Opening Day! Baseball is back! High hopes on the north side and improved hopes on the south side. Every game is important and both teams have guys they’re looking at to come back or step up and bring it! So much analysis already before a single inning has been played. They say that hitting a baseball coming in at 90 plus mph is the hardest thing in sport. Me, I’m think’ those little 4 footers for par and an umbrella (double double the bet) are a bit challenging, but facing Jon Lester or Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw might be that ultimate test. Mark Gonzales for the Cubs and Teddy Greenstein for the Sox in today’s Trib. have broken down the 6 players they each think will need to step up and help their respective teams. Here’s their analysis:
Back-to-back losses to the Brewers in the National League Central tiebreaker on Oct. 1 and to the Rockies in the NL wild-card game on Oct. 2 brought an abrupt and bitter end to the Cubs’ 95-win season in 2018. As they look to bounce back in 2019, here are six players who could hold the key. 1. Kris Bryant, the 2016 National League MVP and the Cubs’ second overall pick in the 2013 draft. If Bryant can regain his power stroke, it would cure or mask many of the offense’s problems that led to the Cubs’ stunning elimination from the National League playoffs. It also would help for Bryant to stop sliding headfirst. He was lucky to miss only one game in 2017 after injuring his finger on a headfirst slide at third base. Last season, a headfirst slide attempt on May 19 was the root of his left shoulder injury. 2. Yu Darvish. No pitcher’s fortunes are as critical to the Cubs’ chances as Darvish, who made only eight starts last year because of a right elbow injury. No Cubs starter has the swing-and-miss repertoire of Darvish, who features as many as six pitches. This is essential since the other starters rely heavily on pinpoint control without the same velocity as Darvish. Darvish needs to work at a faster tempo and pitch deep into games to take pressure off a bullpen that was taxed throughout the 2018 season. 3. Willson Contreras . The Cubs need Contreras to regain the power stroke that saw him produce 21 home runs and an .855 OPS in 2017 despite him missing a month with a hamstring pull. They are less concerned about his pitch-framing issues. Contreras was visibly fatigued in September, and manager Joe Maddon must juggle Contreras’ workload (he caught a major league-high 1,109 2/3 innings in 2018) and Victor Caratini’s development. 4. Pedro Strop. Strop, 33, showed no signs of decline last season as he handled a variety of roles exceptionally well before suffering a hamstring injury running to first base on Sept. 13. Strop may be as valuable as any Cubs reliever this season, based on his effectiveness, versatility and leadership skills. He was projected to fill in as the closer in April with Brandon Morrow sidelined with a right elbow injury, but Strop has been slowed by a mild right hamstring strain. It remains to be seen if he’ll be ready for opening day. Strop has made at least 60 appearances in six of the last seven seasons, but how much longer can he sustain his level of success in a more pressurized role? 5. Ben Zobrist Many of the younger Cubs players would be wise to soak up as much information as they can from Zobrist, 37, who epitomized the team-first hitting approach that several hitters lacked in 2018. The switch-hitting Zobrist has made a few subtle changes in his batting stance from the right side, perhaps in an attempt to improve his timing. Teams such as the White Sox ran the bases at will when Zobrist played the outfield, so the Cubs must be careful where they play him. 6. Ian Happ top pick in the 2015 draft, Ian Happ. Happ told Maddon he wants to be included in the mix at second base. But it might not matter if Happ continues to chase high fastballs out of the strike zone. Happ’s versatility suits the Cubs very well. Scouts still marvel over Happ’s talent, and his versatility and switch-hitting ability could make him attractive to other teams if the Cubs look to make a deal.
The 2018 White Sox needed to avert a meltdown in September to avoid 100 losses. They failed to do it, dropping 18 of their last 24 games. But hope and optimism are abundant in the Sox’s clubhouse this spring. Asked if the team might be shifting from rebuilding to winning this season, infielder Yolmer Sanchez replied: “It’s not a maybe. It’s 100 percent that we are ready to compete and we have the team to be in first place from Day 1.” That optimism was further stoked Wednesday with news that the Sox and top prospect Eloy Jimenez were finalizing a six-year, $43 million deal. That likely means Jimenez will be in the opening-day lineup. Here are six other players the Sox will need to take the next step this season. 1. Lucas Giolito. The giant right-hander (he grew near an inch last year to 6-foot-7) has reworked his mechanics, radically shortening his arm swing. When he removes his right hand from his glove, Giolito does not extend his arm out wide. It stays closer to his right ear for a motion he calls “cleaner and more efficient.” Giolito got shelled early in some games last season, so he sought a method to control his breathing and emotions. He hopes a neurofeedback (brain-wave analysis) program will allow him to unleash his talent — and reduce his 6.13 ERA from 2018. 2. Yoan Moncada. Moncada struck out 217 times last year, the fourth-highest total in MLB history. He got caught looking 85 times, 63 on borderline pitches, according to Statcast. The Sox take that as a good sign, believing that an overly selective hitter is preferable to a prospect who swings at everything. Moncada has spectacular raw gifts, including speed and power. But his defense? He committed an MLB-high 21 errors at second base. The Sox will use him at a more demanding position, third base, in part to clear a path for prospect Nick Madrigal. 3. Tim Anderson. Anderson is the heart and soul of the team, a middle-ofthe-diamond player with swag. The Sox thought enough of him to sign him to a six-year, $25 million contract after just 99 games. That season, as a rookie, he produced an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .738. That figured has dipped (.679 and .687) in the two years since. Anderson did have a 20-20 season in 2018 (20 homers, 26 steals) and his leadership and vibe are immense positives in the clubhouse. 4. Jose Abreu. Abreu is in the final season of a six-year, $68 million deal. And as much as the player and organization like each other, this could be his final season on the South Side. Abreu’s power numbers have declined since he smashed 36 homers as a rookie in 2014. His OPS dropped more than 100 points from 2017 (.906) to 2018 (.798). The Sox acquired left-handed-hitting first baseman Yonder Alonso, whom they praise as a clubhouse leader, and prospect Zack Collins could eventually split time between catcher and first. 5. Daniel Palka There’s a Paul Bunyan quality to Palka, who might rank as the No. 1 hangout guy on the team. Little was expected when Palka joined the Sox last season after a waiver claim, but he led the team in slugging percentage (.484) and homers (27). He couldn’t hit lefties (34 strikeouts in 75 atbats) and butchered some balls in the outfield, but when Palka gets good wood on the ball, it goes a country mile. 6. Carlos Rodon. Sox players seem to view him as the ace of the pitching staff, even if the Sox are reluctant to designate one. Rodon largely succeeded in his season after arthroscopic shoulder surgery, posting a 4.18 ERA in 20 starts. His September was brutal (0-5, 9.22 ERA), but Rodon refused to make excuses and insisted he was not worn down.