It’s opening day for Major League Baseball. All 30 teams are kicking off their regular seasons Thursday, including Chicago’s teams from the North and South Sides. The Cubs are playing the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, while the White Sox are scheduled to face the Royals in Kansas City. Both teams’ home openers are scheduled for April.There are big questions hanging over the heads of both teams as the season gets underway. So WBEZ asked sports contributor Cheryl Raye Stout to identify five things—for each team—that fans should be watching for, today and beyond.Cubs1. Can starting pitchers Jon Lester and Cole Hamels keep Father Time at bay? Even 30-year-old José Quintana has pitched for eight years already. And will Yu Darvish stay healthy and be the pitcher the Cubs expected when they signed him last year? The calm and collected Kyle Hendricks recently inked a contract extension for $55 million through four years.2. Will the younger players that tailed off at the plate last year improve? Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora, Jr. are all players to watch. Ian Happ is starting the year in Triple-A, since it’s obvious he hasn’t met the team’s expectations. The player who benefits from that move is outfielder Mark Zagunis, who’s with the team to start the season. David Bote will also start the season with the club.3. Does the team have a satisfactory closer? The bullpen will be without closer Brandon Morrow to begin the season. Pedro Strop just returned from an injury and only got back on the mound for the end of spring training.4. How’s the infield looking? The health of Kris Bryant is something to look out for, as fans hope his shoulder issues from last season are gone. Addison Russell is suspended for nineteen more games at the start of the season. The MLB opened an investigation into Russell after his ex-wife made public allegations of physical abuse. Russell remains in Arizona.5. Will this be the final year for manager Joe Maddon? He was not given a contract extension, and it’s possible that the way this season ends will make the difference. Maddon has taken the Cubs to the post season all four years of his tenure. Going forward, last year’s early exit and another change in hitting and pitching coaches may come into play.
1. Will Eloy Jiménez live up to the hype? Opening day will feature what White Sox fans have been clamoring for: outfielder Eloy Jiménez is on the roster. The Sox’s top prospect signed a multi-million dollar deal at full value. If Jiménez lives up to expectations, could this temper the anger of fans after the team lost out on free agent Manny Machado?
2. Have the young starting pitchers taken the next step in development? At the beginning of last year, Carlos Rodón was recovering from shoulder surgery. He’s starting on opening day and has one of the best sliders in the game. Reynaldo López and Lucas Giolito have finished their first full year in the majors, but both need to be more consistent. Giolito, especially, needs to find control and stop giving up homers. Veteran pitchers Iván Nova and Ervin Santana round out the group. Later this year, the Sox might bring top pitching prospect Dylan Cease up to the majors.
3. How much have the young position players improved? Yoan Moncada had a great spring on both sides of the plate. He is also mastering third base. Tim Anderson did a good job of learning shortstop, but he needs to cut down on his errors. Utility man Leury García can be a wild card, but he’s an excellent switch hitter and plays several positions.
4. Will this be José Abreu’s final season with the Sox? Abreu is a free agent at the end of the year. Last year’s American League All-Star first baseman could be a valuable trade piece at the deadline, if the team thinks he doesn’t fit into their plans.
5. Is the rebuild going into the right direction? Manager Rickey Renteria quietly signed a contract extension with the Sox. This will be his third year at the helm. The Sox lost one hundred games last year, and fans want to see that number greatly reduced.