Saturday, December 02, 2006

Looking Ahead: Chicago White Sox

A few bits of activity on the free agent market:
  • I don't think I've mentioned this yet, but the Indians signed outfielder David Dellucci to a 3-year, $11.5 million contract. This easily trumps the Moises Alou deal as the best of the off-season. The Indians needed temporary help in the outfield corners. The problem was that they needed big help but couldn't pay big prices. Enter Dellucci, who hits just as well (or better) than most of the guys signed to $75 million blockbusters this offseason. Dellucci's a career 263/348/449 hitter who's become especially potent in recent years (251/367/513 with Texas in '05, 292/369/530 with Philly in '06).
    This is really a great deal in every sense of it, which makes it even more puzzling that it was signed in this off-season. Dellucci isn't a star, and at age 33, he's due to decline. But the Indians aren't paying him like a star. He should provide a temporary jolt to a part of the Cleveland lineup that needed it. And even if Dellucci's skills do decline somewhat, he's won't be much of a drag on the payroll as well, and can easily be eased into a backup outfielder role if someone better comes along.
    More evidence that Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro is one of the cleverest executives in the game.
  • As I'll discuss below, the White Sox signed outfielder Scott Podsednik to a one-year contract extension for about $3 million. This isn't a bad contract in any sense except that Podsednik takes up space that should be occupied by someone productive. Podsednik would be great if he were a defensive whiz, but no left fielder is good enough defensively to justify a 261/330/353 batting line, even if he is really cheap.
    The move is especially odd since word is that the Sox were looking to trade or replace Podsednik. GM Kenny Williams wisely targeted left field as the position most in need of an upgrade and was said to be pursuing other options. Of course, this contract doesn't mean that the Sox won't still trade Podsednik. It could also mean that they're signing him to be a backup for whatever left fielder they do get. Stay tuned on this one.
  • The Giants re-signed second baseman Ray Durham to a 2-year deal for about $14 million. My reaction to this deal is mixed. It's a lot less money than I expected Durham to get, since he's by far the best second baseman available and he's also coming off a big career year. But even if he is a bargain, he's still a defensively limited second baseman who's 35 years old.
    In the Giants' defense, they're desperate to put a set of 9 warm bodies on the field, and they could have done a lot worse than Durham. However, the Durham signing is just a temporary solution to the Giants' aging roster, and may even end up contributing to it.
  • The Rockies signed pitcher Jeff Francis to a 4-year, $13.5 million contract extension. More and more teams are doing this, signing up players for their arbitration years. Most teams prefer knowing that a player's salary going forward rather than negotiating it every year. Francis is a solid pitcher whom the Rockies really need, so this deal is quite sensible. It's also fuelled speculation that the Rockies will trade Jason Jennings, who is soon approaching free agency.
  • But the biggest news is probably that the Mets signed Tom Glavine to a 1-year deal for $10.5 million. You may ask, "Why did Glavine decline his $7.5 million player option for 2007 with the Mets to enter free agency, only to resign with the team for a $2.5 million raise? How could he decide to enter the biggest bull market for free agents in recent history and not at least get a 2-year deal?"
    The answer to this is -- apparently -- that Glavine wanted to see what he could get from the Atlanta Braves. But word is that the Braves didn't even extend Glavine an offer. So he had no choice but to go back to New York (I hear that Glavine didn't want to go anywhere else but Atlanta). This is a great deal for the Mets, along the lines of the Alou deal. Like Alou, Glavine is an aging player (41 next year), but has shown good productivity in recent years. Even if Glavine does take a step back, the contract will still be a winner for New York, who somehow managed to limit their liability to one year. And the Mets really need starting pitchers.
  • There are plenty of rumors leading into the Winter Meetings in Orlando. We'll see what happens.

The Chicago White Sox:

2006 W-L Record: 90-72
2006 pW-pL Record: 88-74
Runs Scored: 868 (3rd in AL)
Runs Allowed: 794 (10th in AL)
Free Agents: Dustin Hermanson, Cliff Politte

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Paul Konerko
2B -- Tadahito Iguchi
SS -- Juan Uribe
3B -- Joe Crede/Josh Fields
LF -- Scott Podsednik?
CF -- Brian Anderson
RF -- Jermaine Dye
C -- A.J. Pierzynski
DH -- Jim Thome

