Already I can see him, David Wells, pitching for the White Sox. I can see that wide-bodied left-handed delivery, in which he seems to pour himself down the mound the way syrup pours over pancakes. And then the walk back to the dugout after he’s dismissed the other side’s batters, his shirttail loose but not entirely untucked, in the manner of a bowling uniform rather than a Hawaiian shirt. He pitched awhile for the New York Yankees, making it that much easier to imagine him now in Sox pinstripes, but then it’s never hard at this time of year to fire a baseball fan’s imagination.

The hot-stove league, a time of off-season trades and speculation, is the fans’ time of renewal, and too often in Chicago it’s been the high point of the year. But this year, like every year before, is different. Wells’s arrival, in a trade for Mike Sirotka, gives the Sox a key element they lacked last year, when they led the American League with 95 victories in the regular season and didn’t win another game, being swept by the wild-card Seattle Mariners in the first round of the playoffs. Wells is a skilled and seasoned veteran who has thrived under high pressure–especially in the postseason. And as a plainspoken man of big talk and bigger appetites–the sort of athlete, no, the sort of man the city has always taken pride in–he ought to thrive in Chicago. He and the Sox are such a perfect fit they suggest perfection all around: Wells winning two or, who knows, even three games in the World Series, leading the Sox to the city’s first baseball championship since their triumph in 1917, and practically owning this town. Because of its emphasis on individuality, its way of singling out each player on offense and defense, baseball exists as no other sport does in the mind’s eye, in reverie of the past and dreams of the future. This time of year, especially in Chicago, our dreaming can get carried away.

Wells’s arrival is not without risks. At the age of 37, Wells won 20 games last year, but Baseball Weekly recently pointed out almost all previous pitchers who won 20 at a similar stage of their careers declined dramatically the following season–the lone exception being Warren Spahn, a physical marvel who enjoyed a late and extended prime. One of the pitchers the magazine cited, Early Wynn, won 22 and pitched a league-leading 255 innings for the Sox’ pennant winners of 1959, but fell to 13 wins the following season and was out of baseball two years later. Even with the 29-year-old Sirotka’s current arm problems, he probably will return to win more games from here on out than Wells will. What’s more, Wells’s performance declined markedly after last summer’s All-Star break. Yet the deal makes sense. It’s a well-thought-out and welcome risk being taken by new general manager Ken Williams.

This is the sort of trade Ron Schueler was supposed to pull off when he became general manager after the 1990 season. His predecessor, Larry Himes, had rebuilt the Sox farm system and taken the team “from A to B,” in the words of owner Jerry Reinsdorf; Schueler was expected to advance them to C, or “championship.” Yet though Schueler proved himself an astute baseball trashman–salvaging players like Ellis Burks and Julio Franco from the scrap heap–he became embroiled in the 1994 labor crisis, which Reinsdorf helped force, and in Reinsdorf’s subsequent signing of Albert Belle; soon he was crashing the franchise in the White Flag trade of 1997, taking the team again to A in order to bring it back to B last season with new young talent. Schueler dropped the reins as GM at the end of the season, saying he had always preferred scouting to the bureaucracy of management, and Williams was placed in charge. Williams soon pulled off the Wells-Sirotka trade. Here’s why it makes sense.

It’s a risk taken from a position of strength, not unlike betting winnings in poker or roulette by someone ahead of the house. What Williams and the Sox want out of Wells is one year, maybe two, of top-quality frontline pitching. The Sox last season had a staff of solid second-line pitchers but no ace. Sirotka and James Baldwin battled for that title all season, but neither was a dominant pitcher a team could confidently throw out there against the other team’s ace. Wells is, and all the Sox need is for him to hold that position until one of their live-armed phenoms–Kip Wells or Jon Garland or, most promising of all, the 6-foot-11 power pitcher and U.S. Olympic star Jon Rauch–comes along to claim it. Young pitchers tend to be as unstable as nitroglycerin, but the Sox have so many right now that the odds of one fulfilling his promise are good. Win now with Wells, later with Rauch.

