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Sox in Five - Lessons from Opening Day
by Steve Gozdecki

And so your 2006 Chicago White Sox pick up where the 2005 squad left off, winning a lengthy game and giving Sox fans cause to celebrate. Except this time we were at home, and not many fans made it all the way to the game's 1am conclusion, courtesy of a rain delay that was longer than last year's entire opening day game. And this time, we finally got to give our Sox a welcome worthy of the world champions as they begin their title defense. Sweet.

Anyway, what's up with these teams from Ohio getting beat silly by our Chicago ball clubs in this year's openers? Ponder that for a spell while we do this here Sox in Five thing.

One: Thome's Homies
In some ways, Jim Thome is like a small-town mailman, delivering in the hot sunshine of Arizona as well as the rains of Chicago. But unlike the mailman (and with all apologies to Dennis Rodman for the paraphrase and repurposing), Thome delivered on Sunday, hitting a 431-foot bomb in the rain. In addition to his shot going further than any ball any of his new teammates hit out of the home park last year, it was also the 431st home run of Thome's career. Something tells me that Chicago already loves Peoria's favorite son, and the old Crede Crew may be thinking about picking up the chest paint and reuniting under a new name.

Two: Youth Is Served
So, pseudo-rookies Brandon McCarthy and Brian Anderson, how did you enjoy your first-ever opening day in the major leagues? Something tells me that their collective answer would be "a whole lot," as both performed exceptionally Sunday night. After the world's longest rain delay, aka Reinsdorf's plot to sell as much beer, concession grub and rain gear as possible to those diehards who stuck it out, McCarthy entered the game in place of starting pitcher Mark Buerhle and proceeded to throw three innings of perfect ball to earn credit for the win. Center fielder Anderson, meanwhile, helped ignite the team's three-run third-inning rally with a double and a run scored, walked and scored in the fourth inning, and drove in two runs with a single in the fifth — not a bad night at all for your number-nine hitter. We look forward to throwing many more huzzahs out these two guys' way this season.

Three: Scott Podsednik - the Wheels = A Waste of Roster Space
Unless he can hit home runs with the same frequency that he did during last post-season — two bombs every 11 games would put him on pace to hit nearly 30 over a full season, and I'm taking the "under" on that bet and spotting a baker's dozen to any takers — a gimpy, groin-addled Scott Podsednik shouldn't be in the starting lineup, or perhaps even on the active roster right now. An overrated commodity even when he's out there stealing bases (this is, after all, the guy who hit zero home runs in the regular season last year and reached base only 35 percent of the time, a worse rate than ancient stiffs like Luis Gonzalez, Ryan Klesko and Matt Lawton), the injured left fielder brings negative value in his current hobbled state, which finds him slapping at the ball as always but without the speed to turn his pokes and slashes into infield singles. Bearing in mind the dubious causality/correlation/coincidence/whatever behind the fact that the team went 81-43 with Pods in the lineup and 18-20 without him last year, the Tuesday Morning Manager in me says that the team would be better off putting him on the disabled list until he heals in favor of a steady diet of Rob Mackowiak out in left field.

Four: Jon Miller's Excellence Cannot Negate Joe Morgan's Irritating Presence
As always, a national broadcast team brings a perspective to the game that you just don't get from the home announcers. For instance, who knew that the White Sox shortstop, commonly referred to in these parts as Juan Your eBay, should be pronounced Juan Ooh Rebay? Or that it can be hard for a pitcher to control his pitches when it's raining? Or that there has never been a major league team as good as the 1970s Cincinnati Reds squad that Joe Morgan played on?

Five: For One Night, at Least, the Bullpen Did Plenty Good
Not to be a total Nervous Nellie Fox, but if there's an area for concern with your 2006 Chicago White Sox, it's the bullpen. The 'pen did just fine on opening night, with Cliff Politte, the most reliable of the three relief pitchers used, the only one to be charged with a run. But with three guys — Politte, Dustin Hermanson and Neal Cotts — pitching over their heads, and with only Cotts young enough to expect such an improvement from, plus the sudden shocking emergence of eventual closer Bobby Jenks, last year's bullpen was arguably the best in baseball. Now, with Hermanson's back injuries putting him on the DL and talking retirement, and Jenks having gone from "big strong guy" to "fat slob" in the space of a single winter and a whole lot of McGriddles sandwiches, the pressure is on the diminutive Politte and Cotts to perform, especially with the back end of the 'pen having been traded off in favor of a pair of wild card lefties known as Boone "Look Ma, I Can Finally Get Served" Logan and mysterious giant Matt "I'm All You Could Get for Joe Borchard" Thornton. While history has shown that general manager Kenny Williams isn't afraid to overpay to get the players he wants, the variability of reliever performance from year to year and the nearly bare nature of the White Sox tradable commodity cupboard has me nervous about what fluky pitchers Kenny may be scouting and planning to acquire in order to strengthen the relief corps come midseason. Freddy Garcia or Javier Vazquez for two or three overachieving relievers in a few months? You read it here first.

