team that’s supposed to finish under .500, we can sit back and enjoy the drama.

Two compelling theories have been set forth about Dunn. One is that Dunn, who made his living hitting very few balls a very long way, was pushed to hit the ball more often. He obliged, and ended up hitting bad pitches badly (“the prototypical ‘pressing hitter’"). What made Dunn good for so many years was that he was the opposite of the pressing hitter.

Another was flagged by South Side Sox from The Waddle and Silvy Show:

“[Greg Walker] says ‘We have a problem,’ I say ‘What? Spring training is only a couple of days [old].’ He says ‘You’ve got to come out and see Adam Dunn’s swing.’ I said ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got a month and a half to get ready, go through spring training. Don’t worry about it.’ ” […]

This analysis of his swing makes an interesting case; I have to trust them on whether it’s representative of his swing for the season generally, but the one they captured does look like one that would generate less power:

A third option is that Dunn no longer has “old man skills” and is now just an old man. It’s no less possible, but considerably less interesting.

4. The Twins

The Sox will likely be looking up at the Tigers, who have two of the best hitters in baseball and one of the best pitchers in baseball. But they can look down on their closer rivals in Minneapolis, who are going to be awful. As my sole Twins-fan-friend put it, “At least the White Sox are getting new players. I think the Twins are going to field a 13 man roster this season.”

5. The Tigers

This is the infield they are likely to throw out there this season, by career ultimate zone rating:

1B: Prince Fielder (-6.4)
2B: Ryan Raburn (-23.8)
SS: Jhonny Peralta (-3.0)
3B: Miguel Cabrera (-4.5, and he hasn’t regularly played the position in years)

If Dunn still hasn’t turned around, Ventura can just have him bunt against the Tigers.

6. Alex Rios

Rios was almost as bad as Dunn last year, but he wasn’t as bad as his late-season introduction to the White Sox in 2009, when he hit .199/.229/.301 in 41 awful games. Rios is declining, as a 31-year-old center fielder will do, but an improvement is well with the sum of all potential universes. If you buy Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA and its hope for the two players, combined rebounds from Dunn and Rios could amount to seven wins, as good as adding one of the best players in the game. Which says as much about how awful they were last year as how good they can be, but it’s hope. Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham are also good candidates to improve.

7. Wide-Open Races

Neither Baseball Prospectus nor the Marcel projections project a 90-game winner in either Central division, which is entirely believable. In the National League, the Cardinals lost Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa, and their great pitching coach, Dave Duncan; the Brewers took a step back by replacing Prince Fielder in their lineup with Aramis Ramirez; and the Reds are still wildly unpredictable. (The Astros may actually be worse in 2012.) In the AL, Baseball Prospectus projects one (!) team over .500; Marcel projects the Tigers to win the division at six games over .500.

If everything comes together for the White Sox—an above-average rotation, bounceback years from their key players—they could actually contend in a terrible division. The Cubs won’t contend, but they’ll look less worse by comparison.

8. The Cubs’ Thrift-Store Roster

I can’t help it: I love teams that seem to have been assembled in a video game from the simulated free-agent wire, perhaps because I don’t currently have to root for any teams like that. This year, they’ve got some endearing reclamation projects in Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, Ian Stewart, and Paul Maholm to go along with prototypical four-A player Bryan LaHair and the Jeff Samardzija missile test.

Anyway, losing 90 games with a lineup of semi-promising transients is more interesting than losing 90 games with the same declining cast of veterans.

9. Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson

They’re both promising players behind guys who no one expects to last the season: LaHair at first for the Cubs, Soriano in the outfield. Rizzo in particular could be a new Mark Grace; Jackson is expected to put up 20-20 numbers at some point soon.

10. Bubba Starling

I kind of ran out of reasons to get excited about the Cubs and the White Sox, so you should know that the best athlete and best-named player in the most recent draft—and a potential franchise player down the road, though as a 19-year-old it’s impossible to predict—will likely spend at least some of the year playing for the Kane County Cougars, and if so he’ll be well worth the visit.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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