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Hail To The Placeholders

Many years ago I was teaching fourth- and fifth-graders math, or arithmetic to be more precise. Managing to stay one lesson ahead of the eager scholars, I used the term "placeholders" to explain what to insert in the tens or hundreds column, when, in fact, there was nothing there. Not surprisingly, zero was and remains the placeholder.

I'm unaware if math teachers today continue to utilize the term "placeholders," but the world of baseball, thank you very much, easily can embrace the concept.

For instance, judging from social media, Nomar Mazara is very much a placeholder today as the regular right-fielder for the White Sox. The impatient and frequently ignorant Tweeters complain that Mazara is merely holding the right-field real estate open when in reality it is empty. General manager Rick Hahn no doubt figured that Mazara would be a respectable integer - let's say a 5 - when he traded minor leaguer Steele Walker to Texas for the 25-year-old Mazara. Mazara had averaged 20 home runs the prior four seasons while batting .261. Not only that, but the Sox lineup filled with hitters from the right side made the lefty Mazara relatively attractive.

I doubt whether Mazara's first home run of the season in Saturday's 5-0 blanking of the Reds will silence his critics. That will take more time than this 60-game season allows, although if Mazara comes to life during the post-season he would vastly improve his chances to be loved. That seems to be the rationale of the most vocal and cruel critics.

Prior to the rebuild, Hahn's strategy was to engineer trades and free-agent signings to bring in position players like Todd Frazier, Jimmy Rollins and Brett Lawrie along with pitchers James Shields, Mat Latos and closer David Robertson, all of whom occupied prominent places at the outset of the 2016 season. Hahn had followed this strategy for enlisting Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija, Geovany Soto, among others, when Robin Ventura was the manager. Yonder Alonso came along after Ventura vanished.

There was only one problem with this venture: It didn't work. Aside from Robertson, a few provided a boost, but taken altogether, there was no magical elixir. The 2016 team finished a less-than-mediocre 78-84; Ventura retired to California and Chris Sale was dispatched to Boston for prospects Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and two others. Hence the Five-Year Plan was hatched. It had worked on the other side of town so the template already existed.

And now, just four years into the rebuild, the White Sox prepare for their first post-season appearance since 2008. Nevertheless, only the uninformed would argue that the team doesn't have deficits that manager Rickey Renteria must take into account. The product is unfinished, but Renteria knows how to deal with placeholders. He's had ample practice.

The cupboard was bare when Renteria was promoted from bench coach to manager upon Ventura's departure. The lone proven major leaguer was José Abreu, the leading contender for MVP this season. José Quintana was dealt to the Cubs mid-season in Renteria's first year, resulting in the bounty of Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, but this wasn't a quick fix. More seasoning was required.

Think of the placeholders offered to Renteria when it came to pitching. The Sox trotted out the likes of Derek Holland, Miguel Gonzalez, Mike Pelfry, Ivan Nova, Dylan Covey and the aforementioned James Shields on a regular basis. With the exception of Covey, they all had big league experience. The possibility of any of them regaining their previous efficiency was a risk Hahn easily could take since he had little choice. The youngsters simply weren't ready, and shelling out millions for free agents wouldn't have made much difference. Rebuilds depend on placeholders. They are part of the process.

While placeholders unfairly can be labeled bums and nobodies, there is much to like about them. Remember "Rickey's Boys Don't Quit?" When Matt Davidson, Daniel Palka, Nicky Delmonico, Ryan Cordell, Trayce Thompson, Tyler Saladino, Charlie Tilson and others saw playing time the past few seasons, you had a bunch of young guys living their dream of making the major leagues.

They ran full speed on routine ground balls. They showed up every day to put in the work to improve. They hustled on and off the field. They picked the brains of the older guys for any tidbits they could digest to help them improve. They valued every at-bat and defensive replacement when given a chance.

Some even showed promise. Davidson's 26 home runs in 2017 were second only to Abreu's 33. Palka slammed 27 dingers two years ago before struggling to get so much as a single last season at the big league level. He did, however, hit another 27 round-trippers at Charlotte, and today he's playing in the Korean League. Palka is just 28, a placeholder vying for just one more shot.

All these fringe players have filled an important role in the Sox' success. They plugged the gaps while the Lucas Giolitos, Luis Roberts and Nick Madrigals piled up valuable experience in the minor leagues. Meanwhile, someone had to take the field at The Grate. The games needed to be played the last three seasons, and the placeholders not only were the willing participants but expressed their gratitude by giving 110 percent in hopes that they might escape the placeholder label to become a legitimate major leaguer.

Despite dropping two of three games in Cincinnati over the weekend, the Sox are on the cusp of being a very good team. Only Tampa Bay, The Little Small Market Team That Could, has a higher winning percentage than the Sox in the American League.

The Sox also proved their mettle last week by taking three of four games from the defending division champion Twins at The Grate. The Sox were the ones with the swagger.

Leaving Mazara out of the mix, you don't find any placeholders for the other seven positions. It would be nice if DH Edwin Encarnación would produce more than an occasional home run. The good news is that valuable placeholders Adam Engel and Jarrod Dyson and either of the catchers, James McCann or Yasmani Grandal, could fill in for Encarnación.

Which brings us to pitching. The bullpen has been strong with heretofore unknowns Matt Foster and Codi Heuer helping the relievers post a 3.59 ERA in the team's 53 games. Last season that number was 4.33 over a full schedule. However, because Kopech opted out, Carlos Rodon can't get healthy, and you never know which Reynaldo Lopez will show up, the starting staff is shallow.

There are a number of young arms - top draft choice Garrett Crochet, he of the three-digit fastball, has created quite a buzz in just two innings of work - in the organization to engender a dose of optimism although after Trevor Bauer, whom the Sox beat Saturday, the free agent market is somewhat thin for pitchers.

How high this team can fly will be determined by starting pitching, not only this season but in the near future. Take your pick of Dane Dunning, Jonathan Stiever, Cease and Lopez. Chances are one or more will take the ball every fifth day and get batters out.

Meanwhile, the days of placeholders have pretty much been exhausted for this ballclub. A few years from now we won't even recall their names. While we still remember many of them, a tip of the hat would be appropriate.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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