With the All-Star break here, its time to look back at baseball on both sides of town and see what the second half holds.
Starting with the Chicago White Sox, because quite frankly, only the optimistic Sox fans expected their team to be in first place at any point past April 30th. And they are doing it mostly the same way as 2005, except for one thing. Hitting.
In 05, the team was carried by their pitching staff. And carried big time, with getting career years from just about all their starters and most of their bullpen. They picked up a closer from the Angels scrap heap, and he's been lights out since. The trio of Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras all had their lowest ERA output and that didn't include the postseason numbers that they put up. As a pitching staff, they had the lowest ERA in the American League and none of the regulars in the bullpen even had an ERA above 4.00. This season really hasn't been any different.
Their pitching staff again has one of the lowest ERA in all of baseball, Mark Buehrle is having as good of season as he had in 2005, after starting off the season very poorly and possibly injured according to Ozzie Guillen and he doesn't even have the best numbers of the starters this season. Both John Danks and Gavin Floyd have come out of nowhere this season to lead the White Sox staff so far to this point and if the White Sox hope to continue to lead the Central, they are going to need them to point the way. Other than LF Carlos Quentin and RF Jermaine Dye, the Sox have had a serious lack off offense this season, especially when it comes to their two biggest offseason acquisitions, Orland Cabrera and Nick Swisher. Of the two, Cabrera has the highest batting average at.264, but has shown almost zero power, with only 25 extra-base hits to his credit. Cabrera has never shown that much power so far in his career, but you would figure that coming into a hitter's park like U.S. Cellular, his Slugging percentage might go up, instead of going down? But, at least he wasn't the one who the White Sox brass were looking forward to the most showing up in town. That honor belongs to Swisher. Thought to be coming in as the answer to their CF woes that have plagued them since movie Aaron Rowand in the Jim Thome trade, Swisher has been a bust. He's been getting on base at almost a 120 points above his batting average, which normally would be great, if your batting average wasn't hovering around .220. And with a slugging percentage around .400, he has provided less than ideal power numbers. At least, not for the players they have given up for him. And the 2nd half doesn't start off too easy for the White Sox. After a 3-game set with the bottom dwellers Kansas City Royals, the White Sox entertain the Texas Rangers for 3 games at home before spending the next 7 games playing their two biggest problems for the Central on the road, starting with 3 in Detroit and then 4 in Minnesota. It's hard to say that games played in late July can make or break a season, but it will be an important stretch.
As for the Cubs, their hitting has carried them to this point in 2008 and the big difference between them and the White Sox, everyone in baseball expected them to be leading the Central at this point. In fact, most experts would say that anything but a World Series berth this season would be a major letdown. And I said a couple weeks ago that without getting a big game pitcher, the Cubs might not even make the playoffs, let alone a World Series. Do I still think that after they picked up Rich Harden? Yes.
Don't get me wrong, Harden is the type of ace that the Cubs need to go after and his one start before the all-star break showed exactly what to expect from him. Lights out stuff, for a short period of time. He struck out 10 Giants in 5 and a third innings pitched, but was pulled after 96 pitches. And that's really not going to help the Cubs that much because of late, their bullpen has been less than stellar. Even the lights out Carlos Marmol has been anything but, limping into the break with an ERA of 4.13, and that has done nothing but go up since May 31st, which was the last time that it was below 2. And Bobby Howry has been less than ideal in the bullpen also this season, sporting an ERA of 4.5o. The only bright spots besides Kerry Wood has been righty Michael Wuertz and lefty Neal Cotts. But Wuertz's last appearance makes kills all the progress he has made so far this season, giving up 4 runs to the Cincinnati Reds in a inning and a third. As for Cotts, he goes into the break sporting a 2.81 ERA after starting the season in AAA and has helped the Cubs miss Scott Eyre when it comes to needing a lefty out. Let's hope he continues that in the 2nd half.
But most of what the second half rests on is the Cubs offense. The Cubs have struggled since Alfonso Soriano went down with his broken hand and no one has picked up the slack. A few games here and there by a couple of players, but no one has emerged to carry the team, which is what teams need when someone goes down. A stellar start to the season is what put Geovanny Soto into the starting Catcher spot in the all-star game, but he has slowed since May 31st and needs to start hitting again to give the Cubs some depth in the lineup. And the Kosuke Fukudome of May and early June needs to show up again if the Cubs hope to help maintain their lead in the Central. But it's not going to be easy. After the break, the Cubs start on the road, which has not been a great play for them to win. 3 games with Houston and then 3 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks is what awaits the Cubs post all-star game, before coming home for 4 games with the Florida Marlins and then a big 4 game set with the Milwaukee Brewers, who along with the St. Louis Cardinals, are waiting for the Cubs to falter. Let's hope this year isn't like all other years.