Crosstalk: Assessing Our Baseball Teams’ Chances For Success, Or Just Not Being So Embarrassing

[from The A.V. Club Chicago, with Andy Seifert / July 13, 2010]

Andy: Well, Andrew, the All-Star break is here, giving the Cubs a merciful breather from churning out consistently crappy baseball. But the All-Star break is traditionally a time for teams to regroup, to remake attitudes, to start asking one another, “Should we start making an effort now?” To me, baseball season begins to mesh in July, whereas the first half of the season is merely a means of weeding out the teams that probably should have sat this year out. (Would anyone mind if the Pirates benched their regulars and fielded a team of gorillas at this point?) And with all the Blackhawks hoopla, when virtually everyone has had the opportunity to touch, kiss, and pee in the Stanley Cup, there was the sense that the Cubs and the Sox could take the backseat for a little while. The All-Star break is a nice opportunity for fans to check back on their teams, to turn back and ask, “So what’d I miss? How’s Aramis Ramirez batting?”

Still, it’s been disheartening just trying watch the Cubs as they mangle the fundamentals, causing Bob Brenley to audibly sigh into the microphone. But as down as I’ve been on the North Siders, I’m mostly befuddled with how little sense their struggles make. Former multimillion-dollar-contract busts like Carlos Silva and Alfonso Soriano have been utterly blameless, while perennial workhorses like Derrek Lee and Ryan Theriot have been skidding. At some point cosmic balance will prevail, players will play back to their averages, and I think the Cubs could be competitive. Maybe even with a couple of well-timed winning streaks and a mid-season collapse from the Reds, the Cubs could be back in the thick of the race. As for the Sox, it’s impossible not to be impressed right now, but I don’t think it’s sustainable against two underrated ballclubs and the always-looming distractions from management’s highly entertaining tempers.

Andrew: I admire your enthusiasm about the cosmos smiling on your beloved Cubs, Andy, but you’re really underestimating their woes, not to mention grossly ignoring what’s happening on the South Side. The bats have awoken, the pitching is delivering on its promises, and the Sox suddenly find themselves rattling off franchise-defining bursts of victory. I’m not ready to anoint them the Team Of Destiny, but it’s hard to dispute my fandom having brighter days ahead than yours.

Look, I know it’s easy to believe the hype around Detroit’s strong first half and cower before Minnesota’s ferocious roster, but the Sox aren’t up against nearly as intense a level of competition as the Cubs. The Twins have feasted on a weak schedule and division rivals—the Sox included—playing well below their true ability and the Tigers are propping themselves up on beer-league softball. The Sox, on the other hand, are playing nearly perfect baseball lately, reaping MVP-caliber contributions from both Paul Konerko and Alex Rios while Omar Vizquel shares the wisdom of the elders. Do you really think the Cubs, with their best players only delivering in garbage time and their ace starter kicked off the team, can catch up to Tony LaRussa’s infinite chess and the Reds’ killer lineup? Get on the bandwagon, Andy: The Sox have left their abysmal start and soap-opera embarrassments in the dust to become the only team in town worth watching.

Andy: Oh right, that 11-game winning streak. Yeah, well done, but you and I both know the Sox’s 11-game “franchise-defining” winning streak is the anomaly and the frustrating mediocrity is the standard. I’m not trying to suggest a long winning streak is meaningless—and I do agree that the Sox are often fun to watch—I just don’t see how a team with batting stats that are just as crappy as the Cubs’ can conceivably hold stride in the long-term against two very competent teams. They’ll come back down to earth.

Now, if only the Cubs offense could be less Cubs-like, we could be talking, because they’re not exactly chasing the ’27 Yankees. The Cardinals have the most overrated manager in baseball (“Ooh. He batted his pitcher eighth. What a shrewd tactician of the game!”), and they’re basically leaning on a three-man pitching rotation that’s working Carpenter and Wainwright to death: If either one of them breaks under the workload, they’re in huge trouble. And I’m still skeptical of the Reds, solely because that whole “Dusty Baker is their manager” issue. My disrespect for the Reds is totally irrational—they really do look legit—but I know in my gut that he’s scripting some boneheaded moves, like trading for Jerry Hairston or a Sammy Sosa comeback or something. Look, I’m well aware the odds are far greater that the Cubs will be trading away half their roster than that they’ll be playing a meaningful game in September, but I’m tired of resigning to failure by mid-July. I really want to believe that with a little six-game run and some silly “nobody believed in us!” subplot, that the Cubbies can realistically be in the thick of the race, as absurd and unfair as that may seem. Commence destroying my desperate grasps at preposterous hope.

Andrew: You’ll have to speak louder, Andy; I can’t hear you over all the lies you’re telling yourself. LaRussa has built a contender out of one reliable bat and three useful arms, Baker has finally been handed a roster that won’t, say, pee on itself, and that makes the Cubs some kind of sleeping giant? Really?

I’m not going to waste my time pointing out that they also have the Brewers to worry about, nor will I bother reminding you that the abysmal Pirates and disgraceful Astros have already shown the Cubs’ grip on fourth place to be tenuous at best. Rather, I’m going to focus on the Sox’s second-half schedule of entirely winnable divisional matchups punctuated by showdowns with the dregs of the American League. I’m going to see the Tigers’ exploding arms and the Twins’ aching backs and start salivating at victory over shorthanded opponents. I’m going to look back at those first two months of 2010 and smile, knowing the Sox’s worst games are behind them. And that’s the difference between how you and I will be spending the rest of baseball season: I’ll be looking forward, wondering how much better it can get; you’ll be looking back and wishing you’d jumped ship while you still had the chance.