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March 6, 2007
Hope and Faith
How the Chicago White Sox Can Win the World Series
Driving home from downtown the other day, using my secret path that involves taking Kinzie and Hubbard West (if you live in Chicago, I just saved you hours annually, and you're welcome), I came across a small billboard promoting 2007 Chicago White Sox ticket sales. The slogan, and I'm paraphrasing from memory here, said, "We haven't won since 2005: time to end the drought." From "Good Guys Wear Black" to "Grinder Baseball," the White Sox' marketing efforts are always aggressive and entertaining, but can the "drought" end this year? The answer is 'yes,' but first, we have to get away from anything our computers are telling us for a second.
PECOTA's current prediction is for the team to go 72-90, as the system expects an already old team to get a little bit older, and therefore more than a little bit worse. But a quick look at what went wrong in 2006 shows that in reality they only have to improve on one side of the field in order to get back to the caliber level of play from 2005. The key, as is often the case, is pitching.
The 2006 White Sox were actually a much better offensive team from the previous year's World Series champs, thanks mostly to a breakout year from Joe Crede, a career year from Jermaine Dye, and the arrival of Jim Thome. But the pitching collapsed, as the 2005 rotation that produced four starters who didn't miss a turn and compiled ERAs in the threes, suddenly had four starters who didn't miss a turn, but all had ERAs greater than 4.50.
The net result was a loss of nine wins, from 99 down to 90. With the Twins improving by 13 games and the Tigers by an astounding 24, it meant a disappointing third-place finish in the suddenly highly-competitive American League Central.
Let's make a quick review of the offense, and show how it can at least stand pat, using eyes fully cocked with optimism...covered with rose-colored glasses. Hey, it's hope and faith, right?
Catcher: A.J. Pierzynski is projected by PECOTA to pretty much be A.J. Pierzynski again, with a triple-slash line of .275/.316/.418. His lower WARP projection is mostly just a function of playing time, as opposed to projection. With the same number of plate appearances and a better backup in Toby Hall, this is a wash, at worst.
First Base: Paul Konerko declined defensively in 2006, but recorded career highs in batting average, OBP, and slugging. It's hard to expect anything but a decrease, but at the same time, he's been a model of consistency over the last three years, with a variation of only 22 points between his highest and lowest on-base percentages, and just 16 points between his highest and lowest slugging percentages. So maybe down a bit, but no kind of collapse, and still a star-level player.
Second Base: Tadahito Iguchi had been pretty much the same player in each of his two seasons since coming over from Japan, and there's no reason to think he won't be the same player again. PECOTA thinks he'll even be a little better, so we'll take it.
Third Base: Joe Crede does two things very well. First off, he plays outstanding defense. Secondly, he hits home runs in bunches, with a career high of 30 in 2006. He's a strange power hitter who neither walks nor strikes out much, so the 2006 jump in average is real, and he's 29 and seemingly in his prime--no reason to project a setback here.
Shortstop: Juan Uribe is a strange creature--the shortstop who hits 20+ home runs with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. It looks like his legal problems will not be an issue this year, and if he can return to his .250 or so batting average, he's a pretty underrated player, who should be at least as valuable as he was last year.
Outfield: Last year, Jermaine Dye put up an OPS over 1000. Even the most faithful have to realize that's simply not going to happen again--it was beyond a career year. PECOTA forecasts a return to 2005 form, which means a 5.2 WARP, a decline of 2.9 from 2006. Luckily, the rest of the outfield was so beyond awful last year that we can easily make up those wins elsewhere. Center field was a mixed bag, as rookie Brian Anderson spent the year doing little with the bat but shining with the glove. He had a nice second half, his minor league track record is solid, and after a 2.5 WARP, almost all of it coming from defensive side of the ledger, there's little reason to think he can't give us at least half the wins the team needs to make up from Dye's slight downturn. If the club decides to go with Sweeney, he's a better hitter, but a worse defender, and a short-term wash. Scott Podsednik and Darin Erstad are below average, especially for left field, but even a slight upturn gets the team the other 1.5 wins back that they need from a position where production was virtually non-existent last year. So while it took a while to get there, the outfield is basically an even-sum game.
Designated Hitter: In Baseball Prospectus 2007, we point out that Jim Thome's PECOTA comparables fall into one of two categories--big hulking sluggers that remained productive into their forties, and guys that got hurt. For the purpose of this project, we have to go with the former, no?
So, after this exercise, we've got faith that the offense that ranked third in the American League last year will be just as good as last year. Now we just have to get an upgrade from the pitching staff. Well, 'upgrade' is a bad term--what we really need is a return to form.
The Rotation: One of the most notable aspects of the 2005 World Champs was the team's health, particularly on the mound, as the team used only six starters all year, with the big four of Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras, and Jon Garland making all of their scheduled starts, while Orlando Hernandez and Brandon McCarthy split the number five role. The song was pretty much the same in 2006, as that same four, joined by Javier Vazquez (hrmmm, Chris Young in center field...must...remain...positive), made 159 of the team's 162 starts, with McCarthy filling in twice for a sore-armed Contreras, and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger making a disastrous pro debut in mid-May against the Angels.
The workload from 2005 took its toll, however, as all of the front four saw their ERAs rise dramatically, by an average of more than a full run. After pitching a whopping 260 innings in 2006 (counting the postseason), Mark Buehrle suffered the biggest drop-off, going from 3.12 to 4.99. Garcia (249 total innings in 2005), Contreras (236.2) and Garland (237) showed similar signs of fatigue, from command troubles to drops in velocity.
Now the good news: while the group stayed healthy in 2006, their struggles led to smaller workloads, as the four (and Vasquez) all logged between 196 and 216.1 innings. As a group, they should therefore be fresher going into this season than they were last year, and be able to get those nine wins back with the offense that is much better than the World Championship version, which we've already proved.
One key will be the fifth starter job. With Freddy Garcia in Philadelphia and Brandon McCarthy donning Rangers garb, the number five job is wide open. Gavin Floyd is the early favorite, and while his raw talent remains impressive, he needs to be the beneficiary of another one of pitching coach Don Cooper's miraculous turn-around jobs. Lefty John Danks, acquired in the McCarthy deal, will end up with a better career than McCarthy, but isn't ready quite yet. While the White Sox insist they like him better as a resilient bullpen arm, Haeger is actually their best option in that role, and deserves the first look. The performance the team gets out of that role will be a significant factor in its 2007 success.
The Bullpen: Even if the starters fall just short, the bullpen should make up for it. After serving as one of the team's strengths in 2005, things went significantly backwards in 2006, but moves have been made to fix things. Bobby Jenks remains an inconsistent but an effective closer overall. Matt Thornton also returns as an incredibly valuable lefthander who brings big-time heat and doesn't have to be removed by default against tough right-handed hitters. Following those two, the rest of the bullpen should consist of some solid performers that were not on the Opening Day roster one year ago, all representing notable upgrades.
That's a much better bullpen, maybe even better than the 2005 version. The White Sox have their nine wins back, giving them 99 wins, or heck, let's give them an even 100. From there it's a crapshoot, or not, but let's get the American League Central title out of the way. Those 99 wins are enough to win it, but helping out the cause is the fact that their main competition is the Tigers, who are about to be a victim of the plexiglass principle, and the Twins, who have a rotation that includes Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz...'nuff said. The Indians will be better, certainly--but 21 games better? I don't see it.
That gets the White Sox into the playoffs, where it's all about...pitching and defense up the middle. The team has solutions for that in order, and the one year drought ends in 2007. So, this Bridgeport edition of hope and faith means that yet another nightmare for Cubs fans is on the horizon.
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