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Here are a few White Sox highlights from the first month of the season:
-Phil Humber pitched a perfect game.
-Jake Peavy pitched two complete games and went 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA. He pitched well enough to go 5-0 for the month.
-Adam Dunn had five homeruns and 16 RBI.
-Alex Rios hit .311 for the month.
-A.J. Pierzynski had four homeruns, 17 RBI and hit .309 for the month.
-The Sox won a series against division-favorite (and World Series-favorite, according to most people) Detroit.
Given our uncertainty before the season started, how could we possibly ask for more? Several players we were worried about being a liabilities have responded. If you didn't know better, you would say the highlights above belonged to a first-place, 18-4 team.
As it stands, the Sox spent a day or two in first place during April, and were running a close second as the month ended. Their record for April was a bland (like Robin Ventura) 11-11. Again, any of us would have been glad to be handed that first-month fate on Opening Day. But, the highlights suggest greater potential.
The Sox have two main problems right now. One is a disjointed, inconsistent offensive effort that has kept them out of a few winnable low-scoring games featuring masterful efforts by their starting rotation. The other is a shaky closer. Hector Santiago gave up as many homeruns in a month--four in just 7.1 innings--as some great closers give up in a season.
The offensive inconsistency could be traced in part to the handful of player who didn't get the memo about starting the season in strong fashion, though even some of these dreary performances come with a slight upside:
-Gordon Beckham is playing his customary role hitting below
.200, though he showed signs of life in the foggy first game of May against
Cleveland last night.
-Brent Morel, who had a great sprint training stretch, opened horribly, hitting below .200. He had just 13 hits in April, though he managed to score 11 runs and did have eight hits in his last eight games of the month.
-Brent Lillibridge has not been the super-sub he was last season, though he does lead the team with six stolen bases.
-Dayan Viciedo is hitting just .211, though he has flashed a little bit of power with three homeruns.
-Alexei Ramirez is hitting .207. There not really an upside here, except we know he always starts slowly.
The closer situation, while annoying, is not completely dire because the Sox have a lot of options. Yes, this is exactly what I said last season before every single option dissolved before our eyes, but it's new season right?
All of this makes me believe the Sox could finish May with a slight winning record.
I saw something in one of the spring training reports the other day that suggested the Cubs were not attracting much national media coverage this spring. And, of course, the White Sox never do, and have lost the only character who would have attracted any.
The news about lack of news comes as Sports Illustrated, which has to pay at least a little attention, has picked the Sox to lose 95 games and the Cubs to lose 96.
If all was quiet on the Arizona front, that's fine by me. I don't think either of our teams will get anywhere near the postseason this year--even with the expanded format. However, I do think that both will at least manage not to suffer 90-loss seasons.
I guess that pins me as an optimist. In regard to the Cubs, I'm not crazy about that label because you get the sense there is still a lot of unfinished business, with at least three key players--Alfonso Soriano, Matt Garza and Marlon Byrd (maybe Ryan Dempster, too?)--possibly ready to be moved once other teams start seeing the need for in-season trades.
As the Cubs stand now, there's the potential for slight improvement over last year, maybe up to 76 or 77 wins, maybe even 80. The best-case outlook depends a lot on whether or not the veterans mentioned above stay in place and do well. It also depends heavily on the performance of Carlos Marmol, who rebounded after starting the spring in terrible fashion.
With the line-up, the biggest questions are at the corners. At first, Bryan LaHair won the job based on last year's slugging between the minors and majors, but promptly went on to suffer a power outage during the spring. Instead, Jeff Baker, starts at first on Opening Day. Joe Mather, who can play third, was the Cubs' best hitter this spring, but recently-soft-hitting Ian Stewart gets the Opening Day start.
