Friday, October 7, 2011

Boy Wonder


It's fitting that Robin Ventura's namesake in the Batman world was known as the Boy Wonder, as that's exactly what Reinsdorf, Kenny, and all of us in White Sox Nation are hoping he is. Because as a manager, Ventura is just a boy. Not a young man - a freakin little boy. The whole of his professional baseball coaching experience is as some sort of special assistant for four months to Buddy Bell, the Sox head of development.

What does that even mean? What did it entail? How much confidence can you have in such a fluff position, especially when it's at the right-hand of a man who hasn't developed a whole lot in terms of non-pitchers in the past decade. Brian Anderson? Jerry Owens? Josh Fields? And now Beckham - all raging disappointments.

Aside a hot streak in some totally meaningless September games, Morel also hasn't hit for average, walked, or hit for power. Now it was just his rookie year and he did seem to start to get it in September, so I've still got some hope for Morel (and for Beckham, too, actually), but it's still a knock on Buddy Bell that none of these Sox players hit the bigs and just light it up. Can you remember the last Sox prospect to hit .290+ immediately on reaching the bigs?

I guess you can say Viciedo last year (.308 in 104 ABs) - but really, one guy in a 100 AB call-up is all we got? Especially when Dayan fell back to a more Sox-like .255 w/ no power in his call-up this year? Also not making me feel good about the future - Flowers was very Sox-like in his .209 tally this year.

Maybe, just maybe Bell hit on something w/ De Aza, who did rip it up all season in the minors and bigs after being picked up off the scrap heap two years ago. But he's also 27 - that's when most guys hit their prime, not emerge as rooks. De Aza was a longtime product of first the Dodgers and then the Marlins systems who, while apparently decently touted, ran into injuries that stunted his development.

De Aza has raised his average in the minors every year since 2006 and now finally looks like he's ready to shed the dreaded 4A (too good for the minors, can't get it done in the bigs) label. But I look at Alexei and Beckham, who also both looked like they were ready for superstardom, only to fall back to middling (Alexei) or near worthless (Beckham), and I'm not yet ready to give Buddy Bell a victory on De Aza yet.

The point is, I'm no Buddy Bell fan because the guy hasn't done a whole lot of developing hitters, so when our brand new manager's biggest stake to his job is working alongside Bell in an undefined role for 4 months.... well, let's just say this move hasn't done a whole lot to wash away the pessimism that 2011 drilled into me. "Anyone would be better than Ozzie!" If you found yourself thinking that... well, we may just find out. Cause experience-wise, Ventura is basically just "anyone."

Make no mistake about it, there is a heck of a lot on the manager. Ignore all these know-nothing, apologist pundits who let Ozzie and every other failing manager off the hook with trite comments like "he can't go out there and hit or pitch for them." Sure, there are inherent limitations to what a manager can do based on the quality of his talent, the level at which they are playing, and the luck that's coming their way (injuries, match-ups, intangibles, etc).

But a baseball manager can and should have a HUGE impact on his baseball club:

He should be a strategic asset, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent's lineup every night and responding with a very specific lineup and approach to capitalize on such.

He should have a profound insight into each player's physical mechanics and mental make-up, knowing what's necessary to keep them going when they're hot and to get them out of it when they're slumping.

He should establish the fundamentals and approaches required on his team, and then ensure they are executed unfailingly by each and every player at all times, including all of those being developed at every level of the minors.

He should be in the ear of his GM and Owner, ensuring he gets the right mix of talent and also the right mix of chemistry, leadership, and other intangibles in his clubhouse.

He should be equally adept at developing youngsters to their full potential, maintaining the high level of play of his established vets, and getting more out of his unfulfilled talents.

He should be able to surround himself with great coaching talent and then ensure that every aspect of instruction - from video review, to scouting, to teaching and ensuring execution - of all facets of the game are done to the highest level.

Finally, he should be able to manage the egos of his players personally and the chemistry of the clubhouse collectively to create confidence, cohesion, energy, and comfort.

Look at all of that - that is one heck of a big, complicated, nuanced job. Now throw in that he has to do this while knowing all the different players and coaches in his own system, plus all the different coaches, teams, and players elsewhere, plus all the video and scouting on all of them, plus all the constant changes and developments with them. And he has to do it while dealing with the fame, pressure, and constant press interaction that comes with being a big league manager.

This is a tremendous responsibility, the kind of job you have to be strong, smart, confident, relaxed, energetic, and experienced to be able to do well. The kind of job where maybe 10-12 guys on the planet can actually say they are reliably good at. The kind of job where no matter your natural skillset, it will take time to learn everything that's needed of you, and then even more time to learn everything that you can be doing to be good at it.

Ventura has had almost no opportunity to do any of that learning. Sure, he'll be helped along by the fact that Cooper will take a good portion of the pitching aspect out of the equation. And maybe he'll have the advantage whatever it is Harold brings to the plate (again, I love the guy, it's just hard to know what such a quiet dude in such a minor role brings to the table... it may be huge, it's just hard to know).

There also will be a new hitting coach... and yes, I will absolutely stand by the statement that ANYONE is better than Greg Walker. Since 2004 this team has had all of one half of a season where the offense lived up to expectations (the first half of 2006) given the incredible talent, the huge amounts of money, and the hitter-friendly ballpark the Sox play in. That's 1/2 of a season out of 8... or a 6% success rate. Yeah, 6%. And yet there are TONS of local pundits who actually defend this guy!!! 6%! What know-nothing morons.

And Ventura will have some bench coach the Sox seem pretty settled on (reports are they've asked permission of some team to talk with this guy and plan on announcing him, along w/ Ventura and the whole staff, on Tuesday). I'm guessing that in hiring a guy like Ventura, part of their thought was that the right experienced bench coach could help offset Ventura's complete lack of any.

But still - this move makes no sense to me. Especially when the seemingly perfect candidate was out there - Dave Martinez. A consummate pro when he played, bouncing around from stop to stop, learning different systems and approaches from numerous different managers and coaches, Martinez was always a solid player, too.

Since then he's had the luxury of being the right hand man to Joe Maddon, who can point to the long line of success of both the Rays and Halos (where he was a longtime bench coach). These are teams that play the game right, that have sustained long stretches of success without New York/Boston-level spending (the Halos spend a decent amount, but like our lovely Sox, don't always spend it wisely).

In short, Dave Martinez brings a wealth of experience from exactly the types of teams that I wish the Sox would be like. And yet, the Sox basically didn't even consider him. Given the timing of Ventura's hiring, there's no way the Sox could have been seriously considering Martinez, talked with him about the job, for whatever reason realized they had to go a new direction, and then put all this Ventura stuff together.

Instead, this seems to have been in the works for a while. But why? Yes, you've got a good start with Coop - it was brilliant to sign him for four more years, because given where the Sox play, the incredible sustained success of their pitching makes Coop one of the top 5 or so pitching coaches in the game, no question.

And maybe Baines is a real astute and learned coach who adds a lot. It's hard to believe, just because the Sox have been a team that didn't seem to out-think or manage anyone, didn't seem bright enough even to realize their own obvious failings and fix them. I mean think of the year after year of poor fundamentals, the horrible hitting approach, and the existence of a bad hitting coach incapable of stopping proven hitters from having prolonged slumps - if Baines is an asset, why couldn't he stem these things?

Was it really all Ozzie's fault? I guess we'll learn that next year, with a blank slate like Ventura allowing Baines more room to show what he can do.

But let's just say Coop and Baines are perfect - why not bring in yet another asset to be your manager? Are you really that concerned about having too many good minds working together? Is it really that difficult to find a bright, capable manager with real professional baseball coaching experience that is able to work right alongside Coop and Baines?

To me, it's simple - whatever you had in-house wasn't enough to get it done. And the idea that Ozzie and the other coaches you jettisoned were holding back the real talent you had in the system isn't flying with me. I do totally agree you can improve over Ozzie and his staff, but I don't think that improvement comes just by elevating the people you already had around. They weren't getting it done before and I'm not buying that it was cause Ozzie wouldn't let them.

Instead, the Sox need some new blood, some outside talent. I wanted to see them bring in a guy off a successful coaching tree - successful for the right reasons. Think Twins, Halos, Rays, Cards, Braves... teams that have been good for a while, playing the game right, and not just buying their talent.

I wanted a new manager, a new hitting coach, a new bench coach from outside of what we have, combining with whatever assets we had left over, to infuse new views and approaches that worked elsewhere with whatever the Sox had been doing right. I wanted it all - the best of what we already had and the best of what was out there.

Now there's still time for some of this to be saved - if the Sox hire an outside hitting coach and a bench coach from some coaching tree I can respect. Those are two crucial and highly influential positions, especially with a know-nothing manager like Ventura at the helm. If we go out and get the right guys there, then maybe somehow this works.

