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"You coulda had this guy for a ham sandwich!" gurgled Harry Caray back in the early '70s when he called Sox games on TV.
He was referring to Luis Tiant, the legendary Cuban righthander whose career was resurrected when he joined the Red Sox in 1971. El Tiante, as he became known, was a big winner in Cleveland until a fractured scapula threatened his playing days. Subsequently the Twins and Braves unceremoniously released Tiant before Boston took a chance on him.
Taking his ample waistline and Fu Manchu mustache to Fenway Park, Tiant developed one of the most unique deliveries in history, a series of twists and turns showing his back to the hitter and altering his release point pitch-by-pitch. With runners on base, he patented a movement in which his hands undulated back and forth before finally coming to a set position. He provided the height of entertainment each time he took the mound. There has never been anyone quite like Luis Tiant.
And, man, could he pitch. In the seven seasons between 1972 and 1978, Tiant went 121-74 with the Red Sox. He beat the Reds twice in the 1975 World Series, which many consider the greatest Series ever. One of the most popular players ever in Boston, he's in the Red Sox Hall of Fame and certainly should be in the hallowed Hall in Cooperstown.
It's interesting to look back all those decades when Boston general manager Dick O'Connell took a flyer on the recuperating Tiant even after he started only 10 games in 1971 and ended with a 1-7 record. O'Connell paid Tiant more than Caray suggested, but Tiant's salary of approximately $50,000 would only be about $315,000 today, far below today's big-league minimum. By 1972 Tiant won 15 games and had the lowest ERA in baseball.
The White Sox, due to rebuilding and a need to fill out their rotation, have scrutinized the scrap heap regularly in an attempt to find pitchers with the potential of regaining their previous form. Call them placeholders or reclamation projects, take your choice, but the idea is to use veterans like Ivan Nova and Ervin Santana, who was designated for assignment last Friday, until prospects Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning, Alec Hansen and Michael Kopech are ready for the big time.
So Sox general manager Rick Hahn, no doubt like O'Connell did years ago, sits down with his staff contemplating who's available and for what price before going after people such as James Shields, Miguel Gonzalez, Mat Latos, Mike Pelfrey, Derek Holland and Hector Santiago. Needless to say and at great risk, none should even be mentioned in the same sentence with Luis Tiant. Oops, my bad.
Attempting to identify pitchers who can help in the short-term has to be painstaking and difficult. Hahn no doubt tries to take the guesswork out of the equation, but in the end it's more or less of a crapshoot with more misses than hits.
Take Shields, for instance. From 2007 until 2015, he was one of the top pitchers in the game with Tampa Bay and Kansas City. He was the ace of the staff on two clubs - the 2008 Rays and the 2014 Royals - who advanced to the World Series. Signing a four-year free agent deal with San Diego, Big Game went 13-7 with a 3.91 ERA in 2015.
However, he then precipitously lost it. While Shields continued to be the poster child of an "innings eater," Hahn worked a deal in June 2016 to bring Shields to the South Side in exchange for Fernando Tatis, Jr., who's the second-ranked prospect in MLB today, trailing only the dynamic Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and a notch ahead of Eloy Jimenez, who's out for at least two weeks with a high ankle sprain. Meanwhile, Tatis is playing shortstop for the Padres, batting leadoff, and hitting .300 with six homers. Wouldn't he look delicious playing second base alongside Tim Anderson today?
Shields departed San Diego having lost seven of nine decisions. His final appearance for the Padres lasted less than three innings, in which the veteran coughed up 10 runs, prompting the club's executive chairman to criticize the entire team but specifically Shields. Four days later, Big Game was sent packing.
Things never improved much for Shields, who started 77 games for the Sox until his contract expired at the end of last season. The boys had a 29-48 record in those games, and Shields personally went 16-35 with a 5.31 ERA. He pitched his customary 200-plus innings last season while losing a major league-high 16 games.
I've never really digested the tag "innings eater" because, like the average fan, I'm more interested in guys who can get people out rather than simply pile up the innings. The Sox might get a Pony Leaguer out of Welles Park who could do that. Sure, Shields was also known as a positive influence in the clubhouse and a mentor for the younger pitchers, but I'll let the coaches do the brunt of that work.
At age 37, Big Game James is home waiting for the phone to ring, which is unlikely. He had a fine career - until he landed on the South Side of Chicago.
Hahn took a chance with Derek Holland in 2017 for $6 million. In his mid-20s, Holland had won as many as 16 games for the Rangers, but at age 32 his career was in jeopardy. In his one season with the Sox, Holland went 7-14 with a 6.20 ERA. Unlike Shields, he has remained employed - with the Giants, where he has not regained his previous mastery but is certainly pitching better than he did with the White Sox.
There are others, such as Miguel Gonzalez (39-33 with Baltimore over four seasons) who was signed for the 2016 season. Battling injuries much of the time, Gonzalez started 48 games for the Sox in parts of three seasons but never came close to what he did with the Orioles.
Prior to this season and the signings of Nova and Santana, there were other free agent pitchers seeking work. The biggest catch was and remains Dallas Keuchel, who apparently wants too much money and too many years as he continues to be idle. We can only wonder what his presence in the Sox rotation would look like.
Clay Buchholz won 17 games for Boston in 2010, and was 7-2 last season with a sparkling 2.10 ERA for the Diamondbacks. He was available when the Sox inked Santana to a minor-league deal. Instead Buchholz, 34, hooked on with Toronto for $3 million while Santana's deal called for $4.3 million if he made the big club. Unless another club signs Santana and picks up some of his salary, the Sox are on the hook for the entire amount. Not such a good deal for a fellow who appeared in just three games, losing two with a horrendous 9.45 ERA and a WHIP of 1.88. Meanwhile, Buchholz has had mixed success so far in Toronto, though he's pitched far better than Santana.
The Sox also may have inquired about pitchers such as Homer Bailey, Matt Harvey, Dan Straily and Matt Moore, free agents who found homes prior to Opening Day. All four had won at least 13 games at some point in their careers, but the pickings were admittedly slim. When the Sox traded for Nova, they sent $500,000 in international bonus pool cash and a minor leaguer to the Pirates, who have traded for a group of middle-of-the-road pitchers for a lot less salary than Nova's $9 million.
"We do think [Nova] has the makeup and the presence that he will have a positive influence on some of our young players, which is something we have talked about having a longer-term impact through the mentoring or teaching and the effect it has on the young kids," Hahn said upon trading for Nova.
That's all fine and dandy, but if Nova isn't more effective (0-3, 8.42 ERA, 1.75 WHIP) than he has been to this point, he won't be worth peanut butter and jelly, let alone ham.
Reynaldo Lopez's potential was on full display Sunday at The Grate as he covered six innings, allowing no earned runs, just two hits, and struck out 14 Tigers as the Sox won 4-1. The back of the bullpen - Jace Fry, Kelvin Herrera and Alex Colome - finished the job, each pitching an inning and fanning two batters apiece, giving Sox pitchers a 20-strikeout game.
If you were at the ballpark as I was, the video boards provided a wealth of statistics, pitch counts, and trivia. But no mention that we were witnessing the Sox tying the record for the most strikeouts by a team's pitchers in a nine-inning game. It had been done six previous times, once, of course, by Kerry Wood all alone on the North Side in 1998. I lost count with Fry when I grabbed a hot dog with extra onions. Ed Farmer provided the information on the radio on the way home. I'm not sure who told the people in the control room at The Grate. If they're reading this, now they know.
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