Things to watch for in the Windy City this week
From big-hitting Abreu to the confidence of Samardzija, crosstown series has intrigue
CHICAGO -- Ready or not, here it comes.
Chicago's City Series begins tonight at Wrigley Field, on a cold Monday in the sixth week of the season. Ideally, it would be a weekend affair at least a month later on the calendar, with the White Sox and the Cubs both rolling and temperatures in the 70s.
Ideally, it would be 2008, actually. That season, the Cubs and White Sox were a combined 86-60, both en route to division titles, when they met for the first time on June 20 at Wrigley Field. The Cubs won on a ninth-inning homer by Aramis Ramirez, touching off a genuinely wild celebration.
It will be like that again, although not soon enough. There's some immediate hope on the South Side, fueled by the second most productive lineup in the American League, but there's a lot of work to be done by both teams, as the 26-35 combined record reveals.
In the meantime, let's be thankful that Interleague Play will bring the Chicago teams together for the 18th year. It's always a good time, even when the fans are bundled up.
Here are 10 things to watch during the four-game home-and-home series at Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular:
1. The franchise savior from Cienfuegos. With apologies to Paul Konerko, Jose Abreu gives Chicago its first true superstar hitter since Sammy Sosa. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said a week ago that Abreu is the same kind of addition as Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout, and Abreu has hit two more home runs since Maddon said that.
Abreu leads the Majors with 12 homers and is second to Giancarlo Stanton with 34 RBIs. He's going to get better, too. Abreu is on a 61-homer, 172-RBI pace, making big ballparks look small. But he's also hitting only .258, with a 9-to-35 walk-to-strikeout ratio. There's no reason Abreu shouldn't also be a .300 hitter, or pretty close to one. Look for his batting average and on-base percentage to rise as his slugging percentage (.617) dips a little. But we shouldn't forget how the ball flies at the Cell in the summer, so maybe the slugging percentage won't dip too much.
2. The young veterans. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo have been the only constants in the Cubs' lineup since 2012, and at times they have suffered from the daily inspections. They would have benefited from having more veterans than just Alfonso Soriano around them, but that's water under the bridge now. Both are taking steps forward this season, which is a major plus for the Theo Epstein regime, which signed them both through 2019. Rick Renteria, the fourth manager in Castro's five seasons, appears to be doing good work with him. A strong season by Castro could make him a trade chip in the offseason, opening up shortstop for Javy Baez or Arismendy Alcantara.
3. Big arms out of the bullpen. Relief pitching is an issue for both the White Sox and Cubs. But the White Sox's Daniel Webb and the Cubs' Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez are the kinds of power arms around which you can build a contender. Rondon, who took a loss Sunday against the Cardinals, has assumed the closer's role on the Cubs, but at least one National League general manager believes he could ultimately have a nice career ahead of him as a starter. Webb, who has hit 99 mph on the radar gun this season, could wind up as the White Sox's longest running closer since Bobby Jenks once he works his way up from a setup role.
4. Hitters at the top of their games. You can't get much hotter than Alexei Ramirez has been, or than Dayan Viciedo has been since taking over as the everyday right fielder when Avisail Garcia was lost to shoulder surgery after trying to make a diving catch on April 9. They're in the top 10 in the AL with .333 and .330 averages, respectively, and Viciedo is coming off a game-winning homer on Sunday in Cleveland.
New hitting coach Todd Steverson and the arrival of Abreu have been good for Ramirez and Viciedo, who like Abreu started their careers in Cuba's Serie Nacional. These guys are consistently coming through in big spots, helping the White Sox to an average of 5.1 runs, up from an AL-low 3.7 last season. Unfortunately, their pitchers are allowing 5.2 runs per game, the highest figure in the league.
5. Second basemen on the endangered species list. Darwin Barney's playing time has been deeply cut. The White Sox didn't miss Gordon Beckham when he spent most of April on the disabled list. Baez, at Triple-A, and Micah Johnson, at Double-A, could be the long-term second basemen for the Cubs and White Sox, and both organizations have a glut of middle infielders pushing for time, with Alcantara likely to arrive at Wrigley before the power-hitting Baez.
6. The wide receiver who bets on himself. Jeff Samardzija pitches better against the White Sox (1.80 ERA, 10 hits and 18 strikeouts in 20 innings) than any other team. Sadly, this could be his last City Series. But rather than trade Samardzija at midseason, the Cubs should find a way to sign him long-term. He values himself highly, yes, but he is delivering at a level to justify his demands (currently fourth among MLB pitchers in WAR after ranking 185th last year). The Cubs have only $31.2 million on the books for next season. It's hard to see how they can trade away the best pitcher they have when they need pitching so badly. Samardzija starts the series opener.
7. The opportunist. Almost out of baseball two years ago, 29-year-old right-hander Scott Carroll is taking advantage of the chance he got in the White Sox's unsettled rotation. He worked 7 1/3 innings to beat the Rays in his big league debut and then went six solid innings at Cleveland on Saturday. Carroll starts on Thursday in the City Series finale.
8. The pest. Released by the Royals just before Spring Training, Emilio Bonifacio has been terrific for the Cubs. He has filled a hole in the leadoff spot while shuttling between center field and second base, and he is hitting .275 left-handed and .438 right-handed. That means Bonifacio should be especially dangerous tonight and Wednesday, with lefties Jose Quintana and John Danks starting for the White Sox. Bonifacio's 10 stolen bases are more than the Mariners (nine), Cardinals (nine) and Marlins (eight) have.
9. The overlooked rookie. Marcus Semien has received very little recognition for his contributions to the White Sox. He's got issues -- a .213 average and an AL-high 41 strikeouts -- but he has played well in the field while filling in at second and third base and he has driven in 15 runs, thanks to a .281 average with runners in scoring position. Semien plays bigger than his numbers, which was partly why he won the Southern League Most Valuable Player Award last season.
10. The teaser. When he's healthy and on his game, Jake Arrieta looks, at worst, like a long-term middle-of-the-rotation starter. The Cubs were thrilled with his 5 1/3 shutout innings against the Cardinals on Saturday in his 2014 debut. Arrieta will oppose Carroll on Thursday at U.S Cellular.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.