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WHITESOXINTERACTIVE.COM. Totally Biased Coverage of the Chicago White Sox!

On the Brink 

By Mark Liptak 

“On the brink”….we heard that term, or something like it a lot in 2009. “They’ll get hot any day now,” “there’s plenty of time,” “they’re close” and so on. We heard it from fans at White Sox Interactive. We heard it from Ozzie Guillen…we heard it from various players. We even heard it a time or two from some of the media associated with the Sox. Yet when the dust cleared on the 2009 season, the only thing the Sox were “on the brink” of was their second disappointing season in the past three years. Particularly galling to fans was the way it ended and a team that apparently stopped caring long before the final game in Detroit.

How could it happen?

First off there are no straightforward complete answers. Everything is interrelated. Bad defense makes the pitching staff work harder…bad pitching makes the offense work harder, bad offense (especially against mediocre / garbage type pitchers) makes everyone press and try to do more than they are capable of, to pick up the slack. However there are some areas that clearly have to be improved before the 2010 season begins. The Sox have some of the pieces in place to contend not only in a mediocre division but for the American League pennant, but to really be a player next season Kenny Williams needs to finish the job he started around June 1st

Here are the areas that need to be upgraded in no particular order.

NO KILLER INSTINCT

In late July, I was exchanging e-mails with a high ranking member of the White Sox front office and one of the things that caught my eye was this. This person said the biggest issue with the team was that the Sox had “no killer instinct.”(direct quote) Jack McDowell said the same thing (using different language) in his blog, two months into the season.

At least one member of the front office sees this apparently… now will they finally do something about it? Guys like Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle, the traded Jim Thome and so on are some of the finest people you’ll ever want to meet and damn fine ballplayers to boot…but that doesn’t mean they are the type of leaders the Sox need. They lead by example, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are times when someone needs to throw all the postgame food on the floor after a loss (or two or three or twenty like this season) to some of the worst teams in the American League. If a rookie doesn’t have his head on straight (I’m looking at you Chris Getz) in the field, somebody needs to get on him for it. If a player (Scott Podsednik, Jermaine Dye) suddenly becomes a basket case because the Sox went out and got another outfielder, he needs to be called out by a teammate or if the Sox are going through an embarrassing stretch of games at Toronto or at Oakland or at Minnesota, said person will work to do something to fix it and not just tell the media in so many words, ‘that’s the way it is…’  

Call them ‘clubhouse lawyers,’ call them ‘red-asses,’ call them whatever you want, but the Sox need some of them.

Perhaps the Sox think that job belongs completely to Ozzie Guillen. Maybe so, but nothing makes a greater impact on someone than when they are told something by a contemporary, a teammate, a person in the trenches going through the same thing they are.

Ozzie Guillen has been with the team for six years now as manager. Frankly the players may be tuning him out (not intentionally mind you…it just happens over time), some vocal player leadership voices are needed to keep the intensity level up in the clubhouse because it is simply not acceptable to have as many desultory performances as the White Sox had in 2009. Where are the Jim Landis’s, the Jack McDowell’s, the Carlton Fisk’s, the Ozzie Guillen’s (player version), and the Greg Hibbard’s in this current group of players? People who will do or say what needs to be done when the team is in a slump, or not giving their best effort.  Exactly… they just aren’t there and they haven’t been since the end of the 2005 season. Kenny Williams in his last regular season meeting with the media said “yes” when asked if this club was mentally weak. If they had some dynamic, forthcoming personalities in the clubhouse, they might not be.

THE TALENT GAP

Starting the season the White Sox had a very undistinguished group of players on the roster. Many Sox fans openly wondered what was going on when Kenny Williams, in a buyer’s free agent market, basically sat on the sidelines after unloading players like Nick Swisher, Orlando Cabrera, Javy Vasquez, Joe Crede and Juan Uribe. I don’t know of many Sox fans who didn’t think those players had to be moved for various logical reasons, but the issue was, that they weren’t replaced with equal or better talent. For the first six weeks a large percentage of the roster was composed of players like “Corky” Miller, Jose Contreras, Brent Lillibridge, Josh Fields, Mike MacDougal, Lance Broadway, Dewayne Wise, Bartolo Colon, Brian Anderson, Jack Egbert and Wilson Betemit.

The talent level was far below what fans had come to expect this decade and the Sox paid the price getting off to a poor start. Games in April count as much as games in August and the poor start put the team behind the eight-ball right from the beginning.  By mid May they were seven games under .500. The Sox were spinning their wheels until the calendar turned to June and Kenny began making changes.

Of course the overriding question was, why did Kenny do what he did in the off season?

Two possible answers have emerged.

