Bulls in Five - The .500 Club
by Jason Maslanka
I know I said I wouldn't talk about fashion anymore, but how could I not comment on Cleveland's Anderson Varejao and Bulls' newbie Luke Schenscher battling in the paint with their giant Sideshow Bob hair-do's? It was the most interesting part of the 91-72 loss.
One: Another Week, Another Nothing
This almost seems impossible. This past week featured four games. They were, in order: Minnesota, win; Cleveland, loss: New York, win; Cleveland, loss. It was another week of nothingness, two steps forward and two back, and in the end, nothing happened. What the two losses do mean is that the Bulls lost the season series to division-rival Cleveland 4-0. The only bright side was the win over the Knicks, helping their own cause in assisting New York to the worst record in the NBA and a possible number one pick.
Two: Deng's Development
The week featured four games, and four double-doubles from Luol Deng. Deng has continued to emerge as a very real slashing threat as the season winds on, and has the look of someone who's going to break out in a big way next year. For being such a mediocre team, the Bulls certainly do have a log-jam at small forward, where Nocioni has emerged as a solid NBA player as well. Oh what will the Bulls do with Gonzaga's Adam Morrison after they take him with the first pick? Ahh, to dream...
Threeeeee: National Team Mistakes
This week, Jerry Colangelo and USA Basketball named its 23-man roster. After a bronze metal in the 2004 Olympic Games, Team USA is going in another direction, leaving off superstars like Allen Iverson for a more team-oriented approach. This is a terrific idea, but they made one major mistake. Where is Kirk Hinrich? Oklahoma City's Chris Paul made the team, and he should've, but not even a mention of Hinrich. Hinrich is the ultimate team player who's versatile enough to play point guard and the shooting guard, and he's American as apple pie. Raised in Iowa, went to Kansas University... Hinrich's lack of an invite is upsetting, but it's still nice to see the team be put together the right way. I would go so far as to guarantee this team wins the Gold at this summer's World Championships.
Four: Upcoming, Now With Predictions
The schedule doesn't get any easier, but the task of making the playoffs does get harder with so little season left. There are 23 games left for these Bulls, and they'll probably need to be .500 to make the playoffs. At this point, that means going 15-8 for the rest of the season. I don't see that .652 winning percentage starting this week. Tuesday vs. New Jersey: Surprise win. The Bulls have to start the week by getting your hopes up. Wednesday at Detroit: Oh lord. This won't be easy to watch. Friday vs. LA Clippers: Another loss. This team is pretty darn good and Elton Brand seems to like to beat up on the team that sent him away. Saturday at Atlanta: Easy win. If it's not, the season is over.
Five: NBA Break
As all good basketball fans know, March is when the NBA takes a brief backseat to its amateur counterpart, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Bulls in Five will be back soon, but check out today's March Madness in Five, centered on Chicago and surrounding area teams, and enjoy March. It's my favorite month of the year.
Standings Update: The Bulls (26-33) sit 3.0 games behind Milwaukee (29-30) for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Sox in Five - Spring Has Sprung!
by Steve Gozdecki
Pitchers and catchers? They've been at it a few weeks.
Position players? They're in too. (Even Manny Ramirez.)
Sox in Five? Reporting for duty, still high from our World Championship. Out of shape as always, but ready to practice, Chris Singleton-style, until we get it right.
One: Is Jim Thome Healthy?
So far this spring, most of the White Sox have looked decidedly unwell out in the field. New acquisition Jim Thome, picked up from Philadelphia in the Aaron Rowand trade, was less than healthy last year after elbow surgery shut him down after only 59 games. Thome, 35, hit 30 or more home runs each season from 1996-2004, and a healthy Thome is being counted on to return to those kinds of power numbers and to help protect Paul Konerko in the new-look Sox offense, which should be punchier than last year's squad. Signs thus far point to Thome being just fine, ready to DH on a daily basis and spot for Konerko at first base once a week or so.
Two: Six into Five?
More than a few of us were left scratching our heads when the Sox traded away highly regarded centerfield prospect Chris Young and pitcher Orlando Hernandez for potentially dominating starting pitcher Javier Vazquez this winter. The Sox had appeared to be set for the title defense, with last year's strong quartet of Mark Buerhle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland expected to be joined by youngster Brandon McCarthy in the rotation. Now, the plan is to slot McCarthy in as long man, which will work fine as long as manager Ozzie Guillen plans not to skip any of his five starters in the early going, when only four starters are usually needed due to days off. With no real "fifth" (i.e., crummy or young) starter on the staff, egos will be bruised if any of these guys do get skipped.
Three: Who's in Center?
