Sox fans have alot to boast about going into spring training. Their team slid under the radar last year and ended up dominating the playoffs for their first World Series Championship in 88 years. Kenny Williams didn’t rest on his laurels during the offseason picking up key acquisitions such as Jim Thome, Rob Mackowiac, and Javier Vazquez. The Sox are now the number one seed going into the 06′ season, with many experts picking them to do it again. But anyone who knows baseball knows that repeating is easier said than done.
The Sox can no longer play the team under the radar. The whole league knows about them and will be looking to upset the champs any chance they get. Being the hunted under the pressures of intense media focus will make this a long season. The Sox need five things to happen if they want to take part in another parade.
1. Stay Healthy- The Sox were able to go through most of last season relatively injury-free. Besides nagging injuries to Dustin Hermanson, Joe Crede, and Scott Podsednik the White Sox were able to play their guys almost everyday. However, while most guys were able to get back in shape, including new addition Jim Thome, many pitfalls may lie ahead. Thome, Hermanson, Crede, and Podsednik are all recovering which means that setbacks can happen and one time injuries can become reoccuring. And with a rotation of starters that all pitched over 200 innings last season and 2 of them will be competing in the WBC this spring, healthy arms could be at a premium. If their players, especially the pitchers can keep healthy then the Sox will have a chance to put a World Series Team on the field everyday.
2. Get Production From the No. 2 Spot- Last year Ozzie Guillen called number 2 hitter Tadahito Iguchi his MVP. Iguchi flourished as the man to bat behind base-stealing menace Scott Podsednik. Iguchi took advantage of all the fastballs that were thrown at him and was able to advance Podsednik and drive in a few runs in the process. This year Ozzie has decided to move Iguchi to the six hole to take advantage of his power.
Replacing him in the order will be Juan Uribe. Uribe has been an inconsistent, free-swinging player who has only shown flashes of superstar talent. His canyon-like strike zone could cause problems if he becomes a strike out liability near the top of the order. Uribe needs to find discipline at the plate and learn that the responsibility of a number 2 hitter is not to do what he feels, but what needs to be done. Whether that be laying down a bunt, or swinging away, Uribe needs to learn how to do such things on command.
3. Thome Must Return To Form- Sox fans were a bit confused and dismayed when they found that fan favroite Aaron Rowand was traded to Philadelphia for power hitting first baseman/DH Jim Thome. A few years ago Thome was one of the best power hitters in the game with over 400 career home runs. But injuries have slowed the Illinois native to less than stellar playing time and statistics the last two seasons.
We all know what Thome can do when he is healthy. He can provide enormous protection for Konerko in the middle of the order and with Podsednik at the top of the order, can put up all-star numbers again. But if Thome has another injury riddled year, fans will begin to really feel the void in center field.
4. Stay Focused- As mentioned earlier, the White Sox are no longer the team that no one knows about. A parade that drew 1.7 million last year and an upcoming ring ceremony this year has put this team front and center for the baseball world. As the media spotlight gets bigger not only locally, but nationally, the White Sox will have to concentrate on staying focused now more than ever.
They can no longer get away with taking an opponent for granted. The Tampa Bay Devilrays may not look like much but they’ll be bringing their best baseball when they play the White Sox. If the White Sox begin looking past anyone, they will be staring right into the face of a long and disappointing summer.
5. Ozzie Has To Keep A Lid On Things- No one is telling Ozzie to be a good boy. No one is telling Ozzie that he has to become the manager that always says the right things. Everyone knows that Ozzie will always be Ozzie. Still, he could do his team a favor and say less and keep a lower profile. There is something to be said about focusing all the media’s attention on you and keeping it away from your players. But the fact is that there will already be enough media attention and going after Alex Rodriguez or ditching an appearance at the White House will only bring more media focus on to you which will only spill over to the players. Ozzie needs to keep the spotlight as dim as possible.
The White Sox, gone. The Red Sox, gone. Now the lone solider in perpetual baseball misery is The Chicago Cubs. The Loveable Losers now only feel more pressure to recreate the magic they had in 03′ when they came just 6 outs from reaching their first World Series since 1945. The Cubs are attempting to rebound from a sub-par season where they were plagued by injuries and mental mistakes. Their off-season didn’t make a big splash but it did address two major issues for the team: the leadoff spot and the bullpen. With the additions of Juan Pierre, Bobby Howry, and Scott Eyre the Cubs have given themselves a good shot at contending for the division or for the wild card spot. But if the Cubs want to be playing deep in October and rid themselves of the Lovable Losers tag then there are somethings that have to happen.
1. Stay Healthy- This is as important for the Cubs as it is for any team. No one can deny the talent the Cubs have on their roster. With Pierre, Ramirez, Lee, Zambrano, Wood, and Prior, the Cubs certainly have the pieces in place to make a strong play for a playoff spot, but ensuring that they will get a full season from their guys is a lot harder than they would like. Ramirez reoccuring leg problems and Zambrano missed a couple of starts last season due to freakish injuries. The phenom that is Mark Prior missed considerable time last year after getting hit with a line drive. And Kerry Wood can no longer be counted on for more than 10 starts a season. They need to hope that Wood has fixed the mechanics in his arm and can return to at least his 14 win season a couple of years ago. If the Cubs can keep these core players healthy than it is very possible that Chicago could begin buzzing about a Red Line World Series.
2. The Leadoff Spot- Pierre was brought in to be a spark at the top of the line-up. He is hoping to do for the Cubs in 06′ what Podsednik did for the Sox in 05′ and what Kenny Lofton did for the Cubs in 03′. The Cubs have not had a leadoff hitter that has scored 100 runs or more since Brian McRae was patrolling Center Field. With Pierre the Cubs have the consumate leadoff hitter. He is quick; can steal a base, and doesn’t strike out one-fourth of the amount that Corey Patterson did. He will allow Lee and Ramirez plenty of RBI opportunities. All he has to do is stop pulling the ball the way he did last year which caused his average to drop well below .300. If he can be the same Juan Pierre that sparked the World Champion Marlins in 2003, then they’ll be in good shape.
3. Production From The Rookies- Dusty Baker loves to play the veteran players, but this year he’s willing to gamble at Shortstop and Left Field with two rookies. Both Matt Murton and Ronnie Cedeno had significant playing time last year but not enough to know what they can really do. Now they will be given that opportunity. Murton should add some pop to left field and Cedeno should hit for a solid average at shortstop, but they need to play well if the Cubs are to do anything significant. With the team filled with so many question marks, Cedeno and Murton need to leave no questions about there ability and finally give Cub fans faith in a farm system that has rarely produced solid position players.
4. Avoid Mental Mistakes- Every team wants to avoid the brain freezes, but it’s the Cubs who it seemed to hurt the most last season. Everyone can forgive a physical error. Everyone can forgive a grounder threw the legs or misplaying a fly ball, but when a player doesn’t throw to the cut off man or can’t finish off a run down, these things are unforgiveable. The Cubs need to learn how to be a fundamentally sound team. Being able to do the small things yield big results come playoff time.
5. Dusty Needs To Be More Vocal- Dusty needs to stop being a friend to his players first and a manager second. No one is asking Dusty to throw his team under the bus, but he needs to be more vocal when the Cubs are playing bad baseball. The season is long and these players aren’t above needing a kick in the pants now and again. He needs to be careful. Constantly defending a players poor performance can allow a player to become passive about it. He needs to take that admiration that his players may have for him and use that to reach them and get the best out of them.
It certainly seems like the road to a World Series will be harder for the Cubs but both teams have considerable talent and if their health can stay intact and their key additions can perform as advertised, then we’ll be watching both teams in October.