- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Chicago's respective baseball seasons don't have to be dreary. Fascinating might be a stretch but interesting is a definite possibility.
April promises to be compelling merely for curiosity's sake. Can the Cubs or White Sox stay competitive enough to give rise to actual optimism, false or otherwise? Or do they sink so quickly and so profoundly as to fulfill all of our worst expectations?
By the end of May or early June, Cubs fans can stay engaged as they begin clamoring for Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson, while Sox fans can officially give up on Adam Dunn and Alex Rios comebacks and start debating whether Paul Konerko's first mini-slump means he's over the hill.
July and August will bring trade deadlines and that annual fantasy known as hoping someone is dumb enough to take on Alfonso Soriano's contract. And by September, there are sure to be at least a handful of Sox fans who long for Ozzie Guillen's "fire."
See? It might even be fun.
And all the while, there will be the sociological exercise of observing the differing properties of a singular concept known as rebuilding.
Seldom has one team's fan base, in the Cubs' case, been so pumped about rebuilding. While on the South Side, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams barely uttered the word last December before spitting it back out again.
So competitive are the Cubs and Sox faithful that this spring has boiled down to a debate over which side is better able to justify its lowly expectations.
So far, the Cubs win that contest, though maybe not by as wide a margin as it appears.
"Accountability was a huge word used throughout spring training," said Opening Day starting pitcher Ryan Dempster on Wednesday. "Just going out there and holding each other accountable for the way we play the game and how hard we play it. And because of that, we played some good baseball towards the end of spring and hopefully that translates into good baseball during the season."
Perhaps the biggest advantage new team president Theo Epstein and his general manager Jed Hoyer have going for them right now is the enormous reserve of faith and patience Cubs fans seemingly have for the organization right now.
When he was hired in October, Epstein promised to develop a Cubs' way of doing things and that thought alone was almost as invigorating as any actual move he made with the possible exception of the trade/purge of Carlos Zambrano. Admit it, that was pretty invigorating.
But the Cubs, with the hiring of manager Dale Sveum, are also promising a lunch-bucket approach (re: improved fundamentals) and based on the low standards set in recent years, that area should be easy to gauge and to grade.
Specifically, Sveum all but guarantees his club will be able to manufacture runs by virtue of smarter at-bats and more aggressive baserunning -- and with its lack of power sources, it better. That should keep fans somewhat satisfied, though we should keep in mind that players have to first get on base to manufacture runs.
The development of Starlin Castro also promises to be stimulating as the National League leader in both hits and errors last season just turned 22 and is sure to benefit from stable coaching.
But coming off a 91-loss season, perhaps the best thing that can be said about the 2012 Cubs is their depth, which has provoked worthy debate over whether the Triple-A team may actually be superior to the parent club.
Randy Wells has never looked so good.
In the end, whether Jeff Samardzija or Carlos Marmol pitches just well enough to increase their trade value or Ian Stewart makes fans miss Aramis Ramirez, Cubs fans will be looking for the first signs of the new Cubs' way.
"If we play the game the way it's supposed to be played," said Soriano, "it's going to be fun."
As for the Sox, there is considerably more required and more at stake; hence the hint of defiance coming out of spring training.
"This team is going to compete," promised Jake Peavy. "We are not losing 95 games, let me tell you that."
OK, so maybe it's a little long for a T-shirt slogan, but as for a reaction to one national publication's season prediction, it's obvious the Sox won't have to look very far for motivation this summer.
Chosen by some to win their division last season, the Sox, with their highest-ever payroll ($128 million), ended up third in the American League Central at 79-83, and it's a toss-up among most prognosticators as to whether they will finish last or be edged out by the Twins.
Either way, the Sox will certainly have a different feel in the clubhouse without Guillen and franchise treasure Mark Buehrle, together again in Miami. And when they dealt Carlos Quentin and to a much larger degree, closer Sergio Santos, it looked like the word rebuilding was more than appropriate, even as team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf disagreed.
"I don't think we're rebuilding because rebuilding is when you get bad in order to get good," he said. "We fell short last season but we didn't fall a lot short. I think we could very well contend for the division if Dunn and Rios bounce back. And a guy I think will really bounce back is Peavy because that's the history of guys the second year following injuries.
"I don't expect us to be bad."
Plagued by what ESPN's Keith Law called the weakest farm system in baseball, the Sox will have to hope that first-year manager Robin Ventura can coax comeback years from the aforementioned trio; that Gordon Beckham can find his rookie form; Chris Sale can become a formidable starting pitcher and that the new skipper can sort out a largely inexperienced bullpen in which he still hasn't named his closer.
With 26 division games in April and May, the Sox could know quickly how the season will go, and whether Williams will go all-in on rebuilding.
Either way, it doesn't have to be boring.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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