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Tuesday, December 10

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Sox in Five - AL Contenders
by Steve Gozdecki

And so a humdrum 2006 Chicago White Sox spring training continues, with the roster battles few and far between and the team waltzing about the diamond like drunken bears, seemingly intent on fueling speculation that they've become complacent. Or that injuries will devastate the pitching staff. Or that the mild return to the bashing, mashing Sox model of the early aughts will doom them to a second-place finish in the American League Central and shut them out of the playoffs.

Wha? The Sox may not repeat? Blasphemy! Hearsay! Off with the columnist's head!

Oh, I kid. We all know how hard it is for teams to repeat as champions, right? With that in mind, this week's Sox in Five takes a look at the teams that have the best potential to unseat the White Sox as AL champs.

One: Those Guys Near the Lake Who Play at the Jake
Though the Sox led the Indians in the most important stat of all — wins — last year, Cleveland had the superior team on paper last year, scoring 49 more runs and allowing two fewer than our hometown heroes. While the Indians may appear to be weakened by the offseason losses of outfielder Coco Crisp, ace starter Kevin Millwood and several key bullpen guys, the team features an outstanding young core of players who are just going to get better this year, including DH Travis Hafner, catcher Victor Martinez, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and outfielder Grady Sizemore. And with überprospect Andy Marte on the way to man third base, the future looks even brighter for our menacing division rivals. With only nine games in the first month of the season against teams that posted winning records last year, the Indians are primed to get off to a hot start.

Two: There's a Whole Lot of There There
Take one 88-win team. Add ex-Sox Esteban Loaiza and Frank Thomas, plus bullmoose loony Milton Bradley. Subtract a sagging Angels ball club. Bake in a healthy dose of Beane, Billy Beane, and you've got the AL West's front-running Oakland A's. The offense isn't all that scary coming out of camp, with only third baseman Eric Chavez likely to make the All Star squad, but a fine young pitching staff and Beane's ability to win shrewd trades at the deadline makes the prospect of the A's playing deep into October a strong bet.

Three: Damn Yankees
With a rather mediocre crop of free agent talent available this off-season, the New York Yankees couldn't play their usual game of bank breaking. But in a move that allowed them to stick it to their rivals in Boston while also filling a glaring hole, the Bronx Bombers signed centerfielder Johnny Damon away from the Red Sox. As always, the Yanks are stacked throughout the lineup, with rare recent homegrown kid Robinson Cano added to the mix of mercenaries like Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and Hideki Matsui (plus lifelong Yankees Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada). The pitching staff is more or less the same as last year's group, with Kyle Farnsworth replacing Flash Gordon in the 'pen. An aging-but-still-effective Randy "Worst Simpsons Cameo Ever!" Johnson heads up the rotation, backed by Mike Mussina, while Mariano Rivera remains among the best relievers in the game. Another 95-win season from this group doesn't seem out of the question.

Four: Idiots Rule
So, Boston Red Sox, how was your winter? Besides the weirdness with off-again, on-again general manager Theo Epstein, the departure of Idiot-in-Chief Johnny Damon, the complete rebuilding of your infield, the continued griping of Manny Ramirez... Yes, Boston has undergone a makeover this winter, with a slightly weakened offense hopefully offset by improved pitching and defense. Jason Varitek remains the team leader from behind the plate, but now with each strikeout he'll be throwing around the horn to a new group, including first baseman Kevin Youkilis, second baseman Mark Loretta, shortstop Alex "Not the Former Cub" Gonzalez, and third baseman Mike Lowell — not an All Star, and perhaps not a 20-homer guy, in the bunch. The pitching staff welcomes oft-injured Josh "Blisters" Beckett to a group that includes holdovers Curt Schilling, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, David "Sack o' Crap" Wells and Matt "Chinbeard" Clement, backed by youngsters Bronson Arroyo and Jonathon Papelbon. Erstwhile closer Keith Foulke hopes to regain his old form, while newcomers Julian "Freddy Krueger" Tavarez, Rudi Seanez and David Riske set him up. The BoSox looked like Manny, Papi and the Seven Dwarves against our Sox last October, but anything can happen in a short series and Boston looks primed for another trip to the playoffs.

