Windy City revival: Cubs, White Sox revamped for '15
By Mike Bauman
In the early years of this century, people spoke of the true center of baseball being in the east, in the North American sense of east, meaning close to the Atlantic.
Then they spoke of the true center of baseball moving west, to the Pacific Coast. Fine, the continent had been covered, from sea to shining sea.
But this offseason the true center of baseball has moved to the upper Midwest, to northeastern Illinois, to, specifically, Chicago. Carl Sandburg's "City of the Big Shoulders," has become, rather suddenly, the city of the two genuine contenders.
Both the White Sox and the Cubs finished 73-89 in 2014. That wasn't good, but it was all relative. The two clubs had combined for 195 losses in 2013.
Now, Chicago baseball seems to have entered into an entirely new era. No pennants are won in December, but both Windy City clubs have made moves that can only be interpreted as major improvements. The Cubs have made the bigger splashes, but the White Sox have made wider improvements.
To briefly review, the Cubs, who already had a wealth of position player prospects, first added a manager of the top rank, when Joe Maddon became available. This sent a message internally, externally, all over the place, that the Cubs were fully intent on becoming winners.
The Cubs followed through on that notion with baseball's most aggressive pursuit of the best left-handed starter on the free-agent market, Jon Lester. His previous employers, the Red Sox, wanted him. The World Series champion Giants wanted him. But the Cubs produced a contract that will be worth at least $155 million for Lester.
And Lester, at his introduction to Cubs Nation, said that he welcomed the challenge of returning this franchise to the championship status it has not enjoyed in more than a century. This is exactly what he needed to say. Before he has set foot on the field for the North Siders, Lester has already won some hearts and minds.
The Cubs further fortified their rotation by signing Jason Hammel, whom they had traded to the Athletics last year. And they strengthened their catching with the acquisition of Miguel Montero.
With the natural growth and development of their young players, with a legitimate ace atop their rotation, the Cubs cannot be dismissed in any discussion of the race in the National League Central. This may be a five-team discussion, but the Cubs have moved from the bottom of it to the midst of it; a long way to travel, even over the winter.
The White Sox, meanwhile, have acted with both impact and speed to address their areas of greatest need, turning question marks into answers.
In the bullpen, the White Sox signed David Robertson, who had just come off achieving the impossible by succeeding Mariano Rivera as the Yankees' closer. With less fanfare, they had also added lefty Zach Duke, who is coming off the best season of his career.
The White Sox traded for Jeff Samardzija, who, like Hammel, had been traded by the Cubs to Oakland last summer. Combined with Chris Sale, the White Sox now have a first-rank, one-two combination at the top of their rotation.
Elsewhere, the White Sox signed Adam LaRoche, who has power and is an accomplished first baseman. He can split duties with American League Rookie of the Year Award winner Jose Abreu at first and designated hitter. Most recently the White Sox added outfielder Melky Cabrera for a three-year, $42-million deal.
It's been a remarkably productive run for the White Sox, with Spring Training still two months away. Even in the highly competitive AL Central, with Detroit, Kansas City and Cleveland all in place as contenders, the White Sox have to be considered solidly in the mix.
Progress has been the byword for Chicago baseball in this offseason. There is hope ahead on both sides of Chicago for 2015 and beyond.
This doesn't include the Bears, who are 5-9 and still do not have the right quarterback. But Chicago's baseball teams are supplying enough genuine optimism for two entire fan bases.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.