It’s a bold move, and it can’t help but reinvigorate the team after last year’s humiliating playoff performance, when Schueler left the Sox to their own devices in spite of their obvious deficiencies in pitching and defense. Williams has addressed the defensive needs by adding slick-fielding shortstop Royce Clayton, who was out of a job after the Texas Rangers signed Alex Rodriguez. Yet this move creates new problems. A general manager, like a fan, has to work from his imagination in putting together a roster during the off-season. Manager Jerry Manuel now has several skilled veterans to pick from up the middle, including new catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., but the worry is that with the heightened expectations and will to win right now, Manuel will forget that what made the team strong last year was his eye for young talent and willingness to test it. The Alomar signing makes sense only as it allows Mark Johnson–slighted by being left off last October’s postseason roster–to platoon himself into a larger role. And Clayton’s acquisition is an addition only if it doesn’t keep the talented Joe Crede from claiming a spot on the roster and being eased into a starting role at third base, where both Herbert Perry and shortstop Jose Valentin figure to be shouldering for playing time now that Clayton’s on the scene. The Sox are deeper and more experienced but not necessarily better.

If it’s a wealth of riches that challenges the Sox, that isn’t a problem the Cubs have–not yet at least. With Rauch and Crede leading the way, the Sox have what Baseball America called the top farm system in the majors. The Cubs, surprisingly, were second, but their talent–including hard-throwing pitchers Ben Christensen, Carlos Zambrano, and Juan Cruz, as well as heralded hitters Hee Seop Choi and, of course, Corey Patterson–is further away. The Cubs appear to be where the Sox were two years ago: waiting for the farm talent to arrive and establish itself. None of those young Cubs figures to make an impact at the major-league level this year, though manager Don Baylor maintains that he wants to coach Patterson himself and ease him into the lineup rather than have him play every day at Triple-A Iowa. For now, the Cubs are spackling holes the same way they have the last several seasons, as if the team were an old house.

No Cubs fan needs to be reminded that since the 1994 strike, which, not coincidentally, is when Andy MacPhail was named team president, the team has had only two winning seasons and one playoff appearance–the wonderful mirage of 1998. The veterans that general manager Ed Lynch filled holes with that year got old fast, and after Kerry Wood was lost, 1999 was a washout. There were too many holes last year as well, and Lynch paid with his job, MacPhail moving down to assume GM responsibilities. MacPhail hasn’t changed tactics since he was setting the financial parameters for Lynch, and the Cubs again have spent the winter spackling the old fixer-upper. Todd Hundley is an excellent pickup, and as the son of late-60s catcher Randy Hundley perfectly represents the Cubs’ emphasis on history, but if the front office thinks it’s going to compete with retreads like Bill Mueller, Matt Stairs, Ron Coomer, Tom Gordon, Jason Bere, and Jeff Fassero, it’s got another think coming. The question is whether MacPhail can survive the loss of Mark Grace, the coming showdown with Sammy Sosa in the last year of his contract, and the 2001 season to still be here when the reinforcements finally arrive in the persons of Patterson, Choi, and the rest.

The decision to cut loose the 37-year-old Grace was unpopular but sound, though I would have offered him another year of arbitration. (I’m not excited about the possible platooning of Stairs and Julio Zuleta, and that’s supposing Stairs can even play first base.) Sosa is more problematic. Supposedly he wants six years and well over $100 million for his next contract. That’s some $30 million beyond what the Cubs are offering, and MacPhail and the Cubs maintain, quite rightly, that they don’t want to sign him for more than four years. At 33 he is already slow afoot in right field. So there’s a chasm between the two sides; while the Cubs claim they would be happy to cut Sosa loose after he plays out his contract this year and tries to earn the big money someone else might pay him, they can afford to stick to that position only if the Cubs are in the playoff hunt this year and the young talent in the minors starts knocking on the door. They can’t afford to if the season goes in the tank, as it figures to unless Wood returns to killer form, Kevin Tapani bounces back, and Gordon proves to be the bull pen stopper the Cubs have lacked since Rod Beck flatlined.

In short, I see Sosa, his jersey loosely tucked in but not untucked, like a bowling jersey rather than a Hawaiian shirt, putting up prodigious numbers and trotting out to right field to be salaamed by his fans, while being held in increasing contempt by other fans and blamed, fairly or not, for the team’s inability to compete. It’s blame that also will fall heavily on MacPhail. He has finally done what he said he aimed to do when he arrived in town seven years ago–rebuild the farm system–but he may not get to reap what he’s sown.

In short, as hopeful as things appear for the Sox, that’s how dire they seem for the Cubs. It’s a bad sign when, despite the natural optimism of the hot-stove league, the only slogan Ernie Banks can offer up is, “The Cubs will have more fun in 2001.” And not even that modest improvement is certain.