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"We were shooting truthfully to be .500 or better," White Sox manager Rickey Renteria said a week ago. On Sunday, his team suffered its 84th loss in what will be its seventh consecutive losing season.
Renteria might be excused for his optimism for this season after last year's edition, losers of 100 games, went 29-38 after the All-Star Game, a stark improvement over the first half of the season. And his bright and bushy prognostication looked reasonable when the action halted for the annual mid-season classic this past July as the Sox stood at 42-44.
However, just when we thought that .500 was within reach, the White Sox have had trouble beating almost anyone. After losing series' last week to the Royals and Mariners, two teams with a combined 117-183 record, Renteria's bunch sunk to 19 games under the break-even mark, thanks to a 23-40 showing in the second half.
The scene in Seattle over the weekend was especially revealing as the fellows dropped a 10-inning 2-1 decision on Saturday when former Sox Omar Narvaez hit a ball off the top of the right field wall and was credited with a home run rather than a two-out double. Leading 10-5 on Sunday going into the bottom of the eighth, the Sox bullpen coughed up a sure-fire victory as the Mariners walked off with an 11-10 decision, the winning run scoring on a bases-loaded walk.
So when Renteria also said last week that "I'm expecting this [losing] is it. We are finishing this season, and we are talking about coming back into next season ready to battle," his credibility was close to zilch.
Despite some notable individual performances, are we to believe that progress is being made? Spin doctors far more adept than Renteria and general manager Rick Hahn might face a stiff challenge to explain the steps forward.
Why not start reversing the trend now? Whatever happened to finishing strong?
The team's problems were on full display in the last three games. Sox pitchers walked 24 batters while striking out 25, just an awful showing. While the boys scored some runs, the batsmen drew just five bases on balls while fanning 33 times.
Too small a sample size, you say? Not really. Sox pitchers this season have issued the third most walks among all 30 teams, while the hitters have drawn the fewest free passes of any team. They strike out more often than all but five other clubs, and they are 24th in on-base percentage. That, my friends, goes a long way explaining why this team is headed for another 90 losses.
There's no question that the emergence of the young core of Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Lucas Giolito and others provide promise for the future. However, without fixing the already-mentioned deficits, this team will be hard-pressed to compete with baseball's elite.
Of course, help apparently is on the way. USA Today has named outfielder Luis Robert its Minor League Player of the Year, proclaiming, "He moves with the almost effortless grace of a certain Hall of Famer," a direct reference to Ken Griffey, Jr.
Previous honorees include Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Ronald Acuna, Jr., Alex Bregman, Kris Bryant and Xander Bogaerts. It would be cool if Robert, 22, had a "Jr." for a tag, but after slashing .328/.376/1.001 to go along with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs and 36 stolen bases over three minor league levels, his name could be Joe Smith and the anticipation would be just a stimulating.
Robert walked 28 times this season in 122 games while striking out 129. The Sox will live with that since his on-base percentage was .376.
According to people like Hahn, the service time issue never is a consideration when it comes to the timing of promoting players like Robert to the big league club. It's just coincidence that Robert may not appear on the South Side until the 2020 season is a few weeks old. But whenever he arrives, he'll immediately assume a spot in the White Sox outfield, which has some gaping holes. Most likely he'll play center between Jimenez in left and whoever winds up in right. Possibly Adam Engel, who homered Sunday and has shown signs of improvement at the plate, will be the centerfielder with Robert in right.
The scenario for the other top prospect, second baseman Nick Madrigal, is not as clear. The Oregon State product, who also is 22, had a splendid season following Robert from Winston-Salem to Birmingham and then Charlotte, although Madrigal's game is much different than Robert's. Madrigal is the table-setter for the likes of power guys like Robert. Madrigal hit .311 for the season with an on-base percentage of .377, due to the fact that he walked 44 times while striking out just 16 in 120 games. He doesn't hit home runs. He gets on base. Furthermore, he made only four errors all season.
Madrigal does what the current group doesn't do: He walks far more than he strikes out.
However, it's not as though the current Sox second baseman, Yolmer Sanchez, necessarily is in need of replacement. One analytic formula (UZR) FanGraphs uses for rating defenders lists Sanchez as the best defensive second baseman in the game. After making three errors in the season's first five games, Sanchez has been charged with just four miscues since, handling 590 chances flawlessly. He has a strong arm, turns the pivot on the double play, and his range is admirable.
Sanchez, a switch-hitter, is batting .247 with an OBP of .318. Both are close to the major league averages. Unlike Madrigal, Sanchez, who is 27, strikes out about 21 percent of his at-bats, but similar to Madrigal, he has just two home runs this season.
Sanchez is very popular among his teammates, and his antics - pouring Gatorade over himself was a real crowd-pleaser last season - have become a team staple.
Sanchez has performed better than expectations, which creates a bit of a dilemma since Madrigal, if he can approach what he's done so far at the major league level, represents exactly what this team needs. If Madrigal assumes the regular second base assignment, then Sanchez becomes the utility infielder, a role that also fits Leury Garcia. Might a trade be in the works during the offseason?
One prospect getting playing time as the season winds down is catcher/first baseman Zack Collins, who does have a discerning eye at the plate. Despite an anemic .123 batting average, the 24-year-old has walked 10 times in 64 plate appearances. Compare that to Anderson's 12 free passes in 474 trips to the plate.
Of course, Anderson is vying for a batting title, hitting .332 as the Sox travel to Minnesota to open a three-game set beginning tonight. His approach at the plate obviously is far different than a guy like Collins. Anderson has become successful at hitting pitches off the outside corner to right field. Taking those pitches apparently is not an option. He averages 3.40 pitches per plate appearance compared to the MLB average of 3.93.
That's fine as long as the lineup includes guys who exhibit greater patience, and right now the Sox don't have any of those. Anderson has been hitting second in the lineup more often than not, usually behind leadoff man Garcia, whose on-base percentage is a mere .306.
Madrigal possibly could fill the need for a leadoff man who makes contact, takes some pitches, and gets on base. If Collins can cut down on his strikeouts, he could be another man in the order who sees a lot of pitches and takes his walks.
None of this will make much difference unless Sox pitchers miraculously start throwing many more strikes. The idea that young pitchers like Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, Jace Fry and others are works in progress who will develop control as they mature is simply that - an idea. In this era of home runs, putting hitters on base without swinging the bat is a portent for calamity.
The Sox have 13 games remaining, seven of which are against Detroit, losers already of 104 games. The Sox have to win eight to avert 90 losses. You would think that could be a reasonable, although sad, goal. Forget the talk about 2020. Finish strong.
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