Oh hey there, optimism. Good to see you on the North and South sides of the city at this time of year. It’s been a while since we’ve seen you anywhere other than the United Center as Spring rolls around.
But listen, buddy. As good at it is to see you, I have to tell you something: can you maybe ease up a little bit? Look, it’s clear that you’re here because both the Cubs and the White Sox made drastic improvements up and down their rosters. But now you’ve got Chicago baseball fans puff out their chest and yelling “World Series or bust!”
You can do funny things to a fan, optimism. I’m here to take you down a peg.
Combine that with all of the shots and beers Joe Maddon has been buying for Cubs fans these days, and the good majority of them are drunk on the notion that the team can win the Championship this year.
“Screw the five year rebuild, we did it in four! Even Vegas has us at 10 to one to win the pennant!”
Meanwhile, in the Legion of Doom… I mean… on the South Side, the developing Bromance between Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija has Sox fans giddy with Championship dreams of their own.
If you were wondering, Vegas likes them even more at nine to one to win the AL.
Look, an optimistic perspective is a great trait to carry; maybe even necessary for survival during the past few summers as fans of these respective teams. But falling head over heels for a bunch of players and coaching additions that have yet to prove anything in front of our eyes is setting everyone up for a huge serving of humble pie.
Let me preface this by reminding everyone that we’re talking about Chicago here. Chicago. The town of perpetually battered hopes and dreams. (Insert painful Chicago sports memory here. Take your pick, there’re plenty.)
On the North Side, everyone has been enamored with the marquee signings of Maddon and ace Jon Lester, the defacto poster child for the Cubs run at success. And there’s no reason to not like these additions.
Maddon is the closest thing we have to a baseball philosopher, and his methods (and madness) are sure to carry over to on-field improvements. To what extent? That’s entirely subjective, but there’s no arguing he’ll provide a positive impact.
The same can be said for Lester, a bonafide lefty ace the likes of which Cubs fans have never seen before. Well, unless you were around in 1908 to see Hippo Vaughn toss a few gems. But I doubt it.
Barring any injury (knock on wood), Lester is essentially a shoe-in for 200+ IP, around 200 strikeouts and a WHIP near one. For all of you non-stat nerds out there, that’s all lingo for “stud material.”
These are known commodities that you can count on, and the same can be said for Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro; most everyone else slated to step in and provide a boost to this roster is a big old question mark.
Yes, newly-acquired catcher Miguel Montero is a two-time All Star; he’s also failed to hit over .245 in each of the past two seasons. Is the change of scenery from Arizona going to reboot his power numbers, or will he continue to slowly decline offensively with age?
Dexter Fowler was a Top 100 Prospect in the MLB when he was breaking in to the league, and is clearly above average when it comes to getting on base. But he carries a below average glove into the outfield and has played over 140 games only once in his career. How durable and consistent can he be?
Then we have the kids. Ah yes, the prized possessions of the rebuilding process. Kris Bryant. Jorge Soler. Javier Baez. These are the type of prospects that seemingly have no ceiling to their talent…
These are also the types of players that can bottom out in a bad way. For every Mike Trout, there are four or five Felix Pie’s, or Hee-Sop Choi’s, or Kevin Orie’s.
I’m convinced that Bryant is as sure of a bet as any to reach his potential, and I agree with the notion that Soler is the odds-on favorite for NL Rookie of the Year. But we’ve yet to actually see their ability at the pro level.
Bryant has torn up the minors, but the majors are a completely different beast. Soler started off like a house on fire but petered off a bit when teams started game planning for him. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and he’ll have to do just that to continue to succeed.
The same can be said for Baez, who looks like the most questionable of the bunch at this point. Sure, he probably wasn’t all that comfortable hitting in the two hole. But if he continues to strikeout at an astronomical rate, even in a lower spot in the batting order with way more protection, what’s the backup plan? Tommy La Stella?