The first is that Kenny simply miscalculated on a policy, for the second time in three seasons and honestly thought that players like Miller (.176 career average), Wise (.214) and Betemit (.260) for example, could play better than their careers had indicated. 

The second and more likely reason is that Kenny was told by ownership, ‘we’re cutting payroll significantly to brace ourselves for a loss of sponsorships and fans due to the economy’ and he did the best he could.

In the spring Jerry Reinsdorf had a rare interview with the Sox beat writers and clearly brought out his concern over the sponsors that could be gone after the season. In fact the Sox had the second largest payroll reduction in MLB, about 25 million dollars (while raising ticket prices by the way)… only San Diego cut more. Apparently that concern was so overriding ownership was willing to jeopardize the 2009 season. Not only risk it on the field but off it. Bad seasons do not make fans want to get tickets or entice advertisers to stick around.  That’s is entirely short-term thinking.

So how was Kenny able to convince ownership to suddenly start spending money on players like Jake Peavy and Alex Rios?

My guess is that Kenny saw what was happening and basically said to ownership, ‘if the season continues to go like it’s looking, we could be losing more money than you think next year with season and individual ticket sales falling significantly as well as advertisers leaving. If you want any fans in this park for the last few months this year, we need to do something to reverse this trend.’ Then he waited while the people in charge decided what they wanted to do.

Fortunately they said to go ahead and the Sox 2010 situation looks a lot better than it did six months ago…but that didn’t change what happened the first seven weeks. Kenny doesn’t get a complete pass because his hands were tied.

The talent was simply not there to start the season anyway you want to justify it.

TAKING THE 5th

There are actually some fans at White Sox Interactive who claim the 5th starter spot doesn’t matter much. For them; a history lesson…

In 1996 the Sox stormed out of the gate behind a powerful offense and a solid group of starters to be 40-21 on June 10th. They finished the season at 85-77 blowing the lead they had in the wild card race the final month to the Orioles. Naturally there was more than one reason for it but this didn’t help. Sox 5th starters that season began 28 games and went 3-12. Those starters were Joe Magrane (8 games), Kirk McCaskill (4), Mike Bertotti (2), Mike Sirotka (2), Luis Andujar (5), Jason Bere (5), Scott Ruffcorn (1) and Marvin Freeman (1).

Fast forward to 2003… With 18 games to go the Sox had a two game lead on Minnesota. They finished the season four games out. Like in 1996, there were a number of reasons for their inability to lock down a post season spot. Like 1996 this didn’t help the cause.  Sox 5th starters that season began 27 games and went 3-11. Those starters were Danny Wright (15 games, 0-7), Josh Stewart (5), Mike Porzio (3) and Neal Cotts (4). 

Doesn’t matter some say? It helped cost the Sox two post season appearances!

The point is that if your 5th starters are going to pitch a significant number of games usually 25-30 a year you damn well better have someone who can deliver a record better than what the Sox have been sending out. If you don’t, it will cost you.

The back end of the rotation this season went 16-29! They had pitchers who were overweight (Bartolo Colon), couldn’t make it out of the 5th inning (Clayton Richard); coming off basically two years of inactivity due to injury (Freddy Garcia) or no one knew how old they really were (Jose Contreras).

That’s no way to run a railroad or win a division.

There’s also another group at White Sox Interactive who actually said (paraphrasing) ‘well no one has a good 5th starter, not even the Yankees…’

So the White Sox shouldn’t have an edge over the rest of baseball by getting one?

How much of an advantage could it be to actually have a reasonable chance to win the regular season games that the 5th starter will pitch? That’s a significant number of games you’re looking at here, 25 to 30 in a season. The Sox have basically been throwing them away. Garcia based on his late season performance may be able to grab the job next year but the fact still remains he’s barely pitched the last two years. Can he make it through a season? Did Colon? Did Contreras??

If Kenny Williams does nothing else this off season, he needs to fix this.

And to be clear, we’re not talking about a 20 game winner, or an All Star, or a guy making 15 million a season. We’re talking about a competent veteran who can give you some innings and keep you in the game. With the off season expected to tilt in favor of the buyer again, there should be pitchers out there who fit the bill for a reasonable price. Kenny at least needs to take a look at the market.

Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy and John Danks are a very solid quartet who can smother an opponent in the postseason…the trick is of course, getting to that postseason.

THE INCONSISTENT (IMPOTENT) OFFENSE

In 2009 the White Sox lost a number of games to pitchers with losing records and high ERA’s. In 2009 the White Sox lost a number of games to starting pitchers they never faced before. In 2009 the White Sox lost at least 14 games where they held an opponent to three runs or less. In 2009 the Sox had at least 31 games where they scored one run…or less. They had 67 games (or 41% of the schedule) where they scored three runs or less!

