It's spring! So it's time for Batter's Box to throw out our first pitch. Here begins our series of season previews, with a look at the defending world champion Chicago White Sox!
Speak up. Is there anyone out there who had ever heard that phrase before this past October?
The White Sox actually have a pretty good chance to be even better this year, not that that means much of anything. But to tell you the truth, I'd rather dwell on the past, and examine how this totally unforeseen championship came to be.
Unforeseen? Well, yeah. Did you see it coming? I thought not. But let us single out one bad forecast for special abuse. For in this very space, the Box's resident prognosticator looked over the situation and made the following pronouncement:
If Garcia and Contreras both come through with strong years, the Sox should be a little better than last year. But not by much - itíll be offset by the declining offense. I really canít see them winning more than 88 games, and thatís if everything goes right with the pitching....
I think this is the year that the White Sox do not finish second.
Who was that anyway? I pity the fool. But, as you well remember, the White Sox didn't finish second. I did get that last part right, thank you very much.
Heading into the 2005 season, the White Sox looked like a team in a rut. For four straight seasons they had won between 81 and 86 games. They had become a team built almost entirely around RH power hitters: Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, and Carlos Lee. Despite injuries to Thomas and Ordonez, the 2004 team tied for the major league lead in homers and were third in the AL in runs scored. They went just 83-79, however, and finished nine games behind Minnesota.
At this point, GM Kenny Williams decided that his team needed to change its approach. He had actually begun the shakeup in mid-2004. Esteban Loaiza, the runner-up for the 2003 Cy Young, was sent to New York in exchange for Jose Contreras. Catcher Miguel Olivo and outfield prospect Jeremy Reed were sent to Seattle for Freddy Garcia.
After the season ended, Magglio Ordonez was allowed to leave as a free agent. On December 9, Williams signed Jermaine Dye to replace Ordonez in RF. That same day, the White Sox also signed RHP Dustin Hermanson. I don't recall anyone saluting these moves at the time, and I don't remember a chorus of approval sounding four days later (December 13), when Williams changed his other outfield corner, sending LF Carlos Lee to Milwaukee for Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino. Four days after that (December 17), Williams picked up Bobby Jenks from Anaheim on a waiver claim. In January, Orlando Hernandez was added to the pitching staff, and A.J. Pierzynski was signed to take over the catching duties. Finally, Tadahito Iguchi was brought over from Japan to play second base, moving Willie Harris into a utility role.
That, I submit, was a remarkably busy off-season, and when we include his mid-season moves, Williams had installed new players at catcher, second base, right field, left field, and added three new starting pitchers.
It's especially remarkable when every move you make pays off.
Jermaine Dye hit 31 homers and drove in 99 runs for Chicago. Meanwhile, Magglio Ordonez, making almost twice as much money as Dye, missed 80 games in Detroit, hit just 8 homers, and watched on television as Dye was named MVP of the Sox World Series win over Houston.
Dustin Hermanson took over as the closer when Shingo Takatsu struggled out of the gate, and was unexpectedly brilliant. Hermanson pitched far better in Chicago than he had at any point in his career, and was as good any reliever in the game for the first four months of the 2005 season. When back injuries started to trouble Hermanson towards the end of the season, Bobby Jenks stepped into the closer's role. They never missed a beat.
Orlando Hernandez didn't actually pitch all that well in Chicago. However, his impact on his countryman Jose Contreras can not be quantified. There is no doubt that Contreras, for the first time since coming to America, began to perform at the level long expected of him. Contreras had found it very hard moving from Cuba to the United States, a difficult enough transition further complicated by the special pressure of working for George Steinbrenner and some serious issues concerning his family. Hernandez may have earned most of his salary simply by being a friend and mentor to Contreras. His amazing escape act againt the Red Sox in the LDS was just a bonus.
Pierzynski found himself hitting fifth behind Konerko, which is a more important offensive role than he's really qualified for, and his hitting was a mild disappointment. However, he did a marvellous job with the pitching staff, and he provided the team with an abrasive edginess that it rather needed.
The Lee for Podsednik trade makes no sense, still, in terms of production gained and lost. Lee is a powerful offensive force. Podsednik is not. Frank Thomas was missing in action for most of the season, appearing in just 34 games. The 2005 White Sox scored a whopping 124 fewer runs than they had the previous season. Somehow I don't think losing 124 runs of offense has been a characteristic of a lot of champions. I don't really recommend it.
It can be said, however, that all these moves helped Ozzie Guillen change the culture of the team. Guillen talks incessantly about winning with pitching and hustle and aggressiveness. This is normal, and means nothing. All managers talk this way - they have to. Even Earl Weaver talked this way, and his players moaned about those "Orioles fundamentals" that they kept hearing about until they were entirely sick of it. But the idea never seemed to sink in on the south side of Chicago, where the long established way of doing things was to wait for Big Frank or Magglio to jack one out of the yard. Weaver always said "pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers." The White Sox had never bothered with the first two elements. So heading into 2005, the idea was to do without the third and see what happened.
And why not? It's not like they had much to lose.