2007 Proj. Rotation
Jose Contreras
Mark Buehrle
Jon Garland
Freddy Garcia
Javier Vazquez

2007 Proj. Closer: Bobby Jenks

The Sox planned to upgrade their offense after their 2005 World Series victory, and they did indeed. Not only did Jermaine Dye have a career year (315/385/622 at a sweet $5 mil.), but Jim Thome did wonders (288/416/598) and Paul Konerko kept going (313/381/551).
But having three hitters as good as this masked some forthcoming problems with the Chicago lineup. Their key contributors are getting older (Konerko will be 31 in '07, Dye 33, Thome 36), and Konerko and Thome are expensive and tied up long-term (Dye will be back in '07 for a bare $6 mil.). The Sox also got very poor production from many of the other spots in the lineup. Apart from the three listed above, only catcher A.J. Pierzynski was average, offensively. Third baseman Joe Crede had a decent year (282/323/506 with good defense), but was playing far above his head. Speculation is that Crede, who reaches free agency in 2008, will be traded while his stock is at its highest. Prospect Josh Fields (305/379/515 in Triple-A) appears to be ready.
Juan Uribe was as strong defensively as Crede, but suffered through the worst offensive season of his career (235/257/441). Uribe is usually a good source of power and defense, which isn't to0 bad, but as he starts getting more expensive, he's going to look more and more like a target for an upgrade.
Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi is, like Crede and Uribe, reasonably priced, but he too wasn't providing any excellent production. He hit 281/352/422, which is good for his position, but he's not helping on defense. But like Uribe, the Sox will probably just settle with what they've and focus on the position most in need of an improvement.
That would be left field. Left fielder Scott Podsednik was, at one time, one of the most overrated players in baseball. This peaked when the White Sox won the World Series, and every sportswriter slobbered over Podsednik and his stolen bases without noticing that -- even at his best -- Podsednik doesn't hit well enough to play left field. And at his worst, he's absolutely untenable (261/330/353 in '06). The good news is that GM Kenny Williams realizes this and is looking for a replacement. The bad news is that it's rumored to be the Angels' Chone Figgins, who is only a slightly better version of Podsednik himself (although that rumor would have Figgins replacing Crede at third, with some other move to bring in a left fielder).
The Sox do have a few loose outfielders who have shown some good work at Triple-A (Jerry Owens, Ryan Sweeney), but none of them look strong enough to take over the everyday left fielder's job. And the White Sox already have one young player floundering in the outfield -- CF Brian Anderson (225/290/359) -- and really can't afford another. The good news with Anderson, though, is that he's a very talented ballplayer who can only improve.

All that said, the Sox shouldn't begin to see a significant downturn in offense for a while yet. They run the risk of taking a step back from 2006, but they were so successful last year that they can probably handle a slight regression (keyword: slight). No, what it all depends on is fixing the same problem they had last year: pitching.

