The Nationals and Mets prepare to take the field on Opening Day at Nationals Park.

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Spiegel: Thank God The Games Are Finally Here

The possibilities differ, but there’s plenty to watch on both sides of town.

Matt Spiegel
March 28, 2019 - 1:44 pm
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(670 The Score) Baaaaasssebaaaaallll.

We made it. Game on. Let’s fire up the grill and welcome back our companion sport. Six months of steady 30-team activity begins today, with all the requisite box scores, leaderboards and highlight shows a fan could ever want.

The offseason, for both sides of town, was in many ways excruciating. We don’t have to remind ourselves why.  

Thoughts on and what to watch for in both Chicago teams now ensue.

As the White Sox mercifully begin to play actual games, discarding a dispiriting winter, fans can re-focus on what should be a good moment in the rebuild. The third year ought to show a competitive step forward, with several prospects scheduled to arrive this year and next. Here are some White Sox storylines to watch:

  • Eloy Jimenez, for every single at-bat. For either team in town, at least from the start, if there was only one at-bat notification to employ, you’d want it for Jimenez. Antithetical to most young sluggers, there isn't a lot of swing-and-miss in his game. A slugger with a high contact rate? That’s what’s so exciting and why scouts believe high-level production is basically a guarantee.
     
  • Yoan Moncada being more aggressive, especially early in the count. He was caught looking 85 times in 2018, expecting a level of respect not simply handed out on reputation. Seize that early pitch, as he has this spring. Hit lasers in all directions. If Moncada can go from 217 strikeouts to, say, 170, what will those other 50 or so opportunities bring? 
     
  • Carlos Rodon trying to establish himself as a consistent, full-season front-of-the-rotations starting pitcher. Rodon has always had the stuff and always had the mentality. Now he appears to have harnessed the wisdom and the willingness to use all of his pitches. It’s OK to get early count weak contact on a well-placed change or slider, saving pitches for the sixth and seventh innings -- and maybe beyond.
     
  • Alex Colome, Nate Jones, Ervin Santana and other arms establishing trade value for July.
     
  • Tim Anderson hopefully taking another step forward both offensively and defensively. He has a firm hold on shortstop, deservedly, and is primed to be a vocal, passionate, cocky, mature leader. Anderson has grown trustworthy on routine plays. His on-base percentage needs to rise and his OPS needs to hit .750 or above while putting up another 20-20 season in homers and steals. It's all very doable.
     
  • Lucas Giolito trying to reclaim a trajectory toward mere usefulness. He pitched all year in 2018, yay, but was the worst starting pitcher in the American League in terms of both ERA and walks. Forget the ace dreams for now. Can he show he deserves a rotation spot when the White Sox get good? He has had a cleaner, simpler delivery as he uses his legs more this spring. His fastball velocity has been up, but can he control it? 
     
  • Cookies are coming. Dylan Cease should gets here late in the summer, with his fastball that sits at 98 miles per hour. He brings Michael Kopech-like excitement. Zack Collins and Seby Zavala are currently the catchers at Triple-A, and either or both should be in Chicago at some point. How fast will Nick Madrigal work his way through the system? He’ll start at high-A, probably hit Double-A Birmingham by the summer, then anything is possible. It's the same story for five-tool stud Luis Robert, who's the prospect I like the most, maybe even more than Jimenez.

Nationals outfielder Juan Soto traveled this path in 2018: 16 games at low-A, 16 games at high-A, eight games at Double-A, then a third in-season promotion straight to the big leagues. Soto is a 20-year-old freak superstar but still a fun precedent to consider.

What I wish for White Sox fans:

I want you to have a few weeks along the way of tantalizing placement in the AL Central standings. It can’t be too early-- so how about a week in May when you’re only one or two games back of the Indians, allowing Score callers to say "Ya know, maybe if this, if that and ya never know..." You deserve some fun after the miserable Manny Machado whiff. Then, accept a third-place finish and switch an eye on the playoffs in 2020.

