Five Questions: Chicago White Sox

In the entire history of the American League, only the Cleveland Indians have hired more first-time managers than the Chicago White Sox. 27 of the 37 (73%) managers in White Sox history have been rookies at the helm. Some of the managers who began their careers with the White Sox include Clark Griffith, Chuck Tanner and Tony LaRussa.

So you see, Ozzie Guillen is part of a grand tradition.

Since Chicago’s biggest news of the offseason was the hiring of Guillen, I thought it might be fun to ask five questions about Ozzie’s likely management style. I’ll ask the types of questions Bill James asked in his book, Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers. Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but it’s fun to ask, right?

1) Will he be more of an optimist or more of a problem solver?

Ozzie Guillen is inheriting a team with some clear weaknesses. He’s going to have to make decisions about second base and centerfield, the bullpen and the rotation, and the bench. It’s going to be very interesting to see how he handles them.

At second base, it looks like the Sox are committed to youngster Willie Harris. Harris has a lot of speed (something the Sox sorely need) and has had some good minor league years; it’s time to give him a shot. Unfortunately, the Sox are making noise about putting him at the top of the order, which takes a whole lot of optimism. Harris would best fit into the #9 spot, really. So watch and see what Ozzie does with the batting order as the season progresses. He may stick with what he thinks will work (optimist) or he may tinker (problem-solver).

Same story with Aaron Rowand in centerfield, who looks like a good fielder but has not yet proven himself at bat. Rowand is recovering from injury, so he deserves a full-fledged chance. I actually like Rowand’s chances of being a good major league outfielder, but Ozzie also has another option in the outfield – look for Jeremy Reed to play in the Cell sometime, maybe early, in 2004.

Having said that, it will be the pitching staff that most tests Ozzie’s leadership style. The ChiSox were a success last year because of their pitching and fielding. Both Kansas City and Minnesota scored more runs per game than Chicago in 2003, but the Sox allowed the least runs per game in the division. Without that good defense, the Sox would not have been in the running at all.

The defense is not likely to perform as well in 2004; Esteban Loaiza had a career year and Bartolo Colon and Tom Gordon both walked. So it will be Ozzie’s approach to his pitching staff that will most test him, and tell us the most about him.

2) Will he stay with his starters or go to the bullpen quickly?

We don’t know how Ozzie will handle his pitching staff, because he’s never done it before. During his playing career, the Sox were usually among the league leaders in complete games during his time there. On the other hand, he personally witnessed Bobby Thigpen‘s record-setting save year, so it’s hard to say that he leans one way or the other.

Loaiza and Mark Buehrle will kick off the rotation, followed by Jon Garland and Dan Wright, with Scott Schoenweis or Jason Grilli in the caboose.

Loaiza had a very good year, not as fluky as, say, Darrell May‘s or Paris Hilton‘s. Loaiza’s FIP was -0.11 and the DER behind him was .715 (see this page for details). His FIP record was second only to Pedro Martinez‘s among all pitchers with 100 or more innings.

However, Loaiza’s record was helped by Detroit, against whom he started six times with a 1.21 ERA. And his career ERA is 4.56. So look for Loaiza to have a good, solid year in 2004, but not a repeat of 2003.

At the age of 25, Buerhle has already established himself as a fine major league starter. Although his ERA was up last year, he still had a fundamentally good year (batted balls fell in at a .295 rate behind him, which is a bit unlucky) and I expect his ERA to be better this year. The only concern is his declining strikeout rate.

Garland, Wright and whoever, however, are all question marks.

The bullpen also has its strengths and weaknesses. The Sox are depending quite a bit on Billy Koch‘s return to form, which is a real wild card. I definitely would have taken the Mets‘ offer of David Weathers for him during the offseason.

Luckily, the Sox have an absolute gem in Damaso Marte. And Ozzie has enough diverse talent in the pen, such as Kelly Wunsch, Cliff Politte and Shingo Takatsu, that he might be able to make it work.

3) Will he try to solve his problems with proven players or with youngsters who still may have something to learn?

Although the Sox have a nice blend of younger and older talent on this team, their Win Shares age was fourth highest in the league. They depended on their older players more than the average team.

Chicago’s leaders in Win Shares Above Average last year were 31-year-old Loaiza and 35-year-old Frank Thomas, with about ten each. Only Marte (nine WSAA) came close to those two, everyone else had less than six.

Among their other established players, Magglio Ordonez is awesome, of course. If you haven’t heard the Magglio chant when he comes to bat, you’re missing one of the best cheers in baseball. Carlos Lee is one of the better clutch hitters in the game, for those who believe in such a thing. Over the last three years, his OPS has risen from .763 with no one on to .894 with runners on and .940 with runners in scoring position. And the much-maligned Jose Valentin actually had a very good year in the field last year, finishing first in fielding Win Shares at shortstop.

Still, Ozzie has to work in the young guys to make this franchise work in the long term. He’s got some talent, but he may also have to be quite the optimist to find them the playing time they’ll need to develop.

4) Will he go for the big-inning offense, or will he like to use the one-run strategy?

One of Ozzie’s early managers was Jeff Torborg, who led the league in sacrifice bunts all three years he managed the Sox (1989 through 1991). In two of those three years, Ozzie was his leading bunter.

The Sox grounded into the fourth-most double plays in the league last year, though all four teams ahead of them had much better on-base percentages. According to Baseball Prospectus, Konerko and Ordonez had the two highest GIDP rates in the league, and Lee was not far behind. Given this team’s lack of speed and monotone offense (right handed, slow batters), Ozzie may be very tempted to bunt early and often.

Or he may realize that the Sox are essentially a big-inning team, and the sacrifice bunt is not likely to be very productive with a bunch of slow guys circling the bases one at a time. I sure hope so. Ozzie should try things to get runners in motion, but he really should avoid giving up outs to move runners up a base. The White Sox may need all the outs they can get.

5) Will he be more of an emotional leader or a decision maker?

Ozzie will be an emotional leader. His offseason one-way repartee with Thomas was probably just the beginning of what we’ll see and hear from Ozzie. In fact, I think the White Sox are depending on Ozzie’s emotional style to take some attention away from the Cubs during the season.

The Sox are the second team in the Second City. They have played under the Cubs’ shadow for a number of years – no other city has had at least two teams playing in it for as many years as Chicago – and that will only get worse in 2004. Ozzie has tried to ignite some excitement, witness his comments during the offseason SoxFest: “I don’t want to beat the Cubs. I want to kill the Cubs.”

The best way to generate excitement, of course, is to win ball games. Ozzie can be as engaging and entertaining as The Office, if he wants, but he’ll somehow need to turn the team, most symbolized by Thomas’ sometimes prickly attitude, into a winner.

Will it take? Dunno, but I do know that Ozzie will be a breath of fresh air after six years of Jerry Manuel, who couldn’t quite decide if he was an emotional leader or decision maker. He tried to be a bit of both, I think, and suffered because of it.

In Closing…

The White Sox let about 12 Win Shares Above Replacement walk away during the offseason, and Loaiza and Thomas are not likely to have the same types of years. On the other hand, Joe Crede and Paul Konerko should have better years – Crede had a .795 OPS in the second half, and Konerko sizzled in July and August. And you can expect some players to fill in the gap. Given the weak division, the White Sox should contend through August.

Still, it will take an Ozzie miracle for the Sox to win the division, much less take it down to the wire.

Bonus time: For those of you intrepid enough to make it to the end of this article, here’s a graph of the number of managers in the history of each AL franchise, including the number of first-year managers. This data, courtesy of Sean Lahman’s database, is current through 2002.

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