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Top Five: Chicago Baseball Spring Training Storylines (Revisited)

As spring training soldiers along, curious Chicago baseball fans want to know, "How are those position battles coming along?" Not too shabbily, I'd say. As always, for great team-specific analysis and discussion of the Chicago White Sox, check out South Side Sox. And for all things Chicago Cubs, go to Bleed Cubbie Blue.

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About three weeks ago, I wrote this 3,460 word monstrosity addressing some of the key storylines facing fans of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs this season. Well, we're now almost three full weeks into Cactus League action, so it's safe to say just about all of those lines have developed in one way or another.

The good news for both clubs is nothing too shocking or devastating has occurred at either camp thus far. OK, sure, Carlos Silva and Aramis got into a shoving match in the dugout. But, while somewhat entertaining, that incident really wasn't that big of a deal as it's hardly uncommon for athletes of any kind to occasionally get a little testy with one another. Otherwise, the Cubs and White Sox have managed (knocking on wood) to stay healthy for the most part and everyone is getting in his work as planned.

Something I did in that aforementioned Top Five that I don't usually do -- purely out of cowardice -- is make predictions. But make them I did, so what I'd like to do here is revisit both the storylines covered and predictions made and see how I'm doing. For each prediction, I'm going to decide whether I should "stick or waffle," and please don't confuse that distinction with this. Let's get to it:

1. The Young and the Restless (Redux)

The White Sox and Cubs headed into camp with a similar dilemma this spring. Both teams have a talented young pitcher whose value to the team could be maximized by putting him in the starting rotation or whose powerful arm could serve a key role in the bullpen. In both cases, there’s also a little-discussed third option of returning the hurler in question to the minor leagues for further development (presumably as a starter). But, because both guys pitched a significant amount of innings in the big leagues last season, there seemed little chance of this happening. I refer, of course, to Chris Sale and Andrew Cashner.

Bold prediction No. 1: Chris Sale follows in the footsteps of Bobby Jenks, becoming the White Sox closer despite his relative youth and inexperience.

To Stick or To Waffle: Pass the syrup, please! I’m going to waffle on this one – and not because Sale has gotten battered around a bit so far. In fact, I’m not going to cite any spring training stats here at all. They have little to no predictive value and, quite frankly, look rather silly in such small sample sizes.

No, I’m waffling here for three reasons: 1) Ozzie Guillen himself told Peter Gammons of that Matt Thornton is now the front-runner for the closer’s role, 2) I made the prediction above before Thornton got his two-year, $12 million contract extension, and 3) Why would the Sox risk it?

Regarding that last question, I just mean that if Sale were to be named closer and fail, the damage to his confidence and development could be devastating. After all, when a closer fails, it often means the team loses the game. Now if the Sox had no other really viable options for closer, as was the case with Bobby Jenks in 2005, it would be another story. But why take that risk with such a talented young arm when you’ve got a more traditional choice for closer – a tenured veteran with strong career numbers and a healthy (if actually quite sensible) contract – right there in front of you? So I’m waffling and now predict Thornton will start the season as the closer.

Bold prediction No. 2: Carlos Silva puts together another solid spring and lays claim to the last rotation spot. Cashner starts the season in the minors, giving Cubs manager Mike Quade one of his first big PR challenges.

To Stick or To Waffle: I’m sticking here. Well, mostly. I don’t think Cashner will go the minors because it’s now being widely reported that he’s going north with the team either in the rotation or the pen. There’s good and bad to that. If he does go to the pen, he’ll add another power arm to a relief corps that could be quite good. On the downside, that will likely mean another season in which Cashner won’t get to spend much time developing his secondary pitches nor building up the arm strength to be a starter.

As far as Silva goes, even though he hasn’t exactly been "solid" so far, he hasn’t been so abjectly awful as to eliminate himself from making the rotation as the fifth starter. He is who is – a groundball pitcher who can eat up some innings, and he probably should at least be given the opportunity to give the team back some value for his $12.75 million salary ($3.5 million of which is being picked up by the Seattle Mariners). The X Factor here is whether some other MLB team desperate for starting pitching will try to work out a deal with the Cubs before Opening Day. Doubtful, but possible.

2. The Pushers (Recollared)

Pushers are the savvy, in some cases salty, vets who show up to camp every spring looking to push a younger player back to the minors. For the White Sox, that guy is Lastings Milledge, who’s actually not old at all – in fact, he’s just 25. And at Cubs camp, Reed Johnson is looking to extend his respectable career. (At 34, he is getting up there in baseball terms.) The youngsters in question are Alejandro De Aza (26-year-old outfielder) and Brent Lillibridge (27-year old all-over-the-fielder) for the Sox and Fernando Perez (27-year-old poet/outfielder) for the Cubs.

Bold prediction No. 3: De Aza finally stays healthy enough to win over Ozzie and get a bench spot. Lillibridge is exposed to waivers and lost. Milledge, who still does have an option left, goes to Triple A.

