Chicago White Sox Preview
Sunday, March 06 2005 @ 09:00 AM EST
Contributed by: Magpie
“The south side of Chicago is the baddest part of town...”
In 2004, the Sox finally broke the curse. Having not won a World Championship since the dark days of World War I...
Oops. Wrong Sox.
The other Sox, the White ones, last won it all in 1917. They labour under their own curse, one not nearly as romantic as the sale of the Bambino. The 1919 White Sox threw the World Series, and have been back just once since then, losing to the Dodgers in 1959.
The ChiSox are one of the few major league teams that actually became associated with a specific style of play over the years. Their first champions were the “Hitless Wonders” of 1906, a team that batted just .230 and slugged .286 but went to the World Series and won it anyway. Their 1917 champions, an offensive powerhouse by the standards of the day (they scored 656 runs and led the majors) hit just 18 HR and stole 221 bases.
For the next fifty years or so, the Sox followed that formula, regardless of how the game may have changed in the meantime. Their 1959 AL champion, the “Go-Go Sox” of Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, was the only team in the majors to hit fewer than 100 HR, and the only team that had more SB than HR. Until 1970, the team record for HR in a season was 29, set in 1951 by Eddie Robinson.
At last, the play of Dick Allen in the 1970s, Tony LaRussa’s 1980s teams with Carlton Fisk, Ron Kittle, and Greg Luzinski, and the arrival of Frank Thomas in 1989 marked the end of this style of play
The White Sox opened 2004 with a new manager, and the usual hope that this might be the year they would finish ahead of those guys in Minnesota. And despite losing Magglio Ordonez to knee surgery in May, the Sox were able to stay near the top of the Al Central through the first three months. On the first of July, Jon Garland beat Johan Santana 2-1, completing a three game sweep of the Twins in the Metrodome. At that moment, the Sox were in first place in the Central, two games ahead of the Twins.
However, Frank Thomas had already rapped out his last hit of the season. After going 0-9 in five July games, he did not play again in 2004. By August, it was confirmed that he was through for the year. Magglio Ordonez, out since late May, returned to the lineup on July 9; however, he hit just .200 with 1 HR in 10 games before being forced back to the DL for the remainder of the season.
By 24 July, the Sox were half a game behind the Twins; they were then swept, in Chicago, by Minnesota and Detroit. By the time July was over, the Sox were five games out and just three games over .500; after going 12-17 in August, it was all over but the shouting. They wound up 83-79, finishing second to the Minnesota Twins for the third year in a row.
The 2004 White Sox scored plenty of runs, and in most respects their offense closely resembled that of the New York Yankees:
|R/G|| R|| G|| AB|| H|| 2B|| 3B|| HR|| BB|| SO|| BA|| OBP|| SLG|| SB|| CS|
|5.34|| 865|| 162|| 5534|| 1481|| 284|| 19|| 242|| 499|| 1030|| .268|| .333|| .457|| 78|| 51|
|5.54|| 897|| 162|| 5527|| 1483|| 281|| 20|| 242|| 670|| 982|| .268|| .353|| .458|| 84|| 33|
The first line is the 2004 White Sox; the second line is the 2004 Yankees. These two lines are almost as identical as one could wish for except the walks column. The Yankees drew an extra 171 walks, and scored 32 more runs.
It was an offense built around the home run. No team in baseball hit more homers than the 2004 White Sox (the Yankees tied them). Six players hit at least 20 HR, and the most remarkable thing is that Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez were not among them. Paul Konerko's 41 led the charge. The Sox needed every last longball, because their offense wasn’t particularly good at anything except hitting home runs.
An offense made up of a bunch of right handed HR hitters does not represent the traditional White Sox Way. It also seems unlikely to represent the Ozzie Guillen Way. Most managers manage the way they played, and Guillen was a left-handed singles hitter who seldom walked, played good defense, and ran the bases aggressively, if not always well.
Catcher - The Sox rotated through four catchers last year: Ben Davis, Sandy Alomar, Miguel Olivo, and Jamie Burke. Olivo was the best of the bunch, but was sent to Seattle in the Freddy Garcia trade. A.J. Pierzynski was signed as a free agent; he’s a left-handed batter who hits for a good average but never walks and doesn’t have much power. It’s really not much of an upgrade. The three guys Pierzynski replaces combined to hit .278 with 9 HR in 407 AB; Pierzynski himself hit .272 with 11 HR in 471 AB. Of course, he should hit better in Chicago than in San Francisco.
First Base - Paul Konerko bounced back from his mysteriously awful 2003 campaign with the best season of his career, establishing career highs in HR, RBI, and slugging. He turns 29 in March and has no injury history to speak of. While it may be a stretch to expect another 41 HRs, he should anchor the attack, at least until the All-Star Break. This is the last year of his contract, and if the Sox aren't in contention, look for a trade.