 

Cubs in Five - Glimmers of Hope, Part 2: Hitters
by Jeff Webber

Last week, we took a look at the Cubs' pitching as they wrapped up spring training, focusing in particular on prospects and less-heralded recent acquisitions who might contribute this year. This week, we'll look at hitters who may yet help out and, in honor of the launch of the season, we'll stick mostly with folks on the big club. So the good news is, these guys are sure things, names you absolutely will see on the big league roster. Bad news is, these guys are largely bit players.

One: The Kids Are Alright — Murton and Cedeno to Play Every Day
First, the good part: your new leftfielder Matt Murton and your new shortstop Ronny Cedeno. We've gone over both of these kids several times before in this column and the Trib and Sun-Times have obsessed over them enough that even casual fans likely know them by now. But what can we expect out of these two? Although Murton will likely struggle against tough righties, the prognosticators at Baseball Think Factory project him to hit somewhere around .289, reaching base 35 percent of the time with something like 14 homers and 10 stolen bases (not to mention a fabulous head of flaming red hair). Cedeno may not draw nearly as many walks, but they still see him contributing a .287 batting average, eight home runs and 40 runs batted in. If he can field his position reliably, that'll be more than fine. The really exciting thing, though, will be seeing the Cubs break in rookie everyday players for the first time in what feels like eons.

Two: Like Jose Macias, But Hopefully With Less of the Sucking
This year's superutility guy/25th man is Freddie Bynum, acquired last week from the Oakland A's as part of the three-way trade that sent lefthander John Koronka to Texas. He'll essentially be this year's Jose Macias — a late inning pinch-hitter/defensive replacement who can play nearly every position. The good news is, Bynum is younger, faster and has hit so well this spring that at least four clubs were said to be trying to pry him away from Oakland. The bad news is, his minor league track record could charitably be described as "shaky." We'll know within a few weeks whether he's going to be of any use. If he sticks, he'll be fun to root for. I'm sure the Wrigley organist is rooting for him to become a vital cog in the 2006 Cubs, if for no other reason than that he'll have an excuse to play "Do the Freddy" every time the kid steps to the plate.

Three: Bow to the Unholiness That Is Angel Pagan
Angel Pagan is our new fifth outfielder. That's pronounced Ahn-Hale Pah-Gone, though you can be forgiven if you feel compelled to pronounce his name all American-like on account of its tantalizingly unholy sound. Still, name aside, Pagan is not likely to put the hex on major league pitching. Sure, he hit an impressive .410 in spring training, tying for the team lead in homers with five and the lead in stolen bases with four. But those are only spring stats, and his minor league track record gives little indication he could hit with much authority against big league pitching. He is wicked, wicked fast, though, and along with Bynum and Jerry Hairston, Jr. the Cubs now have late inning pinch-running options that could make a difference here and there.

Four: The Ongoing Saga of Felix Foot
Felix Pie is at least a year away from getting a foot in the door at Wrigley. And honestly, that's a good thing. Because even after he's proven he's healed from the injuries that cost him a chance at stealing Corey Patterson's job during The Great CF Chaos of 2005, he still needs to prove that he has the skill and discipline to back up his formidable natural abilities. His upside? He could be a Vladmir Guerrero type, routinely hitting .300 and slugging 25-35 homeruns, stealing a few dozen bases, and playing above-average defense in the outfield. His downside? Corey Patterson, Part II: The Revenge.

Five: Minor League Dark Horse of the Month: Scott Moore
There are other Cub minor leaguers who will see playing time sooner or later with the big club this year (infielder Ryan Theriot right away, slugging first baseman Brandon Sing by the end of the year, among others) and other bench players we picked up during the offseason who are already suiting up with the big club (Hello, John Mabry). But for number five this week, let's take a look at a lesser-known minor leaguers who could emerge to help this year: third baseman Scott Moore. Moore, a onetime washout in the Tigers system, came to us in the Great Dear God Let's Get Kyle Farnsworth Out of Chicago Trade. Possessed with terrific physical tools, Moore finally started to produce last year in the Florida State League. Though at 22, he was old for the league, his across the board improvement in all aspects of his game definitely catches the eye. He may become important quickly should something happen to Aramis Ramirez.

 

Fire in Five - The View from the Bar
by Steve Gillies

Welcome to Fire in Five. I've been a Chicago Fire fan ever since I stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and realized that watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week I'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party.