While assumptions were that the Aaron Rowand trade was made to open up centerfield for rookie Brian Anderson — who should easily match Rowand's offensive output, even in his rookie year — the Sox brass made some noise a few weeks ago about leaving the position open to competition in spring training. The psychology behind these things tends to be fascinating, with some managers coddling rookies while others feel the key is to tear them down every day and keep their competitive fires burning. Ozzie really hasn't worked with any true rookies since taking command of the team before the 2004 season, so it's hard to gauge how he's leaning on this one. The main candidate to take the job away from Anderson would appear to be newly acquired Rob Mackowiak, who plays everywhere but shortstop and catcher but seems better suited to a super-utilityman role. Young speedster Jerry Owens is a (shudder) "lite" version of Scott Podsednik, with an arm better suited to left, which could make for some weirdness if the powers that be opt to put Pods in center and Owens in left. Barring injury or trade, the team should break camp with Anderson as the centerfielder, and he should be a frontrunner for rookie of the year unless überprospect Delmon Young starts the year in the bigs with the Devil Rays.
Four: Will the Tad Swing a Large Pole?
In his American baseball rookie year, veteran Japanese import second baseman Tadahito Iguchi swung a nice bat in the number two spot in the order, showing decent power with 15 home runs while also swiping 15 bases. Plans for this year's rejiggered lineup call for shortstop Juan Uribe to hit second, moving Iguchi down to sixth or seventh in hopes that he'll generate more power without having to take pitches and sacrifice at bats. While it seems unlikely that Iguchi will display the same 30-homer power he showed across the Pacific, he may hit 22 or so, aided by fewer off days this season now that Kenny Williams has taken away one of Ozzie's favorite hitless wonders, backup second baseman Willie Harris.
Five: Who's at the Back of the Bullpen?
While last year's White Sox bullpen was lights out, the team subtracted troubled lefty reliever Damaso Marte this offseason, leaving open an opportunity for someone new to assume the LOOGY (lefty one-out guy) part that Marte filled last year. The team has an uninspiring slate of candidates to fill Marte's specialist role, including Chad Bentz, Paulino Reynoso, Armando Almanza, Javier Lopez, Arnie Munoz, Stephen Randolph, Rusty Tucker and Corwin Malone. Hopefully the team will come to realize that its strong starting pitcher should mean that there's no need to go overboard on relievers. With five slots seemingly set with Bobby Jenks, Dustin Hermanson, Cliff Politte, Neal Cotts and Brandon McCarthy, and a whole lot of flotsam and jetsam behind them, the 2006 Sox may struggle to win extra-inning games and matchups that feature football-sized scores, as the eleventh and twelfth pitchers on the staff are likely to be absolute scrubs unless Kenny finds some reinforcements on the waiver wire as teams prepare to break camp.
March Madness in Five - It's Time
by Jason Maslanka
For the next five weeks, Gapers Block brings you March Madness in Five, a Chicago-centric look at the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The hope, of course, is that there'll still be something to talk about in five weeks, but those hopes already look grim.
One: Who's Out?
Both UIC and Loyola, of the Horizon League, are definitely out. Both lost in the conference (or is it league?) tournament, and have absolutely no chance at an at-large bid. Both's seasons are likely done as they aren't even in the tier of the next 40 teams looked at for the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). DePaul, in its inaugural Big East season, didn't even make the 12-team Big East Conference Tournament. They have no shot at the NCAA tournament, and although the Big East is clearly the best conference in the country, I highly doubt DePaul will play another game this year in the NIT.
Two: Who's Got a Chance?
Everyone's favorite team to forget, Chicago State, is still alive in the Mid-Con Conference Tournament. They defeated UMKC and then IUPUI for a spot in the Mid-Con Championship game. They'll play Oral Roberts tonight on ESPN. Unlike the Big East, the Big Ten Tournament doesn't leave anyone out, so even ninth place Northwestern has a shot. They've never made the big dance before, and would have to beat Ohio State in their second game, but it sure would be fun. OK, enough fun, their chance is slim to none. Northwestern meets Penn State in the first round this Thursday at noon on ESPN2.
Threeeeee: As For the Women...
The cream of the crop in Chicagoland Women's basketball is Doug Bruno's 15th Ranked DePaul Blue Demon squad. Despite losing last night to the seventh ranked Huskies of Uconn, DePaul is well on their way to a tournament birth and a high seed. With early losses in their conference tournaments, Loyola, Chicago State and Northwestern lost out on bids early. Last night, UIC played Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a chance to dance, but lost in the Horizon League Final. DePaul will most likely be the only team in the NCAA's.
Four: Expanding the Zone
Since Chicago is such a letdown, we're going to have to expand the local coverage idea to include the surrounding area. Illinois, with its top-ten ranking, is a lock for the tournament and most likely a 4 seed or better. Southern Illinois, who would've gotten in anyway, did it the guaranteed way by winning the Missouri Valley Championship. The impressive stat is that this is SIU's fifth straight year in the NCAA Tournament. Our neighbors to the north in Milwaukee could have two teams in, as Marquette is a lock and UW-Milwaukee matches up with Butler in the Horizon League finals tonight. Lastly, the Bradley Braves are a likely at-large selection with a 20-win season under their belts.
