If you thought that just because the new year is officially here and the hangovers of even the most enthusiastic imbibers have dulled to a faint throb, you'd seen the last of the "annual list" features, you are sadly mistaken. Actually, come to think of it, "Top Five" is a list feature all-year round. So you're not only sadly mistaken, but probably lost and looking for an NBC 5 weather update or something.
Don't leave! While you're here, you might as well get comfortable and read up on what I hope to see in the coming year from each of our five major sports teams. Sure, the obvious answer might be: Five championships. (Uh, make that four -- the Cubs and White Sox will have to settle theirs one way or the other.) And I'd certainly take that and chocolate malt to go. But, somewhat more realistically and but no less hopefully, here are my Top Five Chicago Sports Wishes for 2011:
1. I Wish For Jay Cutler To Get Here ... For Good
Or course he's already here. But is he here? I mean, is he really the answer to the seemingly endless string of cut-rate QBs that Chicago Bears fans have had to watch take the field for lo these many seasons? It looks that way. He was better this regular season than last year -- give him that. He threw (gulp) 10 fewer picks (16 instead of 26) and, best of all, his passer rating was much higher -- Cutler finished up the 2010 regular season with a 103 rating (per Pro-Football Reference), up from 92 last season and close to his (thus far) career high of 104 with the Denver Broncos in his great 2008.
In the coming year, I want to see Jay make good on his promise. That means, first and foremost, showing up for the 2011 NFL playoffs. He showed great passion and a considerable amount of gumption playing all four quarters against the Green Bay Packers. But now is the time to take the toughness to the next level and lead the offense to postseason success without succumbing to crowd noise, frustration with his receivers or the dreaded lack of sync that he spoke of when facing the Pack's defense.
Then, no matter how the playoffs turn out, Cutler needs to pull up for the 2011-12 season as a genuine team leader. Maybe he needed a season to adjust to the organization. And then maybe he needed a half of a season to adjust to Mike Martz's offense. Next season, no excuses -- Jay needs to hit the ground running, passing and handing off from the get-go.
2. I Wish For The Bulls To Find That One Guy
We're so big. We're so fast. We're so strong. We're so good. But we're still one player away. That's what so many fans and pundits seem to think, and it's hard to argue with them. I wish I could because, whatever the sport, I'm all about rooting for a team as is and not succumbing to the "grass is always greener" conundrum. I also love looking within for talent. In fact, there's fewer better feelings in sports than watching your favorite team draft a guy, develop him and then put him in real games that matter and see him succeed. (What's up, Derrick Rose!)
The Chicago Bulls have done a good job thus far in beating weaker opponents -- even if it takes them until sometime well into the second half of the game to do it. Problem is, when matching up with the league's elite, they still look one man short. (And it's never a good thing to be short in basketball.) This naturally leads to trade speculation, because there really doesn't appear to be a starting shooting guard within the organization ready to go right now. But there just doesn't seem to be much traction to any of the rumors out there either. Sure, there's likely a relatively minor trade that might help a little bit, but at what cost?
Nonetheless, my wish for the Bulls in 2011 is for them to find that guy. Somehow. Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it's not even a trade at all. Perhaps it's reconfiguring the bench to make better use of Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver. As we close in on the halfway point of the season (Game 33 is tonight vs. the Toronto Raptors), the notion that Keith Bogans is ever going to pull his game together is becoming increasingly doubtful. So less Bogans, more Brewer/Korver? What do you say? As grim as it may sound, maybe the answer is simply playing through the season, getting as far into the playoffs as you can and then solving the problem via free agency this summer.
However the solution comes about, that's my wish for the Bulls. That the team adds the right piece, whether from within or without, to this great core and really becomes a feared presence throughout the Eastern Conference and the NBA as a whole.
