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WSI News - News Watch

Sox must address defensive problems

March 26th, By Phil Rogers; Chicago Tribune

There are no secrets in baseball. Long seasons reveal warts. The White Sox can't hide their knack for giving away games.

Cleveland outfielder Matt Lawton, who spent the previous seven seasons with Minnesota, expects a three-team race in the American League Central involving those teams and the White Sox. His evaluation of Jerry Manuel's team is telling.

"Chicago's definitely going to be there," Lawton said. "They definitely have gotten better. I think their weakness is defense, and making their pitchers work too hard."

Lawton has paid attention. Bingo. For five years in a row, the White Sox have ranked in the AL's bottom five in fielding. The last time they were in the AL's top five? That was in 1986.

"It drives me nuts," general manager Ken Williams said. "Yesterday one of the players in the trainer's room was talking to some new guys. He said, 'We can always tell when we start playing bad defense. We see Kenny leave his booth and he's on the treadmill.' I told him he's right, I have to burn off stress. You guys will kill me."

While the Twins have developed young Gold Glovers Torii Hunter and Doug Mientkiewicz, and have more in the making, Robin Ventura was the last White Sox player who even was mentioned as a candidate.

Manuel was expected to bring a National League influence to Chicago, but his Sox teams have been more successful in outscoring opponents than stopping opponents from scoring. Like many AL managers, Manuel consistently has overlooked the defensive shortcomings of good hitters: Carlos Lee, Jose Valentin, Ray Durham and Frank Thomas, to name a few.

That has been as true as ever this spring. While the White Sox are crushing pitchers—scoring 7.5 runs per game with an obscene on-base percentage of better than .400—they lead the AL in errors (41) and unearned runs allowed (30).

To put the unearned run total in context, that's about nine times St. Louis' total and only 12 fewer than Minnesota allowed during the 2001 season. The Twins and Yankees are the only major-league teams who haven't ranked among the five worst fielding teams in their leagues in any of the last 10 seasons.

"These guys pride themselves on their fielding," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "That's the first priority here. It's just what we believe in here.

"It's not like we have to go out there and make guys take ground balls. When position players [reported early], guys were complaining that all we had them doing was hitting. I had about 10 guys come to me and say they wanted to take grounders. That's what we do."

When Manuel was hired, he said he would emphasize team baseball. He wanted players to sweat the small stuff, like turning double plays and hitting the cutoff man.

"I'll tell guys, 'I'm not here to challenge you, I'm here to change you,'" Manuel said in December 1997. "Challenge is a mind thing. Change is from the heart. If you can get it in your heart, you can change."

It has been Manuel, along with second-year GM Williams, who has had to do much of the changing. They seem resigned to the limitations of their offense-first players.

"For me, that's a difficult thing to come around to ascribing to," Williams said. "When I envisioned putting a team together, I always thought about the old adage of pitching and defense. But it's different now. I can get some defensive players at the positions we've had problems with, and we can come into Comiskey Park and watch us score one or two runs night after night."

Manuel and his coaches have worked with Lee, Valentin, Durham and others. But it's difficult to smooth rough edges of big-leaguers.

"You want better fielders?" Colorado manager Buddy Bell once said. "I'll tell you how you improve your fielders. You get better players."

Williams has tried that too. The most questioned move of his tenure was importing veteran shortstop Royce Clayton to replace Valentin, who committed 36 errors in 2000.

Clayton's horrific start at the plate contributed to the White Sox's 14-29 unraveling last season, but he hung in mentally to break Ron Hansen's club record for fielding percentage by a shortstop. Center fielder Kenny Lofton, signed as a free agent in January, has won four Gold Gloves, the most recent in 1996.

Both those additions come with fielding downsides, however. Lofton replaces the athletic Chris Singleton, who along with Clayton was one of the Sox's few above-average fielders. Valentin, who was a catalyst to the Central title two years ago, remains a liability wherever he plays. He's a regular at third base, where he had played only two major-league games before last season.

Tough love is required if the Sox want to become what they haven't been since Tony La Russa was their manager—a team that wins games with its gloves.

Williams knows he could improve the fielding overnight. It would mean sacrificing the offensive potential of Lee, who may have just scratched the surface by averaging 21 homers and 87 RBIs in three seasons, and finding a way to play rookie third baseman Joe Crede.

Williams has lots of options in left field, the immediate one being a platoon of Aaron Rowand and Jeff Liefer. The Sox's analysis shows such a platoon would replace Lee's production. Rowand is an excellent fielder. Future options in left include top prospect Joe Borchard, Mario Valenzuela and second baseman-outfielder Willie Harris.

Lee could bring the Sox some pitching in a trade. But first he must restore the trade value lost when he hit .228 in the second half last season.

While Crede's bat is a question mark, no one doubts he would be a significant defensive upgrade. Baseball America has ranked him as the best fielding third baseman in his league the last three seasons, and his play this spring was spectacular at times. But for Crede to get playing time, Valentin would have to be benched or traded.

Another option is trading Durham and shuffling Valentin to second base. The most likely option, however, is dealing Clayton and putting Valentin back at shortstop.

Sure, the increased significance of Valentin's role probably would offset the defensive improvement offered by Crede. But that would be the kind of move that has made the White Sox the team they are.

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