Top Five: White Sox And Cubs Hot Stove Storylines

Is it hot stove time already, baseball fans? Well, yeah. So what kind of sagas are we looking at on the north and south sides of town? That's for me to know and you to find out — in this week's Top Five!

A little over a week ago, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. And, just this past weekend, the door to negotiate with free agents was blown open with much fanfare. (Actually, there wasn't all that much fanfare. I just like the image of a door exploding and a frantic group of money-hungry sports agents storming through the smoking portal like Imperial Stormtroopers at the beginning of "Star Wars.") That means hot stove season has officially begun.

Of course, reconfiguring an MLB team’s roster isn’t only about picking up pricey free agents. Doing so also potentially involves trades, arbitration offers, cruel nontenders and the retention of those coveted cost-controlled youngsters. Here in Chicago, the Cubs and White Sox have a certain amount in common this off-season. So let’s take a look at the 2010-11 Top Five hot stove storylines.

1. The Thirst For First

Oh, first baseman. We don’t ask much of you. Catch the ball when it’s thrown to you by your infielders. Pick a few hot shots down the right field line. Hit the ball hard and far and don’t strike out too much. This offseason, both Chicago teams are taking a long look at the extreme right-hand side of the diamond.

For the White Sox, it’s gut check time. Do they re-up Paul Konerko for another couple of years or look to move on? The long-time Sox first baseman will turn 35 as spring training begins but is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. The team could "go young" by putting prospect Brent Morel at third (he’ll be 24 next season) and slugger Dayan Viciedo (he’ll be 22) at first. Or they could go after a free agent. But more about that in a second …

The Cubs face a somewhat similar dilemma. The North Siders avoided having to make a Konerko-like choice by trading Derrek Lee to the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 18. But they still need to make a decision at first base and, unlike the Sox, don’t really have a viable in-house option. Sure, there’s perennial Iowa superstar Micah Hoffpauir, but he’ll be 30 next season and has never really shown enough at the major league level to warrant a starting job. This past season’s typical first-base-fill-in, Xavier Nady, is a free agent. But his sub-par (below-replacement-level) showing in 2010 didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Which brings us to free agent possibilities — and it’s here that the Cubs and Sox collide. For both teams, one guy really seems to fit the bill: Adam Dunn. The left-handed model of consistency will be 32 years old next season and finally seems to have settled in at the only defensive position that doesn’t crush his value. (That would be first base.)

The problem for the White Sox isn’t so much money, as they could probably structure a deal that fits the budget. The problem is that Dunn has indicated that he doesn’t want to be a designated hitter and, presumably, the Sox would want to use him at least partly in that role. He’d also have to face tougher American League pitching, which could give a guy who tends to strike out over 30% of the time second thoughts.

For the Cubs, the problem is money. Can they free up enough salary to give Dunn the (presumably) three-year deal (at least) he’s looking for? It seems somewhat doubtful unless GM Jim Hendry can trade right fielder Kosuke Fukudome and/or otherwise get creative with the finances. If he could be signed, Adam Dunn would finally give the Cubs the big, middle-of-the-order lefty power bat they’ve so long searched for. And, for his career, Dunn has hit very well at Wrigley Field.

There’s also a gaggle of other, likely one-year, stop-gap options either team could consider at first base. Your Adam LaRoches and Nick Johnsons and Lance Berkmans. Even former Cubs star Derrek Lee. There’s also the trade route, with San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez getting a lot of attention in that regard of late. All in all, it’s hard to say right now who either team will focus on at this position. But fans on both sides of town will be watching carefully.

2. Backstop Bonanza

Catchers are a rare breed and good ones are highly valued. Both teams will have some decisions to make regarding who will assume the position behind the plate next season, with the White Sox having the much harder call.

To wit, fan favorite A.J. Pierzynski has become a free agent, which forces the team to determine whether their top catching prospect, Tyler Flowers, is ready for full-time action. A.J. will be 35 next season and is coming off arguably his career-worst season offensively. He’s still solid defensively, however, and no one knows the Sox pitching staff better.

Will GM Kenny Williams seek to give Flowers, who’s shown great offensive power potential in the minor leagues but remains questionable defensively, a little more development time by extending Pierzynski a couple of years? Or will he roll the dice on Flowers/Castro job-sharing arrangement? There’s also the option of a bold trade, of course. (Check out this post at SB Nation’s South Side Sox blog for one intriguing idea as well as a variety of others.)

On the North Side, the catcher’s position is less of a conundrum. Geovany Soto had an impressive bounce-back season in 2010. He nurtured an on-base percentage of around .400 for most of the season, which ultimately landed at .393. He’ll be 28 next year and, though his defensive reputation isn’t great and he's no stranger to injuries, Geo is still among the more valuable catchers in the National League.

No, the question for the Cubs is who will back up Soto. Tough-as-nails Koyie Hill has held that job for the last couple of years and is eligible for a salary arbitration hearing. He’s also a favorite among the team’s coaches and apparently respected by the pitching staff.

Unfortunately, Hill’s inability to hit with any consistency is legendary. What’s more, the team has a couple of young catchers ready to roll — Welington Castillo (who got a cup of coffee at season’s end and will be 24 next season) and Robinson Chirinos (who will be 26 and spent most of last season at Double-A Daytona before being promoted to Triple-A Iowa). The time would seem nigh to give one of these two a shot.

3. Retooling Right Field

Another position that poses a riddle of sorts for both the Cubs and Sox is right fielder. Both teams have players at that position who have some value but don’t neatly or completely suit either organization’s needs.

