Yes, they can
Five reasons the Cubs and White Sox will defy my predictions and make the playoffs
After combing through a combined 1,151 pages of the "Baseball Prospectus 2010" and "The Bill James Handbook," (think of the authors as the cast of "The Big Bang Theory" -- but for baseball, and less geeky), sifting through expert analysis from assorted ESPN seamheads and chatting with several managers, GMs, scouts and players during a March trip to Arizona, I am now prepared to make this prediction for the upcoming season:
Brett Wurst had a great spring and should kick the casing off of Stosh in the Opening Day sausage race at Miller Park.
Otherwise, who really knows what's going to happen this season? I know this: Of the 21 ESPN and 13 Sports Illustrated baseball experts who made 2009 preseason predictions, exactly zero people picked a New York Yankees-Philadelphia Phillies World Series. Only five of the 34 picked the Yankees to win it all, the same number who picked the Chicago Cubs (guilty) to end The Curse. The Cubs rewarded that confidence by missing the playoffs -- by a lot.
There are formulas, equations, Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithms (PECOTAs) and eyeball tests, but there are no absolutes. You simply can't measure the addition-by-subtraction effect of the toxic Milton Bradley's move to Seattle, or the knucklehead factor of Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano, or the ever-fluid relationship between White Sox GM Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen.
Yet none of this stops me from boldly predicting how the Cubs and the Sox can reach the postseason this year. It won't be easy because -- let's be honest -- nothing is ever easy for the Cubs. They can make opening a pickle jar look difficult.
And trying to figure out the Sox is like interviewing Guillen: You never know what you're going to get. They might be spectacularly successful or spectacular failures.
Presenting Five Reasons The Sox and Cubs Could Pop Champagne In Early October
The White Sox
1. Why Not Them?
The Sox had a losing 2009 record on the road (everyone did in the AL Central); a losing record against the AL East, Central and West; a losing record during day games, on turf, in one-run games, in extra innings, in May and August, and after the All-Star break. They did have a winning record against NL teams, which means if they can switch leagues, play night games at home and limit their season to April, June and July, they'll be in great shape.
Anyway, this is a winnable division for the Sox. Not quite as winnable as the NL Central, which is mostly mediocre, but it is there for the taking.
The Minnesota Twins are without a closer now that Joe Nathan's right elbow is AWOL. If you don't think that's a big deal, then refer to the closers of the four teams that reached the AL playoffs last season: Nathan, the Yanks' Mariano Rivera, the Boston Red Sox's Jonathan Papelbon and the LA Angels' Brian Fuentes.
Meanwhile, the other main divisional threat for the Sox is the Detroit Tigers, whose lineup features two rookies, 36-year-olds Johnny Damon and Magglio Ordonez and a starting rotation that has some soft spots after Justin Verlander (huge pitch counts in 2009) and Rick Porcello.
2. Alex Rios
There are scouts and baseball execs who still can't believe Williams pulled the guaranteed $60 million-plus trigger on Rios when the Sox claimed the outfielder off waivers from Toronto late last season. But here he is, in all his five-tool glory, ready to make Williams look like a genius or an idiot.
If Rios becomes Rios again -- and not the guy who hit .199 with three home runs in 154 Sox plate appearances -- Williams has himself a middle-of-the-order star in his prime, and the Sox have an RBI producer who can push them to a playoff spot.
Guillen wanted a roster lighter on its cleats, more capable of creating runs and with more interchangeable parts. Williams gave it to him. Whether that translates into something tangible remains to be seen, but I like where Guillen is going with this.
The Sox hit a lot of home runs last season (184, including 103 at the hitter-friendly Cell), but they only scored 724 runs (only Seattle and Kansas City scored fewer in the AL). What does it all mean? That newcomer Juan Pierre had better do what the Sox hired him to do: Get on base and get in scoring position. It also means that Guillen is serious about stealing more bases this season (it was green-light city during spring training on the basepaths).
4. Jake Peavy
Peavy isn't going to put up Petco Park numbers at The Cell. At Petco, it would take driver-driver to clear the fences there. At U.S. Cellular, it takes a 6-iron.
But if Peavy can avoid the kind of injuries that DL'd him last season, the Sox could have the kind of rotation that won the team a World Series in 2005. I'm not saying they're going to win the Series, or get to the Series, or even get to the ALCS, but I'll take the tag team of Mark Buehrle-Peavy-Gavin Floyd-John Danks over any other four starters in the division.
5. The Great Unknowns
Has bridge reliever Scott Linebrink forgotten how to get batters out?
