The 2011 Chicago White Sox and playoff legitimacyby Vince Caramela
August 19, 2011
For the Chicago White Sox, the month of August didn’t start off well. After the trade deadline came and went, the team decided to play the part of half-buyer and half-seller by moving about $16.5 million to the Toronto Blue Jays in the form of a mid-rotation starter, Edwin Jackson, and a half-third baseman/half corpse, Mark Teahen.
What happened next may go down in Blue Jay lore while the White Sox were left holding a bag that contained a serviceable reliever in Jason Frasor and 24-year-old fringe prospect, Zach Stewart.
After the team had shed some payroll and stood pat offensively, fans of the South Side franchise were going to learn what this team was made of and if most of the spring training projections were true. The White Sox were three games below .500 and a mere four and a half games back from the first place Detroit Tigers. The team was still hoping that some production could be had from lumbering DH/1B, Adam Dunn. His bat was supposed to fit perfectly between righties Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin. And what of their underachieving center fielder, Alex Rios, who has made a pretty good living as the baseball equivalent of HBO’s Treme, something so equally full of promise but disappointing at the same time?
The Yankees came into town; the Sox were swept in four games and outscored 34 to 11. The team was now the loser of six straight and six and a half games back.
Who’s afraid of the big, bad Twins (and Orioles and Royals)?
On Aug. 5, the White Sox found themselves in Minnesota against a Twins team that had beaten them seven out of eight games. Dunn was still batting cleanup but a few changes were being implemented. Alejandro De Aza started his second game in center field and the team called up Stewart from Triple-A to serve as a sixth starter in an effort to give extra rest to veterans Mark Buehrle and Jake Peavy.
Since their disaster at home against New York, the White Sox have swept the Twins, took three out of four against the Orioles and returned home to take two out of three against the Royals before reaching one game above .500 with their extra-inning win against the Indians on Tuesday night.
The victory against the Indians was sweet for White Sox fans but does it validate the Sox as legitimate playoff contenders? Obviously if a team can hover around .500 in the American League Central with 40-plus games remaining anything is possible, but with a team collectively batting near the bottom in the American League with a wOBA of .312 and wRC+ of 92, offense will be an issue for this team going forward.
The pitching has been excellent
All five White Sox starters have been excellent in terms of command, averaging just 2.14 BB/9. Overall, the team is seventh in the AL in team ERA with 3.80 and is ranked first in FIP (3.57) and xFIP (3.72).
Below are the pertinent stats of the team’s current five starters and bullpen reserves:
* included are the previous team’s stats for Frasor and Stewart
The rise of Sergio Santos as a legitimate closer along with high leverage options like Chris Sale, Jesse Crain and Frasor allows manager Ozzie Guillen to effectively mix and match depending on the situation.
The Sox starters have done well to limit the effects of their offense-friendly home park by limiting the amount of walks allowed. I included Stewart among the relievers but last night’s head injury to Philip Humber will push Stewart into the rotation for a minimum of one start. Looking at all the healthy FIP and xFIPs across the board kind of eliminates the standard red flags. With the exception of Peavy (due to his high frequency of line drives allowed), all the current White Sox starters have a similar groundball to flyball ratio which ranges from 1.26 to 1.21.
Speaking of red flags, injury will always be a concern with Peavy on the mound. After sustaining a horrific injury that caused a lateral muscle in his shoulder and back to detach last July, Peavy has undergone a number of surgeries and minor setbacks to get to this point. Looking at his velocity chart since 2007, he definitely isn’t the same pitcher, since he has laid off his fastball in favor of his curveball and re-visiting his change-up more.
Peavy is only 30, but the severity of his injuries has aged his body and the best that the Sox can hope for is that Peavy stays healthy and is effective in his sequencing. Next season he is owed $17 million in what will probably be his last season in Chicago. Going from a power pitcher to mid-rotation nibbler, he is obviously overpaid for his role but for the remainder of this season his health will be vital for any 2011 playoff chances.