Five: Don't Mess With Texas
The Bizarro World version of the A's would be the Texas Rangers, who boast one of the game's strongest collection of offensive talent and a pitching staff that might be charitably described as mediocre. Give the Rangers credit for trying to improve the latter facet of their game, signing Kevin Millwood to head a rotation that also added once-promising National League refugees Adam Eaton and Vicente Padilla. Two great hitters, first baseman Mark Teixeira and shortstop Michael Young, lead an attack that should again average better than five runs a game. Unfortunately, the pitching staff will likely be surrendering a similar amount. Still, if Oakland stumbles, Texas could two-step its way to the AL West title and into the playoffs.

 

March Madness in Five - Bradley Bradley Bradley
by Jason Maslanka

Bradley. Bradley. Now I've said it five times. Does that make up for completely failing to mention them in previous columns? In my haste to push teams with Illinois in their name, Peoria's finest, the Bradley Braves (for this year only, until the NCAA Offensive team name rule goes into effect) were omitted. Now they're the only one's left from the state. Who saw that coming?

One: Big Ten Country
Chicago is generally referred to as being smack dab in the middle of the Big 10. So many graduates of the Big 10 schools call Chicago home, and it seems like every other bar on any block on the north side has an Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, etc. flag. One place that isn't Big 10 Country, however, is the NCAA Tournament. As part of the mid-major revolution, exactly zero teams from the 11-team Big 10 made the Sweet Sixteen. That's a tough finish for a conference whose fans claimed it was underrated and one of the best in the nation.

Two: On The Other Hand, The MVC
A much less popular phraseology would note that Chicago is smack dab in the middle of Missouri Valley Conference Territory. The Valley is actually the second oldest conference in the nation, but gets a lot less press than the Big 10 with its collection of smaller, rural schools. They got a lot of press on Selection Sunday, however, when they had four teams in the field of 65. Pundits proclaimed it a terrible move by the committee and couldn't stop talking about major conference teams like Florida State and Cincinnati, who didn't make the field. Well, with Bradley's success and Wichita State's near dominance, the Valley has two teams in the Sweet Sixteen, two more than the Big 10 and one more than the Big 12.

Threeeeee: Including Those Bradley Braves
The last standing team in Illinois, Bradley hasn't had it easy. It's about to get even less easy. They beat the four-seed Kansas Jayhawks and the five-seed Pittsburgh, and now match up with the one-seed Memphis Tigers. Memphis is probably the least heralded of the number one seeds, coming from the mediocre Conference USA, but packs a serious punch and sports a 32-3 record on the year. The Braves need continued good play out of 7'0" sophomore Patrick O'Bryant to make up for everything that makes Memphis a 3-loss power and Bradley a 10-loss Cinderella.

Four: Wild Upsets
The casual fan watches the tournament for two reasons: their bracket and the wild finishes and upsets. This year hasn't disappointed from an upset standpoint. Perennial superpowers like North Carolina, Michigan State and Iowa didn't make the Sweet 16. For the first time in about 20 years, all four Final Four teams from the previous year didn't make the Sweet 16, and that very special 16 features a 13-, an 11- and two 7-seeds. This is a new kind of college basketball, where the difference between the first team and the 65th isn't what it used to be.

Five: About That Parity
Maybe George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said it best when he said there were no upsets in this tournament. He concluded that they're all a bunch of great teams playing as hard as they can. While that appears to be true this year, it certainly wasn't in years past. Most years in the past featured 50-point blowouts in the 1-16 game. This year featured four 1-16 matchups that were won by less than 20 points. The most likely cause for this is high schoolers and college freshman heading to the NBA early. The extra-special talent just isn't there in college basketball right now and it makes for better games. Imagine Lebron James in his junior season at Ohio State or Cleveland State. Imagine Luol Deng still at Duke and Carmello in his senior season at Syracuse. Those would be superstar teams, and less exciting basketball. You can thank the NBA for this fun, especially since it's the only NBA fun Bulls fans are having.

Bulls in Five will return next week. The Bulls sit 2.5 games behind Philadelphia for the final playoff spot with 15 games to play.

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About the Author(s)

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the 2006 season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Jason Maslanka began his fandom of the Chicago Bulls in June of 1991, conveniently coinciding with the franchise's first championship. The years since the championships tested his fandom, but it never faltered. He believes that the NBA is more than dunks and hip hop, and that the NBA dress code is a good thing. He thinks most fans don't really understand basketball, and if they did, they'd love it even more. He knows that there are certain players who do the little things for no praise, and stat-mongers who don't really do anything to help their team win. Every week, he plans to execute a beautifully crafted column containing five points you should be thinking about and discussing as a Bulls and NBA fan. Send comments, questions, and arguments to bulls@gapersblock.com.

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