Five: Number One Seeds
All of the prognosticators love to predict the number one seeds. Every year, they go back and forth discussing who deserves what seeding and why. This year, most experts have picked Duke, Connecticut and Villanova as top seeds. The big debate then becomes about Memphis, Ohio State and Texas for the last slot. The real question in my mind is if Duke will really end up deserving it. They've lost two in a row and if they lose early in the ACC tournament, I think they need to drop to a 2-seed. The locks for a number one should be Uconn and Villanova. They have been the best teams from the best conference in America. Ohio State is deserving, but really so is Gonzaga. No one can make a compelling argument as to why Memphis shouldn't be as well, with only three losses on the year. My actual predictions, however, are Uconn, Villanova, Duke and Ohio State. It's going to take a few more years before mid-major conferences find themselves with 1-seeds.
Cubs in Five - Yes, They're Going to Break Your Heart Again.
by Jeff Webber
Cubs in Five is back! Back for more disappointment! More horrific injuries! More mind-bogglingly stupid Dusty Baker decisions! More Neifi!
Just as last year, I'll be popping up every week to boil down all of the latest news, stats, tips and rumors about your favorite fourth-place team into five easily digestible nuggets of pithy goodness. We'll give you just enough info to sound like you know what you're talking about at the water cooler or the corner bar. Plus: Neifi!
One: Annual Kerry Wood Injury? Check. Annual Mark Prior Injury? Pending.
Continuing to show all of the toughness and durability of a Precious Moments figurine, would-be ace Kerry Wood has already gone under the knife for knee surgery, sidelining him until early June at best. This gives him the early lead in the annual Wood/Prior Injury Showdown. Prior's coming up short so far, offering only some "lingering effects" from a December illness. Still, if BaseballProspectus.com's Will Carroll's sources are right, his shoulder is hurting him, too. Prior and the Cubs have been furious over Carroll's claims, and they've had quite a bit to say about it. What they haven't actually said is, "Mark Prior's shoulder is completely healthy."
Two: Corey May Be Gone, But Our Jacque Still Stinks
Even casual Cub fans will be excited to see that, as the Cubs suit up for spring training this year, Corey Patterson is not among them. Patterson, once a left-handed hitter capable of 20 home runs, a plus defender and an above average baserunner, had been in decline. He'd become essentially useless against left-handed pitching, struck out entirely too often and rarely, rarely managed to draw a walk. Unloading Patterson allowed the Cubs to find a spot in right field for free agent Jacque Jones. Jones, for his part, offers the following mix of pros and cons: he is a left-handed hitter capable of 20 home runs, a plus defender and an above average baserunner, but he has been in decline for several seasons, becoming essentially useless against left-handed pitching, striking out entirely too often, and rarely, rarely managing to draw a walk. Oh: also, he's older and gets paid twice as much money.
Three: Cubs in Five's New Favorite Cub: Scott Eyre
OK, yes: the Cubs blew most of their discretionary budget this offseason inking a pair of middle relievers: Eyre and Bobby Howry. And yeah, it would have made a lot more sense to sift through the retreads in hopes of uncovering the next Derrick Turnbow (who saved 39 games for the Brewers just a year after being unceremoniously dumped by the Angels). But we like Eyre anyway because he, like this writer, has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. After being diagnosed with ADHD in 2002, Eyre was able to turn his career around, becoming one of the most reliable left-handed relievers in the National League, even leading the NL in appearances last year. It's good to see someone fighting the good fight against shiny things and other random distractions and coming out on top.
Four: The Best Cubs Blog Post Ever
The Score Bard, over at Baseball Toaster's Humbug Journal, has come up with a list of anagrams for all 40 players in the Cubs' 40 man roster. And honestly, life as a Cub fan will never be the same once you've heard tell of Al, the Crime Rat (Michael Barrett), JJ as Co-Queen (Jacque Jones) and Tom Tantrum (Matt Murton).
Five: A Handful of Reasons Why Watching This Year's Cubs Will Not Be a Completely Joyless Endeavour, Despite the Near Certainty They Will Finish Below the Cardinals, Astros and Possibly Even the Brewers
What can we look forward to? Matt Murton and Ronny Cedeno are slated to play every day, and they look to be exciting youngsters. Onetime Cub top prospect Angel Guzman looks healthy and may yet be pitching in Chicago this year. (No, really.) And, we now have an actual leadoff hitter in Juan Pierre. (For Cubs fans unable to recall what a leadoff hitter is, it's a guy who hits first in the order and focuses on reaching base and scoring runs; Scott Podsednik, for example.)
Even with all of that, though, barring an unforeseen run of freakishly good luck (and Kerry Wood's knee told me not to hold my breath on that), the Cubs aren't going to make the playoffs this year. The 2005 Cubs won only 79 games. Realistically, to have a shot at the playoffs, they'd need to improve by around 13-16 wins. And with Juan Pierre the only substantial improvement to the lineup, continued health questions surrounding Wood and Prior, and Eyre/Howry representing only a modest improvement to the bullpen, that's just not going to happen.
Just as last year, if you're interested in seeing winning baseball, you're on the wrong side of town, I'm afraid.