Beyond Dempster and Garza, the starting rotation is all new additions. The biggest surprise of the Cubs 2012 roster, of course, is the ascendance of Jeff Samardzija to become the No. 3 starter. I never would have thought we would see the day, but Spellcheck sure earned his spot. Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm join the rotation as well. I'm still a little surprised that the Cubs pushed former starters Randy Wells and Rodrigo Lopez down to the minors--or I should say, surprised that both of them went down. I thought either one could have played the role of long reliever and spot-starter (because you know the latter need while arise).
In any case, I can't say the Cubs aren't putting their best foot forward with the starting rotation, "best" being a relative term, though.
If the Cubs start making moves early in the season, I'll take most of what I've said back. With Theo & Co., we have already seen a change in attitude and many roster changes, but there is also a strong sense that the rebuilding is not even half over. If there are more trades to come, we'll have to be satisfied with watching Starlin Castro strive for another 200-hit season or predicting when Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo will debut.
When it comes to the Sox, I'll accept the optimist label. I didn't feel very optimistic when Sox GM Kenny Williams rushed to hire Robin Ventura as manager last fall, as if half the league might steal him first. I didn't feel any more optimistic when the Sox started spring training with atrocious pitching and confusion about where Alex Rios and Dayan Viciedo would play. But, as the spring went on, starting pitching improved and a sharp, young bullpen began to take shape. Meanwhile, Adam Dunn looked like a new man, Paul Konerko looked like the same solid pro he's been for years, Brent Morel showed improvement at the plate, Chris Sale was very effective as a new starter and Ventura himself displayed a natural confidence in going about his job.
There are reasons to be concerned, of course. The Sox may surprise a lot of people if that bullpen is effective, but if guys like Addison Reed, Hector Santiago, Nate Jones and Zach Stewart don't adjust their major league workloads, the bullpen could be this team's undoing. I think most people would say the line-up, so horrible last year, is the main reason to be concerned. Viciedo showed flashes of power in the last week, but had a bad spring. I don't know about Rios or Gordon Beckham, either, but I've seen enough from Dunn, Morel, Konerko an even Brent Lillibridge, as well as some evidence that A.J. Pierzynski still has some life in his bat, to believe the line-up won't leave the starters hanging.
Among starters, I still question if Jake Peavy can get 30-plus starts, and if 20 of those can be quality starts, but with the addition of Sale to the rotation, this looks like yet another Sox team whose most obvious strength is its starting pitching.
What does this all add up to record-wise? I think 78 or 79 wins, for starters, which isn't great, but considering the changes--not only the loss of Guillen and Buehrle, but Carlos Quentin and to some extent Juan Pierre, plus the fact of a first-time manager--it's not bad. The thing is, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Sox squeeze by slightly over .500. The postseason really is out of the question, but this is one year when I'll accept a pleasantly average team working its way to better things next year.
What this all adds up to for GM Kenny Williams remains to be seen. A record around .500 might be enough for Sox fans to call for his head, but it's also probably enough for his boss to keep him in charge.
Is quieter better?
You couldn't read a story about new White Sox skipper Robin Ventura earlier this spring without reading about how quiet he is, or what others think of how quiet he is and whether or not this quality (or lack thereof) means good things for the Sox.
I mean, the guy is literally, seriously quiet.
I used to reach for the remote when Ozzie Guillen was speaking on TV, just in the hope that increasing the volume might allow me to catch every third or fourth word and translate it into something that made sense.
This season, I'll be reaching for the remote when Ventura's on just in the hope of actually hearing his voice.
In interviews so far, Ventura has not really come off as quiet in the non-literal sense. He is actually pretty direct, in an unemotional way.
In some ways, he seems a lot like Cubs manager Dale Sveum, in that he is not particularly interesting to listen to, or particularly insightful on the surface, but has a depth of character that translates into something generally likeable and believable - like if you were stuck in an elevator with him, and panicking because you're a tad claustrophobic, and he said very quietly and slowly, "Chill out, man," you would instantly feel better and would not at all feel like he was being critical of you.
