The major league baseball season begins on Sunday. It was just over four months ago that the Chicago Cubs shattered a 108-year drought by capturing the World Series.
And in celebration of the new baseball season, I will pose two quiz questions to our readers about our local teams:
- Who was the winning pitcher and who earned the save when the Cubs won game seven of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians last fall?
- And who was the winning pitcher and who earned the save for the Chicago White Sox when they won the 2005 World Series against the Houston Astros?
The answers will be provided at the end of this column.
Yes, the Cubs are World Series champions. Fans are still riding an emotional wave as they prepare to visit the St. Louis Cardinals at 7:35 p.m. Sunday on ESPN. Even if you are not a fan, you can’t escape seeing or hearing about them. The praise has often been genuine. Sometimes it is over the top.
Theo Epstein is not only considered baseball’s best executive, he has also been selected as the world’s greatest leader by Fortune Magazine. That reminds me of that line by Babe Ruth when he was asked if he should be paid more than the president. “I had a better year,” he quipped. Epstein is ranked higher than Pope Francis. I guess he had a better year. Holy Cow!
During the winter, Cub players made appearances on TV talk shows. They were twerking on “Saturday Night Live” and singing, too. Heck, you can’t even avoid them on “Dancing with the Stars.” Retired catcher Dave Ross was dancing to “Go Cubs Go!”
I think you know where I’m going with this. The only obstacle for the Cubs in the National League East is themselves. With all the distractions this winter and completing a dream season that brought many fans to tears, will the Cubs lose focus? I think they will be fine for several reasons. First, the competition in the NL Central is not that strong. The Brewers and Reds are in transition, and Pittsburgh has to reignite behind a rejuvenated Andrew McCutchen.
The St. Louis Cardinals have signed former Cub center fielder Dexter Fowler to leadoff and bring some leadership to that team. But the Cubs have filled the slot with former Cardinal John Jay and Albert Almora. Both should play well and they excel defensively. That will be important because they may have to make up for Kyle Schwarber’s defensive deficiencies in left. Schwarber has no deficiencies at the plate, however. His best position is at bat.
The Cubs have a strong staff led by Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. Kyle Hendricks had the lowest ERA in baseball and is listed as the fifth starter. The Cubs have depth and that alone should get them far in the National League playoffs. The depth will be tested early as Almora has tightness in his neck and shortstop Addison Russell also has been suffering from a stiff back. That could mean Javy Baez could start the season at shortstop. He is the team’s best defensive player.
The Cubs are not perfect. Will former Royal closer Wade Davis pitch as he has in the past? He had some arm problems last season before improving in the second half. And will Jason Heyward’s restructured swing pay dividends this season? So far this spring he has been an easy out.
But the Cubs have more talent waiting to get an opportunity. Ian Happ will be sent to the minors but he cracked five homers this spring and hit over .400. The Cubs are no longer lovable losers.
The Chicago White Sox won two more game than they did in 2015, but it was not good enough. Robin Ventura was not fired but he knew it was time to leave. Rick Renteria, who was shown the exit door with the Cubs when Joe Maddon became available, is the new Sox skipper. The Sox floundered in mediocrity and that resulted in Chris Sale being dealt to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton sent to the Nationals.
But the White Sox in two trades improved their farm system dramatically with seven prospects, led by second baseman Yoan Moncada, the number two prospect in baseball. He had a great spring after a slow start. Pitchers Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Carson Fulmer, Spencer Adam and Zack Burdi may not be far away.
But the best thing for the White Sox this season is there are no expectations. That could mean they could surprise if southpaw Jose Quintana hangs around, along with some other veterans. The improved Cleveland Indians are the top team in the American League Central. The Sox could finish in fourth and as high as third if the Royals and Tigers struggle. Of course, if they continue to deal away veterans the Twins could pass them up.
But I think the Sox have a lock on fourth, and with some good fortune, could finish as high as third. If the White Sox finish at .500, then it is a successful season.
Oh, here are those quiz answers.
- Michael Martinez topped a grounder to Kris Bryant, who threw a strike to Anthony Rizzo for a Cubs World Series win on Nov. 3, 2016 at Cleveland’s Progressive Field. Former Mariner lefty Mike Montgomery recorded his first save in the Cubs victory. The winning pitcher was Aroldis Chapman, who retired the side in order in the ninth after giving up that homer to Rajai Davis in the eighth.
- Orlando Palmeiro hit a roller to shortstop Juan Uribe, who threw a strike to first baseman Paul Konerko to lead the White Sox to a 1-0 win over the Houston Astros in a four-game sweep on Oct. 26, 2005. Bobby Jenks recorded his second save of the series. The winning pitcher was Freddy Garcia. The Sox win at Minute Maid Park ended an 88-year World Series drought for the South Siders.