3. I Wish For The Blackhawks To Get And Stay Healthy
Admittedly, blaming all of the woes of the Chicago Blackhawks on injuries is probably taking the easy way out. A lack of team chemistry has also been a problem. As has an ability to finish off opponents. As has getting "too cute" on the ice, as head coach Joel Quenneville is wont to say. But, in some respects, it all does lead back to the injury bug, does it not?
It's hard for a team with as much roster turnover as the Blackhawks had to find its chemistry when key players are constantly limping off the ice. And a lack of big names on the ice can leave a team vulnerable at crunch time in many games. And making desperate moves is a telltale sign of younger or inexperienced players trying to do too much when team leaders aren't on the ice.
I know, I know ... I'm making excuses to a certain extent. But, still, my wish for the Blackhawks in 2011 is the same wish I make to you and all of my friends: good health. They really haven't had it at all thus far and maybe ... just maybe ... it's on the brink of coming back. Totally. Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane are fully back. Jonathan Toews has staged a nearly miraculous return. That pretty much leaves forward Fernando Pisani the last major holdout.
With a healthy core finally in place, I hope the Blackhawks can still make the playoffs, albeit at a lower seed, to defend the Stanley Cup. And I hope next season gets off to much steadier start.
4. I Wish For The White Sox To Win Their Division
It's time, isn't it? It feels like it's time, anyway. With a starting staff that remains very strong and a middle of the order that could be prolific in its power, the Chicago White Sox seem poised to reclaim the AL Central from the Minnesota Twins. And 2011 could very well be the year to do so. After investing in many outside players in 2010, the Twinkies are returning to their traditional "promote from within" philosophy, which could leave them vulnerable at several positions. Add to that a starting rotation that lacks star power below ace Francisco Liriano and a bullpen that's been all but stripped bare and those piranhas could finally be on the hook for a division loss.
There are concerns on the South Side, too, of course. When will Jake Peavy be ready to pitch and, when he does, what will he look like? Will the bullpen sort itself out and hang together? And, most notably for me, what about the top of the order? As mentioned, Konerko, Dunn and Quentin are all projected to create a formidable middle. But, beyond that, high OBP players are few and far between. Gordon Beckham could reemerge to become an ideal No. 2 hitter. His progress will be key.
But I hope general manager Kenny Williams' all-in strategy works. If last year's team of low expectations over performed, there's no reason the 2011 team of high expectations couldn't at least play up to par -- which could indeed net them the division and their first playoff appearance since 2008.
5. I Wish For The Future To Arrive Early For The Cubs
For the Chicago Cubs, hoping for a division win is, well, perhaps asking for a bit too much. That's not to say it's completely out of the question but, as things are shaping up, they'll have to leapfrog the divisional incumbent Cincinnati Reds, the markedly improved (pitching-wise) Milwaukee Brewers and the always-in-play St. Louis Cardinals to get to the top spot in the NL Central. That's a steep lily pad (is there such a thing?) for a team that probably won't look all that different from the one that won only 75 games in 2010.
So my hope for the 2011 Cubs is more about the future. That is to
say type, I want to see that future show up on the field this year. I want to see Starlin Castro continue to do things he already does well (make contact with the baseball, turn the spectacular plays) and improve on the things he doesn't (slug a bit more, commit fewer errors and make the routine plays look, y'know, routine). I also want to see Tyler Colvin improve his plate discipline -- even if he does hit a couple fewer home runs -- and seize a position in the outfield. There are some positional wild card players I hope to see as well -- your Brett Jackson and your Brandon Guyer.
And then there's the pitching. In an ideal world, by season's end, I'd like to see both Andrew Cashner and Chris Archer in the rotation. Maybe they wouldn't be light's out. Not yet. And perhaps asking them to be another Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain combo is going too far. But those are the lines along which I think (or dream, if you will). I want to see Randy Wells take another step forward, too. (Yes, he did actually improve in many respects in 2010 and I remain a fan.)
I intend to go into the 2011 season with zero expectations of the Cubs. But I mean that in both a positive and a negative sense. Open your mind, let the season go where it will, enjoy the game of baseball and let youth rise.