Maybe Ventura can handle the chemistry/leadership role, while a great support staff handles the trenches. Many a successful organization work this way. Sure Ventura will still have some stumbling blocks as he learns the ropes, both with in-game decisions and in running the team. But maybe those are offset by his ability to allow guys like Coop, so skilled in what they do, to shine through.

Look, I'm an eternal optimist when it comes to the Sox cause come on, why root for any team except to add to the enjoyment in your life? And what enjoyment is there in not giving your team every benefit of the doubt and therefore keeping as much hope and positivity alive as possible? So yeah, I'm gonna talk myself into Ventura and whomever they bring in as hitting and bench coach, even if on paper I don't like the decisions they make. You just never know how it will work out, so why not hope it all comes together for us?

Especially when we've got 2005 as proof that sometimes, it actually does.

ADDENDUM - So word is coming out that Cooper helped engineer this whole fire Ozzie/hire Ventura thing with Kenny, that Ozzie was run out of town by a groundwork that was laid way back early in the season.

But two things - first off, the source for a lot of this is a guy who readily admits he thinks Ozzie should have been kept and Kenny should have been let go... so not exactly the most objective source. And, really, anyone who felt Ozzie should have stayed after the epic failings he delivered these past two seasons has to have their baseball acumen questioned. I'd even say his personal relationships with the two men factored in too much to his views (a common failing by way too many beat writers and columnists).

Second, who cares even if that was the case? Good for Coop - Ozzie has been doing a garbage job, he deserved to be undermined. Ozzie needed to have his horrible handling of Rios and Dunn called out. He deserved to have his long, uncritical protection of the horrible Walker questioned.

I mean we were doing that as fans - think about how much more frustrated you'd be if you were a coach and in addition to your team loyalties, your livelihood was being threatened by Ozzie's constant failings? Can you blame Coop if he did work to get things done right around the organization? What kind of ass would accuse Coop of doing something wrong by trying to make an undeniably poorly playing team do things differently?

Ozzie had a beauty situation - a team with consistently good to great pitching and a boatload of money invested in its payroll every year. All he returned was a single division title since 2006, despite playing in a weak division. God bless Coop if he was doing what all of us fans wished someone on the inside was - complaining about how bad Ozzie and Walker and the rest of the non-pitching coaching staff have largely done with this team since we won the title.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Wizard of Oz


Say what you will about Ozzie (and you better believe I'm about to), but the first thing that every Sox fan remembers about this guy should be the masterful way he managed the 2005 team to the title. Sure, that year, like all baseball managers, Ozzie had his share of mistakes, frustrating tendencies, and a really healthy dose of luck that papered over such.

But at the end of the day, Ozzie took a team that no one (except me - even have the emails to prove it) considered much of a playoff contender, let alone a title team, and gave us one of the most dominating post-season performances in baseball history.

And Ozzie deserves a ton of credit for that. First off, he pushed hard to get rid of the lackadaisical slugging style that the Mags-Frank-CLee group had brought to this team for the past half decade (one we inexplicably slipped back into the following season). Instead, he gave an everyday job to the scrappy Rowand and motivated Kenny to bring in guys like Pods, Iguchi, AJ, and even Everett - guys w/ a bit of dirt on their jerseys and fire in their bellies.

Second, he used his bench in a way most AL managers - inexcusably - fail to. He got regular at-bats for Timo, Ozuna, Willie Harris, and eventually Blum. Just enough to rest the starters so they had something left in the tank down the stretch. Just enough to keep the part-timers from being exposed. And just enough to capitalize on the energy and different skill set each could contribute in spot starts.

Finally - and holy lord can we appreciate this after what we've gone through the last four seasons - Ozzie had this team believing in themselves and ready to go from Day 1 and didn't let up until they raised that trophy down in Houston. After the Aprils and Mays we've been having since 2007, can you even remember just how good it felt when the Sox rattled off a start of a season that saw them hold the lead in something like the first 30+ games?

From there, Ozzie didn't let them suffer the inevitable mid-season lull until they had built themselves enough of a lead to survive it. Sure, it got wicked scary in that home series against the Indians late in the year. But the Sox showed they had enough to not wilt, even as all the momentum was against them, all the pressure on them. And I'll argue forever that the incredible post-season run was partly made possible by suffering and then overcoming that near meltdown and the pressures it brought with it.

No question Ozzie absolutely had to go after what we've seen in 2009, 2010, and now this season. If just for opening the door to dumping Walker (and to some extent Cora, Cox, and Baines). Especially in light of whatever these prospects are we're getting from the generally talent-rich Marlins system. And given what the Sox limited prospects for improvement are this off-season (more on that in days to come).

But before I move on to the post-Ozzie era and all the unknowns we're staring at right now, it's only right that we stop and appreciate what he did for all of us in 2005. For most Sox fans, our fandom is more than just about rooting for a team to win some baseball games. It's about an institution in our lives that has meant a lot to our families coming together, friendships with fellow Southside fans, precious memories from childhood, and so much else.

And after so many years of believing that a World Series appearance (let alone a victory) was somehow something we as Sox fans just wouldn't ever experience, to actually go through the process and have it be even more incredible than we ever imagined... I mean that is something really special that will always have a neat place in my life.

I even like to joke that I can keep track of all the important events in my life because they happened every other year... first it was the Sox title in 2005, then my wedding in 2007, then Lily was born in 2009, and finally Penny came in 2011. Do I feel funny including the Sox title on that list? Only sort of. OK, not even sort of.

Yeah that title was kind of a big deal. And yeah, Ozzie deserves a big heaping spoonful of the credit for it. For that, I'll be forever appreciate and respectful of his place in White Sox history. In fact, I'm already excited about when they retire his #13 in the next few years.

For his crucial role in turning the 70-win teams of 1988 and 89 into 90-win teams from 1990 to 1992. For helping the team to the postseason in 1993 and what could have been our title year in 1994. For rescuing the Sox from the Manuel-era disappointments with his hiring in 2004 and that magical 2005. For rekindling our post-title hopes with that amazing Game 163 in 2008.

Hopefully tomorrow, maybe early next week, I'll get more into exactly why Ozzie had to go (thumbnail - half because of a laundry list of repeated failures, half because it was the only significant and realistic move that really was available to provide even an ounce of hope for this team in 2012). I'll get into what all Ozzie has been doing wrong of late to make this a move to be cheered, without any reservation. And I'll touch on what the next moves could/should/will be.

But for now - let's just relish what Ozzie has meant to this team. How stacked those 1990-1994 teams that he essentially captained were (side note: if the Wild Card existed and the Strike took place after the conclusion of 1994 instead of in the middle of it - really, what idiots and selfish jerks allowed that deal to be made and then executed so that happened?!? - that probably would have been the greatest era in White Sox history). How nice it was to get some energy and hope after Manuel. How frustrating and yet excitingly rewarding the 2008 team was. And of course, how great the entire 2005 run was.

Ah 2005. I just have to dig more into that, thereby doubling the size of this post. But really, you're reading an uber smalltime Sox blog - I can only imagine this is the kind of trip down memory lane you're not gonna mind taking.

Scotty Pods and Iguchi achieving instant cult status by sparking an incredible start to the year. Rowand joining them with his absurd plays in front of the New York media. Paulie finally elevating to the level of a lineup cornerstone. Everett quietly being his #2 - converting just about every RBI opportunity he had - in the first half. Big Frank coming back to spark us mid-season with 12 HRs and 26 RBI in 28 starts.

And then the stretch run, which began with Uribe somehow gunning the speedy Coco Crisp at first on a play deep in the hole w/ the go-ahead run about to score in the top of the 9th to hold off another crushing defeat to the Indians in late September. How the very next batter, Joe "Clutch" Crede, belted a walk-off jack that gave the Sox the victory they needed to spark a red hot close-out to the regular season.

Then came the beatdown of the BoSox in Game 1... a statement game that told all those national pundits (and a good amount of those well-founded pessimistic Sox fans) that this team was for real. Then Iguchi's jack to complete a comeback from down 4-0 early in Game 2. And Game 3, when freakin El Duque comes out with the bases loaded and mows down three straight, including Johnny Damon on a 3-2 curve ball! Talk about having ice in your veins! For the first time in any of our lives, we got to see our ChiSox celebrate winning a playoff series.

Then it was on to Game 2 against the Halos, when Buehrle quietly goes all 9, keeping the team in it just long enough for AJ to get on in the 9th on a confusing dropped third strike call that only AJ could have capitalized on. Ozuna takes his place at first, steals second, and then scores when Clutch Crede hits a walk-off double... again, letting all those national pundits know that this Sox team was not gonna shrink on the big stage.

