May 5, 2003
Right Wing Conspiracy
Last night, the White Sox lost their 10th game in 14 tries, dropping a rain-shortened 5-1 decision to the Mariners. In addition to lowering their record to 15-16, by scoring just one run their runs-per-game fell to a meager 4.2, placing them 12th in the American League (and 10th in Equivalent Average).
Why do the White Sox suck at the plate? This team was third in the league in runs scored last year, and they return essentially the same cast of characters. I expected them to have one of the better offenses in the league, thanks in part to a full season of Joe Crede at third base, and the arrival of Miguel Olivo behind the plate. Those two players, in fact, have been part of the problem; Crede is hitting .235/.259/.353 and Olivo, splitting the catching duties down the middle with Sandy Alomar Jr., is at .222/.236/.389. Mix in the failure of Aaron Rowand to be an adequate stopgap in center field (.133/.300/.167 in 60 at-bats before his demotion), and you can see that the White Sox infusion of youth has failed badly.
The three players are representative of a larger problem, though: the overwhelming right-handedness of the Sox lineup. Through Sunday, more than 75% of the White Sox at-bats had gone to right-handed batters. They have just three left-handed hitters on the roster, and those three (Armando Rios, Brian Daubach and Willie Harris) have combined to hit .190/.253/.262. Their two switch-hitters, Jose Valentin and D'Angelo Jimenez, are the only players on the team who have shown any competence from the left side of the plate.
The Sox imbalance shows up in their platoon split: They're hitting a brutal .229/.305/.396 against right-handers, while getting more than three-quarters of their at-bats against them. (As you'd expect from a team with this kind of roster, they're hammering lefties to the tune of .293/.369/.508.) The problem was especially glaring this weekend, when they totaled just five runs and 14 hits in three games against the Mariners, who threw nothing but tough right-handers at them. While the Sox are 11-11 when they face right-handed starters, a glance through their box scores shows that a number of those wins came against either the Tigers or the pitchers who relieved the right-hander. That the Sox are still hovering around .500 is a tribute to their rotation (fourth-best Support-Neutral Value Added in the AL) and an early-season schedule heavy on the Tigers and Indians.
As has happened so often in the past, the team's offensive woes are coming down on Frank Thomas, even as the Big Hurt continues to be the best hitter on the Sox. Thomas' average is just .233--leading to the perception that he's part of the problem--but he's second in the league in walks with 26 and has a .427 OBP. His .319 EqA leads the team, just ahead of Jimenez's .317. Magglio Ordonez is at .292, and then the lineup falls apart, with no other regular providing above-average performance.
What can the White Sox do to address their problems? Patience is going to be a key; Paul Konerko won't have a devilish 666 OPS all season, and Crede is a better hitter than he's shown so far. Joe Borchard is the center fielder of the future, but he's also a right-handed hitter with OBP issues, and his performance at Charlotte this year (.270/.295/.405) doesn't brand him as the savior. Willie Harris got promoted based on his hot month (.420/.500/.691), but is unlikely to be much more than a pumped-up Donnie Sadler.
To improve their offense, the Sox have to address their core issue: too many right-handed hitters. With no help at Triple-A, Kenny Williams is going to have to look outside the organization to find a left-handed hitter. Complicating the matter is that the Sox have very few positions in which to slot an acquisition; they can give up on Olivo or Crede, but it's not like the trade market is brimming with left-handed hitters who can catch or play third base. That pretty much leaves left field, where Carlos Lee has given every indication so far that his strong second half last year was a fluke. If the Sox can flip Lee for a left-handed batter of comparable ability, they can go a long way toward making themselves less vulnerable to the Ryan Franklins of the world.
How can they make this happen? By emphasizing Lee's status as a three-plus player, ineligible for free agency until after 2005, and pitching him to teams for whom that could be a factor. Possible trade partners include the Blue Jays (for Frank Catalanotto) and the Devil Rays (for a healthy Ben Grieve). Depending on how big a risk Williams wants to take, and how big a package he can assemble, he could shoot the moon and try to grab someone like Larry Walker from the Rockies or Adam Dunn from the Reds; perhaps the Cardinals could be convinced to dump J.D. Drew if the White Sox can provide some live arms for their tattered bullpen. There are a lot of left-handed hitting outfielders who could possibly be had, and a number of teams who would like to have a player two-and-a-half seasons away from free agency. Williams, who for all the grief heaped upon him made perhaps last season's best deal in getting Jimenez for two non-prospects, has a lot of options.
The White Sox won't be this bad all season. How good they can be is up to their GM.