Do you believe in miracles?
These guys are going to need one. The South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of town, and this year it promises to be the baddest part of the AL Central. If not the entire American League. If not the entire major leagues. And I don't mean "bad" in a good way. I mean "bad" in the baddest way imaginable.
And you know what that means. It means that Ozzie Guillen jumps to the front of the pack in our Batter's Box poll: Who will be the first manager fired in 2008? (The poll will appear just as soon as one of our poll-savvy Rosterites comes through for me - hint, hint) After all, Ozzie has a big mouth, fights with everyone, and generally irritates people. He had trouble getting away with all of this when he was winning 90 games. I want to see him try it when he's losing that many.
Bound to happen, right? Except for one little thing: last September 11, Kenny Williams signed Guillen to a four year extension. Four years, through 2012! You know what that means? The White Sox think they're contenders. I'm not making this up The reporters covering them think they're contenders. They think last year was a blip, an outlier. Behold!
Recently, I told a member of the White Sox organization that I have the team penciled in for 85 or 86 wins and a third-place finish behind the Tigers and Indians. He told me that I would eat those words, and that I "would be working in October."
That's Sox beat reporter Scott Meakin who thinks the team is "vastly improved" because they've got some veterans to set up Bobby Jenks and because - here's the kicker - "offensive stalwarts such as Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye and A.J. Pierzynski certainly will return to their past yearly prowess with the bat after last year's brief downturn."
Now I don't like to pick on anyone writing about baseball who says something dumb, he says, somewhat disingenuously. I've probably said something dumb myself. Once, maybe even twice. Could have happened. Acknowledging the possibiilty. And especially when it involves the White Sox.
In fact, now that I think of it, there was the year I previewed the White Sox and said they'd win 91 games. Last year, wasn't it? There was also the year I previewed the White Sox and said they'd slide to third place. That was the year they won the World Series, as I recall.
Let's face it - the White Sox bring out the stupid.
But still - the notion that Jermaine Dye is normally a guy who slugs .622, and can be counted on to do it again... that that represented his normal level of production? Yikes. And almost as disturbing is that anyone anywhere would think of describing A.J. Pierzynski as an "offensive stalwart." In what parallel universe might that be true? Lord in heaven, just how low are we setting the bar here? Pierzynski's OPS+ for the past four seasons? Glad you asked. It's 86, 90, 94, 83 - hang on a second. On this team, that probably would make him an offensive stalwart...
If the White Sox find themselves chasing the dust of the fourth place Kansas City Royals - which is the fate I foresee for them, and every other year I absolutely nail my White Sox forecast - well, maybe it'll be Kenny Williams himself who walks the plank.
Williams at least seems to have cottoned on to the fact that the team that won the 2005 championship was a thing of the past, and has begun the process of remaking the roster. This was way past due. White Sox offense plunged right off the cliff last season, and crashed on to the rocks below. What was left was a squirming bloody mess. They scored a puny 693 runs, worst in the American League, and 175 runs fewer than they had scored the year before. They accomplished this playing half of their games in a pretty good place to hit. What happened?
Mainly because of Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko. They weren't exactly bad last season, not by any stretch of the imagination. They were okay in fact, they put up seasons quite in line with their normal career production. Which is a good thing for guys on the wrong side of 30. But here's the thing - the White Sox scored all those runs in 2006 on the backs of just three hitters - Dye, Konerko, and Jim Thome. That trio was absolutely sensational. They had to be, because the rest of the offense was utterly awful and pathetic. Last year, with Dye and Konerko returning to production much more in line with their career norms, the Sox were in deep doo-doo. Thome was great. He was the only one.
Ozzie Guillen likes speed, but the only thing the White Sox offense does reasonably well is hit home runs. They hit 190 of them last year - the Yankees were the only AL team that hit more. They still finished last in runs scored because they couldn't get anyone on base. They had the worst batting average and the worst on base percentage in the major leagues.
And it's not clear that Kenny and Ozzie have a clue how to fix things.
One of the few positive developments in 2007 was the emergence of Josh Fields. When back surgery ended Joe Crede's season in June, Fields came up to fill his spot, and in 100 games he hit 23 HR and drove in 67. Along the way, they also gave him a three week trial in LF, and he ended up leading all White Sox left fielders in home runs (6 HR in 21 LF games). So this year they've decided that Fields will either beat out Joe Crede for the third base job, or he can go back the minors. Huh? Run that by me again - you've got one of the worst offensive teams in all of baseball. But at least you have a 25 year old who hit 23 homers and drove in 67 runs for you in just 100 games. You're even thinking about sending him to the minors? The thought has actually crossed your mind?
Ah, don't believe it. Crede's a free agent next off season. If he can show he's healthy this spring, expect Williams to trade him for whatever he can get.
Anyway, the Sox will bring back offensive stalwart A.J. Pierzynski and offensive sinkhole Toby Hall behind the plate. Pierzynski does chip in a little with the bat, but he's nowhere near a good enough hitter to take a major offensive role. Last year, for some reason, he was the Sox primary fifth place hitter.
Paul Konerko bats cleanup and plays first. After three exceptional seasons in a row, he showed signs of slippage last season. His OBP and Slugging both slipped just below his career averages. The HRs were down to 31, the BAVG fell to .259. He's still a productive player, but the White Sox needed him to be a force. He could bounce back, I suppose. It's not impossible.
