April begins tomorrow and that is no joke. Baseball is just around the corner for the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox.
And in the spirit of opening day (or in the case of the Cubs and White Sox, opening nights this Monday), I have two quiz questions for you.
We all know about Kyle Schwarber’s massive home run in game four of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. But who did Schwarber hit the home run off of?
The White Sox broke an 88-year drought with a sweep of the Houston Astros in the 2005 World Series. Sox fans know that Geoff Blum hit a pinch-hit homer in the 14th inning to lead them to victory at Minute Maid Park in game three. But who was the winning pitcher of this five hour, 41 minute marathon that lasted 14 innings? And who got the save?
The answers to the quiz questions will come at the end of this column.
The Cubs have created a buzz since their amazing finish in 2015. The Cubs finished third with a 97-65 record behind Pittsburgh (98-64) and St. Louis (100-62). All three teams had outstanding seasons. But the Cubs were the most amazing, defeating the Pirates in a Wild Card showdown. The Cubs then toppled the Cardinals in the National League Division Series.
Yes, the dominant starting pitching of the New York Mets and the hot bat of second baseman Danny Murphy ended the Cubs season in the NL championship series. But the Cubs had a long list of highlights, including Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant. But maybe the most valuable commodity is Joe Maddon as manager. The Manager of the Year dug deep into his bag of tricks that included magicians and animals in an attempt to keep the Cubs loose. He did this frequently as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.
However, when you haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years and counting, the expectations become greater. After five years of last-place finishes, the future is now for the Cubs. To solidify the starting staff, the Cubs signed gritty veteran righty John Lackey, who was with St. Louis last season. Lackey has won World Series titles with Boston and the then Anaheim Angels. He is a hard worker who enjoyed a strong season with the Cards.
Add Jason Heyward to the Cubs outfield. Dexter Fowler surprisingly resigned with the Cubs to give them a strong outfield. Arrieta, John Lester and John Lackey will anchor the staff. Kyle Hendricks has also been outstanding this spring on the hill. The bullpen appears solid as long as Hector Rodon continues to do well as the closer.
Starlin Castro has been sent to the Yankees for starter and reliever Adam Warren. Schwarber will split time in left with Jorge Soler, for now. Fowler will patrol center and Heyward in right. This team has depth at several positions. All-purpose Ben Zobrist, who won a World Series with Kansas City, will mostly play second. Addison Russell is the shortstop, Bryant is at third and Anthony Rizzo at first.
One concern for this team is the hype. Many magazines are not only predicting the Cubs to win the division, they expect them to win the World Series. That can be a heavy burden to bear. Injuries can occur and players can have slumps. It will be up to Maddon to spread some more magic.
The Chicago White Sox are hardly receiving the same fanfare, but that’s OK with Robin Ventura, the team’s skipper. Actually, USA Today predicted the Sox would win the American League Central. That seems a little surprising since the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015.
The Sox appeared ready for an overhaul before management again decided to plug some holes and compete. The White Sox traded for third baseman Todd Frazier, who brings some swagger, a good glove and power to third base. This meant recently acquired Brett Laurie moves to second base. Both players bring an attitude that was missing from the laid back Sox. Shortstop Alexis Ramirez and his inconsistencies have left town to be replaced by veteran Jimmy Rollins and Tyler Saladino. Both shortstops will get playing time. After all, Rollins is 37 but has had a great spring. Jose Abreu is back at first and will continue to put up great numbers.
Travis Ishikawa, a playoff batting star for the Giants in 2014, can play first and outfield. The outfield now has reliable Austin Jackson in center, which pushes Adam Eaton mostly to left. Melky Cabrera will play left, right and DH. Avisail Garcia looks more alive this season and may tap that potential in his second full year. With the departure of Adam LaRoche and his son, the DH spot can be split between these outfielders.
The White Sox have solid starters in Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon. Jon Danks and Mat Latos are question marks. The bullpen is deep and potentially great.
The White Sox will contend but we still like the Royals. The Cubs still have to play the games and defeat the Cardinals. This promises to be an interesting season on both sides of town.
Oh, those quiz questions. Schwarber launched his bomb off Cardinal reliever Kevin Siegrist. Damaso Marte, who got into manager Ozzie Guillen’s doghouse, was the winning pitcher in that World Series game. And Mark Buerhle actually got the save.
It’s time to play ball.