It has been excruciating, but the wait is over. Baseball is back, and both Chicago teams have interesting storylines entering this season. I’ll get to those in a minute.
First, I want to express my gratitude to the World Baseball Classic for bringing back some joy to my cold, dead baseball heart. The tournament provided a much-needed energy boost to what has been a tedious spring-training slog.
Baseball is our summer companion, but the MLB variety comes with unwritten rules and gatekeeping that keeps it from reaching its full potential. The WBC was cool, fun and colorful. It’s a reminder of how global the game is. Shohei Ohtani striking out Angels teammate Mike Trout to end the title game was like a Hollywood script. It was a distilled version of the game itself. Pitcher versus batter. Top player versus top player. The probability of that matchup happening was tiny. And we got to witness the magic in the highest-leverage situation possible. How can you not love that?
Now we get back into routine, and there are some interesting narratives to follow on the North and South sides.
Things will look and feel different for manager David Ross’ crew this season. With Willson Contreras moving on to St. Louis, there’s very little championship DNA left at Wrigley. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. President Jed Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins have reshaped the Cubs to be a team built on run prevention. That doesn’t sound sexy, but the Cubs have the pieces to be one of the best defensive teams in baseball.
They’re relying on the adage of ‘‘being strong up the middle’’ as they deploy their defense. Catchers Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart are on the roster mostly for their defense. Dansby Swanson is one of the best defensive shortstops in the majors, and Nico Hoerner is a secret weapon. Having someone at second base with the range of a shortstop is the wave of the future. With shifts being outlawed, you’d better have someone who can cover a lot of ground. In center field, the Cubs added Cody Bellinger, who’s a plus defender.
I love the philosophy of what the Cubs are building, but I’m still skeptical about their ability to score runs.
Player to watch: Hayden Wesneski. Wesneski was part of the 38-32 run that finished the Cubs’ 2022 season. He’s fun to watch, and his ‘‘sweeper’’ is cartoonishly unhittable.
From what GM Rick Hahn has said about this season, it’s clear the Sox realize the last two years were wasted opportunities. This season offers a chance to pay a debt they owe to themselves and to Sox fans.
Manager Pedro Grifol has impressed. His camp was built on an intense attention to detail. The Sox have talent, but they have yet to prove they can win games in the margins. In fact, that’s where opponents punished and exposed them last season. Grifol’s philosophy is to put pressure on opponents. So we shall see whether the Sox take the extra base and hit the cutoff man more consistently than they have in recent seasons.
The Sox have a roster filled with tantalizing possibilities, but it’s also flawed. They still have some square pegs that are trying to fit into round holes at a couple of positions, but Eloy Jimenez has the ability to hit 40 homers, if healthy.
‘‘If healthy’’ could be this team’s slogan. Much hinges on the Sox keeping their best players on the field. For the most part, they’ve done that this spring, although hearing that Yoan Moncada and Andrew Vaughn already have had back issues is a sobering reminder of seasons past. Players such as Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Elvis Andrus and Liam Hendriks make you want to root for this team, but they have a ton to prove.
Player to watch: Tim Anderson. It’s pretty easy to see the impact a healthy Anderson has on the Sox. He’s the spark plug. Anderson had a wonderful WBC experience and opened some eyes. His leadership is critical for the Sox to thrive, but you can’t lead from the injured list. If healthy, he’ll be an All-Star again and maybe an MVP candidate.
You can hear Laurence Holmes talk Chicago sports Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to
2 p.m. on 670 The Score with Dan Bernstein.