Games 3 and 4 in LA, when Paulie hits a big bomb to give us an early lead which Garland and Freddy make stand up with complete games of their own. And then Game 5, when Contreras gives the Sox an unthinkable (and I'm willing to bet never-again-to-be-repeated) fourth straight post-season complete game victory that sends our freakin Chicago White Sox to the freakin World Series!!!

Game 1 - man the energy in this town, in that park, for a World Series Game... I doubt I'll ever experience anything like it again. A tight game that you can feel going either way. 8th inning, 4-3, Cotts facing a 1st and 3rd with no outs. K. K. Then gives the ball to Jenks, who immediately sees the runner steal 2nd. A hit will now give the Stros the lead and fulfill the impossible-to-avoid horrible expectations of every Sox fan watching. Instead - K. Threat over, Sox up 1-0.

Game 2 - terrible rainy, cold weather, but no one cares. We're up 1-0 and you kinda are finally starting to shed the dire expectations and really believe that this team is just superior and that will be what matters. But the Stros get up early and the Sox can't seem to do much... so your pessimism creeps back in.

Until a phantom HBP of Dye loads the bases for Paulie. In comes the reliever and his first pitch goes straight into the left field bleachers for the biggest Grand Slam in White Sox history.

Do you remember the elation you felt when that ball went yard?!? My sister Britt and I were sitting about 20 seats away from where the ball landed and hugged and jumped and yelled with every single person by us. The 300-pound bearded guy sitting next to me who hadn't said a word, hadn't changed expressions all game? Oh yeah, we hugged it out, jumping up and down like little school girls.

But it wasn't even the best feeling of the night. With the lead blown and the very real threat of the greatest sport fan feeling I'd ever had becoming just a footnote in one of the worst losses I'd ever watched, who else but Scotty Pods, he of 0 home runs in the entire regular season, would take closer Brad Lidge deep in the most unexpected walk-off in Sox history. I remember watching that ball sail out to deep right center, just hoping it'd get down and carom enough so that Pods could reach third.

Instead it just kept sailing into the seats and for the second time that night it was absolute jumping, hugging, yelling bedlam in the stands. But this time there would be no stop to the celebration - the fireworks just kept going off, the stadium just kept playing the hits (Thunderstruck, Go Go White Sox), and the fans just stayed in their seats cheering well after the Sox had retreated back into the clubhouse following their on-field walk-off celebration.

Down in Houston, you really, truly finally believed. You still knew it could be a tight series, even one we blew, but the reality was that the Sox just needed to win this Game 3 and it would be over. Another tight game, but this one just kept going. The Sox emptied their pen. The Stros matched them. And then, who but late-season addition and little used in the post-season Geoff Blum would break the tie with a 2-out bomb?

Just for good measure, Chris Widger - yes, he was our back-up catcher that year - draws a bases loaded walk to give us a 2-run lead. A lead that none other than Mark Buehrle would make hold up, by coming in to face one batter, getting him out with runners on 1st and 3rd in the 14th!

Why wouldn't Game 4 be just as dramatic? Big Game Freddy lives up to his nickname, going 7 scoreless. Willie Harris leads off the 8th with a pinch hit single, Pods moves him over with a bunt, and then w/ two outs, Dye drives him in. 1-0.

Politte and Cotts come in for the 8th, and as they did all year (and really, about the only year in either of their unremarkable careers that this would be the case), lay the Stros down. To the 9th and it's in Jenks' hands. A leadoff single and a sac bunt puts the tying run on 2nd with one out.

That's when my boy Juan Uribe takes over. He chases a foul ball down the left field line all the way into the stands, somehow reaching a row back and fending off fans to make the play, yet still has the mental presence to immediately come out of the crowd firing so the tying run can't move up to third.

If Jeter or Pedroia make that play, it'd be on constant loop in every MLB promotional video ever. Instead, it'll just have to serve as the final motivation for buying what might be my last Sox jersey ever - a Juan Uribe #5 w/ the World Series patch on the sleeve.

The next batter hits a slow roller just past Jenks and I swear, no other shortstop in baseball can make that play - only one with as quick of a release and hard of a throw as Uribe can get the decently fast Orlando Palmeiro by an eye last at first - Sox Win!

Man, what a ride that was. I really doubt anything in my professional/college sports fandom will ever match it. I just can't see a more perfect storm of an epic title drought, a family institution, and such season-long drama all coming together.

And for that, I'll forever appreciate and be grateful to Ozzie Guillen. No amount of subsequent complaints, frustrations, and bitterness could ever do anything to make me feel even an ounce otherwise. Ozzie absolutely had to go and I'm very elated he did. But you better believe I'd cross a busy street in the pouring rain at any time just to shake his hand and offer him a real heartfelt, genuine thank you for what he's done for our White Sox.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I. Told. You. So!


My last post, mocked by my buddy and esteemed Sox Pre- and Post-Game Radio Host Chris Rongey, among others, deigned to suggest that Dunn and Rios, two of the worst players in all of baseball through the first half of the year, needed to be sat down for a good long time, with the at-bats going to other players, such as Lillibridge and Viciedo.

Well, the always stubborn and arrogant duo of Ozzie and Kenny didn't listen, of course, but injuries eventually forced their hand. Konerko, Quentin, and AJ all missed time (Konerko largely in the form of not being able to play the field). Thus De Aza (a guy I will admit I'd never heard of, even as he was tearing up AAA Charlotte all year), Lillibridge, and Flowers all were given significant at-bats. And, finally, in the last two days, so too was Viciedo.

The resulting August numbers (through 8/30) for these guys:

Lillibridge - .261 AVG, 314 OBA, .587 SLG, 5 HR, 9 R, and 12 RBI in 50 PAs
De Aza - .343 AVG, .389 OBA, .552 SLG, 2 HR, 12 R, 12 RBI, and 5 SB in 72 PAs
Flowers - .278 AVG, .375 OBA, .500 SLG, 2 HR, 6 R, and 9 RBI in 62 PAs
Viciedo - 5-9, 1 HR, 4 R, 4 RBI, a BB and a SB in 10 PAs

All told, that's almost 200 PAs of .300+ AVG, .360+ OBA, .550+ SLG, 10 HRs, 31 R, 37 RBI, and 6 SB!! And only 10 of those PAs are Viciedo's, by far the most highly touted hitter in the group.

Or, to put it another way - back in June, I gave up on Dunn and Rios and thought it was time for a good, long benching (not a few days, more like a few weeks). If you were to have used Lillibridge and De Aza in CF (they're a righty-lefty combo, by the way) and Viciedo and Flowers at DH, and they produced just as they have in August, we'd have had added two more Konerkos to our lineup in place of the absolutely offense-killing Dunn and Rios for about 25 games!

That's 25 June games w/ two different line-up spots going from the worst players in baseball to two of the best. Throw that offensive explosion together with the great pitching and defense we were getting at the point (more on that later), and we'd have strung together another nasty hot streak just as we did last season.

And unlike last year, we wouldn't be looking at a post All-Star Break swoon as our pitching melted down. They've remained as strong as ever - even w/ Dunn and Rios still getting regular ABs and playing like poop, even w/ Paulie, AJ, and Quentin missing time, we've still managed to play about .500 ball for a while now.

So that's my I TOLD YOU SO - if the stubborn, arrogant, wrong-headed brain trust of Kenny and Ozzie had made the moves that required just an ounce of sense and a decent amount of balls way back in June (when it became well-founded to do so), we'd be looking at a wholly different White Sox season.

That's largely because, while no one has been paying attention (even some of you, my diehard Sox fan friends) the Sox Pitching and Defense has been the BEST in the AL since May 6th.

As far back as May 4th, I posted here on this blog that things weren't as bad as the 11-19 start suggested. That the performances of so many key pieces (particularly the pitching, starting and relief) suggested things would bounce back, maybe even very soon.

And I was right... for the most part. May 6th was rock bottom - a loss dropped us to 11-22, or on pace for 108 losses. At 158, our runs against total was dead last in the AL.

Now, exactly 100 games later, guess which ballclub ranks #1 in the AL in runs allowed per game since May 6th? Your Chicago White Sox. 381 runs allowed in 100 games, for an average of 3.8 per game. Our record stands at 14 games over .500 in that stretch (56-43, or 92-win pace).

For some perspective on our pitching/defense - Boston and the Yanks, the prohibitive AL favorites? 4.0 runs per game allowed. Angels, with their three aces? 4.0. Seattle in their big park and with their great D? 4.1. Tampa Bay, quietly playing great ball themselves? 3.9.

And our division foes? Since that fateful 6th day of May, Detroit is up at 4.4, Cleveland at 4.6.

