Chicago is one of the best summer cities in the country. After the snow melts, and the rains disperse, Chicago becomes a tourist attraction to many. People come to see Lake Michigan, Navy Pier, all of the museums, and until recently, the baseball teams. The Cubs and White Sox, whose home stadiums are separated by only eight miles, have become an afterthought the last few seasons for many good reasons.
In each of the last four seasons, the two teams haven’t combined for more than 150 wins. The Cubs have made it well known since the hiring of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer that they are in a rebuild. Since the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, they have been stuck in mediocrity for a decade. By the 4th of July, the city has already turned their minds onto the Bears as they have grown tired of bad baseball. The city had to sub in a Little League team this past summer to give them a taste of winning baseball (even if it may have been done by breaking the rules).
The 2015 season may have the city coming back to baseball. The Chicago teams stole many of the league’s headlines by their head-turning moves. The fans are back to interested in baseball as it looks like they may both still be in contention after Independence Day. Both teams gave reasons for optimism in the 2014 season, but the moves preparing for this season is what has truly sparked interest and may move Chicago into the spotlight of the MLB.
Both teams finished the 2014 season with identical records of 73-89. Finishing 8 games under .500 may not seem much to hang your hat on, but vast improvement was seen from both sides of town. The Cubs finally got to see some of the benefits of their multi-season rebuild. Anthony Rizzo had an all-star season with a .913 OPS and 32 homeruns. Javier Baez was called up on August 5th, hit a homerun in his first at-bat, and then followed the season with eight more over the season’s final two months. The Cubs also found a prize on the pitching side with 28-year-old Jake Arrieta. Arrieta started 25 games going 10-5 with an ERA of 2.53.
The White Sox acquired Jose Abreu during the previous offseason and he was perhaps the biggest surprise in the league. Abreu finished with a .964 OPS, 36 homeruns and 107 RBI. He won the AL Rookie of the Year, Silver Slugger and finished 4th in MVP voting. Ace Chris Sale has improved each season and finished 2014 with 26 starts, going 12-4 with a 2.17 ERA and finishing 3rd in Cy Young voting.
Both teams have building blocks to move forward with into the 2015 season, but there was more work to be done in the offseason. The Cubs struck first with arguably the most impactful move of the offseason, signing Joe Maddon to be their manager. I, for one, do not believe managers have a large impact in baseball, but I digress. The Cubs followed that move with signing an ace pitcher, Jon Lester. The team finished the 2014 season with a 3.92 ERA, slightly below league average, but were certainly missing a top pitcher to their staff. Lester instantly moves to the top of the rotation and can be a stopper for years to come as the rest of the team comes together. On the offensive side, the Cubs finished 26th in the league in scoring but there are many possible future stars in the minors waiting for their chance. Kris Bryant hit 43 homeruns between AA and AAA last season and may be called up as soon as June. Addison Russell, a shortstop prospect received in the Jeff Samardzija deal, hit .295 in 2014 between A, A+, and AA. He may still be a year away, but reviews are high on Russell.
Speaking of Smardzija, he found a new home on the South Side which strengthens what should be a top-heavy rotation. With him joining Sale and Jose Quintana, who had a 3.32 ERA in 200 innings last year, the White Sox have as strong of a pitching trio as anyone in the American League. The White Sox team ERA was 27th in the league last year, a number drawn down by a very weak bullpen. GM Rick Hahn focused on that weakness and added lefty Zach Duke and closer David Robertson. A major problem of the Sox bullpen was players were in incorrect roles. The addition of Duke and Robertson should allow manager Robin Ventura to create a very strong back half of his pen. The offense was right around average in scoring, but they were considerably low in the underrated stat of OBP. Hahn brought in Melky Cabrera (with a .351 OBP in 2014) to play left field and presumably bat second behind speedster Adam Eaton. Having those two hit in front of Abreu could provide a large bump in scoring.
I do not consider either Chicago team as a World Series favorite in 2015 (despite what “Back to the Future” says). However, I believe both teams have done enough to stay in the hunt for the majority of the summer. Baseball is back in Chicago, no matter which part of the city you side with.