Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Evaluating the offseason: Big long update

It’s still a long time before pitchers and catchers report, but if rumors of another big trade just around the corner are true, we might as well get a head start at looking at how White Sox GM Kenny Williams is reshaping his championship roster.

Let’s start with the first and biggest:

Traded Aaron Rowand and two minor league pitchers for Jim Thome:

Knowing that Paul Konerko could be on his way out the door, and that Frank Thomas might not be able to play in 2006, Williams decided it was worth the risk of taking on Thome, who saw his 2005 season abbreviated by injuries.

Some of that risk is mitigated by the fact that Philadelphia is paying almost half of the money owed to the 35-year old slugger. That means he’ll only cost the Sox about $8 million per season just three years after the Phillies gave him a six-year, $75 million contract.

But it’s still a huge risk. Here’s what Thome has done the last few years:





















That’s a pretty disturbing trend. But I’m less alarmed for a couple reasons.

The first is that Thome has had OPS+ seasons of 131, 125, 158, 166, 155, 152, 142, 132, 169, 191, 151, 148 and 83 in seasons going back to 1993. There are only two outliers here. The first is the 191 he put up in 2002, his last year in Cleveland and the season that earned him a $75 million payday. The other is his dismal 2005 where injuries halted his streak of excellence.

So while the table above looks like an aging slugger crashing hard from his peak years put up during his prime, 2003-04 was really just a continuation of what could be a Hall-of-Fame career even without the monster ’02 campaign.

And make no mistake about it, Thome is a devastating hitter. His career on-base percentage of .408 is something the Sox could desperately use in their lineup. And even if Thome’s best days are behind him, consider this: in 2005, the aging Thome posted a .360 OBP despite posting only a .207 batting average. The highest OBP on the Sox last year? Konerko’s career-best .375.

In other words, his secondary skill set is still there. So if he can rebound from his injuries and even play as a shadow of himself in his glory years, Thome is an upgrade to the middle of the lineup, where we’ve fortunately seen the last of Carl Everett (.311 OBP).

Of course, there is also the talent the Sox gave up, and that has to figure into the mix as far as how this trade is evaluated.

Aaron Rowand could be the best defensive outfielder in baseball. But I think it’s time to admit that his great hitting year of 2004 was probably an anomaly.











That the Sox have a carbon copy of Rowand in Brian N. Anderson ready to take over the job in center makes it an easy decision. Rowand probably won’t get any better with the glove, or with the bat. That’s not to say he’s not still a good player. He is, and his defense in center is a big reason the Sox pitching staff was so successful. But by the same token, his value will never be higher than it is right now. The Sox were wise to cash him in. I hope he’s appreciated in Philadelphia, where he’ll be a great fit playing between Pat Burrell and the defensively overrated Bobby Abreu (Gold Glove or no).

Daniel Haigwood and Gio Gonzalez are a pair of good left-handed pitching prospects. But they’re still only prospects in the same way Corwin Malone was a prospect years ago. It’s a dangerous game to flip everyone in your farm system for the here and now, but with a wealth of minor league pitchers, it’s not a bad idea to capture value from some of them before they become casualties to pitching’s war of attrition.

Re-signed Paul Konerko to a 5-year, $60 million contract:

On the surface, this is too many years and too much money. Nobody would have given Konerko this kind of contract going into 2005, and nobody was really interested in trading for him before either of the last two seasons because his price tag of about $8.5 million per annum was deemed excessive for the type of player he is (an aging first baseman of less-than-spectacular hitting prowess).

Now Konerko is going to make $12 per season. That, my friends, is what a big postseason will do for you.

However, I’m not that down on this signing. Yes, it does sting that it effectively ended Frank Thomas’ career in a White Sox uniform. And yes, Konerko’s performance on the field could never merit this kind of cash (he has a career OPS of .837 and OPS+ of 114 with his prime likely behind him). But there are two reasons why it makes sense for the Sox.

The first is that Konerko will provide a guaranteed quality in 2006 that Thomas just can’t, simply because he should be healthy, and should be able to post a .900 OPS in more than 600 plate appearances. That is important if the Sox hope to mount a serious title defense.

The second reason, which also happens to be tied to the first, is that the Sox really have to hit the ground running in ’06 if they want to capitalize on their success in winning a title by expanding their fan base in and around Chicago.

The Cubs have held a stranglehold over the hearts and minds of most Chicago-area baseball fans. In my opinion, the reasons for this are many. But I think one of the more significant factors has been the availability of Cubs baseball via WGN television for more than a generation.

Cable TV, however, is changing this. Now anyone with basic cable through Comcast in the Chicago area can watch every Cubs and Sox game. The market for baseball fans is there for both teams to exploit, and there’s no more crying foul about one team having a built-in media advantage by merit of its shared ownership with a broadcasting behemoth.

Letting the best hitter from your championship team leave, no matter how weak a distinction that may be, is not a way to capture the attention of casual fans who are known for their fickle affections. You just can’t argue with the guy on the street stuff like performance value vs. opportunity cost for bringing back one of a team’s most popular player.