You take the AL's best pitching/defense combo and put it with Pierre/AJ (who've been red hot since then), Paulie (who's remained hot all year), and Quentin/Alexei (both have underwhelmed, but still produced at a big league level), and you can see the 92-win team.

So why do we sit where we are - dreadfully inconsistent, just a few games over .500 (despite this nice win streak), and chasing a weeks worth of games to a very mediocre division leader? Some of it is that a 11-22 start is hard to fight back from. But MUCH more of it is because of four very large holes in our offense.

One of those I can forgive - Morel is a rook and at least seems to battle up there, even if he doesn't provide much for average, OBA, speed, or power. Plus, he's a hell of a glove man at third and seems to have a good attitude.

I can't fully forgive Beckham - this kid should be a star, stepping up when we need him most and carrying us to the next level, maybe not quite as much as CQ did in 2008, but definitely along the lines of how down the stretch and in the playoffs, Dye became a viable support piece to Konerko in 2005.

Instead, Beckham's regressed tremendously, to the point that in a key series, the Indians regularly walked Flowers (fresh up from AAA and before he clearly shown himself to have a hot bat) to get to Beckham, and then made Beckham look foolish every time.

But I only place some of the blame on Beckham, who clearly has the same issue as Konerko and Quentin - a lack of the necessary fortitude to bear down and overcome their momentary failings. The other part - the larger part - is squarely on Walker, who is charged with developing young hitters like Beckham and has clearly failed to do so (remember how nasty he was in the 2nd half of 2009 and 2010 - about as good as any 2B out there?).

Still, you can afford a pair of middling bats in your lineup and still win, at least if they're playing good defense. And make no mistake, Beckham and Morel are playing as good of defense as anyone at their respective positions.

However, what you can't overcome is two lynchpins of your lineup not only failing to live up to cornerstone status, but instead playing every single day at the worst levels of production of any regular in all of baseball. In fact, historically bad performances from both Dunn and Rios. And that's been the difference between a 2011 we'd cherish as Sox fans and one of the most frustrating ones we hopefully ever have to deal with.

Hence why I'm all I TOLD YOU SO today - the "other options" that Kenny and Ozzie wouldn't even take a shot on have come on to rip things up here in August.

Again, take the best pitching and defense in the league over a 100-game clip, add in a stellar Konerko, AJ, and JP, a respectable enough Quentin and Alexei, and then two more productive spots in the order. Even w/ two zeroes we were 14 games above .500... now imagine if you replace the .200 AVG, .270 OBA, .300 SLG of Dunn/Rios w/ that wicked 25-game tear we've seen of these youngsters?

Now figure they settled down as the league caught up to them a bit and we saw a pretty pedestrian .250 AVG, .320 OBA, .420 SLG performance out of those two spots for the rest of the way. Where would we be?

I'm saying the standings would be reversed - we'd be up 5-7 games heading into September. The Tigers and Indians would well on their way to falling completely out of the race as our superior pitching, defense, and timely hitting exposed their very flawed teams as the post-season pretenders they are.

We'd have profited from the initial June hot streak to give us more confidence as a team. We'd also have benefited from the presence of youngsters who are hungry, giving the team energy and a different approach in the field. I mean we've seen it already - De Aza and Lillibridge making the kind of plays on the bases and in the field evidencing a fire we haven't seen out of Dunn or Rios, or even some of the other vets who are producing. Fact is that prospects looking to prove they belong add a spark, a bit of edge, some desire that firmly entrenched vets rarely can muster.

Add it all up, and yes, I think this team would own this division by now and cake walk to the playoffs. And come the playoffs... well more on that later. Because first, I've just got to throw more shots at Kenny and Ozzie.

Yes, Rios and Dunn's epic failures were wholly unexpected and a huge challenge to what both Kenny and Ozzie were trying to do in their roles with this club. BUT, if everyone lived up to expectations, being a successful coach or GM wouldn't be too challenging.

The best measure of a good coach or GM is being able to roll with the inevitable unpredictability that is thrown at you ever year - good and bad - and find a way to be a success all the same. Both Kenny and Ozzie were thrown directly into the line of fire in the worst way this season with these Dunn and Rios implosions.

Unfortunately, both guys froze under the pressure. They did absolutely nothing. Kenny, Mr. "Take The Big Risks," didn't make a single roster move to provide alternatives - be it from within or on the trade market. And Ozzie waited too long to make any significant changes, even now still shying away from the big moves that are sickeningly necessary.

Quick example - he's batted Rios in the #4 slot the past two nights. Against RHPs. Rios, on the year, is hitting .191 against righties in 330 ABs (as opposed to .276 against lefties)! It took me two seconds to find that stat! 330 ABs - this is no fluke. The guy can't figure out righties this season. Yes, of course the Sox lineup is hurting without Quentin and with Dunn rightfully finally benched.

But just as before, there are real options aside running out the same garbage veteran to be as terrible as ever. Sure, Flowers, Viciedo, Lillibridge, and De Aza aren't ideal #4 hitters, given how green they are. Sure you hate to put that pressure on these guys, especially when they're already doing so much to carry the Sox offense.

Yet, when the choice is batting a sub .200 hitter behind Paulie or a red hot rookie, how on Earth do you not go with the freakin red hot rook?!? Especially when sitting Rios also gets Lillibridge's bat in the lineup... a bat that's slugged an out-of-this-world .587 with 5 pumps in 50 August plate appearances!

But why should I be surprised with Ozzie's continued idiocy, cowardice, and narrow-mindedness, given how that's the way Ozzie has handled Dunn and Rios all year? I mean one horrible month is a slump - happens to the best of 'em. Six to seven weeks is a serious issue... but maybe there's still hope yet. If you suck historically bad for over two months after posting a long track record of success? I'm sorry - if you haven't figured it out on the job for over two straight months, then it's time something drastic happened.

That's where Ozzie and Kenny have failed us Sox fans to a sickening extent this season... a fireable one that I hope Reinsdorf is well, well aware of. On any level of baseball, from Little League on up, it's the job of the coach and team director to make the tough decisions that need to be made. At the big league level, where these guys make millions and millions of dollars, it's even more true. And yet, both just sat there and stole Reinsdorf and his partners' money, feeding the press the same whiny line about "What can I do?"

Given how horrible Dunn and Rios were, ANY big league capable bat would have been a marked improvement over either guy - yet Kenny didn't bring in anyone. Nor did he turn to Viciedo, Flowers, or De Aza, just sitting there in AAA, ripping it up, chomping at the bit for their chance.

Moving them down in the lineup? Given them a day or two off? Ozzie waited too long to even do those things, so that by the time he did, they were just cop outs. They weren't gonna change anything... and they didn't.

No, guys making the money Ozzie and Kenny make, entrusted with the huge responsibility of running the on-field operations of an institution like the White Sox need to have the balls to look Adam Dunn and Alex Rios in the face and tell them that after over two months of tanking their team's chances, that they've lost the right to play every day.

At some point in June, Dunn and Rios both should have been sat down, with no chance of getting their everyday jobs back for at least 3-4 weeks. Sounds too extreme? That was the view Ozzie and Kenny had of that suggestion, and it was one that a lot of apologetic and ignorant media types echoed.

But DAMMIT, HITTING .200 OR WORSE FOR OVER TWO MONTHS WHEN YOU HAVE A LONG TRACK RECORD OF BIG LEAGUE SUCCESS IS ALREADY EXTREME!! Trite as it is, extreme times do call for extreme measures. Nothing should be off the table when you struggle that bad for that long... and yet Kenny and Ozzie refused to even consider sitting these guys for a few weeks and seeing what someone else could do in their stead.

If either player bitched or sulked, Kenny and Ozzie could have pointed out that they had just spent 2+ months killing the hopes of their teammates, who since May 6th had been playing pretty good ball. That Dunn and Rios owed their teammates and fans for the damage they'd done, so if that meant sitting and not complaining, they should willingly oblige.

Faking an injury or talking them into a AAA stint would have been ideal, but if those weren't realistic options, then Kenny and Ozzie should have moved them to permanent bench roles. Rios is an ideal 4th OF, able to come in to pinch run or play defense late, or play against the concessional lefty. Dunn would be your left-handed pinch-hitting option - sure he can't hit, but maybe he'd draw a walk or even K, allowing the next guy up to do the damage.

Look, it's not ideal, but it's FAR more ideal than having these two guys destroy an otherwise strong team. And that is exactly what they did thanks to Kenny and Ozzie's cowardly, stubborn, and arrogant refusal to bench these guys in June, July, and into August.

Is it guaranteed these kids would have had this same hot streak back in June? Of course not. But they've certainly proved they had those capabilities, and thus, Kenny & Ozzie should have rolled the dice on their upside instead of continued to blindly follow the miserably failed path of sticking with Dunn & Rios.