Rios, Dunn and the $90 million conundrum
The $90 million is the estimated total both players are guaranteed to receive and unless a major turnaround occurs, these two will represent major problems in the team’s offense through 2014.
The slump that has befallen Dunn is legendary. As of this writing his basic numbers are .164/.296/.296 with a .275 wOBA and 65 wRC+ in 416 plate appearances. (Almost) everything has been accounted for:
… his role as the everyday DH doesn’t suit him.
… he isn’t aggressive enough.
… he forgot how to hit lefties.
… he’s too fat!
… Carlos Beltran was right! AL pitchers have proven to be too tough for mere mortal NL hitters.
... he can no longer hit the fastball.
… or looking at those players listed as “comparable” to Adam Dunn, he may be “washed-up.”
I took a glance at those comparables according to www.baseball-reference.com/. Among the players listed only two were able to find success past the age of 32. One was Jeromy Burnitz who pulled off an encore at the age of 35 in Colorado. The other was Greg Vaughn, who held on until the age of 34 with reasonable production but the drop-off from age 32 to age 33 was pretty obvious when you account for his .404 wOBA/152 wRC+ in 1998 to his modest .375 wOBA/118 wRC+ the following season.
According to White Sox fans and their upper management, a mere preconceived expiration date attached to Dunn may seem too fatalistic and unfair but it’s a possibility that must be addressed as Dunn struggles through his age 31 season.
Future note to all GM’s in the year 2018: Avoid any long-term deals with Jay Bruce. If future comps are to be respected, then this is one player calculated to have the same “this player will self-destruct” installed. You all have been warned… (end of anonymous message).
Rios is another tragic case. He is armed with the rare combination of power and speed that is promoted to age well, and we have been promised so much, whether it's his exceptional defense in center field that was once loved by every competent metric or his rare combination of improving power and low strikeout rate destined to make him a perennial MVP candidate once everything came together.
Rios is still a case in confusion. Looking at his stats we see a player improving upon his contact rates from 81 percent overall in 2006 to 87.1 percent this season. The last few seasons he has been plagued by a low BABIP, which could be connected to his declining line drive rate and increasing infield fly ball rate. Last season Rios saw a surge in his production (.284/.334/.457; .345 wOBA/110 wRC+) but all of that has washed away as his power has deteriorated to a current line of .213/.255/.315; .251 wOBA/49 wRC+.
He has increased his line drive percentage (from 16 percent to 18.5 percent) but his high infield fly ball percentage at 13.4 seems to negate a good portion of his batted ball production.
Easy schedule you say? Well, that depends...
Most White Sox fan blogs seem excited (especially after their 14th-inning victory on Tuesday) that the deck was stacked and the White Sox shall enjoy one of the easiest schedules for the remaining six and a half weeks.
This may be true, but besides the difficult three-game series at home against the Rangers, the team's remaining schedule will be int the AL Central, where they are currently 21-23.
The Indians are 22-20 against their Central brethren and the first-place Tigers have been dominant at 27-18. The White Sox have eight games remaining against the Indians and five games against the Tigers. The Sox are 7-3 against Cleveland but against the Tigers their record is less than ideal at 5-7. Of course these samples are much too small to make any definitive conclusions but with their wide lack of offense at key positions, it will be tough for the White Sox slip into the playoffs on pitching alone.
Before rosters are set to expand on Sept. 1, manager Gullien will need to find suitable replacements for offensive drains like Gordon Beckham (.290 wOBA/75 wRC+; 0.8 WAR) and Brent Morel, who does have value defensively but offensively is a rally-killer with a .258 wOBA and 54 wRC+ which calculates to near replacement level at 0.1 WAR. Until major changes are made offensively, this team will find it difficult to be fully competitive.
Vince has his own blog, The League of Transparency, and has also written for SBNation.