Management challenges and ownership jockeying in the offseason resulted in the switching of franchises, with last year's St. Louis AL franchise landing in Chicago and the Chicago NL franchise landing in Saint Louis. And while nobody expected much from either franchise, both teams have outperformed expectations and many are thinking post-season for both teams.
Coming off of a disappointing 68-94 season in their last year in St. Louis, low expectations surrounded the newcomers' debut to the windy city. As of Sunday's play, the Billy Goats are already carrying a franchise high of 85 wins and are in a tie for one of two wild card spots. The Chicago faithful are dreaming of a world series.
While the current series between San Antonio and Trenton may ultimately determine the playoff picture for the Billy Goats, it is by no lack of hustle or competitive play on their part.
All Star Ricky Gibbs (48 HR, 117 RBIs) leads a powerful offensive lineup rounded by Ted Harper (.303 AVG, .407 OBP, 1.002 OPS, 36 HR, 90 RBIs) and Brooks Bonilla (.322 AVG, 1.024 OPS, 38 HR, 98 RBIs), while workhorses Banana Hawkins (12-10, 4.98 ERA) and Lariel Sanchez (12-6, 4.00 ERA) lead a starting rotation without a defacto pitching ace. At 5-9 and 211 lbs, 22yr old sophomore starter Brooks Reames (11-7, 3.93 ERA) has pitched well, surprising the skeptics who were discouraged by a disappointing rookie season (4-11, 5.45 ERA in 29 starts) and attributed his lack of success to poor offseason training habits. The relief corps (Jerome Conway, Sam Kerr, Deivi Velazquez and Don Bunch) have been average but consistent, while sophomore closer and Japanese import John Shin, has excelled, nailing down 30 of 37 save opportunities.
A defense that ranks among the worse in the AL has been the team's biggest weakness, but it is clear that the offense provided in return has made up for their fielding woes. Offseason free agent acquisition Jimmie Henley has been the exception. Despite struggling offensively to a .257 AVG, Henley has provided stellar defense in split time between CF and 2B, and leads the majors in CF range factor. In addition, the apparently shaky defense seen in statistics alone does not accurately represent the team's current starters. Henley's partner in the Iowa City to Chicago offseason migration, lefthanded throwing outfielder Joe Eyre, started 90 games at 3B earlier in the season, a position the veteran had never played in his entire career. Eyre's willingness to play 3B allowed Chicago's manager to insert his .317 AVG and 13 triples into the lineup to make up by the poor fielding that came with the learning curve. (Eyre's leading nomination as the AL 3B Silver Slugger has been controversial).
This team has brought much excitement to the city of Chicago, and as a real wild card contender, management may be looking at the franchise's best historical team and second post-season appearance. The combination of young talent and key veteran acquisitions presents a solid team for a fan base that wants to see them face their former team (now the St. Louis Kamikazes) in a World Series matchup. As the Goats raise the bar to enhanced expectations in a serious race to the playoffs, Chicago is excited about its team, but the young core gives them much to be hopeful for years to come.
Thanks to jpelot for contributing to this story.