From a marketing standpoint, it then becomes worthwhile to overpay Konerko a bit beyond what you would normally hand over to a player of his ilk. That, combined with his ability to help the team start strong in 2006, could help the team make inroads to a fan base that could support a team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball. That would be worth it, even if the Sox do have to eat the last couple years of the deal.

Traded Damaso Marte for Rob Mackowiak:

This was my favorite move of the offseason, and not just because Mackowiak is an Oak Lawn native.

Let’s start with what the Sox gave up. Marte was pretty much finished with the Sox. He imploded so badly last season that even with his solid overall numbers, even with his history of success dating back to the 2002 season, he was never going to have a role with this Chicago team ever again.

Despite that, Williams was still able to flip the lefty reliever for one of the best utility men in baseball.

Just looking at the numbers, Mackowiak’s .742 career OPS screams that he’s nothing special. But look at how his numbers break down in lefty/righty splits.


vs. LHP

vs. RHP










Mackowiak is stretched when asked to bat 500 times in a season because he has to go up against left-handed pitching, which absolutely kills him. However, he’s a legitimately good hitter against right-handed hurlers.

That’s a good thing, because look at what Sox third baseman Joe Crede has been doing against pitchers the last few years:

vs. LHP

vs. RHP










Outside of 2004, when Crede was just plain terrible against everyone, the 27-year old has been better against left-handed pitching than he has been against righties.

Now, I’m not suggesting a straight platoon. Crede is still the superior hitter with more room for upside, and he and Mackowiak are worlds apart in the fielding department with Crede taking the advantage. But with Crede’s back necessitating more days off in 2006, getting Mackowiak’s left-handed bat in the lineup against a number of right-handed foes makes for a good combination that can maximize both players’ strengths, and minimize their weaknesses.

But here’s another reason to like this trade. Consider the other bench options the Sox carried around last year. These guys all had more than 100 at-bats:





Pablo Ozuna




Timo Perez




Willie Harris




Chris Widger




Geoff Blum




*Totals from White Sox and Padres

That group is just downright putrid. Should Ozuna’s batting average fall from the .276 he posted in 2005, he instantly becomes a Black Hole of Offensive Death. Timo the Terrible lived up to that moniker. I guess I can’t complain too much about Widger because he still has a little pop in his bat, and even though he’s in Brad Ausmus territory, the Sox aren’t throwing 600 plate appearances at him. Harris can get on base and has some speed, so he has his uses off the bench. But World Series heroics aside, why did we trade for Blum?

The Sox’ biggest weakness of a year ago was the awful bench. Bringing in Mackowiak helps solve part of that problem.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Loaiza lands in Oakland

Imagine for a few minutes the career path of a B-list television actor. You struggle early in your career, playing bit roles and tooling around comedy clubs but then get your big break as the lead role in a network sitcom.

The show is good enough to last a few seasons, not long enough to land you big residuals once it goes into syndication, but long enough for you to get typecast. So the next thing you know, you’re sitting around Hollywood basements tossing cards around with guys like Dustin Diamond and Nick Lachey, wondering if you can land a spot on some celebrity poker show.

Then after everyone’s written you off, you land a supporting role on a cable TV show, and all of a sudden, you’re cashing paychecks again as a serious actor.

That’s probably pretty close to how Esteban Loaiza’s baseball career has been. Up through age 30, Loaiza bounced from Pittsburgh to Texas to Toronto. Some years he was decent, some years he was pretty terrible.

Then things changed when he landed on with the White Sox in 2003. He picked up a new gimmick (his cut fastball), parlayed that into a career season (154 ERA+ with 207 K in 226 1/3 innings) and looked like he was going to be set.

But that’s when the Sox pulled the plug on his little sitcom, trading him to the Yankees mid-2004. Loaiza imploded in the Bronx and had to settle for a one-year deal with the Nationals going into 2005.

Instead of falling off the table for good, Loaiza came back and leveraged a nice pitcher’s park into a 3.77 ERA. He was again striking guys out (173). And that yeoman-like effort just earned him a 3-year, $21 million contract from the Oakland A’s this week.

As one of my favorite guys to watch with the Sox in recent years, it’s nice to see Loaiza land on his feet. While some have panned the deal he just inked as an albatross for the small-market A’s, I think it will end up looking like a pretty smart move after the dust settles with the other free-agent pitchers this offseason.

Congratulations Esteban.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Sox should move to pick up Cruz

Shingo Takatsu for Jose Cruz Jr.? That’s a deal I’d make if I were Sox GM Kenny Williams.

Today is the last day the Sox can deal Takatsu before he becomes a free agent, so the timing would be perfect. And the team could definitely use an upgrade on its bench. Cruz, and his ability to handle all three outfield positions, would be a good fit.

And take a look at this cast of characters that manager Ozzie Guillen has been shuffling into the lineup:































Of course Carl Everett has been getting the bulk of his at-bats in the DH spot, but you could argue that Cruz would be an upgrade there, too. That’s pretty sad.

