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The White Sox opened spring training with a number of question marks, not the least of which are back of the rotation, right field, and outfield defense. But none is quite so glaring as the shortstop position.
Gone is Alexei Ramirez, a seven-year fixture in the middle infield on the South Side. (Ramirez played eight seasons for the Sox but only 16 games at shortstop his rookie year of 2008.) Ramirez's $10 million salary was predictably declined by the front office which, like the rest of us, saw that the 34-year-old's better days were behind him.
The Padres will pay Ramirez $3 million this season, and we wish him well.
The importance of having a shortstop who can pick up the ball and throw it accurately can't be overstated. The last three seasons Ramirez, who played almost every day, handled approximately 14 percent of balls put in play by opposing hitters. In 2013 he committed 22 errors for a defense that ranked 14th in the American League. That, my friends, is a reasonable starting point in explaining why the Sox lost 99 games.
Also in 2013, the Sox used their first draft choice (17th overall) to select shortstop prospect Tim Anderson out of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. While only watching a few video clips of the kid and reading scouting reports, I conclude this is an athlete with unique natural talents. Labels such as "quick hands, great range, quick feet, [and] arm strength" are sprinkled into his FanGraphs profile.
But at 22, he apparently needs more minor league experience and seasoning. Not that he isn't ready offensively, especially when one considers that Tyler Saladino, an adequate defender who hit .225 in 68 games for the Sox last season, has the inside track to be the Opening Day shortstop.
Meanwhile, in three minor league campaigns, Anderson has a slash line of .301/.343/.772. Toss in 83 stolen bases in 105 attempts, and you understand why he's so highly-rated. Back in the day, shortstops like the Yankees' Phil Rizzuto and the Cardinals' Marty Marion weren't expected to supply much offense. But they had to be able to turn the double play, go into the hole, and basically anchor the infield defense. Marion, a .263 lifetime hitter who never posted double digits in home runs, made the All-Star team seven times and was MVP in 1944.
Rizzuto, arguably the least-talented player to be elected to the Hall of Fame, was a .273 hitter. In 1950 he hit seven homers and drove in 66 runs, both career highs. Yet he was the American League's MVP. Playing in New York might have had something to do with his notoriety - along with the fact that "The Scooter" was a deft defender who helped lead the Yankees to pennants five straight seasons, 1949-53.
The White Sox shortstop of the 1950s, Luis Aparicio, also a Hall of Famer, was another in the long line of superb fielders. The image of him going deep into the hole, backhanding a hard-hit ground ball, rising into the air and throwing a perfect strike to first base is ingrained in the gray matter of all of us who saw him play. He was simply sensational, exciting, confident, and talented.
Offensively Aparicio's forte was stealing bases. He led the league nine straight seasons (1956-64). Ten All-Star Game appearances and nine Gold Gloves vastly overshadowed his .262 lifetime batting average.
What's noteworthy - especially as it relates to the development of Tim Anderson - is that Aparicio made 35 errors his first season of 1956 when he was Rookie of the Year. In 1963 when he played for Baltimore he made only 12 miscues in almost as many chances. Anderson reported to the Sox camp last week and will get a prolonged look in the next few weeks. He is destined to open the season at Triple-A Charlotte. Daryl Van Schouwen pointed out in the Sun-Times on Friday that there are "doubts about his glove," referring to the 25 errors Anderson made at Birmingham last season in 110 games.
What he didn't say is that the year before, playing at three levels in the Sox's system, the kid was charged with 34 miscues in just 82 games. Some of this might be attributed to the fact that the higher an athlete rises in the minor league chain, the smoother the infields become, accounting for truer hops on ground balls. But you also have to think that Anderson is learning how to become a competent shortstop.
Only the passage of time will reveal what kind of shortstop Anderson will become. But looking at some of the best ever can be instructive.
Take Omar Vizquel who, along with Ozzie Smith, is right at the top of the list of all-time great shortstops. He played 24 years until the age of 45, and we had the privilege of watching him with the White Sox in 2010-11 when he was used primarily as a third baseman. The guy was amazing, making only 183 errors in his 24 seasons, posting a fielding percentage of .985. That's second all-time behind - believe it or not - Troy Tulowitzki, the current Toronto shortstop, who conceivably could boot his way to second place before his career ends.
Vizquel, a Venezuelan, signed as a free agent with Seattle at age 17 and spent five seasons in the minors before making the Mariner roster at age 22. His path to the big leagues sounds hauntingly like Anderson's, as Vizquel was charged with 25 errors in each of the 1987 and '88 seasons in a similar number of games as Anderson.
Present-day shortstop magic-man Andrelton Simmons, whom the Braves dealt to the Angels this offseason, is another case in point. Four years into his career at age 26, Simmons committed a paltry eight errors in 147 contests in 2015 for a .988 fielding mark. He's made just 39 errors in his entire big league career.
Yet, back in 2011, playing with Lynchburg in the Carolina League when he was 21, Simmons accounted for 28 errors in 129 games.
Could it be that there were "doubts about the gloves" of guys like Aparicio, Vizquel and Simmons when they were committing all those errors in the minor leagues? That would be hard to fathom after observing the exhilarating skills of players like these.
When it comes to Anderson, the physical and mental attributes tend to indicate that this is a young man who is absolutely capable of conquering any doubts about his ability to play shortstop at the major league level.
Our South Side pals have a checkered past when it comes to first-round draft choices. Names like Lance Broadway, Aaron Poreda, Jared Mitchell, Keenyn Walker and Keon Barnum are unfamiliar to the vast major of Sox fans while Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Jack McDowell and Chris Sale have become fixtures in White Sox lore.
Where will Tim Anderson eventually fit into this mix? I'm betting much closer to the latter group than the former.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.
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