On the South Side, we have Carlos Quentin. This swarthy outfielder, who will be 29 years old for most of the 2011 season, made Kenny Williams look like a genius following the late-2007 trade that brought Quentin to the Sox. He played in 130 games in 2008, slugging 36 home runs and winding up with a monstrous .965 OPS (.414 wOBA).

But, in 2009, Quentin couldn’t stay healthy and played in only 90 games. In 2010, he managed to stay on the field, playing in a career-high 131 games. But he didn’t hit quite as well as he did in ’08 (though he can still slug with the best of ’em).

Quentin’s biggest problem these days is his defense. His reputation as an outfielder has fallen to, well, Adam-Dunn-esque levels, which has led many fans and pundits to label him as trade bait. Although rumors of a Quentin (plus prospects) for Colby Rasmus of the St. Louis Cardinals seem to have died down, we may very well hear other proposed deals involving the right fielder. If he is traded, the Sox could perhaps bring back Andruw Jones and platoon him with the much-maligned Mark Teahen.

For the Cubs, right field also holds a player who has turned into a question mark. On second thought, check that: Kosuke Fukudome, who will be 34 for most of the 2011 season, has always been a question mark, and he’s never had a season like Carlos Quentin’s 2008. Interestingly, neither health nor defense have been Kosuke’s ills, just the inability to hit consistently and avoid the strikeout. Oh, and he has one other major downside: His 2011 salary of $13.5 million.

There’s been no shortage of rumors in the last few months that Jim Hendry will make a major push to trade Fukudome. The Cubs will likely have to take back a player owed substantial dollars and, moreover, will probably have to throw in some cash themselves. Despite his nagging strikeout rate, Kosuke can work a count expertly, get his share of doubles, whack a handful of long balls, and lay down a bunt  — all while playing solid defense in right field. He can even play center field, if necessary. So a trade isn’t out of the question, assuming Fukudome is willing to waive his no-trade clause.

If Hendry can work a deal, the Cubs may have a little more money to work with on the free agent market. Or, at the very least, they’ll have opened up a spot for 26-year-old Tyler Colvin, who hit 20 home runs in an all-over-the-place outfield role in 2010.

4. Fun With The Bullpen

Always malleable beasts, the bullpens on either side of town will be subject to much debate and re-tooling (real and fantasy-based) this off-season.

On the South Side, the most dramatic development could be the departure of closer Bobby Jenks, who will be 30 years old next season. Since barreling onto the scene during the team’s 2005 World Series championship season, Jenks has been up and down in terms of health, behavior and effectiveness. Many believe 2010 was the end of the road for the portly, goatee’d closer — at least in a White Sox uniform.

Jenks departure could open the door to the re-signing of J.J. Putz, who was one of the better right-handed set-up guys in baseball this past season. He’ll be 34 in 2011 but would bring a veteran presence that could qualify him for the closer’s role. Then again, Sergio Santos offers a cheaper, younger (he’ll turn 28 on the Fourth of July) option.

And don’t forget hotshot newcomer Chris Sale, who appeared in all of 11 minor league games before making his MLB debut on Aug. 6, 2010. This lefty fireballer will be only 21 years old next season and, according to Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, is likely headed back to the bullpen. He’ll probably be used to take some weight off of veteran Matt Thornton’s left shoulder. But could Sale and his 12.34 K/9 rate seize the closer’s spot? Stay tuned.

For the Cubs, the 2010 bullpen was a mostly babyish bunch that received regular, sound slappings to its collective rear during the early part of the season. It did settle down, however, for the most part eventually — with top prospect Andrew Cashner, swingman-turned-set-up-guy Sean Marshall and strikeout king Carlos Marmol assuming control of the back end. (OK, enough with the butt metaphors.)

From there, the Cubs have a surplus of mid-level arms with which to build the remainder of their pen. There have been rumors and some discussion about re-acquiring the beloved Kerry Wood, who performed well as a closer for the team in 2008. It’s a possibility to be sure, but his salary demands (and, presumably, Jim Hendry’s wariness of injury) might scuttle any such deal — no matter how nice a story it could be.

One name the Cubs may want to look into is Jason Frasor. This Chicago native was mentioned in trade talks in 2010 but nothing ever came of it. He’s a free agent now and, though he struggled with walks this past season, he still struck out hitters at a healthy rate. And that was in the tougher AL East.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering why neither the Sox nor Cubs starting rotation is a Top Five storyline, it appears neither one will undergo particularly dramatic changes in 2011. The South Siders look to be set up quite nicely with Peavy, Buehrle, Danks, Floyd and Jackson. The Cubs need a top of the rotation starter, but there really isn’t one feasibly available. Cliff Lee isn’t coming to Chicago, so the North Siders may ultimately wind up giving a shot to their high-upside prospect Chris Archer — if not going into the season, then at some point during.)

5. The Young And The Arb-Eligible

Well, we’ve reached the stunning conclusion of our Top Five, so let’s get lazy. Something both teams will have to confront this off-season is to whom they should offer arbitration and how much money they should, thereby, pony up.

The White Sox have the following "arb-eligible" players: Bobby Jenks, John Danks, Carlos Quentin and Tony Pena. As mentioned above, Jenks may be nontendered. The other four should receive arbitration offers.

The Cubs arb-eligible players include: Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Tom Gorzelanny, Koyie Hill, Jeff Baker and Geovany Soto. As also mentioned above, Koyie Hill could — and perhaps should — be nontendered to make way for one of the Cubs’ younger catching prospects.

Meanwhile, utility man Jeff Baker might be on the bubble. He’ll turn 30 in June and has never quite won himself a starting job. But he can play multiple positions (second base, third base, first base, corner outfield spots) and he sports a career .908 OPS vs. left-handed pitching. Everyone else is more than likely coming back, which will further challenge Hendry’s efforts to balance the budget.

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