As for the rest of these guys, there’s not much to say that the numbers don’t. Ozuna is a utility infielder, so of course he’s not going to be hitting like a monster. And as Harris and Perez sink lower and lower, it’s beginning to be an open question of whether either guy belongs on the roster.

I suggested the Sox pick up Cruz around this time last year, too, because he always seems to hit for around an .800 OPS, plays great defense in the outfield corners, and can handle center field. He’s the ideal fourth outfielder and upgrades an extraordinarily weak White Sox bench.

Just like a year ago, it’s still a good idea for a team in need of an upgrade. And the price will never be lower.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Trade rumors send up red flags

Before anyone gets too excited about the prospect of A.J. Burnett landing with the White Sox, lets look at a couple different pitchers:






Pitcher A






Pitcher B






Pitcher A obviously has a pretty big advantage in strikeout rate, but the difference in walks is almost negligible. The ERAs are obviously different, but here’s a secret: According to ESPN, Pitcher A toils in a ballpark that has a park factor of .898. Pitcher B, meanwhile, plies his craft in a ballpark with a park factor of 1.139.

Despite the better K-rate for pitcher A, with everything else being close to equal, you could probably expect about the same performance from these two guys from now until the end of the season.

If you hadn’t figured it out yet, Pitcher A is Burnett. Pitcher B is our own Jose Contreras.

As of now, Burnett would be a marginal upgrade over Contreras, but if the cost of that modest of an upgrade is Contreras, Damaso Marte and Brandon McCarthy, then it’s probably not worth it.

If the Marlins wanted to trade Burnett straight over for Contreras, that would make a little more sense. Contreras is signed for another season at what almost looks like a bargain-basement price ($7 million, less a million the Yankees are kicking in), and the Marlins are looking for cost certainty going into the future. And they surely won’t be able to afford Burnett next year, who will look to boost his $3.65 million salary into the $10 million per year range.

With Marte getting older and living more dangerously with the walks by the day (his WHIP is 1.65 because he’s walked 21 in just over 29 innings), the Sox could probably live with tossing him into the deal, too. But tossing in McCarthy would be too much.

For starters, McCarthy is hardly fool’s gold when it comes to being a prospect. Despite his 5.17 ERA for Charlotte, he’s still got 94 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings. That’s phenomenal.

He’s not struggling because he’s walking a ton of guys, though that’s what you might expect from a power pitcher. His 1.29 WHIP is also very good. His Achilles’ heel has been his penchant for giving up the gopher ball: he’s yielded 14.

But that’s hardly reason to panic, or to toss him into a trade where the benefits are questionable. His potential isn’t worth just two months of Burnett.


Should third baseman Mike Lowell, and his huge contract, still be a necessary part of a Burnett deal, that would benefit the Sox, right? After all, isn’t Lowell recovering from his slump, posting an .808 OPS in July? And doesn't Joe Crede suck?

Well, don’t look now, but for as disappointing as Crede has been for Sox fans, he’s having as good a month as Lowell. In fact, he’s had two months as good as Lowell:


















Now, the same issue of park factors that applies to Contreras and Burnett applies to Lowell and Crede, so in fairness to Mike, he’s probably having a better July than (Not So) Young (Anymore) Joe.

But again, here the numbers are in Crede’s advantage, and adjusting for the park would only give Lowell a slight edge. Crede is still whipping him on the season tallies.

It should also be pointed out that Lowell’s career-high OPS was .880 in 2003. He came close to that again in 2004 with an .870 mark, but that’s the only time he’s been within 50 points of his peak.

So to assume Lowell would be much of an upgrade on offense, you have to have faith that he’s going to bounce back to where he was at the peak of his powers. Does anyone thing the 31-year-old Lowell will do that? It’s probably just as likely as Crede putting together a nice second half, which he did in both 2002 and 2003.

Then consider the fielding prowess of this pair. They have identical .987 fielding percentages, and Lowell has a slightly better Range Factor (.263-.260), but Crede wins going away in Zone Rating (.807-.756).

Then consider the money Lowell is owed, and you really have to hope the Sox aren’t going to be stuck with a deal like this.

So to recap on both fronts, dealing to get A.J. Burnett probably isn’t that great of an idea.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Quick Update

It's been a long time since I've been able to find the time to write, and the sporadic entries will probably continue at least through the rest of this month. But I have some time right now, so let's catch up on what's happening on the south side.

I think the best way for me to do that is with a little season review and a look forward, position-by-position.

First Base:
Paul Konerko is still struggling with his batting average (.237 through June 10), but as I've mentioned before, he's still getting on base (.349 OBP). I don't think he'll finish the year with an average below .260. In fact, I think he'll eventually hit closer to .300. Once more hits start falling in for him, Konerko will probably lift his team-leading .838 OPS to around .900. No worries here.

Second Base:
Tadahito Iguchi seems to have found his power. After going all of April with only three extra-base hits (all doubles), Iguchi has now cracked five home runs and has sent 17 hits for extra bases, including a pair of triples. He's making adjustments at the plate, and I believe his .869 OPS in May is closer to his ability to than his .729 OPS from April. Even if we have to settle for something in between, his .778 OPS for the year still ranks him among the 10 best second basemen in baseball right now.

