Friday, November 12, 2004

Looking Back 2004: What Went Wrong

Here is a second part in a three-part retrospect of the 2004 season.

It’s easy to put a finger on what went wrong for the White Sox in 2004. Injuries, and more injuries. And we’re not talking about ouchies to a fourth outfielder or fifth starter. Or even a setback such as losing a low-key everyday player.

The Sox basically lost the heart of their lineup. And for a team as one-dimensional as the Pale Hose is on offense (power, power power… OBP? What?), the loss of their two best on-base men was devastating.

While that’s not the whole story, it’s a large part of the White Sox failures of last season.

No. 1: No Big Frank

On June 15, when Frank Thomas first suffered an ankle injury that would end his season, he was sporting a .298 batting average, was reaching base at a .462 clip, and was slugging a devastating .639. His OPS of 1.101 led the American League, and had he not been injured and held his rate stats, that figure would have led the AL at the season’s end.

Instead the Big Hurt got hurt. His OPS sunk to .997 (still among the best in the league) before he was forced out of action by a stress fracture. With the injury requiring surgery, the Sox will be lucky to have him back before spring training is over.

It’s no secret that the Sox were a slugging team that didn’t get on base very often. While players like Jose Valentin (.473 slugging percentage) and Juan Uribe (.506 had plenty of pop in their bats, they only reached base at rates of .279 (!) and .327, respectively.

While some would argue that the loss of a certain outfielder (which we’ll address in a minute) was the more significant loss, let’s first point out that Carlos Lee’s team leading .366 OBP was almost a full .100 points off Thomas’s rate before he was hurt.

In a lineup where nobody – not even the guys at the top of the lineup – even approached a .400 OBP, that’s a lot of on-base power for a lineup to lose. Oh, and the huge power to boot.

It’s good to play Earl Weaver baseball, waiting for the three-run home run, but if a long ball is going to plate three runs, guys have to get on base. Mostly, the Sox failed to do this.

At this point, it’s hard to argue that Thomas isn’t the best offensive player that’s ever worn a White Sox uniform. When healthy, he’s still the best player they have. And like seasons past (see 1999 and 2001) as Thomas goes, so does his team.

No. 2: No Magglio

Magglio Ordonez’s injury was the other major Sox setback. He was having a typical season, hitting .292/.351/.485 when he tore his knee. The injury has become the subject of international speculation, as Ordonez went to Vienna for some type of medical procedure. It gets stranger by the day.

But no matter how strange the offseason gets for the player that’s patrolled right field for the Sox since 1998, another typical season from Ordonez would have gone a long way towards keeping the Sox in contention.

No. 3: Fifth Starter Shenanigans

For the second straight year, the Sox suffered through the painful process of auditioning for a fifth starter. The reviews are pretty bleak.

Felix Diaz (6.75 ERA), Jason Grilli (7.40), Jon Rauch (6.23), Arnie Munoz (10.05), Josh Stewart (15.26) and Dan Wright (8.15) combined for 25 starts. The results are pretty obvious by these ERAs.

If the Sox had been able to dig up a league-average pitcher, or acquire someone better than Jon Garland (4.89 ERA), thus bumping him to the No. 5 spot, the Sox could have definitely picked up some games in the standings.

No. 4: Stagnant Youth

Speaking of Jon Garland, he and Joe Crede were supposed to take big steps forward this year. They didn’t.

The now 25-year-old Garland, besides an ERA near five, gave up more than 200 hits and 76 walks. He also gave up 34 home runs, which means his sinker isn’t sinking.

Crede struggled early in 2003, but the Sox stuck with him in part because of his hot corner defense, and in part because of their faith that he’d turn the corner. He rewarded the Sox with a big second half.

The 26-year-old third baseman saw his 2004 campaign begin the same as the previous. However, there was no big second-half turnaround.

Both Garland and Crede are getting too old to be prospects. Crede will turn 27 early next season, and Garland has already been in the big leagues for five season. To boot, the not-so-young right-hander could stand to make close to $5 million in arbitration this winter.

To a lesser degree, Willie Harris and Joe Borchard could be included here. But because of either cost (Garland) or the desire to contend (Crede), it’s the aforementioned players that are making the Sox face tough decisions this offseason.

