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Friday, September 17, 2010

R.I.P. 2010 White Sox

Way back in March, I very tentatively predicted the White Sox to win a tight AL Central race.  As it turned out, I wasn't terribly far off, but in early June I was feeling pretty silly.  At the start of play on June 9th, the Sox were 9.5 games back, trailing both the Twins and Tigers and 9 games under .500.  They looked a lot like their crosstown rivals - old legs, slow bats, and tired arms - and Ozzie's preseason promise, that they would return to the style that led to their championship in 2005, seemed like mere posturing.  But Ozzie kept telling the naysayers, "There's a lot of season left."

From the middle of June all the way to the All-Star Break, the White Sox became, to everybody's great surprise, the best team in baseball.  First they had a modest four-game winning streak, their first of the year. Than they reeled off eleven in a row.  Than, only a week later, nine more.  All told, from the 9th of June to the 15th of July they went 25-5 and they took over first place, where they remained for more than a month.

However, with the exception of a seven-game winning streak earlier in the month, the wheels have completely come off down the stretch.  The Sox have played pretty much .500 ball for the last six weeks and you can't make up ground on a good team like the Twins playing .500 ball.  And you especially can't keep losing to that team, as the Sox have done all year long, capped off by a three-game sweep at the Cell this week.  All told, Chicago went 5-14 this season against their division rival, easily their lowest winning percentage against any team.

Although they aren't heading back to the postseason, I think Ozzie, Ken Williams, and the rest of the franchise can be very pleased with their performance in 2010.  They will certainly finish with a winning record, and may approach 90 wins.  "Ozzie-ball," loosely characterized as the emphasis on durable starting pitching, aggressive baserunning, and swinging for the fences, has had the predicted Renaissance.  Juan Pierre currently leads the major leagues with 55 steals, Alex Rios is 10th with 33, and   Omar Vizquel, Alexei Ramirez, and Andruw Jones will all finish in the double digits.  Paul Konerko has had a resurgent, MVP-caliber season, hitting .322 with 36 HR and 104 RBI.  Rios, Ramirez, Jones, and Carlos Quentin have also chipped in considerably in the power department.  The Sox accomplished a relatively rare feat, finished in the top five in the AL in both homers (4th) and steals (3rd).

Perhaps more important than anything they do on offense, however, is the fact that the ChiSox staff consistently pitches deep into games.  The front three of Mark Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd, though not among the league leaders in wins or ERA, having all been solid workhorses.  None have missed starts and all are on pace for 200+ innings.  The ability of this rotation to keep their team in games is evidenced by the fact they are fourth in the AL in relief wins, even though they twelfth in the league in relief innings.

Ken Williams once again proved himself to be one of the most creative, competitive, and effective GMs in the game.  Last season he gambled on Alex Rios, taking the outfielder's massive contract off waivers from Toronto.  Rios played horribly for the Sox down the stretch during '09, but this year he has been among their biggest contributors and, at 29, he future once again looks pretty bright.  Pierre, Vizquel, and Jones were added for a combined salary under $5 Million and all have played key roles.  The White Sox would not have hung around the race for this long without them.  A similar claim could be made for the cheap veteran pitchers Williams brought onboard last season, but who really paid off this year, J. J. Putz and Freddy Garcia.  As the pennant race neared, Williams was aggressive, as usual, netting Edwin Jackson, who has been outstanding since his arrival (3-1, 2.94 ERA) and Manny Ramirez, who hasn't been able to rekindle the September magic his brought with him to L.A. in 2008.

Sure, Williams wasn't perfect.  Mark Teahen and Mark Kotsay were marked busts.  As was Jake Peavy. But, as is common with Williams, he hedges his bets well enough that the franchise will not be sabotaged heading forward, even though the current roster is fairly expensive and fairly old.  The Sox have almost a $105 Million payroll this season, but only $75 Million committed next year.

As such, it will be a busy offseason for Kenny.  The Sox have a solid core to build around.  The rotation is set (Buehrle, Danks, Floyd, Jackson, Peavy [hopefully]).  Rios, Quentin, Ramirez, and Gordon Beckham give the lineup a solid young foundation.  Bobby Jenks, Chris Sale, and Matt Thornton will continue to pitch the late innings.  There are, however, three big decisions:

1.)  Paul Konerko will be a free agent.  The White Sox longest tenured player will probably finish in the top five in MVP voting this season, for the first time in his career.  Such production was a steal at $12 Million for 2010.  Konerko is, however, 35-years-old.  He's never been particularly good in the field and the footraces between him and Jim Thome are the stuff of South Side legends.  How much can the White Sox commit to the "face of the franchise" when he is coming off what will almost surely be the best year of his career.  Maybe the Yankee's can pay Jeter for "what he's meant to the franchise," as many are predicting they will, but with less than half as much payroll, the Sox don't have such a luxury.

2.)  J. J. Putz will also be going on the free agent market.  After a disastrous year with the Mets, Putz regained his form in Chicago.  In all likelihood, he will be looking to get another opportunity to close, as he did with great success for the Mariners from '06-'08.  He is the only player in the Sox bullpen with closing experience, beside Bobby Jenks, the current closer, whose performance has declined dramatically over the last three seasons.  The rotund fireballer, Jenks, was once a fan-favorite in Chicago, as he got the last out in the 2005 World Series and had a record-setting streak of perfect innings a couple years later.  He needs only 28 more saves to become the franchise leader, passing Bobby Thigpen.  Don't be surprised, however, if Kenny Williams makes the unsentimental decision of trading (or even releasing) Jenks this offseason, rather than paying an expensive arbitration award for a relief pitcher whose ERA is 4.44.  That could free him up to negotiate with Putz.

3.)  Konerko and Jenks are obviously more talented, but no single player encompasses the soul of White Sox baseball during the Ozzie Guillen era quite like A. J. Pierzynski.  Pierzynski clearly gets off a little on being "the most hated player in the game" and his energy and doggedness are clearly contagious.  And, he is the picture of consistency: good defense, decent power, decent average, and, most importantly, utterly dependable, never making a trip to the D.L.  When the season began, it looked all but certain that it would be Pierzynki's last as a White Sox.  Chicago's top prospect, Tyler Flowers, was coming off a monstrous season at AA.  However, Flowers progress slowed dramatically at AAA, as his OPS dropped more than 200 points, and now one has to question whether he's ready to fill A. J.'s shoes in 2011.  

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