Third Base:
After a putrid month of May (.155 BA, .495 OPS... ughh, I feel sick), Joe Crede has been torching everyone to the tune of 1.248 in the first third of June. So pretty much, what you see is what you get -- a streaky hitter that's probably going to finish with an OPS between .725 and .750. That's pretty much the story of Crede's career, which makes him a good candidate to be replaced at the trade deadline. Though I would be surprised if there were a better option available on the market that won't come at a prohibitive cost. Crede is still a middle-of-the pack hitter among third basemen, and let's not forget that he's putting together a better season that Adrian Beltre, Mike Lowell or Eric Chavez.

There's no way around the fact that Juan Uribe has struggled this year. He's playing average defense at short (middle of the pack in Zone Rating, Range Factor and Fielding Pct.), and his bat has been horrible. He hasn't been the Cristian Guzman (.468 OPS) or even Royce Clayton (.581) kind of bad. But he's been bad (.655 OPS). Can he turn it around?

The answer is I don't know, but if he's going to he's going to have to find his power. So far this season, 67 percent of his hits have been singles. Last year only 58 percent of his hits went for one base. That doesn't sound like much, but you're talking about a dozen extra-base hits. That's huge. Especially for a player like Uribe, who's hitting value is almost exclusively tied to his ability to uncork the regular home run.

This poses an interesting problem for Sox GM Kenny Williams. After a big year last year, he inked Uribe to a 3-year deal and everyone expected the 25-year-old shortstop to be present and future of the position. Now Uribe is easily the worst hitter in the Sox lineup. If you're Williams, what do you do? You could go out and get another shortstop, but what does that do to Uribe -- both his production and his attitude -- over the next two year's of his contract? You could sit and wait for Uribe to find his power stroke again. But if it doesn't happen this year, it could sink the team's title hopes.

After popping 23 homers a year ago, it's safe to say Uribe won't come close to that with only four this year. But if he could recapture some of his form from last year, he could be a boost for the Sox down the stretch. At this point, waiting to see if that happens is probably the best option for now.

A.J. Pierzynski has been as good as advertised. His .800 OPS is second-best on the team, and far, far exceeds the suckitude the Sox got from the position the second half of last year. Pierzynski also has nine home runs -- only two away from his career high, and we're not even to the All Star break. We knew he could hit for average, and some even speculated a power spike in the raw numbers because of the way The Cell played as a hitter's park last year. That seems to be the case as seven of his long balls have come at home. Still, the Sox will take that.

But how about Chris Widger? When the Sox decided to go with him as the backup, I bemoaned what I thought was a mistake. I agreed that Ben Davis belonged in Charlotte, but I thought Jamie Burke should have won the backup job since he was also right-handed.

Well, Widger has only hit for a .877 OPS in his 56 at-bats. Yes, that's a small sample. But it's still better than I could have ever dreamed of from a guy that went about five year's between major league home runs.
And what are Burke and Davis doing? Well, Burke is doing what he's always done, which is get on base well for a catcher (.343 through Friday, which is exactly his career average). And Davis is doing what he's always done, which is suck (.590 OPS). I've long been a booster for Davis, arguing that he could still put a career together. But I think I can put that notion to bed, especially now that he's the Sox' fifth-best option behind the plate after Pierzynski, Widger, Burke and Raul Cassanova (.810 OPS at Charlotte).

So anyway, my apologies to Mr. Widger. Please keep up the good work. And &$%# you Ben Davis.

Center Field:
Aaron Rowand is getting over his rough start. His .620 OPS in April gave way to a .858 mark in May and an .890 pace so far in June. Rowand's current .796 OPS is almost identical to what he did the first two months of last season (.775). I don't think we can count on him mashing to the tune of a .1000+ mark like he did in June, July and August of last year, but with his superb defense, he doesn't have to do that to be valuable for the Sox.

Right Field:
Nobody started the season colder than Jermaine Dye. His .517 OPS in April had Sox fans screaming for him to lose his job. Then something funny happened: he started to really hit. Dye has his OPS up to .786 after a good May (.933) and an even better June so far (1.048). He's even got 10 home runs now.

That doesn't mean Sox fans should be entirely happy. His stats are just beginning to even out to his career levels, which aren't that great. Outside of the .951 mark he posted for the Royals in 2000, Dye has pretty much been around .800 for the rest of his career. That's acceptable, but hardly stellar. The bright side is that Dye hits better against lefties than he does righties, so a decent left-handed bat can spell him against tougher right-handed pitching. So that at least covers some of his weakness.

Left Field:
Scott Posednik has exceeded the wildest expectations of many more analytical observers. Many predicted an on-base percentage close to .300 with his typically paltry slugging. That may come to be the reality as we get into the dog days of summer, but for now Posednik has his OBP above .350 while wreaking havoc on the basepaths. He's already swiped 31 bases against nine caught stealing.