No. 5: Instead of closing door, door closed on Koch

Before the 2003 season, the Sox traded uber-closer Keith Foulke for Billy Koch, who himself was coming off a 44-save season. But besides the saves Koch has racked up (144 in four seasons), Foulke had been better in every other statistical category.

Koch, probably because of his heavy workload in ’02 (a career-high 97 2/3 innings), struggled with the loss of his velocity. He saved only 10 games before being replaced by Tom Gordon. Koch finished they year with a career-worst 5.77 ERA.

But the Sox, through faith or stubbornness stuck with him. They were rewarded (or rather punished) with a 5.40 ERA in just more than 23 innings. It sure wasn’t worth the $6,375,000 the Sox paid.

But it wasn’t until June that the Sox dumped Koch and handed the job over to Shingo Takatsu, who would go on to finish second in the Rookie of the Year balloting after posing a 2.31 ERA and saving 19 games.

It’s good to have faith in your players. But it’s bad to stick with them past the point at which they’ve proven they can’t do anything to help your cause.

No. 6: The Scott Schoeneweis Experiment

Giving Schott Schoeneweis a spot in the 2004 wasn’t an entirely bad idea. He had been a full-time starter with the Angels in 2000 and 2001 with close to league-average results. And after a couple years of coming out of the bullpen, Schoeney was striking out close to a batter per inning and was ready to resume work in somebody’s rotation.

It even looked like it was working, as Schoeneweis was 5-2 with a 3.64 ERA after the first two months of the season. If not for a tough-luck loss to Javier Vasquez, he’d have been 6-1.

But working deep into the count undid the experiment. It took the left-hander more than 17 pitches per inning. His 3.84 pitchers per plate appearance was a high total, and his 1.58 Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched mean that he was throwing his 3.84 to a lot of batters. He also wasn’t working deep into games.

For a elbow unaccustomed to the workload of a starter, better pitch efficiency could have saved Schoneweis. But instead, he was put on the DL with inflation of the critical joint. His ERA wound up at 5.59. And the Sox had another gaping hole in their rotation.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Looking Back 2004: What Went Right

With the season over and enough time elapsed to lend perspective to the ups and downs of the 2004 season, here is the first look back at the most recent campaign.

Before we remember the failures of the 2004 season, lets accentuate the positive by looking back at the things that went right. These developments will be listed in order of importance to the franchise, both for the present and the future.

No. 1: Rowand’s Breakout Season

Before the 2004 season, Aaron Rowand was a bit player that spent his time either being shuffled between all three outfield spots, or between Chicago and Charlotte. After the Sox tried to go with Kenny Lofton in center in 2002, and a shoulder injury caused by an offseason dirt bike accident cost Rowand a clean shot at the job in 2003, the 26-year-old outfielder faced a make-or-break season in ’04.

Rowand responded by leading the Sox in OPS (.910 for him, against .894 for Paul Konerko and .891 for Carlos Lee) while playing underrated defense in center field.

The defense may be the best part. Rowand finished fourth among AL centerfielders in Range Factor, ahead of defensive luminary Torii Hunter. His only weakness was the six errors that dragged his fielding percentage down to .980. But Rowand helps make up for that with eight outfield assists, trailing only Rocco Baldelli and Mark Kotsay in the AL.

Rowand might not be able to keep all of the gains he made at the plate this year. His .310/.361/.544 line was bolstered by the high batting average, and not supported by many walks (only 30). But Rowand did take one for the team pretty often with 10 HBP. As Craig Biggio has demonstrating, getting hit is a repeatable skill, and one that isn’t new for Rowand (23 in 1069 career ABs, including the 10 in 487 last year). He’s also ok on the basepaths, swiping 17 bags in 22 attempts.

Basically, as long as his defense doesn’t slide, Rowand will be a valuable piece for the Sox for the next few years. At worst, he’s a better-than-average player in center for a while. The upside is he could go on to have a very Steve Finley-like career.

No. 2: Uribe for Miles

While it was a favorite pastime of second guessers in White Sox chat rooms to point to the high batting average Aaron Miles was putting up at mile-high altitude, there’s no doubt Juan Uribe did more than enough to declare the Sox winners of this deal.

