Can the White Sox find a spark this weekend against the Cubs?: Chicago Baseball Authority

The last time the Cubs and White Sox met in an unanticipated crosstown matchup, each team was 9-13. There wasn’t much at stake.

The Sox swept the first two-game leg of the season series at Wrigley Field — which meant they kept the trophy — and those victories were part of a six-game winning streak for the Sox. The two losses started a five-game losing streak for the Cubs.

Flash forward three weeks and the Sox are a disappointing .500 (22-22) team trailing the Twins by 5 games in the AL Central, while the Cubs are a dreadful fourth-place, 18-26 team in the NL Central.

Since they met earlier this month, the Sox have gone 13-9 while the Cubs are 9-13. In that span, the Sox have been outscored by 24 runs and have dropped to 7-12 in the AL Central. Thanks to two blowout victories over the Pirates, the Cubs have only been outscored by five runs in those 22 games, and that’s because of their latest loss, a 20-5 embarrassment to the last-place Reds. Watching Cincinnati hitters take cuts against Andrelton Simmons’ 45-mph “pitches” on a Thursday afternoon made me reconsider the life choices that led me here.

If Andrelton Simmons is pitching, something has gone drastically wrong. (David Kohl / USA Today)

As Dallas Keuchel quickly put the Sox behind Boston on Thursday night, I wondered if we’d also see a Sox position player on the mound. Sure enough, Josh Harrison pitched the eighth in a 16-7 loss to the Red Sox. It was the second time the White Sox gave up 16 runs to Boston in their three-game series.

In 22 home games this season, the Sox are 10-12 with a -45 run differential. I don’t think we need to shame the Sox fans who haven’t packed the park over the first two months of the season. They can rip Tony La Russa at home without paying for parking and $12 beers.

The crowds this weekend for the two-game crosstown series at Guaranteed Rate Field should be electric. Or angry, I suppose, depending on how the Sox play. I checked the Sox’s ticket page and there were only 63 unsold tickets for both games, along with some unsold pricey club seats and a $75.28 standing room option.

While the Cubs are worse and carry with them the haunting disappointment of the post-World Series era, there is a lot more for Sox fans to currently be angry about. This is supposed to be a team with World Series hopes and they look like a third wild-card team. There is plenty of time for the Sox to jell, especially with Lance Lynn and Eloy Jiménez on the mend, but the Sox aren’t operating from a point of strength.

While the Cubs flirt with rock bottom, the Sox are in a familiar spot. Last season was the first time this franchise made the playoffs in consecutive seasons and a cynic could argue about the validity of the 2020 postseason.

There’s a reason this team has struggled to build a stronger season-ticket base and why its fans are so cynical about everything. The Sox have earned their reputation. This team was supposed to be different and maybe it still is.

They’re honestly fortunate to be 22-22 the way they’ve played. Getting Lynn back will stabilize the pitching staff and the addition of Johnny Cueto is working out in the short term.

While the crosstown series’ importance is at its nadir, the Sox could really use two more wins over anyone.

As for the Cubs, after winning three straight series over San Diego (impressive), Arizona (not bad) and Pittsburgh (duh), they went 3-5 against Arizona and Cincinnati.

No one with any sense thought the Cubs would be good this season, though losing two out of four in Cincinnati doesn’t exactly engender good vibes. Beyond the eventual rise of Caleb Killian, I’m fascinated to see if the Cubs can reach the 101-loss mark of the 2012 team, the one I breathlessly revisited back in 2018. This feels more like a 95-loss team, but given the likelihood of some trades, a rare 100-loss season (there have only been three in team history) is certainly possible. And while I will make fun of the Cubs if they lose 100 games, it would, just like in 2012, be the best thing for the team’s future.

Recently I started a “Remember Some Guys” conversation in the Sox Park pressbox trying to think of the Sox’s best free-agent acquisition since the World Series.

The Sox do some things well, but acquiring veteran free agents with major-league experience isn’t one of them. Sure, you can count José Abreu, who was the equivalent of a big-leaguer when he came over at 27.

In general, since the Sox generally don’t bid on expensive free agents — they’ve never had a nine-figure contract in franchise history — they acquire former All-Stars or guys who were useful five years ago for a bargain rate. Occasionally, they overpay for someone maddening.

The first of those kinds of free agents who come to mind is Adam Dunn at four years, $56 million. Dunn’s first season with the Sox in 2011 was the single-worst season I’ve seen in any sport. He rebounded with a 41-homer, 105-walk, 222-strikeout season in 2012 that got him in the All-Star Game, but that was the pinnacle of his Sox career.

Adam LaRoche’s two-year, $25 million deal wound up being more destructive than his .207/.293/.340 slash line he put up in 127 games in 2015.

Hahn’s first free-agent contract (from outside of the organization) when he took over for Kenny Williams as the GM in 2012 was a three-year, $12 million deal for … Jeff Keppinger.

Where does Dallas Keuchel fit in? Keuchel signed a three-year, $55.5 million deal before the 2020 season. Because that season was shortened to 60 games for the pandemic, he only received a pro-rated amount of the $18 million he was owed. Ironically, that was his best season. Keuchel went 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA in 11 starts that season, giving up just two homers. But in the wild-card series against Oakland, he gave up all five runs (three earned) in 3 1/3 innings a 5-3 loss in Game 2.

Since then he’s been a disappointment. He had a 6.82 ERA in the second half of last season and he gave up 23 homers in his 30 starts. This year he’s on the precipice of being DFA’d with a 7.88 ERA in eight starts. He’s given up six homers and has a 2.16 WHIP. After his last start, Keuchel told reporters he’s not finished, but no one seems to believe him.