Some would say that his .688 OPS makes all the stolen bags worthless. I'm not one of those people. Posednik has value for two reasons. First, he's not just another right-handed slugger. He gives the Sox another way to score runs. Maybe not as many runs, but still a different way.

The second reason is that I think stolen bases, and the threat of a stolen base, are underrated by the stathead community. Especially when you have a guy like Posednik. Everyone knows he's going for it, including the pitcher. I makes the defense move around, opening holes for more base hits for the batter at the plate when he's on. When a pitcher throws out to the catcher, it puts the hitter into a hitter's count. And it is distracting for the pitcher.

Now, I know none of those things can be quantified, so I won't try to make a case that Posednik is some kind of MVP or something. But he does give the Sox another dimension and he does have value that doesn't show up in OPS, OBP, SLG or those other stats we use as a quick guide to a player's worth. The Posednik experiment is working out OK.

designated Hitter:
Carl Everett has been pretty mediocre (.747 OPS), mostly because his on-base percentage has been lousy (.317). It's encouraging that he has as many walks this year as he had all of last year (16), and that puts him on pace for what he averages in the free-pass department in his good years. However, his good years are also marked by batting averages near or above .300. That means his .263 averages has to improve. And we know we can't count on that.

What we can count on is awesomeness from Frank Thomas. The Big Hurt has crushed the ball in his 14 at-bats since coming off the DL. Microscopic sample size yes, but we know from his track record that this is what Frank Thomas is.

Much has been made of the alleged job controversy between Thomas and Everett, but in my mind there's no question about it: the job belongs to Thomas. Which is fine, because there's another useful role for Everett when we talk about...

The Bench:
I've written in the past about my embarrassing love for Timo Perez, but despite my affections, I am not blinded to the fact that he sucks. I mean really sucks. His .555 is terrible, even with all the built-in excuses about irregular playing time and blah, blah. Add in the fact that he's not real good with the glove, and you have an embarrassingly bad fourth outfielder.

Which is why Carl Everett should be the team's primary fourth outfielder. He should be able to handle center field like he did for the Sox in 2003, and while he wouldn't be a downgrade from Perez with the glove he represents a huge upgrade with the bat. And between resting all three OFs, plus Thomas, he'll get plenty of at-bats still.

Getting Timo off the roster might also let the Sox carry a backup that can play a legitimate first base. I guess that guy would be Ross Gload when he's healthy. His left-handed bat is nice, too. There's no doubt the guy can hit with OPS marks of .853 in the majors last year and 1.042 at Charlotte this year. The only issue is his ability to also play a corner outfield spot with his bum shoulder.

Pablo Ozuna and Willie Harris have both been capable, both showing good on-base ability (.349 for Harris and .377 for Ozuna).

Right now, we can hope Perez gets the ticket to Charlotte once Gload is really to jump back in action. I could happen, specially with Perez making a cool $1 million. Nobody would claim him if the Sox put him on waivers.

The Pitching:
Not much to say other than that it's been great. Sure, every guy has his own issues we could examine, and when I get back into the semblance of a normal routine I'll try to examine all of them. But for right now, almost everyone is throwing well.

I will say one thing right now: Let's not get too excited about Neal Cotts just yet. I like his potential as much as any other Sox fan, which is why I've campaigned for him to go to Charlotte to get more work than he was getting earlier in the year. He's throwing strikes his last few times out, but he's still only tossed 22 innings. We need more evidence than that to see if he's really turned a corner.

That concludes my two cents worth of opinions for now. I'll still be caught up in work and travel until at least July 4, so I hope nobody expect prolific posting from me until after then.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

White Sox 5, Cubs 1

Posts have been in short supply here, mostly because I've been short on time. I've still been watching a lot of White Sox games, but I haven't had the time to watch and write about them. That's still the case, but for something as big as the Cubs-Sox series, I just had to make time.

Despite my life-long loyalties to the South Side, I had never hated the Cubs with the fiery passion that burns inside of most White Sox fans. That is, I never did until the winter of 2003-04.

The Sox had at least been fringe contenders for the better part of the previous dozen seasons. They had very good teams in 1992 and 1993, and a team many felt was World Series-bound before the 1994 season was cut short. After scuffling in '95, the Sox hung around in '96 and '97, even blowing the Wild Card the last month of the season. That mercifully cost then-Sox manager Terry Bevington his job.

After a modest rebuilding project from 1998-99, the Sox were back with a division title in 2000. That followed a string of second-place finishes that continues today.

While coming thisclose so many times has been frustrating, Sox fans have at least been able to enjoy a team that hopes to contend almost every year.

Not so for the Cubs.

After a division title in 1989, the Cubs finished fifth, fourth, fourth, fourth, fifth, third, fourth and fifth from 1990-97.

Behind Sammy Sosa's historic 1998 season, as well as brilliant pitching from some rookie named Kerry Wood, the Cubs would overcome a Brant Brown gaffe that cost them the last game of the season by beating the Giants in a one-game playoff to win the Wild Card.

