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Thursday, April 1, 2004 02:23 pm

Crystal (base)ball

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The Cubs are the chosen ones. The Cardinals are also-rans. The White Sox apparently peaked last year -- when they finished in second place in the weak American League Central.

So goes spring training clairvoyance, in which predictions are stated with the certainty of Pythagoras positing his theorem about the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle being equal to the sum of something or other.

The trouble for Cub fans, and the hope of Cardinal and White Sox fans, is that baseball ain't geometry. Or trigonometry. For starters, it's a diamond, not a triangle and even Pythagoras might have had trouble explaining the infield fly rule, much less how the Florida Marlins won the World Series in '03. No one predicted that.

For once, the Cubs and their fans exude optimism, even confidence. It's startling. There is evidence to connect the dots for a first-place finish and a playoff run, even to the World Series. An already young and good pitching staff has been aided by the addition of veteran Greg Maddux and middle relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Kent Mercker.

The fair-to-middling run production last year (ninth of 16 NL teams) might be boosted by the addition of former Florida Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee, but, aside from Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou and Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs don't really hit that well. Ten National League teams, on average, hit better last year.

So the magic that is the new and improved Cubs begins and pretty much ends with the starting pitching. If they stay healthy, the Cubs should be there for the fight, and maybe until the end. If they suffer injuries or crater under pressure, there's not much backup. The Cubs won't win slugfests and their defense isn't that good.

The pitching rotation of Maddux, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano is as good as it gets, but except for Maddux, they're young and somewhat untested. Prior's Achilles tendon problem already has him out of the first homestand. Prior is the ace. Wood, for all his strikeouts and power, only wins every 2.4 times he starts. Despite his overpowering fastball, last season he was just 14-11.

In part, this year's exuberance is fueled by the Cubs' near miss last year, when no one but the delusional picked the Cubs to make the play-offs. Not only did they win the NL Central Division, the Cubs held a 3-1 lead in a seven-game NL Championship Series over the Florida Marlins before they folded like a cheap tent, losing three straight games to the unheralded Marlins, who went on to defeat the Yankees in the World Series.

This year could very well be a surprise in reverse. If there is a significant injury to Prior or Wood or if Maddux continues to fade with age, the Cubs preseason euphoria could return to normalcy.

 

The Cardinals are the opposites of the Cubs: They have shaky starting pitching, impeccable defense and frighteningly good hitters.

Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds played in last year's All-Star game. Perhaps St. Louis Manager Tony LaRussa learned from that experience and plans to use his pitching staff this season the way the All-Star team does. No pitcher in an All-Star game pitches more than three innings. For the Cards, that would make sense: The starters are so marginal they may not be able to pitch more than three innings.

The staff "ace" by default is Matt Morris, who suffered through several injuries last year to an 11-8 record. Woody Williams (18-9) is solid, but the rotation after that is mostly smoke and mirrors.

The highlight beyond the hitters and the four Golden Gloves, if there is one for the Cardinals, is the bullpen. It's a much better relief corps than the Cubs and if LaRussa resorts to a de facto All-Star strategy, three innings and out, the addition of Julian Tavarez, Ray King and Mike Lincoln could be critical. Thus far, unlike last year, closer Jason Isringhausen (of Brighton, Ill.) appears healthy.

But Cardinals management, counting their shekels and waiting for the new stadium in 2006, must have trouble keeping a straight face with some of their budgetary moves. Ray Lankford in left field? What, wasn't Vince Coleman available? So Taguchi? No Ichiro he.

The White Sox, too, are pinching pennies, losing six players to free agency, including starter Bartolo Colon. This could be the last season for the team's best hitter, Magglio Ordonez, who likely will escape the South Side through free agency. It appears that the only hope for the Chisox this year is if the rest of the division sucks worse than they do and somehow new manager Ozzie Guillén proves inspirational.

As for the Cubs and Cards, no one needs to be reminded about their histories but no one seems to want to stop talking about it.

The Cardinals have won more World Series than any team other than the Yankees. The Cubs have, well, they have Wrigley Field. When it comes to baseball, the only thing Chicago has done better than St. Louis was to promote Harry Caray into a national icon. The Cardinals fired Caray, the Cubs put him on Superstation WGN.

So this may be the Cubs' year to dispel doubters that last year's success wasn't just a momentary lapse of baseball mythology.

Did the Cubs improve themselves over the off season? Yes. Will this mean they'll win the World Series for the first time since 1908? Probably not. But the Cubs have a better shot than the Cardinals do, however odd it is to hear that.

To hazard a guess, expect the Houston Astros to win the NL Central with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite and solid offense. Look for the waiting-to-move-into-a-new-stadium-let's-stand-pat Cardinals and the free spending Cubs to vie for second and a possible wild card slot for the play-offs. The White Sox, alas, will finish out of the money but in doing so will save Jerry Reinsdorf's ownership group mucho dinero.

You be the judge. Make up your own theorem.

 

Major League Baseball's 2004 season opens Monday

• The Milwaukee Brewers are guests of the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

• The Cubs meet the Reds in Cincinnati. They open at Wrigley Field on April 12 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

• The White Sox play the Royals in Kansas City. The Royals visit U.S. Cellular Field for the Sox's home opener on April 13.

Also from D. J. Wilson

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