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Muscled Up

Baseball, being a game rich with numbers, has a new statistic in this shortened season that just might be the one analytic which will determine whether all 60 games for each ballclub will be played. Of course, I'm referring to the number of positive tests for COVID-19 that potentially could sideline an entire team if folks aren't careful.

So far the results appear promising although this virus doesn't differentiate between ballplayers and factory workers where the track record is alarming and dangerous. Tests for players and other personnel last week totaled 10,458, and just six - five players - came back positive. That's so far below the Mendoza Line that you have to reach back to pitcher Bob Buhl, who in 1962 went hitless in 70 at-bats with the Braves and Cubs, for a close comparison. We can only dream of the days when world health emulated Buhl's futility.

Among the latest athletes to test positive was Yasiel Puig, who was poised to sign a free-agent contract with Atlanta to play right field after Nick Markakis, a very capable 14-year veteran, became one of 14 players and 11 umpires to opt out of this season. Markakis has banked almost $120 million in his career, so his ability to feed his family is not a mystery.

Last week's announcement could indicate that safeguards have been effective since the opening of what's called Summer Camp or Spring Training 2.0. Nevertheless, 26 of the 30 teams have reported at least one positive test of either a player or staff in the last three weeks.

So far the White Sox have been fortunate because third baseman Yoan Moncada, who tested positive with minimal symptoms, now is back with the team after two consecutive negative tests. Providing that none of the major contributors to the Sox lineup becomes sidelined by the virus, the team figures to win over the 31.5 victories the oddsmakers have installed for the local crew.

Defending AL Central champion Minnesota, whom the Sox will host in the season opener on Friday evening, is predicted to win 34 games while Cleveland is listed at 32.5. All of which means that the division race in the short season will be close.

Diverting for now to other statistics far less intimidating than COVID testing, let's consider the rage of all baseball, the home run. Last season the Sox hit 182 of them, eclipsing the total of just five other teams.

This summer's edition will feature far greater muscle thanks in great part to the addition of DH/first baseman Edwin Encarnación, who has hit more homers (297) the last eight seasons than anyone in the game. The Twins' Nelson Cruz is close behind at 295, and superman Mike Trout has clubbed 280, but no one else is close.

We also should note that Encarnación has averaged 106 RBIs since 2012, playing for four teams in ballparks with dimensions not unlike The Grate.

Encarnación turned 37 last January, but age doesn't seem to have slowed him down. He's averaged 141 games played in the already-mentioned eight previous seasons. Apparently general manager Rick Hahn agrees with this assessment since he's paying Encarnación $12 million this season (prorated, of course) with a club option for the same purse for 2021.

A right-handed hitter, Edwin's lifetime batting average against righties is a respectable .263, two ticks above what he hits against port-siders. Seeing as a third (20 games) of this season's schedule will be against NL Central opponents, we should also note that the Dominican strongman has slashed .272/.360/.922 in interleague play.

Many power hitters such as Encarnación have enjoyed productive years at the end of their careers. Frank Thomas, the Big Hurt, was exactly that in the glorious 2005 season after which Kenny Williams released him. Not a good idea as it turned out. Thomas, as a 38-year-old, signed with Oakland and hit 39 home runs and drove in 114 in 2006 followed by another fine season in Toronto a year later.

David Ortiz averaged 35 homers his last four seasons, retiring when he was 40. Barry Bonds slowed down a bit, hitting 118 dingers from age 37 until he quit at 42, but he also slashed a mind-boggling .325/.534/1.233 in that time period. Harold Baines hit 25 homers, drove in 103 runs, and hit .312 when he was 40. The list goes on and on. The point is that Encarnación has plenty left in the tank, and now he's a White Sox. How cool is that!

Furthermore, talking about increased production, new catcher Yasmani Grandal accounted for 28 home runs last season in Milwaukee, the fourth straight year he's hit at least 22. New right fielder Nomar Mazara, acquired from Texas for minor leaguer Steele Walker, has averaged 20 homers for his four seasons as a Ranger. Keep in mind that Mazara is only 25 and still developing. Also consider that White Sox right fielders last season accounted for just six home runs, and you can easily understand the potential for increased pop in the lineup that Hahn has assembled.

Jose Abreu led the league last season with 123 RBIs while hitting 33 round-trippers while Eloy Jimenez, despite two trips to the IL last season, still hit 31. Moncada accounted for 25 while Tim Anderson added 18.

And then, ladies and gentleman, you have the most heralded White Sox prospect since Frank Thomas's debut 30 years ago. Like Thomas, centerfielder Luis Robert is entering The Show at age 22 after 200 minor league contests, about the same number Frank played. Playing last season at three levels, Robert amassed 32 homers, 92 RBIs while slashing .328/.376/1.001.

Prudent people remain cautious when predicting stardom for "can't miss" youngsters, but this kid already is creating a huge buzz that only became louder last Saturday when he stroked two mammoth home runs in an intrasquad game at The Grate.

Those followed his memorable four-bagger a week earlier while falling flat on his back.

After striking out in his first at bat Sunday against the Cubs, he lifted a single into short right field before burying a double into the Wrigley foliage in the Sox six-run fifth inning, contributing to a 7-3 White Sox triumph.

At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, the Cuban youngster could be the fastest athlete on the team which is lovely news since he's be playing between Jimenez and Mazara, two fellows not to be mistaken for gazelles.

If the White Sox were to equal their home run production of last season on a pro-rated basis, they'll hit 67 dingers between Friday and the end of September. They should pass that around Labor Day.

Of course, power hitting is just one facet of the game, although you'd think it was about 90 percent judging from all the attention the long ball receives. But on the cusp of opening this strange and otherworldly season, we're excused for indulging ourselves. A power-packed lineup with big, strong, sculpted athletes is such a novelty on the South Side.

Very possibly only COVID-19 can hold back these guys, and we already have a potential red flag in the mix due to Mazara, who was held out of Sunday's contest with the Cubs because he was "a little bit under the weather," according to manager Rick Renteria. This is not helpful. Are we to infer that 1) Mazara has tested positive, 2) Mazara has tested negative, and he's just not feeling well, 3) he's been tested but no results yet, or 4) what a hangover the kid had on Sunday? We don't need to hear about upper or lower body injuries. With so many unknowns and misinformation emanating from people in the highest places, we deserve the cold, hard truth at least from the ballclub that we've loyally supported for decades.

Aspirations, excitement, and hopes are riding high even though the season is truncated, different, and maybe even illegitimate. At least let us know if all signs continue to point up, or if we simply have another balloon that's about to pop.


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

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