The Cubbies would appear overmatched on paper in their first-round matchup against Atlanta. That still looked to be the case when the game was moved from paper to grass with the Braves taking Game 1 by a 7-1 score .

But then in Game 2, Kevin Tapani, who switched directly from the South Side to the North Side two years earlier, pitched brilliantly. He took a 1-0 lead into the final inning and looked like he would tie the series at one game apiece. With Wood going in Game 3, Cub fans had reason to be hopeful.

That was before Javy Lopez erased the shutout, and most of the Cubs playoff hopes with a ninth-inning blast. The Braves scored one more off Terry Mulholland in the 10th and went on to sweep the series with a 6-2 win the Game 3. Greg Maddux was the winning pitcher for Atlanta.

The Cubs stayed in the race the next season until going into a full-out death spiral that began with a sweep at the hands of the Sox in June of that year.

So outside of one surprising season in the sun, the Cubs had been a non-factor in the pennant race for almost 15 years.

Then came 2003.

Behind a quartet of aces, led by Wood and second-year hurler Mark Prior, the Cubs pitched their way into an NL Central title and the postseason. They again faced the Braves, only this time came out on top 3-2 in the series -- even beating Maddux once along the way.

Anyone paying attention to Chicago baseball knows what happened next: The Cubs come within a few outs of the World Series, at least until an Alex Gonzalez error and Dusty Baker's decision to leave Prior in too long derail their chances. Oh, and some Bartman guy caught a foul ball.

Despite throwing Wood and Prior in games 6 and 7, the Cubs never recovered. But that winter, they did reload for 2004. Maddux, who left the Cubs with some acrimony back in 1993, just as his run of dominance was beginning, returned as the fifth(!) starter. Derek Lee, who helped sink the Cubs in the '03 postseason took over at first base. Aramis Ramirez would be around for a whole season. LaTroy Hawkins would give the team a reliable setup man. Todd Walker would give it depth at second base. And everyone else would be back, healthy and happy.

At some point that winter, confidence turned into arrogance on the North Side. Wrigleyville was flooded with irrational exuberance. And the smugness of of Cubs fans became unbearable.

I couldn't go anywhere online without being flamed by a Cubs fan. I couldn't go to work (I'm a sportwriter) with hearing about how the Cubs would soon end their World Series drought. And the White Sox, they'd say... just a bunch of jokers that keep trading for Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett.

Cubs fans, who had seemed until then to be just happy-go-lucky baseball watchers that enjoyed the beer and the sun more than the baseball, suddenly seemed full of themselves. That so many wanted to use their fleeting moment to take digs at my favorite team, the long-suffering but unloved White Sox, really forged the fires of hate that still burns in my heart for all of Cubdom.

So when the Cubs choked down the stretch in 2004, blowing their final series against -- you guessed it -- the Atlanta Braves, who weren't playing for anything at that point, I took more than my share of pleasure from it.

Needless to say, I enjoyed Friday's 5-1 White Sox win against the Cubs. What they say is right. When it comes to rooting for one team or the other, there's no middle ground and no gray area. You are a Sox fan or a Cubs fan. Period. And I know which side I'm on.

So here are some observations from the first game of the 2004 intra-city showdown at Wrigley. I didn't have time to dig up a lot of numbers, so my apologies if this reads like a Peter Gammons column -- though I'd be lucky to write as well.


-- In the bottom of the fifth, when Henry Blanco hit a shot down the third-base line, did anyone else think that Joe Crede sure took his time throwing out the Cubs catcher? Not a criticism, in fact, good wrongfully (Not So) Young Joe to know he had plenty of time with a good throw. It just seemed like he fielded the ball, looked at the umpire rule it a fare ball, looked at the ball, and THEN set and threw. Still got Blanco by a long way.

-- The Sox were good, and also a little lucky in the fifth inning when they scored three runs off Greg Maddux. A skillful bunt by Scott Posednik, and solid singles by Tadahito Iguchi and A.J. Pierzynski were supplemented by a seeing-eye single by Paul Konerko. Oh, yea, and Joe Crede drilled one out.

-- When Freddy Garcia stands in at the plate, he looks comfortable like he can hit -- until he swings. Granted, he put down a sac bunt and watched Aramis Ramirez make plays on balls in the next two at-bats, but everything else looks awkward. It's just when he swings, it looks like his hitting mechanics fall apart.

I will say this: Even though Garcia flailed at some stuff a good hitter shouldn't swing at, at least he made some contact, fouled off some balls and saw some additional pitches -- particularly in his third at-bat. And that's worth something. Isn't that why Billy Beane is paying Scott Hatteberg so much money?

Maybe the question should be, how much should you expect from a pitcher's at-bats? Not every pitcher can handle lumber like Mike Hampton, so I guess you take the positives where you can find them.

-- It was only modestly amusing to flip back-and-forth between WGN and Comcast. On my cable system, Comcast has a better picture quality. That would make it an easy call as to which channel to watch, except for the fact that it's the Cubs broadcast team with the call on CSN.

