Gaze Into the Crystal Baseball…

cubs_sox0419

by Tom DeMichael

Here we are, on the eve of the 2019 season. Manny is in San Diego and Bryce is in Philly. Both Chicago teams came up empty in those sweepstakes (with the White Sox being more active and realistic in their quests.) Mike Trout will not darken the doorstep of future free agency, having signed a mammoth, Victor Buono-sized contract that should earn the Angels outfielder more than $430 million over the next twelve years.

So, what can Chicago baseball fans expect in the coming months? In short, good things on both sides of town.

Most experts feel the White Sox should be able to improve their win total by at least a dozen games over last season, taking them away from the dreaded 100-loss season of 2018. And, while that won’t land them in post-season play, it should offer a lot of excitement and hope for 2020 and beyond. The team is young and talented, and skipper Rick Renteria has climbed out from under the rock that was the “one season Cubs manager” stigma. Figure the Sox will wind up somewhere in the middle of the AL Central.

The outfield will likely be Adam Engel in center and Daniel Palka in right, with veteran John Jay offering strong and capable tutelage. Of course, the monster in the room named “Eloy Jimenez” made every effort to make the major league team at only 22 years of age, which puts him in left field. And, a six-year guaranteed contract of $43 million will place him in the right frame of mind (I know that kind of dough would straighten me out.) Leury Garcia will be the fourth outfielder and super utility player, with Nicky Delmonico sent down to AAA.

The infield should feature Yolmer Sanchez at third, Tim Anderson at short, and Yoan Moncada at second – all under 26 years of age. Veteran power hitters Jose Abreu and Yonder Alonso will split time between first base and DH. Vets Wellington Castillo and James McCann will call the games from behind the plate.

Yet, there seems to be no true leadoff hitter, with anemic on-base percentages up and down the roster (here’s a sobering thought – the best OBP among regulars last year was only .325, and that was the lumbering Abreu.)

The starting pitching will be hard-pressed to come up with anyone tossing over 200 innings. The only 200+ inning pitcher from last year is gone (James Shields, thankfully.) However, Ivan Nova, acquired from Pittsburgh, is a gamer. Back in 2011, he went 16-4 with the Yankees – the Sox can only hope for production close to that.

Ervin Santana signed a minor league contract and will probably grab a spot in the starting rotation. Entering his fifteenth ML season, Santana had a few good years with the Angels – 16-7, with a 3.49 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 2008, and 17-10, with a 3.92 ERA and 222 innings pitched in 2010. As recently as 2017, he went 16-8, with a 3.28 ERA and 1.13 WHIP with the Twins.

The rest of the rotation will be Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez, and Lucas Giolito – all under 25 years of age. With Dylan Covey and Carson Fulmer likely headed to AAA, Sox pitching will be more potent in 2020.

As for a closer, the White Sox can choose from free agent signee Kelvin Herrera, who had nearly 60 saves with the Royals, and Alex Colomé, who saved almost 100 games for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Cubs hope to recover from their lightning-quick exit in the 2018 post-season. As with many teams, health will be the key to matching their 97-win average for the last four years. Yet, even with exciting additions to the Cardinals and Reds teams, the Cubs should still win the NL Central in a close race.

In the outfield, left and right fields are pretty much set with Kyle Schwarber and Jayson Hayward, respectively. But, both being lefties may find them sitting against select left-handed pitchers on the mound. Albert Almora Jr. seems set to play more center field, with switch-hitting Ian Happ being sent to AAA-Iowa in an effort to cut down his massive strikeout rate (Not to fear – he will be back this year.) Skipper Joe Maddon can mix and match corner fill-ins with Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant and, possibly, Mark Zagunis.

The infield is pretty well set (at least after Addison Russell finishes his 40-game suspension for domestic violence.) Bryant, looking to put his 2018 shoulder inflammation in the rearview mirror, will hold down third base, near-MVP of 2018 Javy Baez will handle short, and Anthony Rizzo will look to add another Gold Glove at first base. Once Russell returns, figure second base will be a shaken-not-stirred cocktail of Baez, Zobrist, David Bote, and free agent signee Daniel DeScalso.

Behind the plate, Willson Contreras will continue to be strong defensively, while searching for the power stroke that disappeared in 2018. Switch-hitting Victor Caratini will have to step up in his role as backup catcher.

Just like the White Sox, the Cubs seem to be missing a true leadoff hitter. Rizzo, Bryant, and Zobrist all had OBPs over .374 in 2018, but they just don’t fit the patient, deep-count, base-stealing leadoff paradigm. Almora sported an OBP of nearly .370 in the leadoff spot, but showed little patience to go deep into counts there.

A full year of a healthy Yu Darvish and lefty Cole Hamels should add to an already potent rotation of Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. A staff that has Jose Quintana as its fifth starter should concern more than a few hitters.

The bullpen – already rich with Steve Cishek, Mike Montgomery, Brandon Kintzler, and Carl Edwards Jr. – saw additions of Tony Barnette, Brad Brach, and Xavier Cedeno (with two of those newbies developing shoulder and wrist injuries in spring training.) Tyler Chatwood will have to find his control – big time. Lefty Brian Duensing is gone, being designated for assignment. Pedro Strop will handle most of the closing duties until Brandon Morrow fully recovers from elbow problems. After his return, don’t expect to see him two days in a row.

So – Who wins the Big Enchilada? Vegas odds makers are looking at the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros as early AL favorites. In the NL, they like the Cubs, Dodgers, and Phillies.

Who will really make it? Ask me in October.

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