EDITOR’S NOTE: We gave ourselves an extra week of study on this year’s “preseason” selections—with these rosters, can you blame us?
Chicago’s baseball teams are in two very different places this April.
The South Siders just missed the playoffs in 2012, behind pleasantly surprising performances by the aging (and now departed) A.J. Pierzynski and the emerging Chris Sale. The Cubs, on the other hand, just missed putting up the worst record in baseball, and traded away veterans Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm for (even more) young prospects.
Two teams. Two very different outlooks for 2013. But each has a player who, for this writer, stands out as the key to success—which is a relative term, especially on the North Side—in 2013.
White Sox MVP: Alex Ríos
Nobody expected the Sox to be as good as they were last year, and if one player personified last year’s element of surprise, it was Alex Ríos. If the Sox are to make any kind of run this year, he’ll have to be the man again.
Rios was the White Sox’ best player…and it wasn’t even close. He led the team in hits (184), batting average (.304), slugging percentage (.516), doubles (37), and runs (93). He was second in RBIs (91) and steals (23). Oh and he hit 25 home runs.
His 4.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) put him in the same neighborhood as heavy hitters like Josh Hamilton and Dustin Pedroia. Not bad for a guy who hit .227 in 2011.
Sure, 37-year-old Paul Konerko is still the heart of the team, but Ríos needs to be the muscle.
He’s streaky. Very streaky. OK, he’s a human seesaw, and If the trend continues—which I don’t see happening—2013 won’t be a good year for the Sox. Not with Pierzynski’s 27 home runs and gritty leadership gone. Not with third base handed off to journeyman Jeff Keppinger. Not with the question marks surrounding the health of the starting rotation.
The Ugly (Truth)
The division-favorite Detroit Tigers have so much quality starting pitching that they could afford to trade away a 10-game winner that gave them 31 starts in 2012 (Rick Porcello), just to make room.
The Sox don’t have those luxuries. They need great starting pitching, solid D, and at least one guy on offense who consistently produces like a superstar. At the end of 2012, ESPN asked Ríos about his season. He had this to say:
“I really don’t want to talk about my numbers,” Ríos said. “I would rather talk about the team and our accomplishments as a group. I certainly understand that it has been a great year for me and the team. I have been consistent throughout the season and so have many of my teammates. That is how you have a good season as a team.”
If Rios plays as well as he did last year, the Sox will have a chance at making another run. If not, all bets are off. They simply won’t score enough runs.
Cubs MVP: Matt Garza
You know it’s a bad sign when your MVP and MVTA (most valuable trade asset) will start the season on the disabled list and likely miss the entire first month. But such is the state of the Chicago Cubs and their would-be ace pitcher, Matt Garza. We probably didn’t need extra time on this one.
Theo Epstein has been pretty clear about his goal for the Cubs under his administration: be really good for a really long time. If that’s going to happen before Epstein’s hair turns completely gray, he needs a lead arm. Pitching wins championships. Enter Garza.
Garza has actually become a better pitcher since coming from Tampa Bay, and at 29 he’s still young enough to be the cornerstone of the staff. Sure, he was out for much of 2012 (and the start of ’13) , but he put up fantastic numbers for a guy who only made 18 starts last year, posting career-low numbers for WHIP (1.177), H/9, and BB/9.
A healthy Garza is the Cubs’ most valuable player because he has the potential to be so many different things to this team:
A potential No. 1 pitcher that allows Jeff Samardzija to keep growing at his own pace. If he’s the ace and Samardzija is a No. 2, then Edwin Jackson is a fine No. 3 and you’ve got the start of a solid, youngish core for the next 2-3 years. It’s not Maddux-Smoltz-Glavine, but it’s a start.
In the Carlos Zambrano mold but not bat-shit crazy. He’s honest, open, and loves cheering on his teammates. He creates a great environment for young players. And he’s got the kind of cool-yet-casual facial hair that a young ballplayer looks up to.
If all else fails, and if he’s a healthy No. 1 starter, he could be worth a lot for a team that needs a starter for the stretch run. He could garner two strong young arms. Remember when Epstein kept talking about “assets” last year?
For now, of course. Garza has almost no trade value. The Cubs have no choice but to hold on to him and hope he shows the league that he can once again be a healthy, top-flight starting pitcher. And they don’t have a lot of other valuable assets to trade away for young prospects. No one’s going to give up a top young arm for Alfonso Soriano.
Either Garza becomes the staff ace as the Cubs climb to respectability in the next couple of years, or he gets dealt for prospects. If neither of those things happen, it’s going to be an even longer and drearier couple seasons for Theo & Co.