-- I know a lot of people have complaints about Hawk and D.J., but Len Kasper and Bob Brenly are just unlistenable. At least today Brenly was gone. Jeez they suck.
As a baseball fan, I like to catch Cubs games when they're on the tube. But I've been doing that less this season, in part because my time has been scarce, but also because I don't like listening to Kasper and Brenly.

Besides the fact that the Cubs booth is more like a talk show with a baseball game going on in the background, I also can't help by think this Kasper and Brenly tread softly on these Cubs. I guess since the last guy got fired for being to critical, you can't blame them. But do they have to be this weak?

-- Garcia pitched well. Yes, he still nibbled the plate a little too much. Yes, maybe he should have thrown first-pitch fastballs more often. But he still made it through seven innings with just over 100 pitches. That's economical or him.

Though, it should be noted that he faced a Cubs lineup stocked in the last three spots by Neifi Perez, Henry Blanco and a pitcher. Oh, and Todd Hollandsworth batted second for Dusty Baker's team today. That's not good... it's bad and ugly.

-- Iguchi really blew it on the fly ball Ramirez skied into foul territory in the seventh inning. A-Ram ended up on second (man is he not fast) on the error and would later score an unearned run.

I was listening to the Hawk/D.J. team at the time, and Jackson went into his, "Boy, I've been there when you just lose that ball," but it didn't look like that to me. It looked like after making the long run to get to the spot the ball was hit, Iguchi was just to nonchalant when it came to seeing the ball into the glove. It happens. I just wish we didn't have to make excuses when it does.

This is worth a mention. Posednik is getting on base at a .391 clip and is still on pace for a career-best 83 walks.

On Deck:
Jose Contreras against Carlos Zambrano. Hopefully we'll have lots of fun numbers to talk about after this one.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The beat goes on for the Southsiders

Since the last time your faithful narrator checked in, the White Sox finished off a sweep of the Blue Jays, dropped a couple bad losses to the Devil Rays of all teams, and ensured themselves at least a split with the AL East-leading Orioles by taking the first two games of a four-game set with the birds from Baltimore.

The Sox have now won seven straight at home and overall are 11-2 in their last 13 games. And for the most part, the basic formula has remained the same. Let the starter work deep into the game, let the offense scratch out a few runs and then let the bullpen nail it down.

The only time the bullpen didn't nail it down was in the 7-6 loss to the Devil Rays. But that by itself hardly constitutes a meltdown. In fact, since the last time I've written about it, the bullpen has remained rock-solid.

Dustin Hermanson has yet to allow a run in 18 1/3 innings and appears to have emerged as the de facto closer. But as good as he's been with a .76 WHIP, Cliff Politte has been even better with a .68 WHIP and 17 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings. Politte's ERA now stands at 1.35.

Damaso Marte has also been pitching well with a 1.93 ERA, despite a 1.71 WHIP. He's been walking a tightrope with 12 walks in 14 innings, but he's helped bail himself out with 16 strikeouts. Something will have to give, though. Either Marte tops walking guys or his ERA will skyrocket.

The other two big pieces -- Shingo Takatsu and Luis Vizcaino are both scuffling with ERAs of 7.00 or higher. But there are plenty of reasons to like the work they've been giving the Sox lately.
Both survived disasterous outings against Cleveland on April 7. In fact, of the 20 earned runs the pair has given up this season, nine were against the Tribe that afternoon. That must hurt, especially for Vizcaino, who was left hung out to dry because he was the last man in the bullpen.

I know it's a slippery slope when you begin saying things like "without such-and-such outings, pitcher X has X.XX ERA." But without the Cleveland game, Takatsu's ERA is 3.38 and Vizcaino's is 4.60.

Takatsu has struck out 12 men per 9IP while walking a handful and allowing his share of hits. Vizcaino has not been striking guys out (5.63 K/9), but has avoided home runs (1 allowed this year). So when you look at their peripherals, those adjusted ERAs sound about right for what they're getting done on the mound. Not enough to qualify them as studs, but even with the ass-busting ERAs they're still touting, they haven't been bad options for the Sox.

I guess the other shoe could still drop, as we're only a month and a half into the season. Small sample sizes are still an issue, but short of overuse, even when the clock strikes mid-season, it's hard to see the whole bullpen turning into a collection of pitching pumpkins.

So lets talk about last night's game.


Taking the ball:
Mark Buehrle tossed another eight innings last night, putting him on pace to throw more than 270 innings. The last Sox pitcher to throw more than 250 innings in a season was Alex Fernandez, who had 258 in 1996. The last time a White Sox pitcher tossed more than 270 innings was 1975, when Jim Kaat and Wilbur Wood both crushed that mark with 303 2/3 and 293 1/3 innings, respectively.
There's still a lot of season left, and I'd be surprised if Buehrle managed to throw that many innings. But I think at this point we can also be surprised if he doesn't throw more than 220.

Something else interesting of note is that out of the last 10 non-strike-shortened seasons, the only years the White Sox didn't have a left-handed pitcher toss 200 innings were 2000, when Mike Sirotka managed only 197 because of injuries down the stretch, and in 1997, when Wilson Alvarez threw 145 before being traded to the Giants. Alvaraz still finished the year with 200+ innings.