Second Base - The Sox have signed Tadahito Iguchi to play second; last year he batted .333 with 24 homers and 89 RBI last season with the Daiei Hawks. He’s a 30 year old RH hitter, a small man (listed at 5-9 and 185 pounds); how he adjusts to North American baseball remains to be seen. The record of other Japanese players coming to North America suggests that he may lose close to half of his power output, but maintain his other offensive components, particularly batting average. Iguchi will be moving into a good HR park, so a 20 HR-.300 season is certainly not out of the question.
Shortstop - Juan Uribe takes over from Jose Valentin, after becoming one of the few men in recorded history to improve his hitting numbers after leaving Coors Field. Uribe hit .283 with 23 HR and 74 RBI last year. Did anyone see that coming? The power notwithstanding, Uribe is kind of a right-handed version of Ozzie Guillen. Like his manager, he doesn’t like to take a walk and he’s a terrible percentage base stealer; also like his manager he is a talented defensive player. The big question here: was last year’s hitting output a fluke?
Third Base - Joe Crede is the incumbent. Crede was one of the six 20 HR men on the Sox last year, and that’s about all he did with the bat. He’s streaky and slump-prone. His OBP was a dismal .299, his slugging just .418. He’s a good defender, and capable of hitting a little better than he did last year. But not much.
Right Field - Jermaine Dye takes over, signing for $10.15 million over two years. If he stays healthy, he’ll provide more than Ordonez and Joe Borchard did last year. Borchard was dreadful last year, and now sports a .182 BAVG with 89 Ks in his 286 major league at bats. Dye is 30 years old now, and his knees are beginning to trouble him. But he’s been a good hitter since 1999, with the exception of his post-broken leg season in 2003. Moving from Oakland to Chicago will help.
Centre Field - Aaron Rowand emerged as an everyday player last year and put together a very nice season. Like almost everyone on this team, he doesn’t like to take a walk - aside from that, his game is remarkably complete. He hit for average (.310), hit for power (38 2B, 24 HR, .544 slugging), runs well (17 SB in 22 attempts), and does a fine job in centre field. He doesn’t have great speed, but he gets good jumps on the ball; he doesn’t have the strongest arm, but his release is quick and accurate. Fun to watch.
Left field - Scott Podsednik came over in the Carlos Lee trade, and takes Lee's spot in the lineup. Gulp. Podsednik came out of nowhere to have a terrific rookie season for the Brewers in 2003, but there are a couple of reasons to regard that season as a fluke. Podsednik was 27 years old in 2003, and he had never hit that well in nine minor league seasons. Last year, from May 1 onward, Podsednik hit just .232. He’s a good outfielder and a terrific base stealer (70 SB in 83 attempts last year), but I think this trade has a real chance to be one of Ken Williams' all-time worst deals. Which is saying something.
Designated Hitter - Frank Thomas is the greatest hitter in White Sox history, by a mile. When he hits his 6th HR this year, he'll have exactly twice as many homers as the number two man on the Sox all-time list. Thomas is no longer the Big Hurt of years past, when having him around was basically just like having Jimmie Foxx on your team. He is still a powerful offensive force, but he has to be in the lineup to help. He missed 88 games last year, and 142 games in 2001. He had surgery on his ankle in October, and will not be ready by Opening Day; he is expected back "sometime between April and June." Carl Everett will probably start the year as the DH.
Bench - There are some useful parts here. Ben Davis will be the backup catcher. With the arrival of Iguchi, Willie Harris moves from 2B to general utility spot, and if Podsednik flops, he could play a fair bit in the outfield. Harris might actually be the best leadoff hitter on the team, more or less by default, although he’s utterly helpless against LH pitching. Carl Everett is back, and with the uncertain state of Thomas' health, and the possibility of Podsednik crapping out, he could actually get a few AB this year. Ross Gload had a nice rookie season and is a pretty good LH bat (this team needs LH hitting) who can play 1B and all three OF spots. If the Sox are out of contention, a Konerko trade would open up 1B for Gload.
The Sox began 2004 with a rotation of Esteban Loaiza (Cy Young runner-up), Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Scott Schoeneweis, and Dan Wright. Billy Koch, supported by Damaso Marte and Shingo Takatsu, was expected to anchor the bullpen.
Very little of this worked out. Wright lost all 4 early season starts and went back to the minors on May 1; Schoeneweis went 6-9 before going out with a sore elbow in early August; Garland failed to take a step forward; Loaiza fell back to earth, hard, after his brilliant 2003. Of the starters, only Buehrle came through as expected. In the bullpen, Koch was a disaster, and Marte was a little off his game. Takatsu was very good indeed, but the pitching overall was a problem. The Sox gave up 831 runs: only Tampa, Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City allowed more.