The common theme in these scenarios? Maybe it’s an offense that still took a lot of nights off and was wildly inconsistent. 

The White Sox worked to improve team speed over the off season, they worked to try to improve on executing the fundamentals / situational hitting (without a lot of success mind you), they finally listened to Ozzie Guillen who for the previous three off seasons was quoted numerous times talking about ‘balance,’ ‘strike outs’ and ‘solo home runs.’

But the bottom line is, this is still a franchise that relies on slow power hitters to drive the offense. When they are hitting home runs, everything’s great…when they aren’t; the Sox have trouble scoring runs.

As I’ve stated in the past, this really isn’t the fault of the players themselves. Guys like Paul Konerko, the departed Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye just to name three, have made a great career for themselves by being who they are. The issue is the fact that Kenny Williams has assembled so many of the same type of hitters on the team and the issue had gotten more pronounced since the Thome acquisition before 2006. Namely free swingers, guys who don’t have a lot of plate discipline, guys who can’t score from second on a single; guys who generally hit home runs or strikeout.

Add to the issue is that fact that those players are getting older, slower (if that’s possible) and their production is falling off.

What the White Sox need if they intend to continue this organizational policy, is players like they had in the early part of the decade, guys like Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, Jose Valentin and a younger Konerko… guys who would hit a ton of home runs but also for the most part, hit for a high average.  Sure they’d strike out a lot but there’s a big difference between hitting .290 with 35 home runs and .250 with 25 home runs. The current group of sluggers / regulars falls into the second category.

Honestly this is one area I don’t think Kenny can solve, even if he had unlimited resources. Those types of players don’t hit the market often and the Sox need a number of them. Most expect at least one more of the previously mentioned middle of the order sluggers to be gone this off season. The question is… who replaces them?

The second issue with the offense is the leadoff spot. Scott Podsednik came back from the dead to save the Sox in many respects this year. Can he do it again? At his age and with his injury history?  Is Kenny willing to gamble that he can? And even if he does and Podsednik has another good season in 2010, he’s not the long term answer to the issue.

The Sox need someone who is more reliable at the top of the order and can stabilize that situation for the next three to five years. Like with sluggers who hit home runs AND hit for a high average they aren’t falling off trees but this year there could be some available. 

Chone Figgins will be a free agent. He can lead off, play multiple positions, and supply speed. He is exactly what the Sox need to start generating a more consistent offense in 2010. Brian Roberts may be on the market, ditto for Carl Crawford. Kenny Williams has to think and think hard about getting back to basics like he had in 2005 when the White Sox could beat you with a bunt, a bloop or a blast. If he doesn’t change the dynamics, the offense could be much more inconsistent next season (if that’s possible…) as the sluggers get another year older and the younger players still lack plate discipline.

THE DEFENSE RESTS 

Which they did…often…to the tune of being one of the worst in the field in MLB. The Sox were among the worst teams in terms of making errors and allowing unearned runs. Obviously when you give a major league team extra outs, sooner or later they will take advantage and this happened on a regular basis to the Sox in 2009.

Oddly enough however, this area figures to improve even if Kenny Williams doesn’t lift a finger in the off season.

Gordon Beckham and Chris Getz, assuming both are back in the same positions next year, figure to get better. A full season of Alex Rios in the outfield will help. A healthy Carlos Quentin easily improves his range and defense. If Alexei Ramirez gets his head together and focuses on every play he can be an outstanding defensive shortstop.

Now if Kenny somehow can nab a player like Chone Figgins (playing Gold Glove caliber defense this year) or a Carl Crawford, who’s already won a Gold Glove… all the better.

Defense is important and with everything else facing this team Ozzie Guillen and his coaches have got to demand a better account of this both physically and mentally in 2010.

SUMMERY

Considering all the issues and all the holes on this team it’s amazing they did as well as they did, but sooner or later you knew it was going to catch up with them, even in a mediocre division.

The franchise has made solid strides for 2010 already. Kenny Williams has done some of the heavy lifting but the work is not over yet. There are holes he simply must fill this off season starting with a decent 5th starter and then figuring out the leadoff spot. He’s probably also going to have to replace one or two of the middle of the order guys and I don’t know how he can pull that off. He needs to add pieces to his bullpen.

But one thing is clear, Williams will never do what the majority expects and he’s in it to win. 2007 and 2009 have got to be sticking in his throat and he certainly doesn’t like the feeling, added to the fact that the temperature is rising on him as fans and the media are beginning to ask questions about his decisions in two of the previous three years. It’s going to be an interesting off season.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~    

If you have any questions, opinions, comments or criticisms of the following story, feel free to contact me at mliptak1@msn.com


Editor's Note:  Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work.  He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana) and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years.  "Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.  

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