July 1, 2004
The South Side Shuffle
I'm still catching up from my trip to Massachusetts, the latter part of which was spent without much access to baseball information. Seeing the standings on Tuesday was a bit of a jolt. The Cardinals had a big lead in the NL Central? The Astros are in fifth? The Rangers are in first place? The Giants, too? How long was I gone, anyway?
There are some things I haven't had much chance to write about, and I'll get to many of those in a Friday notes column, which I'll write today while watching something like 13 hours of baseball. Man, I love getaway days.
Today, though, I want to write about the AL Central, or more specifically, the Chicago White Sox. Last night's 9-6 win over the Minnesota Twins pushed the Sox into sole possession of first place in the Central. The Sox have the best run differential in the division, the best offense in the league, and the most runs scored in MLB. Their pitching staff has been effective, with the fourth-best bullpen in the league supporting a ninth-ranked rotation. Much of the latter ranking is caused by the ineffective revolving door they've used in the No. 5 slot. Settling on Jon Rauch might have solved that problem, but the Sox instead chose to acquire Freddy Garcia from the Mariners.
On the surface, the Sox gave up far too much in the trade. Jeremy Reed was our No. 2 prospect this year, and while that ranking reflected a weak crop and a big 2003 season for him, even a current list would place him comfortably among the game's top 15 or so minor leaguers. Miguel Olivo is a catcher who does a good job both standing next to the plate and squatting behind it, and at 25, can be expected to improve for the next few seasons while not making very much money. The third player, shortstop Michael Morse, is a Double-A shortstop showing good power this year as a 22-year-old.
Garcia was the best pitcher on the market, pending changes in Randy Johnson's status, but that and his return to competence in the first 10 weeks of 2004 had caused him to be overrated. Garcia's ERA outside of Safeco Field this year was just 3.91, and even that was his best road mark since his career year in 2001. While his strikeout rate and command are both much better in '04 than they were last year, his large home/road split makes it likely that the Sox aren't getting an ace, but another innings-muncher in the Esteban Loaiza mode. Expecting Garcia to do for them what, say, Johnson did for the Astros in '98, is vastly overestimating Garcia's abilities.
This trade was a huge win for the Mariners, who cashed in their most attractive--maybe their only--trade chit and added at least two, and perhaps three, quality up-the-middle players who will work cheap through 2007 or so. Bill Bavasi hadn't done a real good job since taking over in Seattle last winter, but this trade is a good sign for frustrated M's fans.
For the Sox though, even giving up what they did, I like the deal. Flags fly forever, and 2004 may be the Chicago White Sox' best crack at running one up the flagpole for a while. This is not a young team, and it's in first place in part because older players nearing the ends of their contracts--or careers--are having huge seasons. Frank Thomas and Jose Valentin might be elsewhere next year; right now, they're among the best players in the AL. You have to leverage that, as well as things like what may be a fluke season from Juan Uribe (.291/.346/.507, following a career line of .258/.298/.407 coming into this season).
With their best player, Magglio Ordonez, a free agent in three months and considered unlikely to re-sign with the club, this is the proverbial hot iron, and Kenny Williams struck. For a franchise that still operates under the shadow of the white-flag trade in 1997 and perpetual doubts about ownership commitment, this trade is an important moment, and it will be interesting to see how Chicago fans react to such a display.
This division race isn't settled, but the White Sox have the best team right now, and, as strange as this will seem, the best management in place. Competing against a team that can't get its best nine players to the major leagues, much less in the lineup, the White Sox only have to sustain their performance to find themselves back on the big stage in October.
We don't do sidebars here at BP, so just picture this next blurb in a box towards the middle of the page.
Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has been vocal about wanting to see his starting pitchers pitch out of jams, and he's applied that in his managing. Sox starters are second in the AL in pitches per game, fifth in Pitcher Abuse Points, and tied for second in Stress Score.
The thing is, I don't think Guillen is coming close to abusing his starters. For despite those lofty rankings, Guillen has been adept at keeping his starting pitchers from the kind of high-pitch-count games that rend arms. Sox starters have gone past 121 pitches just three times all season, tying them for 14th in MLB in that category. It's those games, what Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner dub Category IV and V starts, that pose the greatest danger to pitchers. (For all the attention paid to "100 pitches," there's no one who actually advocates using that figure as a guideline at the major-league level. The entire discussion would be enhanced if people would let go of that notion.)
What Guillen has done is gotten his starters into the 110-121 pitch range more often than any manager in baseball. Sox starters have thrown that number of pitches 28 times in 74 starts; just three other teams have surpassed 19 "Category III" starts, in the vernacular. As the work of Jazayerli and Woolner showed, throwing this number of pitches is well within acceptable usage.
So the White Sox' high PAP scores are not the result of abuse, but the result of care. Guillen has extended his starters from the 90s into the 110s more than his peers, but he's stopped well short of anything that could be termed abuse. This has enabled him to get more work from his better pitchers at a low level of risk, while keeping the bottom of his pitching staff out of game-critical situations.
Much of Guillen's positive press stems from his affability and his quotability, and if the Sox do win the Central, he'll get a disproportionate amount of credit because of that. But his handling of the pitching staff is the execution of a plan, and it's one that has had a positive impact on the Sox' season. He is striking as good a balance between the team's needs and his pitchers' capabilities as any manager in the game, and for that he deserves a ton of credit.