Uribe had an .833 OPS, compared to .697 for Miles. While the player the Sox sent away had a better batting average (.293 to .266), which led to a very slight edge in OPB (.329 to .327), the player they got back was so much better at slugging the ball (.506 to .368) he buried Miles in overall performance.

Among all Major League second basemen, Uribe had the fourth-best OBP (.833), trailing Mark Loretta, Jeff Kent and Ray Durham. That made Uribe tops in the AL by a .016 margin over Mark Bellhorn.

Unlike Bellhorn, however, Urbe is a terrific defender. Not just at second base, but also at third and short, where he also saw plenty of time. He more than ably filled the utility role vacated by Tony Graffanino, and gives the Sox a lot of flexibility.

That flexibility will be important this offseason, as big decisions at second, third and shortstop loom for the Sox. With Uribe able to play all three positions well, while being able to hit, means he can step into whatever hole the Sox are unable to fill internally or on the free agent market. That means GM Kenny Williams can (hopefully) make free agent decisions based on talent, and not based on a pressing need on the field.

No. 3: Cheap Relief Help

Last year the Sox signed Shingo Takatsu and Cliff Pollitte to little fanfare and minimal, even bleak, expectations. Despite combining to make only slightly more than $1.5 million, the pair also combined for 20 saves and 98 strikeouts in 113 2/3 innings.

Takatsu had all but one of those saves, and with a 2.31 ERA, finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting after taking over for the ineffective Billy Koch a few months into the season.

Both are back and due to make less than a combined $4 million in 2005, still making them a bargain. With Damaso Marte, the Sox have an effective trio with which they can match young arms like Neal Cotts, Jon Adkins and Felix Diaz, or they could sign a big-time reliever (Troy Percival) and push everyone back to a lesser role. Either way, fans should feel comfortable going into next season.

No. 4: Garcia Opts to Stay Put

After giving up a boatload of talent for Seattle’s No. 1 starter in a midseason deal, keeping Freddy Garcia in Chicago was important if for no other reason than to protect the fragile psyches of Sox fans.

Three years for $27 million is not excessive, and may even be less than the 29-year-old would have commanded on the open market.

Though his 4.46 ERA for the Windy City is a letdown after the 3.20 ERA he posted in spacious Safeco Field, career-wise he’s been every bit as good as pitchers like Matt Morris and Kevin Millwood, both of whom, incidentally, have made much more money than Garcia.

All three of those pitchers are the same age, born within a year of each other, so it lends itself to easy comparisons. That’s pretty scary for the Sox, since Millwood and Morris both fell of the table last year. But Garcia’s 184 strikeouts far exceed the totals of the other two in 2004. That means Garcia seems like a better bet going forward.

Garcia isn’t a dominator like Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling or Pedro Martinez in their prime. But not many pitchers are. Garcia can be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for most teams, which is something the Sox needed last year at the trade deadline, and something they’ll need in 2004.

5. Konerko Rebounds

After a dismal 2003 where he posted a line of .234/.305/.399, forgettable numbers for a shortstop, Sox first baseman rebounded with a .277.359/.535 line in 2004, while finishing with second in the AL with 41 home runs.

For those that hadn’t given up on Paulie, 2004 wasn’t a complete surprise. In fact, it was pretty much the same thing he had done in 2001 and 2002. Hopefully, Konerko showed everyone that his lousy 2003 season was just a blip on the radar screen.

6. Same As Always for Lee, Buherle

Over the last three seasons, Carlos Lee has had OPS+ marks of 119, 116 and 123. His home run totals have been 26, 31 and 31, while his double totals have been 26, 35 and 37.

Over the last four seasons, Mark Buehrle has posted ERA+ marks of 140, 129, 108 and 126. As for innings, he’s thrown 221 1/3, 239, 230 1/3 and an AL-leading 245 1/3. While none of the following years were as good as his 2001 season, Buehrle did strike out a career-high 165 last year, and he’s averaged 136 strikeouts over those four seasons.

Those numbers don’t make either Lee or Buehrle dominant players at their respective positions. Lee isn’t exactly an unstoppable force in the lineup, and Buehrle is pretty far from a No. 1 pitcher.

But still, the numbers also don’t lie. Both players have been incredibly consistent and consistently above average. And consistency was something the Sox desperately needed last year as they battled through failed youth projects and devastating injuries.