Post-LaRoche White Sox still can contend; Cubs appear built to
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One name is usually enough to identify those sports figures whose achievements and class have endeared them to Chicago for perpetuity. Mention “Michael” or “Ernie” or “Ryno” or “Paulie” and everybody knows of whom you speak.
“Rahm,” too, but let’s keep this discussion to athletes — popular ones.
It’s simply cringe-worthy when current Bulls “Taj” and “Jimmy” and “Niko” get single-name treatment, as they occasionally do, when they’ve done so little to deserve it. That might be what’s fueling the current discontent with Gar Forman’s artfully constructed roster: It hasn’t delivered what we were promised.
He was here just slightly more than a year, but as time passes, I’ll be watching to see if “Drake” makes his way into the single-name pantheon. The hand-wringing angst over the departure of Adam LaRoche’s son from the White Sox certainly suggests an impactful presence, with perky Adam Eaton bemoaning the loss of “one of our leaders” in a radio interview I happened to catch live.
Huh? Now, I covered Jack Clark, so it’s not exactly front-page news when a ballplayer says something dumb. But a 14-year-old as a team leader, in a setting where he doesn’t belong in the first place? That’s off-the-charts goofy, but it helps explain the dysfunction that has characterized the White Sox these last three seasons. Along with baseball acumen and an acceptable grasp of fundamentals, they lacked common sense.
Thankfully, the silliness seems to have passed, along with Adam LaRoche’s fading career, as the Sox complete preparations for a season that should hold some promise for them. But regardless of where you come down on Emperor Kenny Williams’ role in the matter, you have to wonder about a clubhouse culture that fosters such misplaced priorities.
So here’s Jimmy Rollins with a World Series ring to flash as a symbol of a more professional approach. Todd Frazier made two playoff appearances in four seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, and Alex Avila’s postseason résumé with the Detroit Tigers is twice as extensive. Brett Lawrie brings a reputation for being tightly wound but all business between the lines.
Assuming a heightened sense of purpose, the Sox don’t look great in any one area, but they do look good enough to hang around in a division where anything goes behind the defending world champions.
The numbers guys don’t get the Kansas City Royals, and some are forecasting a steep decline. Aggressive hitting, ambitious baserunning, meticulous fielding and clubhouse camaraderie might be difficult to quantify, but they add up to a smart, hard brand of baseball that wins games.
The White Sox ought to try it. If it succeeds, they can invite Drake LaRoche back for the celebration. Maybe a sleepover, or a campout.
Meanwhile, in the Cubs’ corner of Arizona, a countdown to the World Series formed the backdrop for a blissfully uneventful spring — Joe Maddon’s fascination with mimes and mammals the only interruptions. The anticipation is not unwarranted.
Though he won another 104 games afterward, Bob Gibson never duplicated his 22-9, 1.12 ERA, 13-shutout season of 1968, when he was 33, so it’s not realistic to expect Jake Arrieta, at 30, to repeat a 2015 performance (22-6, 1.77 ERA, 0.865 WHIP) that evoked Gibson at his best. But crusty John Lackey (165-127 lifetime, 8-5 in 20 postseason starts) makes sense as a cover against any shortfall.
Similarly, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber might find the going tougher within a league that has adjustments at the ready, but two-way standout Jason Heyward and versatile Ben Zobrist are important additions to a lineup that struck out a lot, didn’t walk much and was overly reliant on the long ball to score runs.
Addison Russell might be the best player on the team. Before long, fans in Oakland will lament trading him as the Athletics’ version of Brock for Broglio.
Last year’s postseason giddiness obscured the fact that the Cubs placed third in the National League Central despite 97 wins. That could change both ways: a lower win total and a higher division finish. For all the talk of the Cardinal Way ensuring a smooth transition for Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham, Heyward and Lackey aren’t easily replaced, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday are a combined 71 years old, and who plays shortstop with Jhonny Peralta hurt? The Pittsburgh Pirates, like the Cubs, are going to be good for a while, but second baseman Neil Walker’s departure leaves the infield looking as shaky as the outfield is solid.
It’s all there for the Cubs. And this time we mean it.