Does that all translate to winning baseball? I don't know. I am concerned about whose voices will fill the void for the Sox if the manager plays it low-key all season. I cringe at the thought that Jake Peavy will be the team's spokesman, but I fear that's already happening. It would be nice to see Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski step up a bit more and seek the spotlight.
The Sox have not had a good spring thus far. It has been marked by terrible starting pitching - at least until Peavy threw half a no-hitter. I'm glad Peavy did better than his earlier outings, but his general lack of velocity and lack of concern about that bother me almost as much as John Danks' wildness, which harkens back to his first-half 2011 troubles.
What I do like is Adam Dunn's Spring of Redemption, which hopefully will be extended into summer. Dunn has been hitting, and when he hasn't been hitting, he's been walking, and if Konerko is up next, either one will do. Dunn's only problem right now is nagging day-to-day injuries.
The thing about the Sox is that even though we were all underwhelmed by the choice of Ventura as manager, and have all calibrated our expectations for 2012 to disappointment and boredom, given last year's results, when you start comparing likely Opening Day rosters, the Sox have more obvious talent from one position to the next than the Cubs do. The clearest exception is shortstop, but really just barely.
Can the low-talking Ventura turn the Sox into winners?
Even modest comebacks by Dunn and Alex Rios would make him look like a genius. The Sox are counting big on a more laid-back atmosphere and a more low-key manager being the key to helping players find their own energy and motivation.
I'm starting to think it's possible.
Jake Peavy took to the airwaves not long ago to criticize Ozzie Guillen, still seemingly a safe target for criticism, given the way Ozzie left the team. If players need to blow off some steam regarding Ozzie's departure, they should be able to have at it this winter and early spring before it's time to get down to business again.
Or, at least that's the attitude I would have about anyone other than Peavy. The former Cy Young winner has pitched fewer than 40 games for the Sox over the last two and a half seasons. Has he earned the right to criticize a manager who brought a World Series and several winning seasons to Chicago?
Of course, the whole thing has started what looks to become a war of words with Ozzie.
Maybe Peavy is trying to step up and be a leader to a pitching staff that has lost its long-time leader-by-example, Mark Buehrle. There hasn't been much activity by the Sox this off-season--or at least not as much as there has been on the other side of town--but most of the moves than have been made have altered the make-up of the current pitching staff and the deeper reserve of arms:
--Sergio Santos was traded for Nestor Molina, a guy who seems like a younger version of himself.
--The Carlos Quentin deal brought four new pitchers, all probably destined for the minors--or at least we won't see any of them until the second half when the Sox are relegated to holding tryouts for 2013.
--John Danks got a $65 million contract that seems to position him has the ace of the staff and potential leader, perhaps a surprise given his horrible first half of 2011.
--Gavin Floyd--well, nothing has happened with Floyd yet, but don't be surprised.
We're looking at a probable rotation of Danks, Peavy, Floyd, Phil Humber and Chris Sale, with the possibility that Zach Stewart or Dylan Axelrod could force their way into the mix in spring training. Matt Thornton is the likely closer, with the remainder of the bullpen led by Jesse Crain and co-starring Will Ohman (ugh) and maybe Addison Reed.
In other words, there isn't much to get excited about. The best to hope for is that Danks proves 2011 was an anomaly and does become the new ace of the staff; that Peavy somehow starts close to 30 games, that Floyd finds a consistency he's always lacked; that Humber can recapture whatever he found in early 2011; and the Sale can continue to deliver on promise by making a seamless transition to from the bullpen. Meanwhile, let's hope Thornton can actually make himself a closer, something he already failed to do once.
Given the uncertainties, I don't blame Peavy for trying to step up. But, he still has a big job in front of him just trying to prove he can still pitch, let alone rally the troops. In fact, proving he can still pitch--rather than criticizing Ozzie--would be the best way to lead a rally. Maybe Peavy can finally make Kenny Williams look smart for betting him while on the DL in 2009, but time's running out.