Can closer Bobby Jenks, his new waist size and his fastball make it through the entire season?
Can the team that made the second-most fielding errors in the AL last season reverse those ugly numbers?
Will Mark Teahen hit?
Will Andruw Jones make a difference?
Will Carlos Quentin stay healthy?
For the Sox to reach the postseason, they need one "No" and five "Yes"es to those questions. Or at least four "Yes"es to make a serious run.
1. ZDGP Factor
The "Prospectus" has its VORP and WARP and PECOTAs; I've got my ZDGP: "Zambrano Doesn't Go Psycho" Factor.
I've made it fairly clear how I feel about Big Z. He's a Big Temper Tantrum who has a bad habit of melting down when the going gets tough. In other words, you can't depend on him.
In 2007 he won 18 games. Then 14. Then nine. This is what we call a trend.
For the Cubs to have any chance of playoff fun time, Zambrano has to make good on his preseason promise of keeping his cool. He also has to stay healthy (he didn't in 2009) and keep churning out 175-plus innings of work.
I'm not holding my breath, but Zambrano is capable of anything, including a return to the good ol' 18-win days. Another 9-7 season like last year and the Cubs are doomed to irrelevance.
2. Carlos II
As in closer Carlos Marmol.
Marmol doesn't come with Zambrano's short fuse, but his 65 walks in 79 games last season gives everyone the heebie-jeebies. Of course, he also struck out 93 batters in those 79 appearances.
Marmol can be unhittable or crazy wild. Unhittable: good. Crazy wild: very bad.
If Good Marmol shows up most of the time, the Cubs won't re-live the horror of the Kevin Gregg Era. Marmol's stuff is often electric enough to power the Wrigley Field lights.
I like Marmol's chances to put up big save numbers this season. Then again, I once picked Keanu Reeves to win an Oscar.
3. The NL Central
How do I say this nicely? The division sort of stinks. Not stinks, but it's Buzz Aldrin "DWTS" weak. OK, not weak, but there are the St. Louis Cardinals and everyone else.
The Cards are the favorites to win the Central because they've got a great manager (Tony La Russa), the best player in baseball (Albert Pujols), one of the best outfielders in the game (Matt Holliday), two of the best starters (Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright) and an up-and-comer in outfielder Colby Rasmus.
But the Cardinals also have middle-to-back-of-the rotation concerns, and closer Ryan Franklin doesn't always inspire confidence. And all it takes is an injury or two (catcher Yadier Molina got dinged in spring training) to bring the Cards closer to the rest of the division.
The Cubs are good enough to squeeze past the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros with ease, and can compete with the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cincinnati Reds for the No. 2 spot in the division. Climbing over the Cardinals is going to take some work, but remember this: Of the six NL Central teams, the Cubs actually had the most wins against division opponents. Losing records against the NL East, NL West and AL is what killed them.
4. The "S" Twins: Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto
Soriano and his humongous contract aren't going anywhere, so you might as well hope for the best. The best from Soriano would be a knee-injury-free season and Tyler Colvin as a late-inning defensive replacement.
Injuries have robbed Soriano of his speed, and his .303 on-base percentage has dropped him to the bottom third of the Cubs' lineup, where he belonged long before Lou Piniella finally made the move. But if any pitcher is dumb enough to throw him a fastball instead of a breaking pitch, Soriano can still crank those to the bleacher seats.
Piniella would like, at the very least, the 2008 version of Soriano (29 homers, 75 RBIs). I would like a Shelby Mustang delivered to my house free of charge. We all have our wish lists.
But if Soriano can approach those numbers and at least be useful at the plate, then maybe the boos and wincing will take a day off. Plus, a semi-productive Soriano could help reverse the Cubs' run outages of 2009.
It would also help if the Soto of 2008 reappeared. Soto lost about 40 pounds during the offseason. In 2009, he suffered an even more shocking weight loss: 67 points off his .285 average of 2008, and 12 homers off his 23 dingers from the previous season.
No way Soto does a repeat of 2009, right?
5. The Unknowns
Will new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo cure what ails Soriano and Soto?
Can the young, mostly unknown relievers not burst into flames?
Can Derrek Lee put up 35 dingers and 111 RBIs again?
Will Bradley's absence really make a difference?
Will the new owners pry open their wallets for a stretch run?
Is Mike Fontenot a second baseman and every-day player?
Marlon Byrd -- fact or fiction?
Can starter Randy Wells repeat his "Where'd that come from?" performance of 2009?
For the record, I did not pick the Sox or Cubs to reach the playoffs this season. Given my past predictions record, this is a good thing.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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