Chicago Check-In: White Sox & Bears
In the movie Robin & The Seven Hoods, Frank Sinatra sang that Chicago was "My Kind of Town." In that spirit, the Notebook goes to the Windy City to look at the White Sox push for the AL Central and to preview the Bears.
WHITE SOX STILL HANGING AROUND
If there’s a more enigmatic team in baseball than the Chicago White Sox, I’m not sure who it is. This is a team that opened the season seen as one loaded with good pitching, an improved offense and ready to move back to the top of the AL Central. With the lackluster the way they’ve played and the complete disaster some name players have been offensively, you want to write them off. With a sub-.500 record they’ve earned that dismissal. Then you turn around and see they’re right on the heels of Detroit and Cleveland in the AL Central and one good week from being in first place.
Paul Konerko is one of the South Side’s popular players and with good reason. He’s carried the offense all year with his tremendous power production and consistent ability to get on base. After half a season of waiting for help, Konerko finally got some in the person of Juan Pierre. The leadoff hitter has a .365 on-base percentage over the last month and has at least given Konerko someone to drive in.
The rest of the offense just hasn’t panned out and that’s putting it mildly. Adam Dunn is the biggest free-agent bust this side of Chone Figgins and John Lackey and shows no signs of emerging from his year-long slumber. Alex Rios’ underachievement has been so notorious he was briefly benched. Carlos Quentin hasn’t been that bad, but he’s been nowhere near the MVP-caliber producer he was in recent seasons. Alexi Ramirez has had better years, and Brent Morel hasn’t been able to hit since taking the third base job from recently traded Mark Teahen.
All of which is unfortunate, because the White Sox still have deep starting pitching and a bullpen that Ozzie Guillen has done a good job in putting together. Mark Buerhle and John Danks are both pitching as well as they have all year as we enter August and Gavin Floyd has an ERA of 3.27 in the past month. Philip Humber seems to be finally coming down to earth after a strong first half, meaning a burden is going to fall on Jake Peavy to finally showcase the form that won him the 2007 NL Cy Young Award in San Diego. Peavy’s stay in Chicago has been mostly on the disabled list and marked by shaky outings when he does take the mound. All would be forgiven in a hurry if he helps pitch this team to the AL Central title in the next 50-plus games.
Chicago came up big towards the end of July when they beat Detroit and Cleveland four out of five. A run of home games against Boston and New York that started Friday hasn’t gone as well, as the White Sox are now 1-4 with two more against the Pinstripes tonight and tomorrow. After that they go on the road for seven against Minnesota and Baltimore, before returning home to play Kansas City in mid-August. The longer they hang around the more time they give some underachieving names the chance to redeem themselves. The rest of the Central may regret not finishing off Guillen’s team earlier.
Image from prorumors.com
CHICAGO BEARS PREVIEW
The Chicago Bears made a surprise run to the NFC North title and the conference championship game a year ago, but it’s hard to take them seriously as a Super Bowl contender this year. Their offense looked badly outclassed by Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game and that was a pattern that emerged all year long. The Bears play some very good defense, I think they’re well-coached and that’s enough for you to compete, to win some games and to steal a division title if your chief rivals (Green Bay and Minnesota) are either decimated with injuries or get old all together.
Jay Cutler’s toughness was called into question after he left the championship game with a knee injury. How anyone who can say a quarterback who played behind this offensive line all year lacks heart is beyond me. Cutler took a beating all season, as Bear front woefully lacking in talent was unable to effectively pass block and offensive coordinator Mike Martz took his sweet time in adjusting to that fact. Chicago wisely invested their top draft choice in Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi, and it’s likely the rookie will protect Cutler’s blind side this year.
Devin Hester has established two things in this league—he’s a fabulous punt returner, and he’s *not* a #1 wide receiver. The Bears aren’t going to function in the passing game until Hester can be a #3 guy. In this he’s similar to Antwan Randle-El, who was unable to translate his special teams’ magic over to a full-time offensive role. For the running game, Matt Forte had a solid year, and if the offensive line can be consistent in moving people off the ball, Forte and Chester Taylor could take some of the burden off of Cutler.
Ultimately though the burden has to come off the defense. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are still top-flight linebackers but their advancing age means it may disappear overnight. Right now their steadiness in making plays gives Lovie Smith the freedom to turn it loose with his front four and that means the fabulous defensive end tandem of Julius Peppers and Israel Idonjie can get aggressive without worrying about the run, because the linebackers have them covered. The secondary isn’t dominant, but it’s still pretty good with Charles Tillman being a solid corner and Chris Harris taking care of things at safety.
Chicago’s going to be competitive again, but with a healthy Green Bay and a rising Detroit it’s a tough row to hoe to go deep into the playoffs again.
Image from larrybrownsports.com
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