The middle infield will look somewhat different. At short, Orlando Cabrera has pushed Juan Uribe aside. Cabrera is 33 years old, and he's coming off one of the best seasons he's ever had as a hitter - no red flags there. Cabrera himself noted that Alex Rodriguez is 32 years old, and just signed a 10 year deal, and no one talks about his age. Still, in addition to winning a Gold Glove last year, he did hit .301 and he did drive in 86 runs. He's almost a league average offensive player, which on this team more than qualifies him to handle a key offensive role. No wonder the Sox are so excited to have him. Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi was dispatched to the Phillies in their hour of need last season. Danny Richar, who took over at second after the trade, runs really, really fast. That would normally be enough to qualify him to hit leadoff on this team. But a late arrival (visa troubles) and a back injury have set him back this spring, and Uribe now seems to be the front-runner. Also in the mix is the young Cuban Alexei Ramirez, a shortstop by trade, who will get a very close look at second base during the next few weeks.
Jermaine Dye and Nick Swisher are set at two outfield spots. Dye turned 34 in January, and last year he returned to earth after his brilliant 2006 season. He's still a productive player, but he's not likely to ever slug .622 again. People around the White Sox seem to think Dye should be expected to hit .315 with 44 HR, as if he had a long history of putting up seasons like that. What is wrong with these people? Swisher will improve the offense. White Sox centre fielders last year hit .247/.308/.320, which is not excellent. On the other hand, it's hard to see how running Swisher out in centre field every day is going to work defensively. It wasn't like he was Oakland's first choice to play centre last season - but after Milton Bradley pulled a Milton Bradley, and Mark Kotsay's back pulled a Mark Kotsay, the third choice got the call. In left field, the Sox have another position battle taking shape, between Jerry Owens and Carlos Quentin. Owens, a LH hitter with no power whatsoever (.312 slugging? .312?), was the man who had most of the the CF at bats last season, and we've noted how well that worked out. He can run like hell once he gets on base. He's not particularly likely to actually get on base, unfortunately. As for the RH hitting Quentin, he had a .298 OBP with Arizona last year. He should fit right in on this team. A platoon seems a natural arrangement.
The team's best hitter occupies the DH spot. At age 37, Jim Thome is still a mighty offensive force, and at this point is just polishing the Hall of Fame numbers. He went past 500 career homers last year. He's also moved into the top 20 for career walks. He's two healthy seasons away from catching Sammy Sosa for the somewhat dubious honour of striking out more times than any hitter in history not named Reggie Jackson. But he's Jim Thome. You live with it, and you don't mind one little bit.
The White Sox are a little stronger on the mound than at the plate. Not that they're actually good, mind you - only three teams in the AL allowed more runs - but all things are relative. Mark Buehrle, for example. After the first off-season of his stellar career, he bounced back nicely from the rocky second half that marred his 2006 season. He pitched about as well as he ever has (it sure wasn't his fault he only had a 10-9 record to show for it). He did seem to be tiring a little toward the end of his seventh consecutive 30 start, 200 inning season (the Sox skipped his turn twice in September.) And Javier Vazquez had one of the best seasons of his career in 2007. After showing all sorts of promise early in his career Vazquez had seemed to settle in as a thoroughly average pitcher who could however be counted on for 30 starts and 200 innings. That has value, but more had been expected. Last year, on this awful team, Vazquez went 15-8, 3.74 with 213 Ks - yes, people, the old Montreal Expo got up and walked around for a while. He's pitched this well before (2001 and 2003) - he's never pitched this well two years in a row, however.
Those two fellows are the good news, which comes to an end now. The wheels fell off Jose Contreras' wagon midway through the 2006 season. It's been broken ever since. Cast your mind back, back.... there he was, Jose Contreras at the All-Star Break, sporting a 9-0, 3.38 record. And poof! he's gone, as Verbal Kint might say. He went 4-9, 5.40 over the rest of 2006, and provided that same level of non-performance over an entire season last year (10-17, 5.57). He turned 36 in December, if his baseball age is to be believed. Why wouldn't he bounce back, and pitch the way he did when he was 33? And Jon Garland? He gone as well, to the Angels in the Cabrera trade, which means that LH John Danks moves up in the pecking order. Danks has a lively arm and as a 22 year old rookie last year, he had his moments. But still - he was 6-13, 5.50 last season, primarily because he gave up home runs at a mind-boggling rate (28 of them in just 139 innings.) He's got some work to do.
And the fifth starter? Right now it looks like none other than Gavin Floyd. Gulp. Yes, THE Gavin Floyd, of whom I said last year that "Gavin Floyd is in camp, showing off his fine assortment of Tools. He still doesn't seem to be able to actually get hitters out with these fine tools." Little has changed on that front. He got 10 starts last year (1-5, 5.27), which actually counts as progress.
Bobby Jenks heads up the bullpen, and one must acknowledge that Jenks is pretty good. He saved another 40 games, and shaved more than a run off his ERA. He had a pretty nifty 56-13 K-W ratio in his 65 IP. He'll be supported by Octavio Dotel, Mike MacDougal, Scott Linebrink, Matt Thornton, Boone Logan, and Some Other Guy. It's not a terrible bullpen, although it's unlikely to actually be good.
Tell you this. At some point during the year, we will hear this cry from Chicago. You know it. But will it be for Ozzie? For Kenny? For whom will it come?
66-96, fifth place.