Not out of the woods yet:
Paul Konerko went 2-for-3 and keyed Friday's Sox win with a broken-bat single that scored two runs in the seventh inning. It was his first multi-hit game since last weekend when he drilled two home runs against Toronto and only his second since a pair of hits against the Twins on April 19.
To read some of the game stories, it seems like some scribes are implying that the bloop hit was just what Konerko needs to, "get things going his way again." I don't really know how much more likely his is to go on a tear than he was after he broke through with a couple bombs against the Blue Jays, though. The hits just fall when they fall, you know?

There is one comforting fact in this slump. During Konerko's titanic nosedive of 2003, he wouldn't get his on-base percentage up above .300 for good until a 2-for-4 night against the Yankees on August 28. Part of that had to do with how far Paulie had fallen off early in the season, but it also had to do with a lousy approach at the plate. Konerko took a lot of pitches, but instead of drawing walks and getting on base even when the balls weren't falling right for him, he'd get into a pitcher's count and never seemed able to battle back.

This time it's been different. This season, while Konerko is still hovering around the Mendoza line with his .208 batting average, his OBP has not dipped below .300 since April 17. In fact, his OBP is still a tolerable .333. That's still not enough on-base production from your first baseman, but for as deep of a slump in which Konerko's been mired, you have to be pleased with that.

What's more, after his disasterous 2003, Konerko bounced back with a huge 2004 in which he drew a career-high 69 walks. This year he's on pace to receive 95 free passes. I think we can easily say that after the first slump, Konerko emerged as a better hitter.

So what does that mean for this year going foward? With nine home runs, he's hurting pitchers when they go after him. And he's taking his walks and not getting himself out on junk out of the strike zone. So I think the hits will eventually start falling and he could have a very big second half. I don't think Friday night was the beginning. I think 2003 was the beginning, and now it's just a matter of waiting for Konerko's luck with balls in play to start evening out.

Designated to do what?:
Willie Harris got the start at DH on Friday. It's not really that unusual. Teams, because of injury or just plain lousy rosters, have to play worse hitters at the spot all the time. And at least Harris is still batting over .300 with a nice .389 OPB. But it's still funny to say, "Now batting, the designated hitter, No. 1 Willie Harris."

Qutting time?:
Possible Hall-of-Famer Rafael Palmeiro has had a tremendous career, and in his prime -- which reached well into his 30s -- was considered one of the most dangerous left-handed hitters in baseball. He had it all with a good batting average, OBP and lots of power.
But right now, he is killing the Orioles.

As laughable as his third Gold Glove award in 1999 was (he played 135 games at DH that year), it was his great defensive rep that landed him that piece of hardward. Though it's been evident on plays like the one he made in the seventh inning Friday that he's been slipping in that department.
That would be ok if he were hitting better. Palmiero is batting .218, and because he's only slugging .333, pitchers don't feel threatened and are going right after him. As a result, he's only got a .295 on-base percentage and is on pace for only 51 walks. That total would be his lowest total since he was a 23-year-old wearing Cubbie blue.

Baltimore's offense has been motoring along, but can still ill afford to have Palmiero get old on them. From, here are Raffy's OPS+ marks the last three years:

2001: 144
2002: 141
2003: 117
2004: 103

That's an alarming trend for a guy that blew out 40 candles on his birthday cake last September.
It's also a pretty good reason why the Orioles, who are already missing Sammy Sosa's bat, probably won't be able to hang with the Red Sox in the AL East race all summer.

On the rise:
That would be the Sox' team OBP, which is up to .325. That's still only good for 22nd in the majors, in between the Cubs (.326) and the Rangers (.323), but considering that only a couple weeks ago the Sox were at .312 and keeping company with teams like the Pirates and the Royals, that's a huge step forward.

So with Konerko and Jermaine Dye still struggling, how have the Sox elevated their OBP? Well in part because...

... Scott Posednik is sporting a .380 OBP after going 3-for-5 on Friday. The Pod person has already accepted 20 free passes, which is why his current OBP is better than rookie mark of .379, despite his batting average being off more than 50 points between those two seasons (.262 now, as opposed to .314 for Milwaukee in 2003).

Despite a base-stealing slump that saw him get gunned down 3-of-9 times last week, he's still got 18 steals on the season against only five caught stealing. It should also be mentioned that Posednik, along with Rowand and Dye, have been fantastic defenders in the Sox outfield. Posednik and Rowand are both among the top defenders at their position as measured by Zone Rating (Rowand is tops, Posednik is sixth).

Even if you don't like Zone Rating as a way to measure defense, it's hard to say that balls in play given up by the Sox pitching staff haven't been turned into outs.

So while it's still early, and while I was also an early doubter, I have to say that this Posednik experiment is working out pretty well... so far at least.

On deck:
Freddy Garcia will go against Daniel Cabrera. Cabrera has been a strikeout machine, punching out 9.25 per 9 IP. He also walks a few. This should be a fun matchup to watch.