I see three good outcomes that could have followed:

1) Sometimes, when you're dialed in you just stay that way. De Aza, Viciedo, Flowers, and Lillibridge have all been red hot for large parts of the year. Whether they are truly this good or not doesn't matter - it's possible they just are having one of those hot seasons (let's call it "Pulling a Loaiza").

2) Between De Aza/Lillibridge in CF and Flowers/Viciedo at DH, I'm thinking at least one guy in each pairing would have turned out to be solid over the long haul this year. Lillibridge falls back to Earth (as he did in May and June)? Great, you give more ABs to De Aza. League catches up to De Aza? Then go back to Lillibridge (just like Ozzie was forced to do by Paulie's injury in August, which resulted in some great Lillibridge play of late). Between four guys with MLB-possible talent, if just one had turned out to be just OK, it would have been a big jump from either Dunn or Rios for the last 2+ months.

3) I firmly believe that Rios or Dunn could have had their season saved. Again, to hammer Rongey despite his being immensely cool enough to read and respond to my last post, the idea that you can't sit your way out of a slump is probably the most wrong-headed thing I've ever heard ever stated in all of sports. The entire long history of baseball is filled with guys who had terrible seasons coming back and lighting it up the next year after "sitting" in the off-season.

Everyone knows baseball is a hugely mental game and that the reasons you're hitting well or poorly are often near-impossible to lock down. It makes sense that one fix to a longterm slump is a massive mental break from the game.

So yeah, I do believe it's realistic to think that Dunn and/or Rios could have had a good to even great second half. I do think that after trying to "play through it" didn't work for two-plus months, maybe sitting for the next month would have. When you're facing something you've never faced before - a historically bad slump - why is it unreasonable to try something you've never done before - become a limited bench player - to get out of it?

Again, a bit of I TOLD YOU SO - playing through it sure as heck didn't solve anything for either Dunn or Rios (AND it screwed our Sox real bad in the standings). But the jury is still out on whether or not sitting Dunn and Rios for a month at some point in June might have rescued their second half.

In short - there were different ways that sitting those two and giving the kids (or some trade avenue) a shot would have been hugely beneficial for this team... and what's played out since then has largely confirmed these beliefs.

Alright, so I've done a great job patting myself on the back for realizing the Sox had a lot going for them back before anyone else (that early May post that saw the hot Sox pitching/defense run and bounce-backs from JP and AJ). And for realizing the stupidity of playing through a slump that passed the two month mark instead of at least trying the viable alternatives that existed. Yay me.

But what now? As a Sox fan, knowing that Ozzie and Kenny were wrong and I was right is cool, but it still leaves me rooting for a mediocre and highly inconsistent ball club that will most likely end up being one of the biggest wasted opportunities I've ever seen (replacing the 2003 team).

Can it still be salvaged? Do we need Viciedo/Flowers/De Aza/Lillibridge to continue this unreal August tear through September and October? Can we really hope Ozzie won't keep rolling Rios and Dunn out there? Is there any chance this hodge podge not only takes the division (which would be fun) but competes successfully in the playoffs (which is always the true goal, now that we've tasted how good a title run can be).

I don't know what Ozzie will do - he's proven he's an idiot by how he's handled Dunn and Rios this year, and also by how he's allowed Walker to fail talented hitter after talented hitter for years now, and for how he's mismanaged any personality - outside AJ - who doesn't fall perfectly in line with what he wants. But here's what I hope he does if he weren't a terrible manager:

Until CQ comes back (after Labor Day), against righties I'm starting De Aza in center. Rios has hit .190 in 330 ABs against righties - he should never see another right-handed pitcher this year. In right, I'm platooning Lillibridge and Viciedo, depending on who's swinging the best bat. I also have the option to move Lillibridge to center if he's playing well and/or De Aza starts to struggle. With AJ back in a few days, I have the flexibility to DH Viciedo or Flowers in my "vs. RHP" lineup. Once CQ is healthy, he becomes a RF/DH, depending on who among Viciedo, Flowers, or Lillibridge is in the other spot that that day.

Against lefties, Flowers moves behind the plate (AJ has hit lefties just fine, but why not buy him days off to keep him fresh down the stretch?), Rios goes to center (he's hitting .280 against lefties this year), with Lillibridge in right and Viciedo DHing. When CQ gets back, again he becomes a RF/DH, depending on whether I'm using Viciedo, Lillibridge, or Rios that day. Plus, I've got flexibility with those three to sit someone else for a day off or if they're slumping.

As for Dunn? I'm sorry, but I just don't trust him to even pinch hit. Righty-lefty be damned - most righties can actually hit righties respectably. I'd rather take a flyer on one of my righties on the bench than have Dunn up there in a key situation. Basically, I'm shutting this guy down, unless somehow I clinch the division with a few games left, then I start him and bat him #3 to maximize his ABs and see if he magically found it again.

I know, I know - (begin whiny voice now) "How can the Sox expect to win without Dunn's bat and with the likes of unproven De Aza, Lillibridge, Flowers, and Viciedo getting everyday ABs? Sure, maybe you grind out an ugly division, but come on, no way this ballclub can win a pennant against the likes of New York and Boston with those guys. You ultimately need a big-mashing Dunn and even a hot Rios if you're realistically gonna take this thing."

And to that, good sirs, I say you need to learn your history. First off, your very own 2005 White Sox had an offense that limped into the post-season with 1.5 legit bats. After Everett stopped hitting anything more than an occasional slap single, the Sox were left with Konerko - definitely the man - and Dye - a respectable but not amazing hitter. No one else was anything more than grindy. Yet the got it done in historic fashion that October.

The 2001 DBacks lineup had juiced-to-the-gills 57-HR Luis Gonzalez... and not a whole lot else, but still ended the great Yankees dynasty. The 2002 Halos played in the steroid era, yet didn't have a single noteworthy bat. And just last year, the Giants won it all with a lineup of rejects and retreads, top to bottom.

Finally, I'll throw out there the 2006 Cardinals - every mediocre fringe playoff contending team's patron saint. They backed into the playoffs thanks to a crap division, then somehow lucked their way into a title by doing just enough to win and catching every lucky break along the way (remember, that was the World Series where the Tigers pitchers made about 7 errors that allowed runs).

Sitting at the game these past two nights, mocking the Twins lineup that barely had 3 real major leaguers in it, I looked at the Sox lineup and realized that we weren't that far ahead of them. But then I watched as Viciedo, Flowers, and De Aza just kept finding ways to score us runs. And I watched how the defense made all the plays - fancy and routine. I watched how Buehrle got in a groove and wouldn't let anything get him out of it. I watched how the bullpen came in and bailed out Stewart, allowing the O a chance to get back in it.

So yeah, I do think that a lineup with Viciedo, Flowers, De Aza, and Lillibridge playing roles could most definitely win a World Series title. As the numbers above show, the pitching and defense is there. It's just a matter of the offense finally delivering enough to regularly capitalize on all the great pitching and defense we've gotten.

JP is back to the high end top of the order guy I've always loved. Quick aside, but for all you haters who were somehow blaming him for the Sox bad start - this guy's average never fell below .240, and was only below .260 for a 3-week stretch. Ditto his OBA, largely above .320 and only below that for a 3-week slide. That's a difference of maybe a hit a week between what he was doing and what you expected him to do.

JP was never the reason we were 11-22 nor failed to capitalize on this incredible 100-game run we've been on with our pitching and D. Yes, he's no Rickey, but he's definitely a lead-off guy you can win with at the levels he produces these days - .285 hitter, .335 OBA and a lot of hits when it matters.

I'd like to see if De Aza and Lillibridge can handle the everyday #2 hitter job. And that's also one thing I wish Ozzie would have tried a while ago with Rios. Maybe now's the time - as I said, he's hitting about .280 against lefties, which is more than enough to be a good #2. I don't think he's a particularly good bunter or even contact guy, but maybe forcing him into a role in the lineup he's not used to will give him the change of perspective he needs to get back on track.

If that doesn't work, then I'd throw AJ in here. This nonsense about lefty-righty is killing me - who cares if JP and AJ are back-to-back? Are teams really going out of there way to get JP and AP out late in the game? If so, god bless em - let them burn their pens out. And in the meantime, AJ does all the things you want out of a #2 - contact (hardest guy to K in the bigs), bunts (that Minnesota upbringing) and heads-up hitting (behind runners) and base-running (is there anyone smarter?).

#3 is Paulie, who has not taken his foot off the gas all year, despite the crumbling O around him. #4 would be Quentin, streaky and frustrating, but still a guy other teams have to respect behind Paulie. #5 would be Alexei if he can get hot again. The guy is a streak hitter, but unfortunately, after a torrid May, has been decidedly mediocre in June, July, and now August. But maybe that means he's about to get hot - if so, he can definitely serve as a respectable #5.

