Five Questions: Chicago White Sox

The White Sox made headlines last spring when they questioned the validity of Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection of 72 wins. The Hardball Times’ own Dave Studeman called the projection “ridiculously low,” and I had the Sox pegged for around 83 wins. PECOTA got the last laugh, of course, even if it did miss the boat on the reason why.

This season the Sox have been less vocal in their criticism of PECOTA’s 77-win projection, though Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen still seem to think they have a championship contender. Are they right? Probably not.

1. How did the White Sox lose 90 games last season?

  • They gave too many at-bats to below replacement-level talent. The White Sox gave almost 1,400 at-bats to a group who combined to post a collective .226/.282/.319 batting line. Of that group, only Pablo Ozuna, Brian Anderson and Toby Hall are poised to break camp with the Sox, all in reserve roles.

  • They had a terrible bullpen. Only the Orioles and Devil Rays had a worse bullpen than the White Sox last season. Of the Sox’ regular relievers, only Bobby Jenks had a WPA significantly above zero, and only late-season call-ups Lance Broadway and Ehren Wasserman joined him above the break even line.
  • They suffered an offensive decline that even PECOTA didn’t see coming. Jim Thome was the Sox’ only offensive regular to outpace his PECOTA projections. Thome, being the eldest White Sox hitter, was supposed to be the one on the precipice of a steep decline. But you couldn’t spit a sunflower seed in the White Sox dugout last season without hitting an under-performing batter, no matter his age.
2. Can the Sox make up for the loss of Jon Garland from the rotation?

Garland is not a great pitcher. He is, however, exactly the type of pitcher—one who is good for 200-plus innings of above average ERA+—who helps a team with an above-average offense win a lot of games. The 2007 White Sox did not have an above-average offense, and it showed in Garland’s win total, 10 versus 18 in each of the previous two seasons. Jose Contreras, John Danks and Gavin Floyd will have the tough task of filling in for Garland’s steady production.

Contreras’ poor 2007 can, in part, be explained away by a single incident which occurred in the clubhouse before he took the mound in the White Sox season opener. Contreras was served with divorce papers just hours before the Sox disaster of a season began. It should have been a sign. He would go on to give up eight runs in just an inning-plus before being pulled.

He struggled the entire season with his confidence, but more importantly with velocity. Contreras hard-headedly threw from a drop-down arm angle far more often than in any of his previous seasons, which lowered his average fastball velocity to 90 mph, 3 mph below his excellent 2005 campaign.

Contreras is throwing mostly from over-the-top in camp, which helps his forkball, and has returned his fastball to the 93 mph range this spring. Normally, I wouldn’t be citing a player’s mental state in evaluating his performance. But Contreras has carried the reputation since his days in New York as the type of player outside influences can affect.

Danks started the 2007 season well, but was unable to build on his strong start as the season progressed. His straight fastball often caught hitters off guard in their first plate appearance, and lost effectiveness as the game progressed.

              G    PA   AB    BA   OBP   SLG   OPS  BABIP 
+-+------------+---+----+-------+-----+-----+-----+-----+
1st PA in G   26  236  206  .238  .322  .485  .807  .237   
2nd PA in G   26  230  209  .287  .341  .493  .833  .309 
3rd+ PA in G  24  156  138  .370  .425  .587 1.012  .434

The trend also carried through to the second and third time he faced a team within the season. It seemed that once teams were able to time Danks’ fastball, they had no problem hitting him around.

Danks has added a cutter to his repertoire this spring, and has been receiving rave reviews from coaches, teammates and opposing players. “Player adds new pitch” is a common refrain at this time of year, but Danks has youth and the coaching of Mark Buehrle and Don Cooper, who helped turn Esteban Loaiza into a Cy Young contender with the addition of a cutter.

The final spot in the rotation will be filled by Floyd, about whom I could spout the same trivial anecdotes of increased confidence or new approaches, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. Floyd is what he is, a failed prospect who gives up far too many home runs to succeed in homer-friendly US Cellular Field. Gavin will have to succeed by keeping his walk total low, and keeping his strikeout total up. He’ll never be the pitcher the Phillies once thought he would be, but he could turn into a serviceable control-type back-end starter. His last six starts last season have given the Sox some (misplaced?) hope.