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Strapped with financial inflexibility, the Cubs' roster returns with few changes and aims to take another shot here in the championship window. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are relying upon so many personal, human factors to bring improvement. They’re trying to breed better chemistry, higher confidence, more focus and elevated daily intensity. The details in the in-depth piece in The Athletic earlier this week were telling and encouraging, at least to me.

Do you believe in personal development? Do you think that through behavioral changes and improved habits people can get better at their jobs and evolve? Well, have we got a team for you.

The bosses have been incredibly clear: gotta try to win every damn day, not conceding a single game. 

So how will this mandate manifest in Joe Maddon’s managing? We’ll be watching his lineup choices for seeming "trap games." Maybe he’ll lean more toward using the best instead of forcing rest. Maybe he’ll ask the strength of the pitching staff to go deeper into a given game, instead of saving someone for five days away. It’d be nice to see Kyle Hendricks trusted more than Carl Edwards Jr. I believe we will definitely see this more often: more runners put in motion for a hit-and-run. Maddon will be expecting a more selfless approach to situational hitting, which should make these moments more effective.

Some of the young hitters will improve as selfless, situational hitters. I have an idea who those will be, amid some Cubs storylines to watch:

  • Many of us are excited to see Albert Almora Jr. with regular playing time. I believe Epstein and Hoyer can scream over to Maddon's office from their new clubhouse location to make sure Almora is in the lineup more consistently. Almora had a great offseason in tweaking his approach and has been more willing to go the other way this spring. 
     
  • I believe Yu Darvish will consistently be very good. You could argue that he has never truly pitched up to the quality of his stuff, so let’s not expect Cy Young contention. But I think we’ll see 25-30 starts, with him getting into the seventh inning a lot. He's in many ways a template for the effectiveness of the Epstein-Hoyer plan: personal comfort and stability and calm matters. He has got no excuses now and has behaved like a player who doesn't expect to need any.
     
  • A Kyle Schwarber breakout season could still come. Last year, Schwarber had a quality walk rate of 15.3 percent, reduced his overall strikeout rate to a survivable 27.5 percent, played a solid left field and hit 26 home runs. He had a 3.2 WAR. If this is him, that’s a decent, useful player. But Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote about his horrific numbers in the clutch in 2018. Schwarber was historically bad in high-leverage situations. The WRC+ number averages out at 100 for a replacement level player. Schwarber's was 117 overall -- but in high-leverage, he was a NEGATIVE-62. That’s nearly impossible to do. If Schwarber regresses toward the mean just a bit and takes to the situational hitting mandate, his success in those situations should jump. If it does, the overall numbers will end up a bunch better too.
     
  • There's value in having a player like Mark Zagunis on the roster instead of Ian Happ. It removes a young player who needs at-bats to develop, eliminating that consideration from lineup choices. Use Zagunis only when you want, Joe, without worrying about keeping him active enough. Think Matt Szczur in 2016, a true bench player.  The same could be said for Daniel Descalso. Meanwhile, Happ can work in the minors on not getting owned by high fastballs. He can focus on improving his contact rate without his results affecting contention.
     
  • Hendricks got his money and deserves every penny of it. He will remain seriously underpaid when you look at his success and value. You know how I love him and his methodology, his mental side and game planning genius. But the body of work is now there too. Hendricks has a 2.86 ERA since the beginning of 2016, and he takes the ball all the damn time. This number blows me away: of all starting pitchers with at least 500 innings over those the last three years, he ranks fourth in ERA+. The pitchers above him are Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. That’s it. Hes a stud and my favorite pitcher to watch in Chicago.

I believe the Cubs will win the NL Central. Darvish will be 90 to 95 percent of what he has usually been. Kris Bryant will resume being Kris Bryant, one of the 10 best players in the game. Schwarber and Almora will take offensive steps forward, even if Willson Contreras doesn't. The Brewers bullpen will crumble a bit, though both they and the Cardinals will battle for the wild cards.

Cubs-Astros in the World Series. Let’s go.

Follow Matt Spiegel on Twitter @MattSpiegel670. For more from and about Matt, visit www.mattspiegel.com.​​​

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