By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) There’s hope in April. There always is.
If things go as expected this year, both the Cubs and the White Sox will already start making plans for the 2013 season by sometime around Memorial Day. But human beings in baseball uniforms are sometimes capable of surprising us. Players can exceed expectations. Clubhouse cultures can change dramatically.
If either or both teams are going to improve, it will mean that players are outperforming what they have done in the recent past. Here’s a look at five players who may play key roles if this is going to be a positive season on either side of town. One name you won’t see on this list is Adam Dunn. He fell down too steep a slope last year and he was exposed. He is not an American League ball player and by mid-June his career with the White Sox may be toast.
Ian Stewart, 3B, Chicago Cubs – Aramis Ramirez may have put good numbers on the board every season, but he was a player who put in an effort when he wanted to and coasted the rest of the time. He almost never looked like he cared. The Cubs have brought in Stewart to change that, but the primary reason the Rockies gave for moving him was that they wanted to change their clubhouse culture. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for attitude. However, Stewart has gotten the message and knows he has a new opportunity to succeed. He’s a left-handed hitter with power and he can field the position. He hit 25 home runs in 2009 and 18 in 2010. Look for him to hit at least 22 home runs this year and give the Cubs steady defense.
David DeJesus, RF, Chicago Cubs – DeJesus is a Theo Epstein special. He’s the kind of “Moneyball” player whom the Cubs’ executive wants in his lineup. DeJesus can get on base, play defense and improve the team’s ability to steal baseball games. If the Cubs are going to have any chance of exceeding expectations, DeJesus must have a good year. Epstein likes to look at a player’s past history and find someone who is coming off a troubled season but was good in previous years. DeJesus meets that criteria. He only hit .240 in Oakland last year with 10 homers and a .376 slugging percentage, but he hit .318 with a .443 slugging percentage the year before with Kansas City. That’s what Epstein and Cubs fans want to see again.
John Danks, P, Chicago White Sox – It’s time for Danks to step up and become the ace of the Chicago White Sox staff. Mark Buehrle is in Miami with Ozzie Guillen and Robin Ventura is counting on Danks to take the ball and give him 6-to-7 quality innings every time he goes to the mound. Forget about last year’s 8-12 record and the 4.33 ERA. He can locate the ball and he knows how to set up hitters. This has to be a 17-win season if the White Sox have any chance of surprising in the AL Central.
Matt Thornton, P, Chicago White Sox – Last year Thornton failed miserably as the team’s closer and was removed from that role early in the season. This time around, Thornton has been anointed again and he must come through this time. If he fails again right off the bat, it will cause a significant problem for the White Sox and Ventura. Thornton has the stuff to do the job, but he needs a couple of successful outings right from the start. This is primarily a mental and emotional issue with Thornton. If he can come through with saves in his first two or three outings, it could be huge for the team.
Dayan Viciedo, RF, Chicago White Sox – Enigmatic Carlos Quentin has been sent packing and Viciedo gets his opportunity. It seems like Sox fans have been waiting for Viciedo to get this opportunity for years and the anticipation is quite high. Viciedo is a bull-strong right-handed hitter who should be able to drive the ball all over the park and hit vicious line drives. He probably won’t be much in the field, but he’s got to be better than Quentin, who was a butcher. Viciedo may have been unimpressive in spring training, but he must succeed if the Sox are going to keep their heads above water because they are stubbornly hanging on to Dunn and Alex Rios. There’s little hope for either of those two rally killers.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.