Buehrle has never won a Cy Young, but he provided White Sox fans with many great memories over the years--a World Series; his perfect game; his first no-hitter; the Opening Day 2010 backward, between-the-legs flip to Paul Konerko to thrown a man out at first; the gem he threw in his final game with the Sox, a 2-1 victory Sept. 27, 2011 that the bullpen nearly lost for him.
One of my favorite Buehrle memories was my own bachelor party--a stunningly warm day in April 2006 when we had about 10 guys down at The Cell, already primed with several beers by the time the game started. Buehrle gave up three hits and two runs in the first inning, and it looked like an uncharacteristically long day for him, but the rest of the way it was typical Buehrle--he only have up two more hits and got us out of the park and on to the next bar in 2:10 as the Sox won 4-2 (This was also the game in which Tad Iguchi threw out a runner at first in the ninth by scooping the ball to Konerko as he was diving to the ground; Konerko accounted for all of the Sox runs, hitting a pair of two-run homers).
2006 otherwise wasn't great for the Sox or Buehrle. With a 12-13 record, it remains his only losing season. And of course, it's that consistency that the Sox will miss the most. That consistency was at the core of what made a leader of a guy who was by no means vocal.
Buehrle's departure was not really a surprise to anyone, though fans aware of Jerry Reinsdorf's legendary loyalty to his employees certainly believed there was a chance Reinsdorf would swoop in with a creative (if not financially competitive) offer, and a pep talk about Buehrle's true worth to the Sox.
But, it didn't happen, and what we're left with is Peavy trying to take his place--and getting off on the wrong foot.
White Sox GM Kenny Williams is out to prove he can win a World Series without some annoying manager taking all the credit. So, he hired someone aboslutely no one expected, who has no record as a manager to be analyzed, and who personality-wise seems like someone who would never try to put himself at center stage by, say, heavily promoting himself through Twitter posts or saying outrageous things to back up his opinionated reputation.
Robin Ventura has an impressive body of work as a player, and except for that fight with Nolan Ryan (though most "fights" are two-sided), he has demonstrated strong character going all the way back to his career as one of the great college players, and through a gruesome ankle injury that may have affected his range as a fielder. He played in a World Series and had some big hits during postseason and in critical late regular season games, With 10 grand slams, he was pretty clutch with the bases loaded.
Still, he has no coaching experience, let alone experience as a manager. He has been in the organization advising on player development, something the Sox definitely could use help on, but he came back only a few months ago.
His hiring could be seen in one sense as a an effort to inject a really fresh perspectivbe into a team that seemed immune to motivation this season and vastly under-achieved. He is a well-liked member of the White Sox family who many current players probably will respect, and that makes the move curious enough that it could change things for the Sox the way the equally-surprising Kirk Gibson hiring changed things in Arizona (though Gibson had coaching experience).
But, let's not kid ourselves. The most important thing here is that Ventura is one of Kenny's guys, someone who is very unlikely to disagree with Kenny in public, and also someone who can easily be blamed if the Sox fall flat in 2012. Hiring experienced coaches like Dave Martinez or Sandy Alomar would have been easier to understand as moves to put the Sox back on course to win over the next few years. Going after Terry Francona, or waiting to talk to Tony LaRussa, would have put fan expectations immediately back at a high level to win it all next year.
I'm not sure what the Ventura hiring says, except that Kenny wants to feel comfortable, and that he is willing to wait longer for a winner that he thinks can be found in Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez and Chris Sale than in Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle and Adam Dunn. Are Sox fans willing to wait that long?
Raise your hand if you thought the Mike Quade era in Chicago would end before the Ozzie Guillen era. Despite all the chaos and bad vibes of the last couple months, and despite Ozzie having talked himself out of his job, and having talked the Sox out of wanting him to stay, I thought Jerry Reinsdorf's sense of loyalty would prove to be the strongest factor in getting Ozzie to stay without a contract extension. I thought Reinsdorf wanting No. 13 to stay would be enough for No. 13 to stay.