If not, I'd push him down to #6 and elevate Viciedo/Flowers to the #5 spot. That's a lot of pressure on two very unproven hitters, but you assume one of these guys becomes a legit bat or just stays hot, and thus is decent enough behind Paulie and Quentin to not kill your rallies (looking at you, Dunn).

At #7, if I'm using AJ at #2, I'd put Lillibridge/De Aza here. Some nice pop and speed in the back third of your lineup. If I'm using those guys as my #2, then I'm slotting in either Beckham or Morel here, whomever is hitting better. Personally I think that's gonna be Morel - he's no great shakes, but at least seems to battle up there and give you good at-bats for a rookie. Beckham looks lost and without confidence, and it's beyond time where I'd hope for his normal second half surge. Fortunately he's playing great D so he can still contribute.

At #8, I'm putting AJ (if he's not up at #2). I like how AJ has hit all year and I like having a veteran I can count on back here, breaking up the relatively easy outs that Beckham and Morel can be.

Finishing things up is either Beckham or Morel. Both of these guys play such good defense that I'm fine with them being near offensive zeroes in the #9 slot.

Does this offense stack up against Texas, New York, or Boston? Lord, the top two or three hitters on those teams could easily out-produce our entire lineup. But I'm putting my faith in pitching and defense with just enough timely hitting

I say our pitching can keep those teams in check and that our hitting can do just enough against the humongous holes in the pitching staff that all three of those teams have.

In fact, I'd say I'm more scared of teams like the Rays and Angels sneaking into the playoffs, with their strong pitching, great defense, and no-name offensive attacks. I'd much rather the Sox be the only team in that group, and join the 2010 Giants, 05 Sox, 02 Angels, and 01 DBacks on the list of underwhelming offenses that won rings in recent years.

So yeah, once again I'm not giving up hope for this year. But I have completely given up on Ozzie and am starting to lean very hard in that direction with Kenny. Even if we miraculously win the title, an despite the dearth of managerial and GM talent out there, Reinsdorf would be wise to shake things up and bring in some new faces to run everything. Gut it all (except Coop and our other pitching coaches, and any good scouts we have) and start fresh with guys who stress fundamentals from an organizational development and acquisition level, and then execute it on the playing field throughout the organization.

And if Reinsdorf is interested now that I've proven myself smarter than their current job holders, I'd be willing to at least listen to a White Sox offer to take over the team. I'm not committing to anything, but I'll allow myself to be wooed.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011



Every time I come upon an insane level of deliberate obtuseness, I think back to the original Mission Impossible (they're coming out with a 4th, by the way, even tho all but the first were horrible) and the scene early in the movie where the hot chick with the great lips stumbles back to the safe house to meet Tom Cruise. She's refusing to accept the reality of their situation, that they've been sold out and everyone's dead. And delivering a line in an insane way that only a truly insane person can, Cruise screams at her with the perfect insane face, "WAKE UP, CLAIRE!"

Annoyingly, no one else really remembers that scene or line very well, but damnit, it fits a lot of situations, especially as a sports fan. How many times do you just want to (or actually do) scream at your TV or radio or computer when an athlete or more often coach/front office guy does something so incredibly stupid, yet so obviously avoidable?

The Sports Guy talks about how every team needs a VP of Common Sense, someone to be the one to take a step back and ask, "wait, what are we about to do here?" when making those big decisions that fans and pundits immediately jump on as awful and just as immediately prove themselves to be so.

Personally I'd expand the concept beyond just "VP of Common Sense" to "Non-Team/Industry-Affiliated VP of Common Sense." Of course any actual front office guy would laugh at this concept, but that's because they are idiots. Every institution in the world should have someone like this because every institution suffers from group think and institutional blindness to some level.

Sports teams are especially guilty of this, being run by such a small, exclusive community of front office executives who've spent their whole lives within the sport. So it should be obvious that every organization should have someone who is knowledgeable on their team, knowledgeable on their sport, but in no way an insider. Not a writer, not someone who's worked for teams, not someone who's played the game professionally. Just a very well-versed, well-educated, intelligent, dedicated fan.

Like any position, you'd check resumes, interview, and then hire them on for the position. But they'd remain wholly independent of the team, not having anything to do with the inner-workings. They wouldn't be in on how the decisions are made, nor would they get input or info directly from the organization. All of their knowledge and insight would come from outside, independent sources. The VP's connection to the organization would be limited to just two things.

First, the team would bring all semi-significant decisions, after they've made them but before they've executed them, to the VP-CS. The team would lay out their thinking and then ask if any warning bells are going off. Is some part of their reasoning incorrect? Have they missed something? Are there better options they didn't consider? And so on.

Second, the VP would be empowered to speak up when he sees something that he feels the team is missing, and the team would be obligated to give a rational, thought-out justification in response to the VP's point. By constantly questioning what so often is just accepted as given, he'd force the organization to justify everything it does with actual benefits, rather than just blindly accepting that "we've done this this way for this long, so that's just what we do."

Finally, after about 3 seasons, the VP will have learned so much about the organization as they justify their decisions to him that he'd invariably begin to become part of the group think. So you'd cycle a new guy in during the last year of the old guy's tenure to get some fresh perspective and energy, while also having a guiding hand to keep the process efficient and the transition smooth.

So why the obscure Tom Cruise reference and the fleshing out of another writer's idea in the first Baines Herald in way too long (in my defense, I've written a few of these but then scrapped them when I didn't feel good that I had properly fleshed out the article's points... only to see them not become timely and need to be re-worked from scratch)? Because think of how much better off the Sox would be today if they had a VP of Common Sense the last few seasons:

"Wait, you want to claim Alex Rios and the $60M over 5 years he's got left on his deal? Let's just say this was the off-season, would you guys really make that kind of free agent offer to this guy? That doesn't sound like the Sox. Especially because I don't think anyone would. Why don't we pass on the claim and see if the Jays won't take on a big chunk of the salary come this off-season. What's the worst case - they say no and we've still got that same $60M over 5 we'd have given to him to spend on someone probably even better."

"Wait, you guys want to give this Mark Teahen a 3-year, $14M extension? Even before he's had an at-bat with us? Even tho his fairly long career to this point has been consistently mediocre? Even tho he's under our arbitration control (at a reasonable price) this year? Why don't we wait, see what he can do under our tutelage? If we're right and he is a diamond in the rough, we still have all season to re-up with him before he walks. But in a market where $5M a year buys some very good players, why would we commit to three years worth of that for a guy who so far has been only worth a million or two?"

"Wait, your plan is to give Mark Kotsay, a guy who hasn't played everyday for over 3 years, who has always hit 1st, 2nd, 7th, or 9th, about 400+ at-bats as your #5 hitter? I'm cool with this rotate-the-DH concept you pitched, but that was before you explained that to make it work, you'd need Kotsay to morph into a run-producer after 13 big league seasons as a table-setter.

If you want me to sign off on this no-DH thing, then either find another guy in your line-up to hit #5 or bring in a different lefty who actually can do that job for 400 ABs. And while we're on the subject, don't try to sell me on Andruw Jones as the other side of that platoon. I love platoons, I love using the DH to keep your guys fresh, but like anything else, this system is limited by the personnel, and right now you are missing the proper personnel. Both those guys are good bench depth, but even combined they should not be getting everyday at-bats. Come on guys - these two were both waived in the last year or two."

And then this season... oh this season... my would the VP of Common Sense be earning his paycheck now:

"I didn't say anything after the first month as slumps happen and Rios and Dunn have both shown that they will get into them, but also eventually get out of them. But when May came and went and both still sucked, I told you it was time to do something different. I even rolled out the old cliche - the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. Playing them every day in roughly the same batting spots was idiotic. It was clear both were mentally lost and more at-bats weren't helping in the slightest. In the meantime, they were killing our team, who by then had finally gotten their defense and pitching together.

As June was finishing up and both STILL sucked, I pointed to the 6-game stretch in NL parks as a perfect opportunity to sit Dunn for an extended stretch. Throw in the off days and then a continued benching for the final homestand before the All-Star break and we could have bought Dunn almost 3 weeks off and only lost him for 7 DH games. Rios could have worked the same way - sit him for those 6 NL games, use him as pinch runner, pinch hitter, defensive replacement. That stuff is very valuable to have in NL parks. Then bench him for that home stand and let him enjoy his 4-day All Star break away.

Now, it's almost the end of July. We're talking almost FOUR straight months and 100 games of these guys being the worst hitters in all of baseball. I checked - there are only a handful of guys with 150 plate appearances this year who have a lower OPS than Dunn and Rios. And they all are defensive middle infielders, catchers, or broken shells of 3Bs. They are not making over $12M and expected to hit in the middle of their teams' orders.

