Baseball’s hot stove league is livelier than any other sport’s off-season because baseball is a game of individuals, and therefore encourages speculation on how new players will fit with the hangers-on. There’s an element of mystery in football, basketball, and hockey; one new player can make others around him immediately better–or inexplicably worse, if chemistry’s lacking or natural abilities don’t match up. A smooth-passing forward might be the perfect addition to a fast-breaking basketball team, unless he replaces the key rebounder who starts those fast breaks. A pass-rushing defensive end might be just the solution for a football team whose cornerbacks can’t cover receivers for more than a few seconds, but not if the team’s overall defense gets so bad that opponents don’t need to pass. Baseball, however, always comes down to pitcher against hitter. There are other aspects to consider, of course, such as whether the second baseman and shortstop will work well turning the double play, or whether a speedster at the top of the lineup or another big bat in the middle will bring the slugger more fat pitches to hit. But here, too, conclusions are relatively easy to draw.

On that note, I want to say I’m impressed with what general manager Ed Lynch has done this winter, rebuilding the Cubs on the fly. Not that they’re a lock to win their division (hah!) or even to compete; but though they’d looked to be firmly in a rebuilding mode, with no sign of hope until phenoms Corey Patterson and Hee Seop Choi arrive from the minors (and that’s at least a year away for Patterson and probably two or three for Choi), they’ve done a decent job of taking on castoffs who appear to make the team more interesting and competitive. And most obviously, they’ve brought in a new manager, the gruff but agreeable Don Baylor, a sound baseball man reared in the Baltimore Orioles system back when that meant an ingrained emphasis on fundamentals. Baylor went on to have many MVP-caliber years with the California Angels, and he shepherded the Colorado Rockies through their first few seasons. In short, he knows how to manage in a hitters’ park. He’s said all the right things about accepting the Cubs’ challenge to win it all after 91 seasons as lovable losers.

Baylor intends to make the Cubs–even the increasingly sluggerly Sammy Sosa–run more on the road and on days when the wind is blowing in at Wrigley. He also figures to have a direct impact on the Cubs’ new second baseman and leadoff man, Eric Young. EY is not a major-league-caliber fielder; his range is poor, and he turns double plays with all the grace of a roller suitcase being tugged through a CTA turnstile. Yet he runs well, he knows how to take a walk, and he had his best years under Baylor in Colorado. Baseball stats experts point to how his numbers have benefited from playing in hitters’ parks–he struggled last year with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Chavez Ravine, a pitcher’s paradise. But he’ll be back in a hitters’ park now, and Baylor has promised to make him concentrate on his defense. In any event, he should be a great improvement on Lance Johnson at the top of the order.

EY was picked up in a salary dump by the Dodgers, who were suffering a crisis of conscience after giving pitcher Kevin Brown a record-breaking nine-figure contract a year ago. The Cubs also got Ismael Valdes in the deal, giving up eternal closer-in-waiting Terry Adams in the bargain. I’m not as excited about Valdes as others are. He has put up very good numbers but, again, in a pitcher’s park, and he’s thrown a lot of innings at a tender age, putting him at risk of arm trouble. I’d be leery of giving him a multiyear contract extension at the end of the season, which is why the Dodgers were willing to dump him now. Yet he has a good sinking fastball and the sort of slider that served Fergie Jenkins well in Wrigley Field, and he could be very good if nursed along by Baylor and his new pitching coach, Oscar Acosta. The thing is, after Valdes and holdovers Kevin Tapani and Jon Lieber, the Cubs don’t have much in the way of starting pitching aside from the returning Kerry Wood, and the temptation is going to be to hurry Wood back too soon, especially if the Cubs get off to a slow start. That’s a distinct possibility after they get jet-lagged flying to Japan for their season opener–something that’s wreaked havoc on other teams in years past.

Even so, the Cubs’ prospects look a lot brighter now than they did at the end of last year. Joe Girardi is back at catcher to handle the pitching staff, and while I expect very little from new center fielder Damon Buford and shortstop Ricky Gutierrez, the Cubs will still have a potent lineup with EY at the top and Mark Grace, Sosa, and Henry Rodriguez in the middle. What’s more, I think Lynch’s pairing of ash-heap pickups Shane Andrews and Willie Greene at third base is inspired. Both have impressive power but a weakness for the curveball that kept them from ever establishing themselves as everyday players. Platooning them should emphasize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses; Greene is a defensive cripple who makes EY look like Bill Mazeroski, but Andrews is good enough to serve as a late-inning replacement when the Cubs have the lead. With the aged and less-than-invincible Rick Aguilera closing those games, Andrews’s late-inning defense figures to be the least of the Cubs’ problems.

