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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

More Q's for '05!
by Hal Vickery

It was a Christmas present to Sox fans that was worthy of The Chairman. Early last week the Sox signed El Duque, Orlando Hernandez. From the immediate reaction of the fans, it was apparent that they were pleased with their gift.

And why shouldn’t they be? On the surface it looks as if Kenny Williams got exactly what fans wanted, a pitcher who could move Jon Garland to the number five spot in the rotation, strengthening the Sox rotation immeasurably. But like any gift from The Chairman, all is not what it appears to be on the surface. There are strings attached.

In this case the strings take the shape of question marks, and with El Duque there are plenty of them. The most important of these is, “How many innings will he be able to pitch?” The idea of this signing should have been to move Garland down in the rotation to number 5 so that they would actually have a rotation that should give the bullpen a much smaller workload than they had in 2004.

However, Hernandez if he moves into the number three or four spot could put a burden on the bullpen there. The last time Hernandez pitched 200 innings was in 1999, his second year in the league. Last year, in which he was recovering from rotator cuff surgery, he pitched under 85 innings after missing all of the 2003 season.

He appeared to be back at full strength, posting a record of 8-2 with a 3.30 earned run average. However in the post-season (if that counts for anything) his ERA ballooned to 5.40. However, if Hernandez can pitch decently for about 200 innings, he will be fine.

The other big question regards his age. Media reports claimed his age to be 35, and indeed the Sox give his date of birth as October 11, 1969. On the other hand, no less a source than baseball-reference.com lists his date of birth as October 11, 1965, making him 39 years old. So just to be safe, let’s just say he is “35 going on 72.”

We wanted to ask Minnie Minoso if he had ever played with Hernandez when he was playing in Cuba back in the ‘40s, but we were unable to contact him.

The point is that at somewhere around the age of 40 all ball players start to break down. How long this will be for Hernandez is subject to a lot of speculation since nobody knows exactly how old he is. It could be this year or it could be five years from now. That adds a big question mark to this two-year deal.

The big question mark after all of this is simple: Are the Sox a better team now than they were at the end of the 2004 season?

There is no good answer because so many of the players are themselves question marks. The bullpen appears to be much stronger with the addition of Dustin Hermanson and Luis Vizcaino. With Shingo Takatsu the designated closer, the Sox pen should be in good shape.

Then there are the questions raised last week with the acquisition of Scott Podsednik for Carlos Lee. Will we see the Podsednik of 2003 with a .379 on-base percentage, or will we see last year’s .313 OBP? Podsednik has said he is aware of what he did wrong last season, so there is a good chance he’ll look more like the rookie sensation of two seasons back.

We raised questions last week about Jermaine Dye, too, and there are plenty of them. However, one thing is certain. Dye, as long as he stays off the disabled list, is a far better option in right field than the tag team of Joe Borchard and Timo Perez. Borchard was so bad offensively last year that we created the “Borchard line.” Whereas the “Mendoza line” (named for the weak-hitting Mario Mendoza a couple of decades back) was a .200 average, the Borchard line was set at the very special level of .150.

The real problem still is the question marks that Kenny Williams has yet to address. We pointed those out repeatedly during the 2004 season, and they are still here. Three quarters of the infield is a question mark.

Joe Crede seems to be a September hitter based on his last two seasons. Advertised as a similar player to Robin Ventura, he has pretty much lived up to his billing defensively. However, his offense has fallen far short of Ventura’s. In 2003 they blamed an undetected virus. There have been no excuses offered for 2004 except that he has a problem with his swing that he and hitting coach Greg Walker are working on.

Shortstop Juan Uribe had a great start and a nice finish in 2004. But the middle of the season was horrendous. His tanking coincided with the Sox going down the toilet following the loss of Magglio Ordoñez and Frank Thomas. Uribe needs to be much more consistent in 2005.

Willie Harris started out the 2004 season looking like the best base stealer the Sox have had since Rudy Law. Then he quit trying to steal. He had 9 or 10 stolen bases by Memorial Day, but he finished the season with just 19. What happened? Finding out will be the job of new coach Tim Raines.

With the speed of Podsednik and Raines on the bases, the Sox might be able to overcome the loss of both Ordoñez and Carlos Lee. If you can get enough guys on second and third, you don’t need to rely on the three run homer as much as the Sox have had to in the past. At least that’s the thinking of Williams and his manager Ozzie Guillen.

One more question mark remains regarding players: Will the tandem of Ben Davis and Jamie Burke be enough behind the plate? Neither is going to be compared to Johnny Bench, but the fans will compare them to the man they replaced, Miguel Olivo. A lot of eyes will be trained on Seattle to see how Olivo develops with the Mariners. If he improves over last year and the Davis-Burke team is no better than last year, a lot of fingers will be pointing at Williams.

The Sox had an offense last year that scored 823 runs and pounded out 242 home runs. This year the Sox will be without several of those sluggers, including Lee, Ordoñez, and Jose Valentin. The Sox will have much less pop, and the emphasis has shifted to getting on base, advancing runners, and driving them by means other than the long ball.

To do so, Dye must stay off the DL and hit like he has in the past. Podsednik needs to get on base at the rate he did in 2003. Harris needs to be a more consistent hitter and to use his speed on the basepaths. Paul Konerko needs to hit as well on the road as he did at home last year. Joe Crede just needs to hit. Uribe needs to be more consistent throughout the season with his hitting. Davis and Burke need to show they are major league caliber catchers. Aaron Rowand needs to show that 2004 wasn’t a fluke season. It would also be a plus if Frank Thomas comes back from surgery sometime during spring training so he can work on getting his swing back.

In other words, at the moment the Sox are in their usual situation: lots of questions and too few answers. It’s enough to make you say, “Bah! Humbug!”


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 hvickery@svs.com.

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