It’s comforting to know that a potential replacement, Addison Russell, is in the pipeline and could take over in the near future. So can guys like Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber. But the exact same caution should be taken with these guys. Any prospect is going to be a gamble no matter what they do in the minor leagues. It’s that simple.
I haven’t even mentioned the rotation or bullpen yet. Can Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks continue their trend towards All-Star caliber? What version of Jason Hammel are they getting back: the sub-three ERA version we saw with the Cubs, or the garbage fire that manifested in Oakland? How in the world will anyone vying for that fifth spot gain anyone’s trust?
Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez are all young, power arms in the pen with potential, but they have to prove they can follow up on their solid 2014 season. Jason Motte was a shut down closer a few years back for the Cardinals, but there's no guarantee he's the same type of pitcher following multiple injuries (including Tommy John).
The lofty expectations are essentially taking for granted that every single one of these coin flips are going to come up fruitful. We know better than to assume that that will actually happen. But, like I said, optimism does funny things to us all.
Almost the same picture can be painted on the South Side, except with fewer prospects. The Sox are in a scenario where their long-term ceiling may not be as high, but their current pool of talent is a few shades ahead of the Cubs.
Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana make up one of the league’s best trios at the top of the rotation… on paper. You can’t argue with Sale, but Samardzija has really only put it all together for one full season, that being last year. And Quintana is a work horse, but has never had an ERA below 3.3 or a WHIP below 1.2.
Beyond those three, how comfortable are you with John Danks? And no matter how good of a prospect Carlos Rodon is, the same logic applies here that I mentioned about for the Cubs: we can’t just bank on him being a stud.
David Robertson was a huge signing to shore up the end of games, but bridging the gap to him may still be an issue. Only the Astros had a bullpen ERA worse than the Sox last season, and it’s hard for me to see Zach Duke as a magical cure-all.
The next five men in the bullpen have combined for 11 years of experience at the big league level. Only Zach Putnam had anything close to dominant numbers, posting a 1.98 ERA in 64 appearances. But he’s also on his fourth club in the past four years, and when you look back through the numbers, you’ll find out why.
Adam LaRoche was an excellent signing as well, not only for the power he provides, but for the flexibility he provides for the roster. Robin Ventura can now slot the reigning Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu into the DH spot as he pleases.
But if the second half of last season was any indication, the gaudy power numbers from Abreu aren’t exactly a lock. He hit for a higher average, but only collected seven homers. Can he be more consistent with the power this season? Or will the Sophomore Slump pop up out of nowhere?
Alexei Ramirez enjoyed a resurgence of sorts last season, but isn’t getting any younger. Connor Gillaspie and Tyler Flowers are clearly sub par offensively. Melky Cabrera will add value to the outfield, but for as promising as Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia are talent-wise, they’re both injury prone. We need to see a bigger sample size to draw any kind of conclusion. They basically pose the same unknown that the Cubs’ prospects do, just accelerated by a season or two.
I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade. I just want to encourage people not to get caught up in the incredible amount of hype being drummed up for Chicago baseball this summer. Will both of these teams be better? Absolutely. But should we be tossing around the ideas of pennants and trophies? Not just yet.
For the past two seasons, I set a relatively low bar for the Cubs when it came to expectations (and no, I didn’t really care about the Sox). Specifically, I believed the Cubs were a 60-win team in 2013 and a 70-win team in 2014. They ended up bettering my prediction by three wins. For as bad as last season was at times, it was a win in my book.
This year, Vegas has the over/under at 81.5 for the Cubs and 82 for the Sox. That’s still a touch too kind for my taste. You always have to account for injuries, slumps, and the off-chance that everything goes to hell in a handbasket (see: White Sox, 2014).
My conservative bar will be set at 80-wins, and if both teams modestly exceed my expectations again, it will make me even happier. In that scenario, both teams will be in reach of the second wild-card spot, and will make for a pretty interesting September.
But let’s not count our chickens before they hatch. Enjoy the upgraded brand of baseball that will be on display in the city this summer, but with tempered expectations.
Maybe next year we can start tossing around trophy talk.