As the baseball season resumes today after the All-Star break, the Cubs and White Sox are staring down losing seasons with both teams hoping to avoid 100 losses.
For the Sox, going 26-44 in their final 70 games would stave off their first 100-loss season since 1970, while a 21-48 finish for the Cubs would prevent consecutive years with 100 losses. Understandably, there isn’t much to look forward to these final months, but there are a few intriguing storylines for each team.
Roster moves galore: With the Cubs ready to sell most assets for a team’s best offer, they will look noticeably different come September. Pitchers Matt Garza and Kevin Gregg are likely gone, and lefty James Russell could join them. Outfielder Nate Schierholtz has impressed and should be traded as well. Those departures, plus expanded rosters in September, will create plenty of spots for minor leaguers. Third baseman/outfielder Junior Lake will get the first shot to prove himself, given all the outfield injuries (Brian Bogusevic, David DeJesus and Ryan Sweeney all are sidelined). Lake, 23, hit .295 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 40 games at Triple-A Iowa. Iowa teammates Logan Watkins and pitchers Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin could join the Cubs at some point.
Influence on playoff race: Although the Cubs are an extreme long shot to make the playoffs – trailing the NL Central-leading Cardinals by 15 games – they still will have an influence on the playoff race. The Cubs play divison foes Cardinals, Pirates and Reds, owners of three of the top four records in the NL, a combined 22 times in the second half. The Cubs also have 14 games left against the top three teams in the NL West (Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Rockies, separated by 41/2 games). Playing spoiler is never ideal, but the Cubs have an opportunity to ruin a few teams’ playoff aspirations.
Core needs strong finish: Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo haven’t impressed since each signed seven-year contracts worth a combined $101 million. It’s too early to be overly concerned by their first-half output, but Castro and Rizzo certainly didn’t perform offensively as well as the Cubs expected. Coming off back-to-back All-Star appearances, Castro is hitting a career-worst .243 with a .280 on-base percentage, six home runs and only 29 RBIs. Rizzo isn’t faring much better, batting .241 with a .328 on-base percentage, although he has hit for power, with 13 home runs and 54 RBIs, which is similar production to last year. Castro and Rizzo need to use these final 69 games to get back on track, otherwise it’ll be a long offseason for the youngsters.
Phegley phenomenon: Catcher Josh Phegley made his major league debut July 5 at Tampa Bay and has since energized the Sox. Although he’s cooled off at the plate, batting .241 in eight games, Phegley has shown off his power, hitting three home runs with nine RBIs. Manager Robin Ventura has said Phegley and Tyler Flowers will split time evenly behind the plate, but Phegley’s performance is pushing that to change. Flowers, 27, hasn’t proved he’s capable of being the Sox’s everyday catcher, posting a .205 batting average and .255 on-base percentage in 69 games. The Sox need to determine whether Phegley, 25, can be their catcher of the future. Otherwise, they have a considerable hole to fill in the offseason.
Who stays, who goes: The Sox need to replenish a farm system seriously lacking impact talent, and general manager Rick Hahn will have tough decisions to make as to whom they should trade to bring back talent. With reliever Matt Thornton already dealt to Boston, the Sox need reliever Jesse Crain and starting pitcher Jake Peavy to come off the disabled list and prove they are healthy before the July 31 trade deadline. If Crain and Peavy are traded along with outfielder Alex Rios, a bad Sox team will get worse. With a roster already littered with Triple-A Charlotte players, the final two-plus months of the season will be tough to watch.
Young players on display: It’s not all gloom and doom for the Sox. Second baseman Gordon Beckham, who was part of trade speculation during the offseason, has thrived since coming off the DL after breaking his wrist. Beckham leads the Sox, hitting .335 with only 26 strikeouts in 44 games while keeping his defense at a Gold Glove level. Lefty Chris Sale remains one of the best starting pitchers in the majors in spite of a 6-8 record. Sale has no-hit potential every time he takes the mound, and he alone is worth watching the Sox. Even though the Sox won’t sniff the playoffs, Beckham and Sale in particular are putting together encouraging seasons.