Baseball season starts in two weeks. Based on the weather, it should start now. With the new season comes a pile of predictive pieces, from Fantasy Baseball magazines, to Sports Illustrated, to the local papers (our two remaining sportswriters give THEIR predictions for the upcoming year!). So far, they run the gamut from neutral to pessimistic. Neither the Sox nor the Cubs are expected to do much of anything. It's a bounce back year on both sides of town. New managers will try to find their way. At Wrigley, a new GM and team president will slowly work on rebuilding a ballclub. At US Cellular, a group of underachievers will try to find redemption.
So imagine my surprise when I see this in the pages of Chicago Magazine.
Chicago Baseball Preview: The Most Dismal Season in 30 Years?
A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: Our columnist argues that this could be Chicago’s worst season for baseball in three decades
What a downer of a prediction! Right there in Chicago Magazine! It's nestled in between the pictures of TV anchors in cocktail dresses at charity fundraisers and the reviews of swanky Gold Coast restaurants (At "Marbles," every entree is the size of a marble. Average price? Ten thousand dollars per person...)
The MOST DISMAL SEASON IN 30 YEARS.
I don't remember the 1980 baseball season all that much - in that I was born two months into it. I would argue that this year has the potential to be the most dismal since last season - when both franchises fell flat as soon as the bell rang in April. Cubs GM Jim Hendry was thrown over the side in August. Ozzie Guillen left the team before the end of the season, and some of the beat writers say he checked out long before.
Take it away Jonathan Eig!
"This is the year to move to the South of France, where the newspapers don’t carry box scores and your Facebook friends will post mostly bouillabaisse recipes. This is the year to take up chess or knitting or even the reading of objects formerly known as books. Just do yourself a favor, please, and turn off the ball game. Check in a year from now. Maybe two. Until further notice, let’s not talk about the national pastime, OK?"
This is Royko-esque hyperbole. The kind of writing that makes you want to go to the Billy Goat to avoid your family for days on end.
"I’d rather root for the Royals, Nationals, or Marlins this year than the Cubs or Sox. Those teams have new players worth watching, some works in progress that should be interesting to follow."
The Royals are marking their fifth consecutive season of "being the team to watch!" The Nationals are interesting, but they play in a hyper-competitive NL East. The Marlins have our old friends Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano - and according to my informal survey of baseball fans - everyone's happy they are one time zone away.
"But with the Cubs and Sox, what have I got to be excited about? Sure, the two new managers—Robin Ventura on the South Side and Dale Sveum up in Wrigleyville—might be fun to watch, but should we really expect either of them to transform their inept charges into champions? Please. That’s like a career criminal counting on a new parole officer to turn him around or a two-year-old banking on a new daycare instructor for potty training. Good luck to you, Messrs. Ventura and Sveum, because you’ve got some messy work ahead."
If they are fun to watch, then it shouldn't be all that dismal. If they don't transform their team into champions, then Ventura and Sveum are on the same playing field as Jerry Manuel, Lou Piniella, Terry Bevington, Dusty Baker, Gene Lamont, Don Baylor, Jeff Torborg, Jim Riggleman, Jim Fregosi, Tony LaRussa, Jim Essian, Herman Franks, Don Lemon, Eddie Stanky, Chuck Tanner, Leo Duro....you get the idea.
"Let’s look at the Cubs first. They’ve lost their best power hitter in Aramis Ramirez and made no big free-agent moves. Ian Stewart and David DeJesus are nice players, but they’re not going to do wonders for the T-shirt vendors on Addison. The starting rotation is mediocre, and the bullpen is a potential disaster. In the same division, the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds will be stronger than the Cubs. Even the Pirates might knock around the boys in blue."
I'm no Cub fan - but they are being sold short. The Cubs are rebuilding - no doubt about it. But let's take a look at the competition. The Brewers signed Aramis Ramirez - to replace Prince Fielder...one of best sluggers in baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals, meantime, lost Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim California United States of America North America Earth. The Reds went from 91 wins and a Division title in 2010 to a disappointing 79 wins in 2011. The Pirates are slowly getting better, while the Astros have one more disastrous year in the NL Central before moving to the American League in 2013.
"Meanwhile, the White Sox said goodbye to their ace pitcher, Mark Buehrle, leaving them with an unproven cast of hurlers and a lineup of hitters who haven’t been hitting. Adam Dunn was the Titanic in cleats last year, and Alex Rios wasn’t much better. Their only reliable slugger, Paul Konerko, just turned 36. If he starts to fade, they’re all going down with the ship. Kenny Williams, the GM, says the team will not be spending more money to improve its roster. As for the new hitting coach, Jeff “Mickey” Manto: Over his nine-year career he hit a paltry .230."
The loss of Mark Buehrle is psychological. He was the second longest tenured player on the Sox (after Paul Konerko). He shattered Billy Pierce's record for Opening Day starts. But his spot in the rotation will be filled by Chris Sale, a lanky left-hander who found himself in the bullpen two months after he was drafted in 2010. His upside is described as "Randy Johnson-esque." It will be fun watching him develop as a starting pitcher. Adam Dunn, so far, is doing all the right things. He's hit two home runs in spring training - along with 9 walks and one strikeout. Paul Konerko is starting to find his stroke after a slow start in Arizona. If Jeff Manto's batting average disqualifies him as a hitting coach - then the Sox should fire pitching coach Don Cooper for his 5.27 career ERA. As for Kenny Williams not spending money - he opened the checkbook last year for mediocre team. Money does not solve everything.
The Cubs have incredible timing. The Red Sox collapsed in time to make Theo Epstein available. The movie "Moneyball" made his tactics understandable to the average baseball fan (Look honey, he's VORPing! Just like Brad Pitt and that guy from Superbad!). The Cubs have a plan, and it seems that the fan base is on board with it.
I don't expect the Sox to be competitive in the AL Central. The Tigers are just too good. But I do expect them to be better than last year. Dayan Viciedo hopefully will be more durable than Carlos Quentin (I loved Carlos, but he spent way too much time on the DL). Alejandro De Aza should be better than Juan Pierre. Alex Rios appears to be addressing the mechanical flaws that made last year such a disaster. If any of the three should fail - Kosuke Fukudome is there to pick up the slack.
As for the infield - Brent Morel has been showing signs that his September surge is no fluke. He may not be the second coming of Robin Ventura. But he could be the next Joe Crede. Alexei Ramirez is one of the best shortstops in the American League. Gordon Beckham still has trouble with high fastballs...but he's a good defensive second baseman. Paul Konerko is Paul Konerko. If AJ Pierzynski starts to show his age behind the plate - Tyler Flowers is waiting in the wings.
In 2011, the Sox played with a disinterested manager, and four boat anchors in the lineup...and they still won 79 games. Robin Ventura is fully engaged in 2012. If you remove one boat anchor - you're at 81 or 82 wins. You remove two boat anchors, you're at 85. You know, they do have that second wild card...and if you remove that third boat anchor....
A guy can dream, can't he?
UPDATE: After I wrote this blog post yesterday afternoon, Adam Dunn hit 2 home runs (including a grand slam) in an exhibition game against the Royals. Who's a Gloomy Gus now?