Five Questions: Chicago White Sox

This is my fourth annual article “questioning” the White Sox. In my first preview, I wondered what kind of manager newly hired Ozzie Guillen would be. In the second, I spent a lot of time recapping Kenny Williams‘ busy offseason. The third article probed which parts of the White Sox roster were most likely to come down hard after their World Series victory.

This year, remarkably and unexpectedly, the Sox are experiencing the first undercurrents of a major transition. The symbol of the transition is a number: 72. You see, Baseball Prospectus recently stirred some controversy (Hello, Murray Chass) by predicting that the Sox will win only 72 games this year. According to their system, the Twins will be 91-71, Cleveland will go 89-73 and the Tigers will finish 85-77. But the White Sox, World Series champs two years ago, will finish just five games ahead of the Royals.

72 is a ridiculously low number, as even the BPro folks admit. But it’s the result of a number of nagging questions…

1. How will the sluggers age?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not aging gracefully. My back hurts, my gray hair is thinning and I recently bought bifocals. Bifocals! I wasn’t planning on these things for another 10 years, if at all. Age can sneak up on you when you’re not looking, and not just because your eyes are going bad.

I’m way older than Paul Konerko, Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye, but I’ve got to wonder how they’ll do this season, too. Konerko is 31 and doesn’t have the type of body that typically ages well, Dye is 33 and has broken down in the past, and Thome will be 37 by the end of the year and is bigger than Konerko. These three guys are the heart of the Sox’s batting order. They created 358 runs last year, the fourth highest total in the majors—40% of the White Sox’s entire offense. Yet none of them can be expected to perform better in 2007. Realistically, only Konerko has a decent chance to perform as well.

  • Thome hit 42 home runs last year and slugged .598. THT’s system predicts that he will hit 32 and .546 this year, and those numbers are more optimistic than PECOTA’s (25 and .521).
  • Dye had an MVP-level campaign last year, after winning the World Series MVP in 2005. THT predicts that he will hit 32 home runs and slug .524. Those are fine figures, too, but nowhere near his 2006 production (44 and .622).
  • Konerko hit 35 home runs and slugged .551; we have pegged his 2007 season at 35 and .517.

See the problem? All three sluggers are projected to be fine in 2007—just not as good as in 2006. Dye had a career year and Thome’s hair is getting as thin as mine. And while one or two White Sox—such as Juan Uribe and Brian Anderson—will almost certainly be better in 2007, they’re not likely to offset the lost production of the big three.

2. Is Mark Buehrle done?

In 2005, the Sox’s team ERA tied for the league lead at 3.61. Last year, it was exactly one run higher: 4.61. Although the pain was felt in both the rotation (from 3.75 to 4.65) and bullpen (3.23 to 4.53), the bigger question marks remain in the rotation. And the biggest question mark of all is the Pale Hose’s former ace, Mark Buehrle.

Buehrle was fine the first half of last year, but he crashed in July (0-5 with an 11.48 ERA) and didn’t really recover the rest of the year. In each of the first three months, he allowed four home runs; in each of the last three months, he allowed eight. Actually, his strikeout and control rates improved in the second half of the year, but he gave up less groundballs, and the increased flyballs and line drives he allowed hurt him quite a bit. In the first half, he allowed eight home runs in 108 flyballs; in the second half, he allowed 19 home runs in 85 outfield flies.

Some of the home run rout was no doubt due to luck. According to Hit Tracker, 36% of Buehrle’s home runs were just over the fence, compared to the major league average of 27%, so expect some improvement in 2007. But Buehrle has pitched a lot at a young age, and questions of fatigue and health remain.

The Sox haven’t quite said so, but they have apparently lost faith in Buehrle. Kenny Williams surprised everyone this past offseason by trading two of his starting pitchers for young arms. He traded Freddy Garcia to the Phillies for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, and then he traded the guy everyone assumed would take Garcia’s place, Brandon McCarthy, to the Rangers for John Danks and Nick Masset (with a couple of other minor leaguers thrown into the deal). He effectively transformed the long-term outlook of the pitching staff that led the Sox to a World Series title two years ago.

Williams didn’t trade Buehrle, but he has also refused to sign him to a new deal. Of course, Buehrle isn’t helping himself by insisting on a five- or seven-year contract. But between the long-term deal inked by Javier Vazquez and the trades for young pitching, one thing is clear: Mark Buehrle may not be done, but he’ll be done with the White Sox after this year.

3. Who will be the fifth starter?

With Garcia in Philly and his heir apparent (McCarthy) in Texas, the fifth spot in the rotation is wide open. The top candidates for the five spot are:

  • 24-year-old Floyd, a big disappointment in Philadelphia, but still young with tons of potential.
  • Danks, a lefty with excellent stuff and a former number one pick like Floyd. Danks, who hasn’t even turned 22 yet, doesn’t have the stigma of disappointing major league fans … yet.
  • Charlie Haeger, a knuckleballer. Talk about something completely different…

Danks has been lights out so far this spring, but the Sox seem to be leaning toward Floyd at this stage. You have to hope that the Sox don’t stick with Floyd beyond reason to justify the Garcia deal.

The fifth starter question doesn’t just impact 2007. Given the impending changes in the White Sox rotation, it’s an issue with long-term implications. The manner in which Williams and Guillen manage the situation this year will tell us a lot about how they view the Sox’s future.

4. Darin Erstad? Really?

The really interesting thing about the offseason was that the Pale Hose focused on the long term instead of fixing their biggest short-term needs: the holes in left field and center field. Scott Podsednik and Brian Anderson didn’t deliver in 2006, and the chances that they will be significant contributors in 2007 are pretty low. Pods was never as productive as he was made out to be in 2005, and Anderson isn’t quite the prospect many of us thought he was.

The only thing Kenny Williams did to improve the situation is to sign one Darin Charles Erstad. Erstad batted .221 in 95 at bats last year. The year before, he batted .273/.325/.371 in a full season. That’s just about equal to Podsednik’s performance last year, when he was considered a major disappointment. There’s really no way to justify signing Erstad over other bats with more potential power. And the most disturbing thing about the Erstad signing is that it indicates that Kenny Williams may actually believe the Ozzie Ball hype.

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You’ve heard of Ozzie Ball? How the White Sox score runs by scraping them out, bunting, running the bases and going all Willie Bloomquist? Of course, that’s never been the way of the Sox offense under Ozzie, but that hasn’t stopped him (and the press) from talking it up. Up to now, it appeared as though Kenny Williams knew better, but the Erstad signing makes it appear that he’s beginning to believe (or being forced to believe) in Ozzie Ball. Either way, it is definitely not a good sign for Sox believers.

5. Will the Sox stay healthy again?

It’s as true as a truism can be: the best way to make a run for the pennant is to stay healthy. And over the past five years, the Sox have been the healthiest team in the majors.

That’s according to Rick Wilton’s Baseball Injury Report, a nifty book filled with boo boo facts and figures. According to Rick, the Sox have had only 1,781 days on the disabled list over the past five years, the least in the majors. That total is significantly less than the number two team: Oakland with 2,280. Rick gives some credit to the Sox’s medical staff, and that’s no doubt credit well-placed. But you have to wonder if their luck can hold out. The Sox’s offense is not deep, and one major injury to Dye or Thome could really devastate them.

So will the Sox win more than 72 games? Sure. Will they stay in the AL Central title chase most of the year? Seems likely. Will they make the postseason? No, not likely. The good news is that Kenny Williams has made some major moves to help the Sox remain competitive (and under budget) in future years. But he better start working on that offense soon.

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