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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Clues to our Sox season

As this is written the baseball season is just one week old, and already some Sox fans are pushing the panic
button, ready to give up on the season almost before it has begun. Such a response is about as silly as it
gets because, as the pundits are fond of pointing out, "The baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint."

This is not to say that we can't make some kind of early assessment of what kind of season it's going to be.
The key is to not see every loss as an absolute disaster that only bodes ill for the rest of the season. It's still 
only April. The season doesn't end until September 29. Between now and then a lot can and will happen.

However, this is not to say that we can't detect the development of certain patterns to look for that might 
portend either good or ill for the rest of the season, and this week I'd like to take a look at some of these.

Starting pitching: At this writing, no Sox starter has had a bad performance. Mark Buehrle has been brilliant 
in his two outings. Jon Garland has probably had the worst outing so far, and he was hurt by some bad
calls by umpire John Hirschbeck in the first game of the Royals series. Still, Garland hurt himself, too. A power
pitcher, in his first out in KC, Rauch struck no one out while walking four. This statistic is indicative of a staff-wide
problem. These guys need to throw strikes and get ahead of the batters. So far, they haven't been doing that.
John Rauch has yet to start but had an excellent relief appearance in Seattle. So far the starting pitching is 
probably better than anyone dreamed, and some of the young arms are actually living up to the hype. It's still 
not a rotation to strike fear in the hearts of the American League, but it also appears that these guys may actually 
be for real. We'll know more once they've been around the league once.

The bullpen: The relief corps hasn't been a total disaster, but it hasn't been pretty either. Lorenzo Barcelo
is obviously far from being fully recovered from his second arm surgery. Bob Howry has been inconsistent,
ranging from decent to horrible. Gary Glover stepped into the role of setup man and promptly lost that job.
Antonio Osuna has looked good, but twho lefties, Mike Porzio and Damaso Marte haven't. Again, the problem
facing the bullpen is the same as that of the starters. They have to throw strikes. They have to get ahead of
the hitters. So far they haven't been doing this consistently. Keith Foulke was unhappy with his nine losses
in 2001. That didn't prevent him from going out and blowing a 6-3 lead against the Mariners.

Hitting: This is a good offensive team, and so far only two weak spots in the offense have emerged that are
cause for concern. Frank Thomas decided this spring to go back to his old stance that he used before 2000.
So far it's had him bailing out on inside strikes and popping out. Thomas is a notoriously slow starter, though.
We'll need more time to see if this is going to remain a problem. If it is, he needs to consider returning to the
open stance he used in 2000 which helped him to better judge those inside strikes. The other problem is a
return of one from 2001. Royce Clayton has started off abysmally yet again. So far it's only s one-week slump,
so it's too early to make any kind of judgment. However, he's stranded a lot of runners in just a few games. 
What we don't need is another prolonged slump from the shortstop. If his slow start lasts much longer, the
Sox need to consider benching him, moving Jose Valentin to his natural position to replace Clayton, and 
bringing up two-time minor leage MVP Joe Crede, who was demoted after and excellent spring for reasons
known only to Lenny (aka Sox GM Kenny Williams).

Coaching: This is a problem that few have addressed. In the first few games, the Sox have made some major
mistakes on the basepaths. Gary Pettis is the Sox baserunning coach. He was brought in last year to improve
what Lenny perceived as a weak spot in the Sox offense. Since then, the baserunning if anything has gotten
worse. Meanwhile, Sox pitchers continue to get behind in the count and issue far too many walks. The bullpen
has been awful. If Nardi Contreras can't convince these guys to throw strikes, then maybe it's time to find
someone who will. Contreras was fired by the Mariners for failing to develop their young pitchers. It's looking
as if history may be repeating itself. Last week I noted that Ron Jackson was held responsible for the weak
production by Sox bats early in the season. The same should be true for baserunning and pitching. If things
don't improve soon, then it's obvious that two coaches should be replaced.

Managing: Jerry Manuel seems to have a policy of a 100-pitch limit for his starters. So far this has brought on 
disaster more than once as the bullpen arsonists have gone to work. I have no idea where the 100-pitch limit
became written in stone, but it sure hasn't reduced injuries. Last year's rash of arm surgeries has proven that
beyond a reasonable doubt. Why must a pitcher who is cruising be lifed after 100 pitches? Hawk Harrelson
made a telling comment in Seattle talking about Lou Piniella. "Piniella goes by his gut in pulling pitchers," 
Hawk said. "He doesn't rely on pitch counts. That's one thing that makes him a great manager."

Another problem with Manuel is his even temperament. In Friday night's game in Kansas City, umpire John
Hirschbeck made a terrible call on a play where everyone in the stadium except Hirschbeck saw Paul Konerko
put a tag on Joe Randa. What did Manuel do as Konerko stood on the baseline with a bewildered look on 
his face, showing with his glove that he had made the tag? Manuel, a disciple of Gandhi, came out and asked
a few questions, apparently was satisfied, and trotted back to the dugout. Maybe Manuel should be reading
Earl Weaver instead of Gandhi. He should have gotten himself ejected over such a horrible call. Until such time
as Jerry Manuel learns that the umpire isn't always right and shows some fire, he will be known in this column as
Mahatma Manuel, or the Mahatma for short.

The Solution: Some of the problems enumerated above can easily be changed. Pitchers can throw strikes 
and get ahead in the count. Batters can come out of slumps or benched for a time. Coaches, and even 
managers, can be replaced. Other problems are more persistent. The hiring of players, coaches, and 
management with an eye on budget more than on winning has been a long term problem with this ball club. 
Players, coaches, managers and front office personnel can be replaced. However, ownership can't unless
they choose to leave. If the Sox falter this year in a weak Central Division, then maybe it's time for Jerry 
Reinsdorf and his partners to consider doing just that: Leave. And not let the door hit their behinds as they
walk out.
 

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 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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