WAKE UP, CLAIRE! You can no longer argue that letting them play through it is a reasonable solution - it is 100% proven to be a failed strategy. There is no denying it now. Furthermore, logic even shows that we have hit a point where we are in a NO-LOSE situation by sitting these guys for 2+ weeks and using other alternatives. Let's take a look at the possible outcomes of sitting Dunn and Rios everyday for 2 weeks, playing Lillibridge and Viciedo in their stead:

-Outcome 1, Lillibridge and Viciedo are horrible, Dunn and Rios return and are still horrible. Result: Tie.

We're no worse off than if Dunn and Rios just continue to play horrible with everyday at-bats, which again, at this point in time, is what we have to assume to be the case moving forward, given the nearly 4 months and 100 games of evidence. This is the worst case scenario and we break even... says something, eh?

-Outcome 2, Lillibridge and Viciedo are average or better, Dunn and Rios return and are still horrible. Result: WINNER!

Even just an average Lillibridge and Viciedo will contribute much more than the horrible Dunn/Rios combo (which, again, we have to assume is what we will get, given, again, the nearly 4 freakin months and 100 games of evidence). That means we might win a few more games over these next two weeks, more if Lillibridge and Viciedo play well (both have shown flashes of ability to do just that at the big league level). And these extra wins could be huge in this tight race. Plus, now we know that we've got viable alternatives moving forward, so we can more confidently sit Dunn and Rios down the stretch.

Maybe we even sit them the whole rest of the way, using them as bench options. We're pretty close to first with these guys killing us every day - why couldn't we win the division with them not killing us and instead getting just average big league production from Lillibridge and Viciedo?

-Outcome 3, Lillibridge and Viciedo do anything (horrible to incredible), Dunn and Rios return from their time off now performing at least within expectations. Result: WINNER!

Yet again, we've got to assume Dunn/Rios will suck, cause anything else marks us as blindly idiotic, so we're not losing anything if Lillibridge and Viciedo do crap the bed. But holy lord, what if getting some true time off is what these guys need? Not a few days over the All-Star break, where coming back to your struggles is right around the corner (come on, we've all taken weekend vacations... we know how impending that Monday return to work hangs over everything). But a real, long, the end seems so far off type of getaway that really puts a clear distinction between the time you left and what you return to.

It is very simple, fellas. In their current mental state, these two have proven, beyond any doubt, that they are incapable of hitting big league pitching with any sustained success. To continue to play them everyday expecting that to somehow change would be like playing me every day and expecting me to learn to be a big leaguer.

They aren't going to luck into a string of success to get their confidence back, no more so than you'd expect me to luck into a string of success to prove a reasonable major league hitter. They also aren't going to luck into a mechanical fix or proper approach any more than I'd luck into the proper mechanics and approach to suddenly be a big league hitter. Not at this point - not 4 months in, not 100 games through the year.

So please, let's quit killing the team, let's start seeing what kind of alternatives we actually have on hand, AND at the same time, let's see if doing something drastically different than what has failed for 4 straight months and 100 games might finally rescue two players who absolutely could and should be major assets to not only a division title, but a World Series Title as well."

Final point - with the trade deadline less than two weeks away, the Sox have given themselves no alternatives to Dunn and Rios' continued struggles beyond hoping they figure it out or that Lillibridge and Viciedo could be viable everyday players. If in mid June (which would have given Dunn and Rios plenty of time to prove they can't hit their way out of this), the Sox had turned to Lillibridge and Viciedo, they would have had over a month to see if either of those two could be counted on for regular ABs AND whether or not Dunn and Rios could return from some extended time off to be regular contributors.

And if not, the Sox then could have made some moves at the deadline. Because damnit, this team has every single chance to win a freakin World Series title, something that rarely comes around for any big league team that doesn't spend $180M a year, a la Boston and New York. Take a look at the pieces they have in place and it suddenly becomes clear just how MUCH Dunn and Rios are uniquely responsible for turning this club into a sub .500 team.

Last night they showed a stat that says the Sox have the fewest errors in the bigs - that's impressive, especially given how horrible defensively they were to start the year. And it's not like that's some misleading, antiquated stat - errors are still a key factor to success. Plus, the Sox have average to good range pretty much around the field. Paulie and Quentin don't move a ton, but the three-headed monster at 3B, Alexei, Beckham, Rios, and Pierre all can cover ground. Defense, which is so crucial to pitching (in fact, it's the new OBA as far as statheads and front offices are concerned), is clearly a strength for this Sox team.

Somehow in an era where most teams can't find 4 starting pitchers, we've got 6. Sure they aren't all consistent, but it's still 6 guys throwing well enough to be a #4 or better in any rotation in the bigs. And 6 guys who've shown an ability to be dominant for long stretches. That means we can overcome injuries, deal with ineffectiveness, and keep our guys nice and fresh so that come the playoffs, we've got 4 arms who are dealing, giving us a good shot to win every night in October.

Maybe the most important piece to any playoff run is the bullpen and holy balls has this pen come together after a terrible start. Santos has only factored into 3 losses (two blown saves and a tie game he lost) in his 42 outings this year. Thornton, who was SO victimized by poor defense (entering this year he had given up 1 unearned run in his whole career... this year he's given up 11!), is back to the dominant lefty he's always been for the Sox. Crain, traditionally a 2nd half pitcher, had the best 1st half numbers of anyone on the team.

Sale has quietly spent the past two months being the beast we all thought he was. Ohman is even more forgotten about, yet has been nasty steady as a spot lefty and garbage man. Bruney has done much the same from the right hand side. Even this new kid Santiago has thrown 5.1 innings of beauty work, with only a hit and walk against.

That just leaves the lineup, and if you subtract the HUGE negative presences of Dunn and Rios, it actually isn't too bad. Pierre, always a slow starter, has gotten his OBA up to .333 (about what you'd expect from him) and is coming thru with big hits at big times. Alexei has settled in to the 2nd spot, scoring and driving in runs at a respectable clip. Konerko has been an absolute beast in the middle, bringing power, clutchness, and professional hitting to every at-bat. Quentin has done enough to be a very respectable middle of the order guy, driving in runs, hittin bombs, and getting on base.

Beckham's been all over the map, with a horrid April and June around a very good May and now July, but overall his .255 average and 7 jacks aren't too bad for a bottom of the order guy, especially one who is a notorious 2nd half hitter. And while AJ has no home run stroke any more, I'll take his 20 extra base hits and .290 average as a catcher. The three-headed monster at 3B has not been good, but it's fine as your worst offensive position (which it should be on this team), with each guy doing a little of something to warrant big league at-bats. Lillibridge has been an outstanding super-sub, with impressive OBA and power, even if his average has cooled, while Castro does plenty as a back-up backstop.

Yep, all that's missing is offensive contributions from your DH and CFer. That's why it's so simple - you move Lillibridge to an everyday job, knowing that he'll be inconsistent but give you more OBA and power than Rios. Rios becomes your bench OF for the next 2-3 weeks, giving him time to get a whole new perspective and put the first 100 games behind him. Dunn becomes a bench hitter, again taking advantage of time away from the everyday slog to change his thought process. Viciedo steps into your DH role, which yes, makes you heavily right-handed. But that brings us back to our VP of common sense...

"So why is it that we have to have a lefty in the middle of the order? I know in an ideal world it'd be preferred. I'm not talking ideal worlds - I'm talking our team here. Why is our strategy to put ANY left-handed bat into the middle of the order instead of some reasonable right-handed alternatives?

Last year we did that with Kotsay and it was an epic disaster. The guy had his worst year as a pro and our DH spot was the least productive in the AL. This year Ozzie continues to run Dunn out in the middle of the order instead of moving him and Rios down to the 7-8-9 spots, where they'd do the least damage. And I gotta assume some of what's keeping the front office from elevating Viciedo into Dunn's spot is that we'd have yet another righty to put with Paulie and Konerko in the middle of the order.

But come on - Viciedo hit .308 and slugged .520 in over 100 big league at-bats last year. He's on pace for 27 bombs and 110 RBI at AAA this year, hitting a stellar .317. He's freakin ready. And we freakin need him.

And, god forbid we end up too righty-heavy, ya know, like our 2000 team, which won 95 games despite having a total joke of a starting rotation (Sirotka was in the high 3s, Parque, Baldwin, and Eldred all were in the 4s, with Wells and Garland putting up 6. ERAs as part-time #5s). Or the 2005 team, which had the ghost of Carl Everett as the token lefty in the second half, hitting a whopping .228 w/ a .386 SLG % (for reference, Juan Pierre has a career .364 SLG %).