The Sox won the World Series in 2005 because of their very strong pitching staff. Any credit given to the offense is truly incidental; they ranked 9th in the league in runs scored despite their hitter-friendly ballpark. So it was to everyone's surprise (especially my own), when every pitcher in the White Sox rotation took a step back.
There's really not much a manager or GM can do when you've assembled five solid starting pitchers and they all inexpiclably start sucking. The Sox returned four starters from their 2005 World Championship squad, and they all gained at least a half-run in ERA; some of them more than a full run.
Jose Contreras started out strong but then went into a puzzling tailspin, finishing with a disappointing 4.27 ERA that was, unfortunately, the best on the staff (his 2005 ERA was 3.61). Contreras is a historically mercurial pitcher who turns 35 next year. While he's still got the excellent stuff, there's also a very good chance that he'll need more than that to be the ace the Sox are paying him to be. (The Sox signed him to an ill-advised 3-year, $29 million contract extension in April).
Jon Garland was the only guy on the starting staff who looked like he was due for a regression; his 2005 ERA of 3.50 was not only out of line with his peripheral stats, it was out of line with his past. Surpisingly, though, Garland rebounded from a rough start to finish with a nearly-respectable 4.51 ERA. His peripherals, though, suggest that the 2006 version was the real deal (only 112 K in 211.1 IP).
Freddy Garcia seemed like a solid bet for a good season, even if his 2005 (3.87 ERA) was a little better than expected. But he finished the season with a 4.53 ERA (48:135 BB:K ratio in 216.1 IP) and now sounds like the most likely Sox pitcher to get traded this off-season.
The other name bandied about most often is Javier Vazquez. Vazquez was the only new face on the 2006 staff, having spent 2005 providing the metropolitan Phoenix area with souvenir baseballs (35 HR allowed + 192 K = 4.42 ERA). Vazquez didn't allow nearly as many home runs in 2006 (23), but that didn't stop his ERA from jumping to 4.84, despite a still-strong BB:K ratio (56:184 in 202.2 IP). Vazquez is, like Garcia, in the midst of a long-term deal, and so is the other candidate to get traded. Vazquez is puzzling, because his peripherals suggest someone who is just unlucky. I (for one) thought Vazquez just needed to lower his home run total to succeed. I (for one) was wrong. Because Vazquez's bizarre formula of non-success has now followed him from New York to Arizona to Chicago, which suggests more than bad luck. His last successful season, 2003 with Montreal, seems like a very distant memory.
But the most surprising failure of the 2006 White Sox was also the worst -- Mark Buehrle. Buehrle's 2005 ERA was 3.12, and he was easily the team's best starter both in the regular season and in the postseason. His career ERA is 3.83, so you'd expect a bit of an "adjustment" in 2006. Unfortunately, that adjustment ended with a 4.99 ERA and a sharp drop in strikeout rate (2005: 149 in 236.2 IP, 2006: 98 in 204).
It seems like Buehrle's been around forever (2000), but he's just going to be 28 next year. He's been one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball since his big-league debut, something which is very nice to have around, especially when it's a reliable 200+ innings and an ERA closer to 3.50 than 4.50. It would be easy to suggest that Buehrle was just having a bad year in '06, and that may still be the case. But while I'm no scout, the sharp drop in strikeout rate troubles me (though it must be said that Buehrle never had a very high one). And the opinions I have heard from scouting-type people is that there was more wrong with Buehrle than just bad luck. It could certainly be the cumulative effect of throwing 200+ innings for 6 straight years before your 28th birthday. Let's hope that Buehrle can rebound, not just for his sake, but for Chicago's; he's their biggest hope.
If (or when) either Garcia or Vazquez is traded, he will likely be replaced by Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy has been ready for some time but has yet to win a full-time job in the rotation. GM Williams' justification is that you can't have too much pitching, which is true. But considering the down years suffered by the Sox' very expensive rotation, the young and cheap McCarthy should get a job. His minor league track record is very strong, and he'd be an asset to any rotation.

The downfall of the White Sox' bullpen was much easier to see coming. The 2005 World Champions got a lot of good performances from very unlikely sources (Dustin Hermanson, Neal Cotts, and Cliff Politte especially). There's nothing wrong with that; in fact, getting great performances from marginal pitchers is a credit to the pitching coach (Don Cooper) and should serve as an example for every big-league GM who hurls millions at expensive relievers. The problem comes when you need them to repeat that performance. Bad luck there. Hermanson and Politte are leaving as free agents; in fact, they're the team's only free agents (kudos there). But the Sox are currently in the market for relief pitching, as they know that they can't count on their starters for everything anymore (although they will still have the league's most durable rotation even if they're not great).
Closer Bobby Jenks looks like he's going to be reliable, but his Postseason Halo is still there, making people lump him in with the elite closers of the game. Not so fast. Jenks is an overweight young fellow who still has a penchant for wildness and finished with an ERA of an even 4.00, which is pretty poor for a closer. Hopefully Kenny Williams can see past saves (41 for Jenks) better than the short-sighted press corps.

Now, having said all that, I'm going to have to say that the Sox' rotation should be better next year. They had everything go wrong in 2006 and still won 90 games; slotting Brandon McCarthy in there and getting a rebound from one or two of these guys should make the Sox contenders, so long as their offense can maintain itself. But there's a lot to be cautious about here, even if it's a cautious optimism.

Offseason Game Plan:
You can't live with the production of Scott Podsednik, and he needs to be replaced in the lineup by someone not named Figgins. The Sox look pretty set for big boppers (their 236 team HR led the league last year), but could use a true leadoff man who can do more than steal bases (they ranked 6th in team OBP).
Williams seems poised to avoid the free agent market altogether, which is a good move. The only problem that may need a free agent solution is the bullpen, and there's no need to spend a small fortune to bring in Alan Embree and Jose Mesa. Hey, if you wait long enough, there won't even be any expensive relievers left on the market, if the Orioles have anything to say about it.
The White Sox aren't built for the long run, and GM Williams is going to have to keep phasing in talented youngsters like McCarthy, Josh Fields and Brian Anderson if the team is going to have any long-term viability in the youth movement that is the AL Central. But considering the bare state of the Sox farm system, it may be best to go ahead and leverage a lot to win now, while guys like Thome and Konerko are still producing, and before teams like Cleveland and Detroit really get rolling.

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