It turned out to be a pretty naive belief. Though we can't be exactly sure how the conversation with Reinsdorf went, it seems like Ozzie asked to be released from his contract. The ball was in his court, as much as he tried to convince everyone with was in Reinsdorf's.
The Sox say na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, good-bye to arguably the best manager in the history of the franchise, but with Ozzie's insistence on an extension and his unwilingness to sacrifice his coaches, the time was right. The biggest problem for the Sox is that no one near his caliber is currently available to replace him.
The top name on many wish lists will be Tony LaRussa, but that's a long-shot at best, and it's more likely that GM Kenny Williams will push for someone more likely to be a good, humble employee than Ozzie was.
Now that Ozzie's out, it will be interesting to see how far Kenny goes to change this team. Much has been made of Mark Buehrle possibly pitching his final White Sox game tonight, but I think letting the World Series manager walk out the door makes it more likely that the franchise's favorite pitcher from the World Series era won't be renewed. It's more likely, too, with the emergence of Tyler Flowers that World Series catcher A.J. Pierzynski could be traded in the off-season. And, why not ship Paul Konerko while you're at it?
I don't really want these things to happen, but it's very likely the Sox will hire a manager without a World Series championship under his belt and without Ozzie's years of experience as a winner. Someone like Joey Cora could provide a natural organizational transition, but even that seems doubtful if Kenny wants to clean the house of "Ozzie's guys."
Next year's team could very well be a bunch of very young players, plus a couple of veterans chained to big contracts and looking for a rebound. That's not an appetizing situation for any manager--as Quade found out this year--let alone a proven winner.
Ozzie Guillen is not interested in going down with the ship unless he's the one to force it down.
Despite the flame-outs of the last three seasons, there are few better managers in the game, and Ozzie is more or less correct in his assessments of the current roster of players not playing up to their potential. However, in continuing his blunt criticism at this point--when the season officially has been lost, seems like both overkill and desperation to me.
He knows there is little flexibility to completely overhaul the roster next season, so he is essentially asking to be fired. Throwing the players under the bus as frequently as he has in the last week leaves Reinsdorf and Williams very little choice in the matter.
If Ozzie can't get the current crop to win and says they stink, how is he supposed to get anything out of more or less the same group next year? And why would the players he has criticized want to give him any more effort than they have thus far? I understand he's telling it like it is, which is usually admirable, but what's his goal, and what does he expect to come out of it? That a handful of man-children find their inner character?
Ozzie's defense of his coaching staff is admirable, but also overdone, because he knows that something needs to change. When a team that is supposed to win loses instead, its understood by everyone involved that someone's head needs to roll if for no other reason than the appearance of change. On the Sox, it is not going to be the pitching coach's head, and that leaves the hitting coach. Again, blame Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel for not getting it done--they are all professionals--but what is the value of a hitting coach if he has no real ability to affect the situation. greg Walker should have been gone already, and Ozzie's apparent protection of him only encourages one to find more fault with Ozzie himself.
Let's not even get too much into Ozzie's apparent desire for an extension, made public at a bad time. There are no real grounds for an extension, nothing you can point to as progress for a team that looked very much like it would win the division at the start of the season.
The real issue is that Ozzie wants Reinsdorf to back him up, to give him a bvote of confidence that essentially says Williams made bad choices on players and that those players failed on the field. Reinsdorf only has two ways out of the bind: Fire Ozzie, or promote Williams to president, promote Rick Hahn to GM (before the Cubs hire him), endorse Ozzie in a way that leaves the extension a possibility, and declare a new era of player development for the Sox.
I hope he chooses the latter because there are not a lot of great manager options out there for the Sox, short of possibly Tony LaRussa, but Ozzie's bad-mouthing of the players may push Reinsdorf toward the first choice. Ozzie's openness may be his way of doing things, but it also might lead him to the highway.
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