With Buehrle and Javier Vazquez anchoring the rotation, Contreras, Danks and Floyd don’t need to carry the rotation. They need to provide the type of steady, slightly above-average inning-eating capabilities of Garland. One of them should. Can the rest follow?

3. Is Alexei Ramirez any good?

I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen from Ramirez this spring. Thanks to CSN Chicago’s spring training coverage, the White Sox have 13 spring games televised, which has afforded me (and many others) the opportunity to do some amateur scouting from the comfort of our respective couches, or you know, mothers’ basements.

Ramirez received little interest after a poor showing in the Dominican Winter League (1-for-14), and signed with the Sox for a four-year $4.75 million deal. Since showing up in White Sox camp, however, he has done nothing but impress and exceed the expectations of White Sox brass.

He’s a lanky infielder/outfielder with quick wrists, which immediately draws comparisons to Alfonso Soriano. Such a comparison will be hard to live up to, and Ramirez can only hope to come close to that type of production.

The general scouting report on his hitting ability is that he’s a dead red fastball hitter who will have trouble adjusting to off-speed pitches. I haven’t seen enough of his at-bats to confirm—pitchers often don’t throw breaking balls in their first few spring outings—but have been impressed by his bat speed.

His approach, however, may need some tweaking. Ramirez has been swinging from the heels on almost every first pitch. And while he has demonstrated enough patience to get back into at-bats, the overagressiveness early in the count could easily be exploited at the major league level. He and the White Sox appear to be aware of this, as he took every first pitch he saw on Wednesday, and hit a home run after a 10-pitch at-bat and two walks.

Defensively, Ramirez looks solid at shortstop. His arm might be a bit below average for short, but it’s far from David Eckstein territory. He’s had a bit of problem adjusting to second base, but with experience and repetition he should be fine. He’s played only two games in center field, experiencing similarly rough potential-filled play. He missed the cutoff man twice Wednesday, and didn’t take the proper route on what would have been a very good play, but he appears athletic enough to play a solid center field in the future.

It’s hard to say what the future holds for Ramirez. Earlier, I would have written that his only chance to be in the majors Opening Day would to be as a super-utility player. But Wednesday, the White Sox apparently waived Juan Uribe, who had previously been thought of as the probable opening day second baseman. Though the details are sketchy, if Uribe is removed from the picture, Ramirez’ competition for the second base job is limited to the unestablished Danny Richar, who’s having some back issues, and a career utility player, Pablo Ozuna, who is himself coming off a broken leg. Ramirez would seem to have the inside track to the second base job unless Kenny Williams pulls off a trade between now and opening day,.

4. What happens with third base?

I held off on writing this piece specifically because I was waiting to have an answer for this question besides “I don’t know.” A week ago, I was convinced that Joe Crede was headed to the Giants, in a move that wouldn’t make much sense for a San Francisco club that could lose 100 games.

Brian Sabean, to his credit, has been unwilling to give up anything of value for Crede, who is coming off a poor season shortened by back surgery. It now appears that Crede, who has a year remaining before free agency, will be the Sox’ Opening Day third baseman, with Josh Fields starting the season in Triple-A.

Barring injury, it’s actually harder to envision a midseason trade partner who would be willing to give the White Sox the return they desire for Crede. The only competitive team I can come up with is Cleveland, which has done a whole lot of standing pat when in the hunt and seems an unlikely trade partner within the division.

For his part, Fields is something of an anti-Alexei Ramirez. He can’t hit fastballs. Another half-season in Triple-A, facing a host of 88 mph fastballs, might not be the worst thing for his development. There are still significant contact and defensive issues he can work on while the Sox try to decide what to do with Crede.

5. Can the White Sox compete in a tough AL Central?

No. The offense will be better than it was in ’08, thanks to the addition of Nick Swisher—how I made it this far without mentioning the Sox’ biggest acquisition, I don’t know—and the fact that it would be difficult to score fewer runs than they did last year. The bullpen will be improved—again because it would be difficult to be worse and beacuse the Sox added Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink. But those improvements aren’t enough to make up the 20 games the Sox would need just to reach the 90-win plateau.

These Sox will be better than last year’s version, but not enough to keep pace with the 90-win Indians and Tigers teams. Put me down for 82 wins. I wanted to go with 81, but picking a .500 record is such a cop-out answer.

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