Also before the 2020 season, the Sox signed Yasmani Grandal to the — well, this is sad — largest free-agent contract in team history, a four-year, $73 million deal. Grandal had two very good offensive seasons. Last year, he slugged .520 with more walks (87) than strikeouts (82) in 93 games. This season, he has a .505 OPS (!) in 39 games.

When your high-priced catcher can’t hit, he better be really good defensively. And, well, let’s move on.

The Sox didn’t put themselves in a position to be disappointed by even a moderately expensive free agent this offseason, much to the chagrin of their fans.

They mostly attacked the holes in their pitching staff by signing relievers Joe Kelly (two years, $17 million) and Kendall Graveman (three years, $24 million) to bolster Liam Hendriks in the back end of the bullpen. They also added swingman Vince Velasquez and Cueto, who was signed to a minor-league deal just before the season started.

Kelly got a late start because of an existing arm injury, and he’s been less-than-impressive so far with a 9.53 ERA and a 20 percent walk rate in his 5 2/3 innings over seven appearances. He’s back on the IL with a hamstring strain. Kelly’s most valuable contribution thus far is calling Josh Donaldson a “douche” in a 670 The Score interview.

Graveman has been mostly good with a 2.91 ERA and a 20 percent strikeout rate in 20 games. Velasquez was promising and then not-so-promising and he’s out of the rotation now with a 5.30 ERA. Cueto has a 0.00 ERA in two starts and already his 0.4 fWAR is fifth-highest among the pitching staff.

The Sox also signed Josh Harrison (one year, $5.5 million) to fill the gap at second base and traded for position players A.J. Pollock and Reese McGuire. Harrison, an extremely nice guy and popular teammate, hasn’t even been the best J-Hay/Hey in town. Yes, his numbers are worse than Jason Heyward’s.

Harrison has a .182/.258/.284 slash line in 31 games. In 27 games, Heyward (who is currently on the COVID-IL) is slashing .208/.258/.264. Neither one has homered. Of course, Harrison is only making a fraction of Heyward’s sunk-cost contract, inarguably the worst such deal, in terms of production for dollar, in Chicago sports history.

So just remember Sox fans, while you can bemoan your team’s free-agency strategy that annually disappoints, it could be worse.

Earlier this week, I made it to the South Side but I didn’t have time to go out for food. So, in the spirit of this column, I hit up the club section of the Rate for a food report. There’s a food stand with a rotating group of options. This game, it had BBQ brisket, served with two sides and a roll for $15 (plus tax).

Fresh BBQ brisket anyone? (Jon Greenberg / The Athletic)

A little pricey, but the brisket was excellent. So if you have club seats to a Sox game, or are good at sneaking into places, give it a try. (The club section also has a candy/dessert stand with theater boxes of candy.)

Legendary New Yorker writer/editor Roger Angell died last Friday at the grand old age of 101. Angell edited some of the finest fiction writers in the world at the magazine, but he’s mostly famous for his baseball writing. Not long after his passing was announced, I was at my desk and I looked up to the overstuffed floating shelves to see Angell’s collection of his 1970s baseball writing, “Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion.” It’s a book I bought for $1 at the Deerfield Public Library’s used bookstore, where I regularly find books I want to read (or at least, stack next to my desk).

Angell’s work is poetic and meandering, which is why ballwriters loved him so much. (Our Lindsey Adler captures what it was like to meet him.) I don’t think I had cracked this book, so I went in and revisited a story that made the “Best American Sports Writing of the Century” book from 20-some years ago. It’s called “Gone for Good” (Alternatively titled “Down the Drain”) and it’s about Steve Blass, the former Pirates pitcher who lost his ability to pitch. It was even better than I remembered.

As Tim Anderson found himself in the news again — thanks to Donaldson — the White Sox unveiled a new ad campaign hyping him up. Timely.

The White Sox are putting Tim Anderson-themed billboards up around Chicago. (Courtesy White Sox)

It’s rare to see a team single out a player with this kind of attention, even for All-Star consideration. But as we’ve seen recently, and throughout previous years, the Sox definitely have Anderson’s best interests in mind. This is also a smart way to create a buzz for Sox baseball. In Chicago especially, Anderson engenders positive vibes. People want to see him do well.

The Sox have generally done well with catchphrases and ad campaigns, but I’ve long thought they could be doing more, particularly to attract tourists to games. While Wrigley Field has the history and the Wrigleyville neighborhood, the Sox should promote how easy it is to get to their ballpark from downtown hotels. Maybe package some advertising with the park’s proximity to Chinatown?

Here are some recent Chicago baseball stories to peruse.

In my latest “Dollars and sense” media column, I wrote about Marquee Sports Network’s major judgment error in censoring its new sports reporters show. Did you lose trust in the Cubs network because of it? Did you even know it was on the air?

I wrote about Tim Anderson’s productive season amid the Josh Donaldson imbroglio.

Who is Christopher Morel? Patrick Mooney on the newest productive Cubs hitter.

Mooney and Sahadev Sharma are back on the Cubs prospect beat.

Ken Rosenthal talked to Northbrook’s finest, Jason Kipnis, about the likely end of his big-league career.

James Fegan asks if Lance Lynn’s return and a productive Johnny Cueto can help the White Sox reverse their slow start.

(Photo of Tim Anderson and Yan Gomes: Quinn Harris / USA Today)


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