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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

What went wrong?

The 2002 edition--set your watch by this annual feature.

Now that the season is officially over, that is, now that the Sox have thrown in the towel for the 2002 season, the obvious question is what went wrong.  All the so-called experts, and even some non-experts like the guy who writes this column, thought the Sox were an odds-on favorite to win the AL Central.  Instead, in mid-August, the Sox are mired below .500 and so far out that even the complete collapse of the Twins would not guarantee that the Sox could make up the ground between the two clubs.  So where did it all go so wrong? 

In this two-part series, we’ll try to examine first the on-field problems and then in part 2 the front-office problems that led to the collapse of the 2002 Sox. 

In no particular order, here are some of the most obvious on-field problems: 

Todd Ritchie.  As was noted here when the Sox made the deal that sent three viable arms to the Pirates for one mediocre starter, Ritchie’s stats have never been all that great.  After his comeback last year following an 0-8 start, he still ended up with a losing record and an ERA that might look okay in the AL but really wasn’t all that good in the NL.  Yet in the eyes of Sox management, he was an “innings eater.”  What this phrase really translates to is that he doesn’t win ballgames, but he has a strong arm. 

As it turned out, the erstwhile Sox flourished in the NL while Ritchie, with the pressure of having to prove that he was worth the price the Sox paid, struggled and then completely blew up.  He not only wasn’t an innings eater, he became a joke.  He was on a pace to lose at least 20 when he was mercifully placed on the DL with “bursitis.”  (Does that translate “torn labrum,” or does it mean “saving face,” or does it really mean “bursitis”?  Only Ritchie and Prof. Chaos (GM Kenny Williams) know for sure.

Reliance on a young starting rotation.  Aside from Ritchie, the rest of the rotation is a “kiddy corps.”  Mark Buehrle, 23, is the staff ace.  Jon Garland, who has emerged as the #2 starter turns 23 in September.  Danny Wright is an old man by comparison at 24.  The Sox hoped that Jon Rauch, another 23 year old, would be able to hold down the #5 spot, but he was recovering from surgery.  Granted, the original plan was to have Jim Parque, a grizzled veteran at 26 in the rotation, but he, like Rauch, was recovering from arm surgery.  When it became painfully obvious that neither Parque nor Rauch was anywhere near 100 percent, 25-year-old Gary Glover was brought in to fill the breach.

Yet everyone took a look at the Sox offense and thought that this team could win, just as it had in 2000.  After all, they argued, it’s essentially the same group of players, which leads to the next problem.  The problem is that the pitching staff isn’t the same.  Once Parque went down, no one was left in the starting rotation from just the season before last.  All of us predicting a division crown kind of overlooked that minor little fact.  We expected far too much from a group of kids.

Frank Thomas.  Another player coming off an injury from which perhaps too much was expected.  I’ve never been aware of any hitter with the injury that Thomas had.  Just what does a triceps tear do to your stroke when you try to come back?  What does taking nearly a year off do to a hitter like Thomas?  It’s still unclear which factor, if either caused Thomas’s woes at the plate this year, but he certainly wasn’t anywhere near the hitter he was in 2000.

Thomas’s low batting average was almost forgivable into June when he was on a pace to hit about 40 homers and drive in well over 100 runs.  But then he went into the mother of all slumps (at least for him) and his numbers had people seriously talking of The Chairman invoking the diminished skills clause hoping he’d just go away.  It’s been a sad thing to watch.

Royce Clayton.  We may come back to this next time when we discuss management.  However, there is no doubt that the trade that brought Clayton from Texas with two years on his contract had to have been one of the stupidest moves Prof. Chaos has made to date.  Not only has Clayton spent the first two to three months of the past two seasons with his bat in hibernation, he has blocked the promotion of Joe Crede who probably should have come up sometime during the 2001 season.

The bottom of the batting order in general.  They just didn’t produce when they needed to.  Sandy Alomar, Jr. had relatively good stats, but again spent time on the disabled list.  Clayton and Mark Johnson spent most of the first half struggling at or below the Mendoza line.  Jose Valentin, although the best clutch hitter on the team, saw a big drop in his overall offensive numbers this year.  And the offensive woes didn’t stop here.

Kenny Lofton.  He had a great start and then got hurt.  When that happened his offensive numbers tanked, he quit stealing bases because he couldn’t run, and the Sox, off to a great start under his offensive leadership, tanked along with him.

Carlos Lee.  Lee, started the season the same way he ended 2001, in a slump.  It took the failure of Frank Thomas to move Lee to the #3 hole where he has thrived, but by then it was too late to save the club from the skid that took them out of the race.

_____ 

So that’s it in a nutshell.  The Sox tried to win with offense, but the offense sputtered with the hitting woes of Lofton, Thomas, Lee, Valentin, Johnson, Clayton, and even Ray Durham on occasion.  The Sox were forced to rely on an extremely young pitching staff that was supposed to be anchored by a guy who had never been more than mediocre.  The best defensive infield they could have put together was blocked by a player acquired in a stupid trade made after the 2000 season.

And that’s just what happened on the field.  But the seeds for this mess were sown in by Sox management.  We’ll take a closer look at the mess in the front office next time.


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are not necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at nsmf@aol.com.

More features from Hal Vickery here!

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