To Stick or To Waffle: I’m going to stick here, but only because De Aza is reportedly out of options (so the Sox can’t send him to the minors without the risk of losing him to another team) and Milledge is not. Lastings has already graciously offered to go to Triple-A Charlotte if asked. So, even though he’s having an excellent spring in terms of both results and attitude, Milledge has given the team the opportunity to buy some time here. And, taking another look at the makings of the Sox 25-man roster, I could still see Lillibridge making the team as a super-utility guy at the very end of the bench.

Bold prediction No. 4: The great speed and beautiful mind of Fernando Perez inspires Cubs manager Mike Quade to award him a roster spot and, for a second time, Cubs fans must bid a sad adieu to Reed Johnson.

To Stick or To Waffle: Sticking. The Cubs have little dependable speed to speak of and, though Perez hasn’t exactly been lighting it up at the plate so far, he’s shown a decent ability to get on base and his defense seems to be settling down after a rough start. If he can stay healthy – and stay fast – I can’t see how Cubs manager Mike Quade could leave his skill set off of the team. Reed Johnson has been the consummate pro that he is, but his injury history and limitations still make him a long shot.

3. The Walking Wounded (Reanimated)

Jake Peavy and Carlos Silva both walked into their respective spring training facilities last month with something to prove in terms of their physical ability to pitch. Volumes have now been written about Peavy’s so-far-so-good comeback from a total detachment of his right latissimus dorsi tendon last season. Silva wasn’t exactly wounded – though Aramis Ramirez would have perhaps happily obliged in the first week of games if teammates hadn’t intervened – but he had his troubles, if you'll concede that cardiac issues and elbow difficulties qualify as such.

Bold prediction No. 5: The headstrong, ultracompetitive Peavy will shoulder his way back into the rotation by mid-April. Boo ya!

To Stick or To Waffle: Y’know, I may waffle here just a bit and say Jake won’t rejoin the rotation in mid-April. He’ll be a part of it on Opening Day! Seriously, with the disappointing demotion of Lucas Harrell early in camp, 28-year-old journeyman Phillip Humber remains in the mix. But would he really be more effective in the fifth starter’s spot than Peavy himself?

After all, that’s really all the Sox will be asking of Jake for the first month or two – be the No. 5 guy, go out there and throw some innings, build up strength and confidence. Although he’s now been hit by the stomach flu, which could throw some uncertainty in the situation, Jake is proving once again that he’s among the most headstrong, competitive players out there.

Bold prediction No. 6: See bold prediction No. 2 above.

4. The Young Defenders (Realigned)

With the potential addition of 23-year-old third-base prospect Brent Morel, the Sox infield defense – highlighted by the excellent range and arm of shortstop Alexei Ramirez -- could only get better. But he's got to win a starting job over Mark Teahen. In 25-year-old Darwin Barney, the Cubs have a potentially solid middle-infield backup that could hold down many late-inning leads – and maybe even be a starting (or platooning) second baseman. But he's got to earn that bench spot over scrappy veteran Augie Ojeda.

Bold prediction No. 7: Morel wins the third base job going away in spring training. Teahen has to take a wait-and-see approach to snagging the job during the regular season while Brent's bat takes its hacks.

To Stick or To Waffle: Sticking. Although Teahen has brought his ‘A’ game offensively, Morel continues to flash enough leather to make this a fairly clear choice for manager Ozzie Guillen. Teahen still has value as a backup first baseman and right fielder, and he can always step in at third base if Morel’s struggles at the plate become too much to bear.

Bold Prediction No. 8: Aw, heck, let's do this -- Darwin Barney wows Mike Quade to the extent that he lays claim to a platoon role at second base with Blake DeWitt. Cubs fans go into the season screaming that Barney should just be given the job outright much as they pleaded Tyler Colvin's case in right field last season.

To Stick or To Waffle: Sticking here, too, for the most part. The second base position is still up in the high sky of Arizona at the moment. No one has run away with the job, not even the newly muscled Barney, as I’d hoped. He does look good, though, so there’s still a chance that a hot finish could put Darwin in a platoon with DeWitt – or even a wacky, double-righty platoon with Jeff Baker, who appears to be a specialist at hitting left-handed pitchers.

5. The Sweet-Swingin’ Lefties (Resugared)

Three true outcomes. Home run (yay!), strike out (boo!), walk (meh yay!). That’s, very generally speaking, what you get when you watch Adam Dunn and Carlos Pena in action. Both are veteran players who have been through many a spring training. Both are with new teams.

The primary difference between them, really, is Pena is sticking with the position he’s played almost exclusively in the big leagues, first base, and Adam Dunn is trying to get used to the idea of sitting on the bench for most of the game as a designated hitter. As is the case with any starting player in spring training, no news is good news here. Dunn and Pena both appear healthy and getting their work in. Both have homered.

Bold Prediction No. 9: Although one noted projection system (Marcel) sees Dunn as having a down year, I think he'll be pretty happy hitting at the Cell and better rested in the DH role. I'll say he gets back to 40 home runs. Why not.

To Stick or To Waffle: Stickin'.

Bold Prediction No. 10: Carlos Pena hit 28 home runs last season -- while injured. And 18 of those 28 landed in the largely unoccupied seats of Tropicana Field, the worst ballpark for scoring runs in the big leagues. I predict he'll hit 33 in 2011, leading the team.

To Stick or To Waffle: Stickin’.