It's a strange feeling. After waiting out a long winter, the Fire season finally got under way on Saturday. Opening day in the new Bridgeview Stadium is still two months away, though. For now, Fire fans will have to settle for packing into soccer-friendly bars to watch games on TV while hoping the eventual name for the new stadium turns out better than the one in Dallas.

One: They Don't Play in Soldier Field Anymore, They Play at the... Well It's in Bridgeview.
An early naming agreement with the Bridgeview Bank fell through, and since then there have been several timetables and announcements about announcements concerning the stadium's name, none of which have happened. Regardless of who gets the naming rights, most fans are going to be referring to it as The Firehouse. Which is just as well, considering some of names for other stadium's throughout the league. For example, this weekend's game against Dallas was broadcast to us from cringeworthy Pizza Hut Park.

Two: Who Exactly Was the Home Team There?
If it weren't for the giant Pizza Hut stand behind one of the goals, the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking Saturday's broadcast was coming from Chicago. With a crowd full of people dressed in red, the occasional close-up shots of traveling Fire fans and the way the Fire passed the ball around so confidently, it certainly looked like a home game for the Fire. Unfortunately, the way we gave up three soft goals off of counter-attacks and ran out of gas by the end of the game reminded me of way too many of last year's home games.

Three: What Are You So Happy About? You Lost.
After the game I was ready to be philosophical about the loss, look on the bright side and point out some of the positive things about the Fire's performance. Reading through Sunday's articles on the game, though, I see that coach Dave Sarachan has beaten me to it. In most of his post-game quotes he emphasized how the team moved the ball around well, created chances and scored two goals on the road. All of that's true enough and there were good things to take from the game, but our defense hasn't improved from last season and that should be a point of concern. I want to see the coach of a team that just blew two leads and then lost the game get upset about it. If he needs any pointers on how to get mad, there were a few guys watching in the bar he could learn from.

Four: I Want to See Chris Rolfe in the World Cup.
This time last year no one had heard of Chris Rolfe. After an outstanding rookie year that saw him lead the Fire in scoring, he's being talked about as someone with an outside shot at making this year's World Cup team. He looked good on Saturday, setting up Chad Barrett's opening goal, scoring an impressive volley and hitting the post. Add to that the fact that he tormented top Italian defenders Allesandro Nesta and Paulo Maldini last season in a friendly match against AC Milan and you have a lot of Chicago fans dying to see him playing against the likes of Italy and the Czech Republic in June. Unfortunately, he might have burst on to the scene a little too late to make the squad this summer, but if that's the case the MLS defenders left behind are going to have a very hard time with him.

Five: 1 Down, 8 to Go.
With the construction of the stadium at Bridgeview going on through June, we're still eight games from seeing the Fire in person. How the Fire does on this road trip is going to define their season. With only about half those games on ESPN2 and local cable and pretty limited local media coverage, it's going to be hard for fans without Major League Soccer's cable package to keep track of things. All I've got is pirated basic cable, so if you're looking for me on a game day, chances are you'll find me at the bar.

 

Bulls in Five - Hit Me with Your Best Shot
by Jason Maslanka

I'm going to make a single, defining statement on the remainder of this Bulls' season: There are nine games left. I know, you're thinking, "Jason, that was lame." It was. It was also the only truth that can be spoken about the remaining season. I can't even tell you if it's good or bad if they make the playoffs. I suppose I can also say that only an 8-1 record from here on would put them at .500 for the year. But really, that's it.

One: Would It Be?
There's an interesting point to be made that it's not a good thing for this team to make the playoffs. It guarantees that their draft pick will be worse. It also almost guarantees that they'll be destroyed by the Pistons or Heat in the first round. After much thought, I'm ascribing to the school of thought, however, that the playoffs are always a good thing. This is a young team, and even if they add a veteran in the off-season, it will still be a young team next year. Young teams need experience, and even the experience of getting killed in the first round of the playoffs is positive in the long run.

Two: This is the Week
Normally a team a game and a half out of the playoff race can't control their own destiny. They have to wait for the team(s) ahead of them to lose and all they can do is win and hope. With two games against the eighth place 76ers this week, the Bulls can pull ahead in the race and just have to hold of the Sixers instead of catching them. It's a good opportunity and test for the Bulls. Both games, Wednesday in Philly and Saturday at the United Center, should have playoff atmospheres and there's no better opportunity than the one afforded by the schedule than this one. Before the two games against the 76ers, the Bulls welcome the struggling Indiana Pacers to the United Center on Tuesday night. The Pacers have lost four in a row and Pacers fans are grumbling about them possibly falling out of the playoff race. The Bulls sit only 2.5 games behind the Pacers for the seventh spot. We aren't the only team with problems, folks.

