A look across the bleak February landscape, gray and cold, suggests no relief anytime soon from a frosty Chicago sports scene — from the Blackhawks’ blahs the last two weeks to the internal drama of the Bulls to the buzz chill of the Jackie Robinson West Little League scandal.
But look who’s promising to put a sudden end to the bleakest Groundhog’s Day sports story in Chicago the last few years: The Cubs and Sox, who aggressively transformed their 73-89 rosters the last few months into competitive-looking teams that have stirred the most baseball excitement in years on both sides of town.
They introduce the Arizona sun, along with countless new faces and boundless new hope, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training Thursday in Mesa (for the Cubs) and Friday in Glendale (for the Sox).
A few things that might be worth getting excited about for the White Sox over the next six weeks:
1. Leading the way
The many new faces on the roster make the Sox look better on paper. It also means some get-acquainted time will be required, with perhaps only nine players from the 25-man Opening Day roster last season making the 25-man Opening Day roster this season.
The void created by captain Paul Konerko’s retirement won’t present a leadership issue with character guys such as Chris Sale, John Danks, Jeff Samardzija, Jose Abreu, Adam LaRoche and Adam Eaton around. Manager Robin Ventura won’t name a new captain because there should be plenty of positive influence from all corners of the clubhouse.
2. Who’s on second?
Barring a trade, the lineup is pretty much set except for second base, where Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson — who hasn’t played a major-league inning — are pegged for a spring-training competition to determine the starter. The free-agent signings of utility player Emilio Bonifacio and Gordon Beckham (back as the best of the bunch defensively) added needed protection and depth.
The Sox would prefer to see Johnson, a speedster (87 stolen bases in the minors in 2013) slowed by hamstring problems last season, be healthy and good enough defensively to win the job. He left for Arizona after SoxFest to begin taking ground balls, which was a good idea. Some think Sanchez, who hit .250 in 28 games with the Sox last season, projects more as a backup infielder.
3. About that defense
The Sox were horrible on defense in 2013. They improved somewhat in ’14, but they were anything but a pitcher’s dream. Melky Cabrera for Dayan Viciedo in left field and LaRoche for Abreu occasionally at first base make them better, but will it be enough? The SABR Defensive Index ranked Abreu last among American League first basemen and Conor Gillaspie 12th among 14 AL third basemen.
When Beckham is playing second, the Sox are fine up the middle with Gold Glove finalist Alexei Ramirez at shortstop. But when he’s not, three-fourths of the infield might be below average.
4. Carlos Rodon
With Sale, Samardzija, Jose Quintana, Hector Noesi and Danks slotted for the April starting rotation, there’s no rush to push left-hander Carlos Rodon, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft last season, into the mix, especially with service-time issues at play.
With the exception of Sale, every pitcher in camp will envy Rodon’s slider, but he might need some time in the bullpen — or perhaps in the minors — to tighten up his fastball command. Whatever the case, watching his talent and tracking his progress as he works with pitching coach Don Cooper will be a worthy spring-training pastime.
5. Adapting to the heat
This will be Ventura’s fourth season at the helm but his first with a team that’s built to win, so his way of doing business will be scrutinized more closely by fans, media, players and the front office.
For everyone from the unruffled Ventura to the 64th man in major-league camp, preparing for the 2015 season in the hot Arizona sun should be slightly less comfortable because of the glare that shines on self-proclaimed contenders. It might feel odd and take some getting used to, but that’s just one of the things spring training is for.