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Olt Days

Ted Williams is credited with the proclamation that "the hardest single thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball," which makes sense since Teddy Ballgame was arguably more skillful at it than anyone who has ever lived.

Most probably Williams' comment was intended to boost his already substantial ego, although as far as anyone knows he never had to elude a charging 300-pound lineman while trying to throw a pinpoint pass to a downfield receiver. Nor did the venerable Williams ever have to sink a three-point buzzer-beater while being guarded by a 6-10 defender.

But Williams had a point. Hitting a baseball clearly is an acquired skill that few of us have mastered. The same could be said of fielding a hard-hit ground ball, as the White Sox too often demonstrate.

Sunday's 7-0 loss to the Twins, giving Minnesota two wins in the three-game weekend series and a 13-6 thumping for the season series, is a case in point. Not only did the Sox display the difficult challenge in striking a speeding sphere with a rounded wood club, being shut out for the 11th time, but they also failed to defend effectively.

Speedy Twins' outfielder Aaron Hicks hit Chris Sale's first pitch to the left of third baseman Mike Olt, who deflected the ball toward shortstop Tyler Saladino, who had no chance to throw out Hicks. Sale retired the next two hitters. Granted, Olt was playing on the infield grass in the event that Hicks laid down a bunt. No one also would argue that the ball wasn't hit sharply. Nevertheless, this is the big leagues, and Olt, and certainly others, have gloved similar grounders and turned them into outs.

Two singles followed, plating Hicks for the Twins' first run, and then Torii Hunter lined a 3-2 Sale pitch into the left-field stands for a four-run lead. Had Olt handled Hicks' grounder, Sale would have escaped unblemished.

Two innings later with two outs, Twins rookie slugger Miguel Sano smoked a Sale delivery to center field, where Adam Eaton took two steps back, then realized the ball was landing four steps in front of him for a base hit. Again, that should have retired the side. Instead Sale was called upon for additional work which included three more hits, accounting for two more runs.

So there the Sox sat, behind by six runs without being charged with an error, but clearly deficient in the defensive department. Sale was gone after three innings, and who would blame him if he wondered what life would be like with a good ballclub behind him.

One Sox defender who has been basically consistent this season is shortstop Alexei Ramirez. He's not about to win a popularity contest at The Cell; he's hitting 24 points below his career average of .274, and his OBP is an unimpressive .281, far below his lifetime mark of .310.

But he does generally pick up the ball. Ramirez has handled 607 chances this season. Of all shortstops, only Elvis Andrus of Texas has more. Alexei's glove touches about 15 percent of all balls put into play against the Sox, and he's been charged with 15 errors, the same number he had for the 2014 season.

There's a statistic called the Range Factor, a measure theoretically to determine how much real estate a fielder covers. Ramirez ranks fourth in this department for all MLB shortstops. So even though Alexei has committed a few miscues on the most inopportune occasions, he compares favorably with major league shortstops of whom there are plenty of good ones, especially young stars such as Houston's Carlos Correa, Detroit's Jose Iglesias, Boston's Xander Bogaerts, and Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons.

Ramirez isn't the best shortstop in baseball, but he is a seasoned veteran who capably handles what I think is the most important position on the field. And that is one reason that this White Sox team will be so difficult to fix.

The Sox have a club option of $10 million to sign Ramirez for one more season. If they do so, he would be the sixth highest paid player on the team behind John Danks, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson and Adam LaRoche. Of course, this assumes that those five will return, which is unlikely.

While $10 million is a lot of money, in the world of baseball, it's doable. If the White Sox had a viable alternative, general manager Rick Hahn no doubt would write Ramirez his buyout check for a million dollars and thank him for his eight years of service on the South Side.

However, the heir apparent is Tim Anderson, the team's top draft choice (17th overall) in 2013, and he isn't ready to become a major league shortstop. Maybe in 2017. Maybe never. But not in 2016. Anderson hit a productive .312 at Birmingham this season, but he also made 25 errors in 110 games, and that won't cut it at The Cell.

Of course, already on the roster are Saladino and Carlos Sanchez, both of whom are shortstops playing third and second base, respectively. But on a team that's been near the bottom in runs scored all season long, inserting either of those .230 hitters as your everyday shortstop in 2016 fails to provide any additional pop. While Saladino and Sanchez have shown they can handle the glove, neither would represent an upgrade over Ramirez.

So Ramirez is likely to stay right where he is because of no viable alternatives and also because the team has more pressing needs, like more punch from their third basemen and catchers. In order to get it, Hahn will have to part with a pitcher or two, most likely Jose Quintana, and hope that Erik Johnson and Frankie Montas can fill the void.

Baltimore's injury-prone catcher Matt Wieters - he's played in just 63 games this season - will be a free agent who might be a good fit for the Sox. The free agent market for a third baseman is pretty much bare.

Olt got five starts at third base last week as the Sox obviously want to take a good look at the guy who hit 12 home runs for the Cubs last season while striking out close to half of his at-bats. A first-round pick of the Rangers in 2010, he's made better contact in his brief stint with the Sox, but failing to glove that grounder on Sunday impressed no one.

Of course, we'll see some changes. But the biggest change this team needs is for its current core of players to play better. Especially hit better. But catch and pitch better as well. It's not going to be easy.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Edward Becht:

As a Sox fan of 70 years, this is the first time I have written anyone concerning our team. I have been fortunate because I have witnessed, in person, two World Series' with the Sox, '59 and '05. I have an opinion (who doesn't) about our Sox.

I have not been at the Cell since the signing of Adam Dunn and I probably won't be there again before I die. Let me tell you why I think the Sox are not "fixable." We have a front office that is still living on the World Series championship, despite the fact that we have three starters who couldn't start on any other team. I refer to third, second and catcher. If we are speaking the American League, add a fourth in the DH.

All the hoopla about the signings for this year was a joke that the press fully played into. I present you with Adam LaRoche, another NL left-handed hitter circa Dunn. I present you with a steroidless Melky. Melky is nothing like that drug-induced player he was. If any other team had a GM that paid for these guys, they would be gone.

I never thought I would say this, but God bless the Cubs. The change there is a product of hiring a good front office. Basically we have been playing with a 7-man lineup for 5 years. However, Kenny Williams appears to be untouchable. Hahn is just a front man.

If we want to get better, change the top of the organization. I would never pay to see this product in person.

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