In 2005, the Sox are looking to Mark Buehrle and the Three Amigos - Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras, and Orlando Hernandez - to carry the rotation. Garcia and Contreras were acquired in deadline deals last July; El Duque was brought on board as a free agent this winter. Hernandez is guaranteed $ 8 million over the next two years; bonus clauses could earn him an additional $ 3.5 million.
This group certainly has a chance to be an improvement on last year’s rotation. Mark Buehrle is a very good pitcher, one of the best LH in all of baseball. He is 69-45 with a 3.76 ERA since joining the Sox; in his four years in the rotation he has won at least 14 every year and worked at least 221 IP. His worst ERA is 4.14 in 2003, the only year he’s been above 4.00. He has accomplished all of this in one of the better hitter's parks in the league. He’s still only 25 years old, so if there were anything to worry about it would be carrying this kind of workload at such a young age.
After Buehrle, the questions begin. Freddy Garcia is hard to figure; he went 9-4 in 16 starts for Chicago last year. In 103 IP, he struck out 102, walked just 32 and gave up only 96 hits. How was his ERA 4.46? Well, 14 of those hits left the ball park. Garcia has become vulnerable to the HR these last few years, and it’s probably the main reason he hasn’t been able to repeat his sensational 2001 season. That year, he gave up just 16 HR in 238.2 IP.
Jon Garland is the third starter; he’s just 25 years old, he was 12-11 last year, and unless he develops a strikeout pitch real soon I think he’s in trouble. If you’re going to be a RH sinkerballer striking out less than 5 men per 9 innings, you’d better keep the ball in the yard and try not to walk anyone. Garland isn’t doing those things, not yet anyway.
Jose Contreras still has a great arm, still has a great splitter; his family is now in the United States, and El Duque is around if he needs a kindred soul. There’s a real chance that this could be the year that Contreras shows what all the fanfare was about in the first place. I hope so; he's had a rough time of it, on and off the field, in his first two years in the United States. He seems like a good guy who deserves a bit of good fortune. New York was clearly getting to him last year: in 95 IP with the Yankees, he allowed 42 BB and...gulp... 22 home runs..
Orlando Hernandez is beginning to resemble one of those John Tudor/Bret Saberhagen types. He’s falling apart right in front of you, you no longer know when or if or how much he’ll be able to pitch - but you do know this. If he can just make it to the mound, he can still get big league hitters out. Over the last five years, he has made 29, 16, 22, 0, and 15 starts, so it would be insane to actually count on him for anything. But just last year he was 8-2, 3.30 with 84 Ks in 82 IPT. He can still pitch. When he can pitch.
Shingo Takatsu gets by with deception, changing speeds, and his funky delivery; it’s a good combination for a relief pitcher. Takatsu made it work for many years in Japan, and he made it work last year against American League hitters, who batted just .182 against him. Damaso Marte had an ordinary year by his own standards (allowed 10 HR last year after a total of 8 the two years before); but he is still absolutely lights out against LH hitters and can deal with the rest of the league as well. Cliff Politte, Jon Adkins, Dustin Hermanson, and Luis Vizcaino will probably get most of the additional work in the pen.
Even if Frank Thomas can play most of the season, the White Sox offense figures to be down from last year. Carlos Lee and Jose Valentin hit 61 HRs last year; those at bats have been given to Iguchi and Podsednik. I think Podsednik in particular could be a disaster at the top of the lineup, and might even lose his job to Willie Harris by mid-season. Juan Uribe just might have been a fluke, and Paul Konerko was also putting up some of his best ever numbers.
The one guy who seems the best bet to improve is Aaron Rowand, although both Joe Crede and Willie Harris will also be 27 this year and both also have room to grow.The Sox will almost certainly score fewer runs, although it’s possible that the offense will be a little less one-dimensional and may be able to arrange their scoring in more productive groups.
The pitching at least has a chance to be much better than last year. Contreras and Garcia both have the ability to be very good indeed, and certainly better than what the Sox were running out to the mound last year. Garland may be able to fight the league to a draw one more time before he falls off the earth. El Duque doesn’t figure to pitch all that often, but he’ll probably pitch well when he does.
If Garcia and Contreras both come through with strong years, the Sox should be a little better than last year. But not by much - it’ll be offset by the declining offense. I really can’t see them winning more than 88 games, and that’s if everything goes right with the pitching. And something always goes wrong with pitching, somewhere, somehow. Buehrle’s workload might catch up with him; Garland’s strikeouts may fall to 4 per 9 innings; Garcia might give up 45 Hrs. We can be pretty sure that a few things will go wrong with the offense.
I think this is the year that the White Sox do not finish second.
Prediction: 80-82, third place.
(And a big shout-out to Dr Zarco for answering my Chicago-related questions.)