Come on, guys - you're making decisions that flat ignore the evidence at hand and relying on strategic notions that don't apply to your personnel. And it's turning what should be a World Series favorite into a frustrating after-thought for the sixth straight time since the title team."


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rock Bottom?


I was there last night, the second time I've witnessed a no-no at the Cell (Buehrle's Perfecto). I was with a big group of pretty diehard baseball fans, but only one other guy was a Sox fan. So they all loved that they got to see a no hitter and couldn't quite understand why I didn't enjoy, at least a little, what just happened. But I didn't - it just sucked. I wanted it to end at every opportunity. I got no joy from it and now, removed from the night, I still think it sucks. All I saw is a winnable game that we lost being celebrated nationally.

Maybe not getting a single freakin hit off a guy sporting a 9.06 ERA in a game that could have easily been won with just a smattering of timely hitting would be about as bad as it could get. That 11-19 record following the most April losses in team history is where the losing stops and the healing begins. Maybe it's not the great turnaround of 2010, but at least it can't get worse, right?

Annoyingly, it absolutely can get worse. Sure we won't lose in such a historical fashion again, but just continuing to lose in any way would suck. This team is built too well, featuring way too much potential, and facing too short of a window of success for Sox fans to be anything but extremely beaten down. There's no silver lining, no hope except for winning. No moral victories of any worth, no necessary experience, no helpful lessons to be learned.

Quite the downer, eh? Well, I'm gonna put it down for the record - the Sox are coming back. Just like they did in 2010. But this time, they aren't gonna falter after a brief but meteoric rise. Instead, they're gonna roar back into things, settle into a nice groove, and then pick things up even more, maybe after a late-season mini-swoon. They're gonna hit October as one of the hotter teams in baseball and they're gonna quietly be talked about as a leading title threat.

From there? Who knows - the playoffs are a goofy exercise that you can't ever hope to predict. So I won't - I'm just gonna stick with the thought that these Sox will make it happen, despite what everyone's writing (the local beat guys and columnists are having a field day with their demise) and what a lot of fans are thinking (fortunately, like last year, most aren't thinking about them too much, thanks to the Hawks and Bulls).

Am I just an indefatigable optimist? Nope, I'm basing my thought on pure hard facts (and a bit of a rosey view of such). Here's what I see:

1) Paulie and Quentin have been as good of a 1-2 as the Sox could expect in the heart of their order. While both are prone to slumps, it's not shocking what these two are doing nor is it hard to see similar production the rest of the way.

2) The bench guys - Lillibridge, Teahen, Omar, and Castro (+ Milledge's one start) - have combined, in 129 ABs, to put up a line that over a full season would mean a .271 AVG, .333 OBA, 25 HR, 25 doubles, and 20 SB. Yes please.

3) Humber has been a revelation in his 5 starts, with a 2.67 ERA and a sub 1 WHIP over 30 IP.

4) Santos, Crain, and Ohman (since his disastrous first two outings) have been outstanding, with tiny ERAs and WHIPs in regular work.

Is all that enough to convince me this horrid start is going to be forgotten soon? Nope, but having the heart of your order, your bench, half of your pen, and a back of the rotation piece all looking great is a nice start. But there's more:

1) Pierre, Alexei, Rios, and Dunn are some of the most consistent players in baseball, when you look at their final stats for each year. JP almost every year goes for around a .280 AVG, .335 OBA, 45-60 steals, and 90-100 runs. Alexei is gonna give you a .280, 18 HR, 70-80 R and RBI, 15 SB line - and do so after an April generally worse than what he just went through. Rios is .285, 15-20 HRs, 15-30 steals - I said last year after his nasty first half that he'd regress to those levels by the end of the year... which he did. Now, I'm saying the opposite, which he will.

Finally there's Dunn - a guy with a decade as a .250 hitter with a .380 OBA, 40 HR, 80-100 R, 100 RBI. I've followed this guy closely because of fantasy and this slump he's in is nothing new. He goes in streaks - he will get hot and jack 8 HRs in 12 days, carrying your club by himself. Then he'll do it again a week later.

But when you've hit 15 HRs in about 25 days, you're gonna end up balancing that with some real down times. Dunn just flat disappears for long stretches, becoming a factory of O-fers and Ks.

I was fearful that this very scenario would play out, with Dunn going into a stone cold spell before he had won over the Sox fans with one of his hot streaks. But while everyone else frets, I know that soon Dunn will be a beast, and by himself will win us a handful of games in a handful of days. Multi-HR games, big RBI nights, 2- and 3-run jacks galore... his box scores will just be filled with numbers day in and day out. Just watch - it's coming.

2) Not much is really expected offensively from AJ and Morel, so they don't have far to go to be at the level we need to be a champion. AJ's work with the bat has always been over-rated, so his .260 average, even w/o any walks or power, is just shy of what we need. An extra hit, walk, and pop here or there and he's golden. As for Morel - yes, that .187 average and 0 walk count is brutal, but if the guy hits .235, keeps avoiding Ks, and plays sweet D like he has, we'll be just fine. Pena, too - if he can just be respectable mopping up messes and bridging gaps slightly better than he is, he'll have done his job. If not, this kid Gray looks capable of doing so.

3) While they haven't been great, the reality is that Danks, Buehrle, and Floyd aren't that far off where they've been each of the past three seasons. In 2008 we won the division with a mediocre O (Carlos all but carried us himself) and some solid pitching. Well, the numbers these three posted in 2008 are about one good start away from what these guys are doing now.

4) Since blowing four straight saves, Thornton has settled down for five good outings in six chances. Plus he's got a hell of a track record on him and still is throwing good stuff - taken out of the closer role, I expect him to rediscover his groove and contribute in a big way to this club. With the possible return of Peavy and Humber's great work so far, Ed Jackson is basically a #5, which makes his three great outings in 7 starts about all you could hope for. Yes he's capable of much more, but the Sox can get by with just a bit more consistency.

Baseball really is the type of game where it doesn't take a whole lot of change to see a whole lot of result. If you look at who's going right and who's not far from going right, you're talking about the great majority of the roster. In all, I've only got three real concerns:

1) Beckham. You can argue that, like Alexei, he's just a cold starter, given how good his second halves have been the last two seasons. You can also throw out that he's was in an even worse slump that lasted three times as long last year, but found his way out to the tune of one of the position's top H2s of 2010.

I actually do believe he'll return to production eventually, but I'm just not sure it won't take another half season to happen. And that's something that will be very, very hard to overcome. I just don't have a long track record like with the other guys who are struggling to lean on for faith, so I'm going to have to remain unsure, even though I'm fully convinced that Beckham is a great player and will be great again some day.

2) Sale. The guy definitely still has nasty stuff and a good approach - his work in college, the minors, and late last year was no fluke. But unlike Thornton, who's got years of success and a good resume of ups and downs at the big league level to build from, Sale is struggling significantly probably for the first time in his baseball life. Relievers are hard to keep stable, so it's not clear Sale will be able to bounce back from the many and regular screw-ups he's put up thus year.

Especially because he's young, has minor league options, and is considered a key longterm asset, the Sox also might not let him. Sure they'll give him a bunch more chances because they want to win now and an effective Chris Sale could really help them do so. But if he can't go out and throw effectively, at some point he'll hurt the current team's chances too much and put too much of the future team at risk. Then, you may see him farmed out, maybe not to return until 2012.

3) Peavy. Given what Humber's done in the starts Peavy would have gotten, you can't argue his slow recovery has been a major factor in this dreadful start. But I don't expect Humber to remain at those levels all year and, much more importantly, I am not convinced this club has the post-season guns to win without Peavy back in his Cy Young form.

As I said, Buehrle, Floyd, and Danks, despite flashes of great things for stretches, have been good but far from great the past three years. You can hope that, like 2005, you'd have a collection of good starters all in a great groove, but I can't count on that. Instead, I think the Sox best chance of post-season success will come with Peavy as a pure Ace, intensely carrying the rotation from the #1 slot. Behind him two of Buehrle, Floyd, Danks, Ed Jackson, and even Humber will have to be going great. And one of those guys will have to be capable as a #4.

Getting 2.5 strong arms out of those other 5 guys sounds very reasonable, but it all revolves around Peavy being the #1 we know he can be. Unfortunately, his injury history just leaves way too much uncertainty, meaning that this is one of the few areas even my optimistic view of the numbers can't be of much help in giving me faith.

But hey, that's not bad - three major question marks next to four solid areas and four not too far from where they need to be? Somehow that sounds a heck of a lot better than you'd expect from our 11-19 start. Given the overall talent I still see on this club, the way I can see them getting it done in every facet of the game, and the fact that neither Detroit or Minnesota look very good either - yeah, I'm still somehow confident in the White Sox in 2011. Even if no one else is.