Things don’t look good for the Cubs in the Central Division of the National League. The defending-champion Houston Astros still have an abundance of young hitting talent that they’re trying to fit in (beware catcher Mitch Meluskey), and they fleeced the New York Mets over the off-season, getting phenoms Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel for Mike Hampton and freeing up an outfield spot in the process by ditching the overrated Derek Bell. The Saint Louis Cardinals did a spackle job on their aching pitching staff by bringing in the sort of veteran starters (Andy Benes, Pat Hentgen, Darryl Kile) who have always thrived under Tony La Russa and his pitching coach, Dave Duncan. That should enable them to bring top pitching prospect Rick Ankiel along slowly–which is critical, in that La Russa and Duncan have already driven a series of phenoms into the dirt with heavy workloads. And then, of course, there is the biggest off-season deal of the year, the just-completed trade of Ken Griffey Jr. to the Cincinnati Reds, who waited the Seattle Mariners out until they didn’t have to give up a budding star like Pokey Reese, Sean Casey, or Scott Williamson. The Reds will be very tough. The Cubs could be improved and still finish fourth in what is suddenly the glamour division of baseball (Sosa, Mark McGwire, and now Junior too). But at least they should be fun to watch.

Which is more than can be said for the White Sox. Ron Schueler took the off-season off, first being kept home from the winter meetings by owner Jerry Reinsdorf (he apparently feared Schu getting caught up in a free-agent bidding war like an out-of-control American Legion conventioneer sticking bills in a stripper’s G-string), then making only one deal. And that one had the air of a drunkard’s lament to it; it was an “I’ll trade my problems for yours” exchange with the Milwaukee Brewers in which the Sox dumped Jaime Navarro and got back sore-armed pitcher Cal Eldred and oft-injured shortstop Jose Valentin. Valentin was clearly meant to challenge if not replace Mike Caruso, but as another defensive liability he figures to challenge the patience of the young Sox pitchers most of all. Those pitchers, including Kip Wells and Jon Garland, must be what Schueler is banking on to improve the Sox. Unfortunately, his wasted off-season didn’t improve the porous defense behind them.

What’s more, he has failed to address the team’s major quandary: the status of Frank Thomas. Schueler’s inactivity means that Thomas wasn’t traded, but the tepid comments from Schueler and manager Jerry Manuel that they want to get the Big Hurt back to something resembling himself hardly resemble an endorsement. They have the ring of a decision to live with a bad situation. Manuel, as usual trying to inspire through the media, said Thomas would be one of his main concerns at spring training but admitted that he hadn’t talked with him all winter. Thomas, meanwhile, sent a message of his own through the media. His announcement that he’s working with former Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak was as clear a gesture to Manuel and hitting coach Von Joshua as a man makes to his wife when he takes up with an old flame and hires a divorce attorney. Manuel and Schueler’s success or failure in reviving Thomas’s career figures to define the coming Sox season. If they can get the Hurt back to his old form and his old enthusiasm (key to reviving fan interest), they may have enough hitting to make up for their team’s defensive deficiencies. If not, Manuel’s skills as a motivator will be called into question, and he probably will be held responsible for the defense. Errors in baseball are blamed on the manager the way penalties in football are blamed on the coach.

That may not be fair, but then little is these days with the White Sox. Reinsdorf’s sweetheart lease, which lowers his rent at the new Comiskey Park if attendance falls below certain levels, only encourages him to accept mediocrity. So what a fan gets is an off-season in which the team’s most daring public-relations ploy is to promote journeyman outfielder Darrin Jackson from the field to the TV broadcast booth, not exactly a marquee move that will bring back alienated fans. Look, I’m as excited as anyone to see Wells and Garland in a rotation alongside crafty Mike Sirotka and ever-promising James Baldwin, but I’d be a lot more excited if Schueler were working harder to build a team to complement those young starters. Instead, he’s simply watching his pitchers develop. Perhaps this patient approach will pay dividends, but for now it does very little to revive a Sox fan’s hopes. Isn’t that what the hot stove league is all about?