And it certainly worked. Didn't it? While losing 124 runs of offense is not particularly desireable, the White Sox reduced opposition scoring by 186 runs. I think we need to emphasize this point. In 2005, the White Sox reduced opposition scoring by 186 runs. Some of this can be attributed to improved defense, no doubt. Of the eight everday players in the field, only four of them were holdovers from the previous year: Konerko, Uribe, Crede, and Rowand. Of those three, all but Konerko are better defenders than hitters. The new guys - Pierzynski, Iguchi, Dye, and Podsednik - similarly consisted of three guys who were better with the glove than with the bat (all but Dye.)
That helped. But mainly, the pitchers were sensational. They were the best staff in the AL, despite playing half their games in US Cellular, which remains one of the better home run parks in baseball. There were 213 homers hit at US Cellular last season, and just 154 hit in White Sox road games. The White Sox were a better team away from home, going 52-29, in large part because the pitchers posted a 3.39 ERA on the road.
Mark Buehrle had what may have been his best season, but actually trying to distinguish one Buehrle year from another is rather challenging anyway. Buehrle just cranks out one good year after another, in the tradition of Jim Kaat and Tom Glavine. Freddy Garcia likewise did nothing particularly spectacular - Garcia was pretty good, but he didn't have his best year. Jose Contreras finally put his game together in the second half - that was indeed a welcome development, although the baseball world has long believed that Contreras had always been capable of pitching at such a level.
Jon Garland... he was a surprise. Garland took a big step forward, and I still think there was something fishy about it. Garland didn't raise his rather marginal strikeout rate, and gave up almost as many hits as before. He did cut his walks allowed almost in half, from 76 to 47. This was indeed a significant improvement, but it hardly seems enough to account for 18-10, 3.50 when just one year earlier he had gone 12-11, 4.89.
The bullpen was remarkable. After Takatsu was found wanting as a closer, and sent on his way, the main men in the pen were Hermanson, Cotts, Politte, Vizcaino, and Marte. The latter two were good; the first three were well nigh untouchable.
But still... how did they do it?
Well, it sure helps to come charging out of the gate. The White Sox, as you no doubt remember, won 24 of their first 31 games. This opening burst accomplished two things. First, it gave them a little cushion atop the division, and it's better when the other guys are chasing you. Second, it demonstrated very clearly to the players that they really could win ball games without waiting for their big boppers to go yard.
How did they win 24 of their 31 games? Mainly by putting together two eight-game winning streaks, each of which featured a sweep of the Kansas City Royals. And there's a lesson for us all. If your team needs to build some confidence and belief in itself, it sure helps to have the Royals making frequent appearances on the schedule.
And so, on to 2006. Williams is still aggresively working on his team. Most of the champions are returning, but not all. Crazy Carl Everett is in Florida, no longer needed as the Plan B designated hitter. That's not a big deal, but trading Aaron Rowand is a big deal indeed. Rowand is a wonderful centrefielder, and of course some of the credit for the outstanding performance by the White Sox pitchers in 2005 must go to the defenders behind them. So they will miss him charging around in the outfield.
But... the White Sox have young outfielders just oozing from their pores... Rowand will be 29 this year and his outstanding 2004 year with the bat was probably his career year .... and besides, Jim Thome, people! Thome has been one of the game's greatest hitters, and pitchers all around the American League are muttering and cursing already. Even better, he brings a lefty bat to balance Konerko's RH power, and he surely has a much better chance of staying in the lineup than Frank Thomas.
Williams made two other significant moves this past off-season. Picking up Javier Vazquez from Arizona in exchange for Orlando Hernandez... does anyone understand this? This has a chance to be larceny on a grand scale. Does anyone in Arizona think this is their year? And if not, why would you want El Duque? For the future? In the year 2525, if man is still alive, Orlando might still be pitching. If anyone can, he can. But it still makes no sense on any level whatsoever. The Sox other pickup was Rob Mackowiak, who provides a useful LH bat, and can fill in all over the diamond.
How do they look? Thome and Brian Anderson ought to be an upgrade over Rowand and Carl Everett. Anderson's probably going to be a right fielder some day soon, and while he should hit, he will not cover centre the way Rowand did. But if Jim Thome plays 140 games, no one will worry overmuch about that. Obviously, Javier Vazquez ought to be better than El Duque. And if any of the starters falter - hello, Mr Garland! - Brandon McCarthy will start the year in the bullpen, chomping at the bit, as they say, waiting his chance. And if Bobby Jenks implodes, Hermanson and Cliff Politte and Neal Cotts are all returning, and all three pitched brilliantly in relief last season. If Joe Crede's back acts up again, Mackowiak is on hand. Ozzie has options...
So they certainly look much better to me than they did this time last year.
The only thing that worries me about them... is fate catching up. Everything went right in 2005. It's hard to see the pitching being that brilliant again. I'm sorry, but I think Garland was a fluke. I need to see him do it again. While Hermanson, Politte, and Cotts were brilliant last year, none of them are headed for Cooperstown, except as tourists.
Even more disturbing is the possibility that random chance will rise up and bite them. When I say everything went right in 2005, I mean everything. Even the things that went wrong, like Shingo Takatsu pitching so poorly at the start of the year, ended up working out for them. It's hard to see fortune smiling so sweetly on them in that way again.
Unless Kenny Williams really is a genius. Wouldn't that be something?
Nah. Prediction: 91-71, second place.