by Tom DeMichael
There can be no question – when it comes to baseball in Chicago, this year was less than satisfying, no matter which side of town floats your fungo bat. The Sox should have been on the rise (according to the Plan,) while the Cubs should have mopped up the floor with the NL Central (if you ask some people.)
In reality, there was plenty of good to go along with the bad and the ugly of 2018. But there were ample amounts of all three to go around.
The White Sox played near-.600 ball in August. But that hardly balanced against the rest of their season and they lost 100 games for the first time in nearly fifty years. More concern arose away from the field, with a harrowing incident for pitcher Danny Farquhar and a confounding lack of judgment by catcher Welington Castillo.
Right-handed reliever Farquhar passed out in the Sox dugout during an April game. Taken to the hospital, the hurler was found to have suffered a brain aneurism, resulting in a life-threatening hemorrhage. The episode was a catalyst for the team, with hopes that they could win big for their fallen teammate. And, the good news was that Danny Farquhar had recovered to where he was able to throw out the first pitch at a Sox-Brewers game less than two months later.
The latest on Farquhar is he will be a minor-league free agent in the coming weeks.
The story on Castillo was disturbing for other reasons. Signed to a two-year, $15 million deal before the season, it was hoped the 31-year-old veteran could mentor the young Sox pitching corps. But getting caught for using a performance-enhancing drug and receiving an 80-game suspension was definitely not part of the intended core curriculum. He returned in September, where he managed thirteen hits, no homers or RBI. His offensive production for the season was a meager .259, with six home runs and fifteen runs batted in.
Castillo most likely will return as the starter in 2019, but probably won’t last the season.
Moving forward into 2019, many Sox questions beg for answers…
Is Daniel Palka the real deal? The 26-year-old outfielder/DH led the team with 27 home runs in just 124 games – but as a first-year player, is it the start of something big or just an anomaly?
What’s up with Jose Abreu? The big bopper failed to hit at least 25 home runs or drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career. A nasty infection in his upper leg landed the first-baseman and two-time All Star in the hospital and he could be a free agent after the 2019 season. If he starts out strong, the team may try to test his value on the trade market before he leaves on his own.
Carlos Rodón – Should he stay or should he go? The lefty starter has yet to live up to his potential. He’ll just be 26-years-old before the season starts, but nagging health issues (like a bum shoulder) have limited his ability to pitch more than 165 innings in any of his four years with the Sox.
Was Michael Kopech too good to be true? With a 100mph-plus fastball, it may not have been a surprise the 22-year-old wound up needing Tommy John surgery before the year ended. Nothing will be known about Kopech until 2020 at the very least.
Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada – Are they future leaders for the Sox? Anderson stole 26 bases, but only hit .240 – with a miserable on-base percentage of just .281. In the field, the shortstop reduced his error total to 20 (from 28 in 2017.) Yet, as part of the young up-and-comers for the Sox, patience might be a virtue with Anderson.
And, Moncada? As the key piece in the Chris Sale trade with Boston, the second baseman led all of baseball with 217 Ks in 2018. Yet, the 23-year-old showed improved selection at the plate (meaning: lots of called third strikes.) It was recently suggested that he might serve the Sox better with a move to third base – pushing Anderson to second and making room for someone named Manny Machado at SS. Pipe dreams? Maybe.
It was hoped that 2019 would be a break out year for the White Sox – but that arrival might be delayed for a year or more.
On the other side of town, the Cubs turned out to be WYSINWYG in 2018 – what you see is NOT what you get. Quite honestly, how they maintained their first-place position for more than half the season is puzzling, to say the least.
At the outset, the stat that they scored one or no runs in a quarter of their games is stunning. How does that team win 95 games?
Acknowledged leader Anthony Rizzo started out very slow, but wound up with a decent line of .283/25/101. Still, his on-base plus slugging (OPS) of .846 was the lowest since his first full year of 2013 with the Cubs.
Former MVP Kris Bryant turned out to be mortal, with shoulder problems keeping him from reaching at least 151 games, as he had in his first three Cub seasons. Assuming he could have played in all 162 games, instead of the 102 in which he did in 2018, his offensive numbers were still subpar – his stats project to just 145 hits, 19 homers, and 72 RBI. He’s better than that, he knows it, and is determined to leave 2018 in the rearview mirror.
Javy Baez? His MVP year stalled a bit in September – as Milwaukee Brewer Christian Yelich roared past him for a slam dunk. Still, Baez is one of the (if not, very) best all around player on the Cubs. His defense is silly-good at second, third and shortstop (although the routine play can still elude him at times.) With the acquisition of Daniel Murphy – and the eventual demise of shortstop Addison Russell under the shadow of domestic battery claims – it might be best to leave Baez at his natural position of shortstop and keep Murphy at second.
Ben Zobrist had a career best average of .305, and played anywhere he was asked to play. But, at age 38 as the 2019 season begins, it wouldn’t be surprising to see his success ebb a bit.
The core pitching rotation of Lester, Hendricks, and Quintana looked formidable as the season neared. The acquisition of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood made it even more promising.
But Darvish’s arm problems (while remembering he is a member of the Tommy John surgery club) killed any promise of a dominant Cubs rotation. Plus, with Chatwood delivering the crippling stat of nearly a walk for every one of the 103 innings he pitched, the righty became persona-non-grata. He couldn’t start; he couldn’t relieve; it’s not known if he could hawk beers in the stands.
The addition of lefty Cole Hamels was a welcome sight as the Cubs headed toward the finish line. He delivered an ERA of just 2.33 and a WHIP of 1.1 in his twelve games with the team. It’s thought he can be a valuable part of the 2019 rotation.
Crowned closer Brandon Morrow had his own injury issues, as a bone bruise in his pitching arm saw him out of commission by the All-Star break. Even if he returns to full health, it’s been inferred that using him on back-to-back days in 2019 won’t happen. So, what does that say for the closer position? Pedro Strop did a fine job picking up the role, but he can be inconsistent at times.
The season clearly showed that timing was/is everything. The Brewers had a September record of 19-7, winning the all-important 163rd game against the Cubs on October 1st. That gave the BrewCrew the division. They smacked down the Rockies (who beat the Cubs in the Wild Card game) in three straight games and lost in seven to the Dodgers.
Don’t expect Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to stand pat during the off season. Theo’s alma mater – that is, the Boston Red Sox – just won the World Series, so he surely wants back into that exclusive club. He and the Cubs aren’t satisfied with just making the playoffs every year – having tasted the success of a World Championship, they want more of that.
Can you say “Bryce Harper?”
I knew you could.