By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) A few weeks ago in the midst of Chicago’s wicked winter, I predicted that it would snow on Opening Day.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier to be wrong.
Although, I do know one thing that would be please me even more than today’s spring-like weather. And that would be if Chicago baseball actually ended up being interesting this summer.
To hope for it to be truly compelling is probably too much ask.
Last Friday, using a scale of 1-10, I asked the Chicago baseball fans among my Facebook and Twitter followers to rank their excitement level for Opening Day. The numbers varied from 10 to negative-3 (that was a Cubs fan). And before this morning, with the Cubs and Sox coming off such terribly sorry seasons, I would have said that my own excitement level is probably a 2.
But now this sunshine has me thinking about summer and my love of our national pastime, so I think I have to say my level has now been bumped up to at least a 4. Perhaps even a 5. And in honor of that, here are five questions I do have for the Cubs and White Sox as we embark upon Opening Day and play ball.
1. Will the rooftop wars finally end?
By this point, the Cubs’ battle with the rooftop owners has seemingly gone on as long than their championship drought. And, remarkably, I think it might be even more tiresome.
Last month, before the start of spring training in Arizona, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said about the team’s elusive accord with the rooftop owners, “The truth is we still have to get this done and we’re not there yet. If we can’t grind out these last few steps, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Well, not grinding out the last few steps in order to finally begin the $500 million renovation of the Friendly Confines shouldn’t even be an option. The way I see it, the Cubs would be wise to respect the revenue-sharing contract that it signed with the rooftop owners and either 1.) work around those parameters or 2.) buy their way out of it.
With the franchise recently valued at $1.2 billion, according to Forbes’ annual list of MLB team valuations – that’s 42 percent more than when the Rickettses bought the team in 2009 – the latter option may be the most doable and surely the quickest way to end the impasse. But whatever the case may be, by this point the Cubs need to do whatever is necessary to finally move forward.
We’ve seen enough spinning wheels at Clark and Addison.
2. Who are Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo?
Speaking of spinning wheels, exactly who are Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo? Are they they guys worth a combined $101 million and 14 years in contracts that the Cubs gave them last season? Or are they the guys that batted .245 and .233, respectively, in 2013?
My concern is that the league has figured out how to pitch to the free-swinging Castro and that Rizzo simply isn’t what he was cracked up to be by the Cubs brass. But I’m also not at all convinced that either of those concerns are valid. For better or for worse, the pair’s true baseball identities should emerge this season.
Hopefully, they’re better.
3. Can Jose Abreu become a true star?
The Cubs’ future hopes such as Javier Baez and Kris Bryant will begin this season in the minor leagues, but the next big thing on the South Side is already at U.S. Cellular Field.
And is he really the next big thing?
Jose Abreu, the 27-year-old Cuban slugger who the Sox shelled out $68 million to sign last fall, will be manning first base this afternoon. This spring, Abreu hit .295 with two home runs and nine RBIs in 13 games, and it will be fascinating to see if the man who set a Cuban home run record with 33 home runs in just 66 games in 2010-11 can produce well enough at the major league level to win Rookie of the Year and emerge as a bona fide star.
For a baseball city that’s shockingly bereft of true baseball stars, it would be a boon for Chicago if Abreu lives up to his billing. The city desperately needs someone exciting.
4. Can Robin Ventura truly manage?
During his first season managing the White Sox in 2012, Robin Ventura had the team sitting atop the AL Central standings for 117 days – including a stretch of 63 in a row – before collapsing down the stretch.
During his second season managing the White Sox in 2013, Ventura’s team never got out of the gate en route to losing 99 games.
So can this guy manage?
Sox general manager Rick Hahn upgraded the Sox’s roster this offseason with acquisitions such as Abreu and center fielder Adam Eaton, which should give Ventura more to work with in 2014. The White Sox still don’t look like world-beaters, but the laid-back Ventura doesn’t need to beat the world to prove he’s a good manager. However, he does need to beat significantly more teams than he did last season.
Whether he does will be one of the city’s key storylines this season.
5. How low can attendance go?
Last season, the White Sox, who never seem to draw particularly well, drew the smallest number of fans to U.S. Cellular Field since 2002, with attendance dropping off a hefty nine percent from 2012.
Meanwhile, the Cubs, who once could draw 3 million fans at the drop of a hat, have now seen their attendance figures drop for five consecutive years, with last season’s numbers bottoming out as the smallest since 1998.
Both franchises need something – anything – to excite their fan bases again. Whether they can remains to be seen, but the tickets will tell the tale of whether they do.