Threeeeee: An Ugly Overview
In retrospect, this really has been a disappointing season. At the start, it looked like the Central Division was going to be much improved, which would prove difficult for the Bulls. Now, it's apparent that the entire Eastern Conference is just fairly awful outside of Detroit, Miami, New Jersey and maybe Cleveland. If it weren't for the Cavs' eight-game winning streak, they'd be in that mediocre category, too. The rest of the teams above the Bulls in the standings are pretty miserable. Milwaukee and Washington are only barely over .500 and Indiana and Philadelphia are just as miserable as the Bulls. There's really no excuse for not having the 5th or 6th seed in the playoffs this year. For a quick contrast, the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Sacramento Kings, are two games over .500.

Four: What's the Good News?
I said it already. The team is young. So many of the pieces are in place. What's made for a tough '05-'06 is that all those pieces are of role players. Deng and Nocioni could both be championship players, if they're the third option on a team with a superstar. The millions of dollars under the salary cap could well become a superstar during the off-season. And the Knicks are currently the absolute worst team in basketball. That number one pick we got from them could also become a superstar... just keep up the positive thinking fans, superstar, superstar...

Five: Noah's Art
Is that superstar University of Florida sophomore Joakim Noah? No one knows if he'll leave school early, but he's been a monster throughout the NCAA tournament. He's 7'0" tall, blocks every shot near him, and is as quick as some college guards. Noah needs to add some bulk for the NBA but his quickness might be able to make up for his awkward offensive moves. Wait a second — he sounds like Tyson Chandler. The Bulls barely need one of those, let alone two.

Standings Update: The Bulls (33-40) sit 1.5 games behind Philadelphia and 2.5 games behind Indiana.

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Comments

Steve / April 4, 2006 12:26 AM

Jeff, you lovable scamp -- Felix Pie has power? While I don't seek out Cubs info, it does find me now and then, and the scuttlebutt I've heard is that Pie will never mash more than 15 homers per annum in the bigs, making him a centerfield-only kinda guy (except, um, on my Sox, where he would play left or something) and Juan Pierre a one-and-done Cub.

But before Felix gets his chance, are you really confident that the one-man toothpick-wrecking crew is going to keep Murton and Cedeno in the lineup every day? Sure, the Marquis Grissom retirement took away Dusty's favorite left field candidate, but a few 0-for-8s from the rooks are going to find him jumping up and down for some veteran presence out there.

Of course, if y'all can play Cincy another 161 times, the 0-fers will be few and far between. Sout' Side out.

Rams / April 4, 2006 1:58 AM

What Steve said.

Peace to Gods and Earths.

Pedro / April 4, 2006 9:07 AM

Rodman was "The Worm"
Karl Malone was "The Mailman"

Steve / April 4, 2006 10:20 AM

Man, where's Jason the Bulls man when we need him?

Memory's a bear -- the quote I wanted to reference was actually from Pippen, not Rodman. "You know the mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays," saideth the Scottie during some NBA Final or other back in the Jurassic era.

Jason / April 4, 2006 1:50 PM


I thought Scottie said that during the first Jazz title series.

Jeff Webber / April 4, 2006 5:56 PM

Pie hit 11 HR in less than half a season in AA last year, putting up a seriously slugger-worthy .554 SLG in that span. While this marked a steep improvement over his past production, this was exactly the kind of power development scouts had projected for his sweet left-handed stroke (he is the very picture of the projectable tools prospect) and it was this progress that made him such a hot name. Top scouts like John Sickels and the folks at Baseball America are expecting to see his power continue to grow. Remember: he is only 21 years old.

If I sound optimistic about him here, it was because that was the theme of this week and last week's column: reasons to be optimistic.

As the season goes on and I resume my normal pessimistic ways, it will become rapidly clear that I am far from Pie's biggest fan. I see him as Corey Patterson all over again.

Same goes for Cedeno and Murton. I am talking about upside here, as the theme for the week is optimism. Will Dusty play them? He has so far, and while I have railed in this column many a time about Baker's unwillingness to play kids, I think his stubborn desire to defy expectations may yet trump that reluctance and net these two a real chance.

Maybe.

For the record, it has been noted before that I am also, hard as it may be to believe, a devoted Sox fan. And while I may be "concerned" about Cedeno and Murton's playing and "skeptical" about Pie's development, I am frigging "freaked out" about my favorite White Sox flamethrower Big Fat Bobby Jenks showing up to camp heavy on the big and fat and light on the flamethrowing. I half expect a trade for a top closer if he is as shaky as he looks. Maybe even Lidge or Gagne.

 

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.

Jeff Webber spends hours and hours every day taking in every printed, spoken, and broadcast word he can find about the Chicago Cubs, and each week till the end of the season he's boiling them down into five simple crib notes you can use to stay on top of any watercooler or corner bar Cubs discussion. Send comments to cubs@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@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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