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June 17, 2007

Every Given Sunday

Burrowing to the Basement in Bridgeport

by John Perrotto

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Batting average, as all sabermetric devotees know, does not provide a particularly useful picture of a hitter's value. Nevertheless, we're still in a day and age when you'll find batting average on every scoreboard in every major-league park. And Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, in a roundabout way, believes the widespread exposure of the antiquated metric is part of the reason his team is just 28-36 and in fourth place in the American League Central, 9 games behind division-leading Cleveland.

"I think our guys need to relax, and part of the reason they are uptight is because they keep looking up at the scoreboard and seeing their batting averages," Guillen said. "I played this game. I know what it's like when it's June and you have 200 at-bats and you are hitting .200. As a manager, I can tell my guys not to worry about it, but that's not going to help. You know when you're hitting .200 this late in the season that it's a bad thing. Then, you start trying to get two hits every time up and that just makes it worse because you're pressing. Our guys just have to find a way to quit worrying about it."

That is easier said than done, though. It has been a disappointing season on the South Side of Chicago, a continuation of the second half implosion from last season. Since last year's All-Star break, the White Sox are just 61-77. The extended run of losing baseball makes it seem like an eternity rather than just 2005 since the White Sox won the World Series to end the franchise's 88-year title drought.

"It's just been a really tough season for us," first baseman Paul Konerko said. "It seems like everything that can go wrong for us has, from not hitting to our pitchers not getting big outs to us not making plays in the field to injuries. You could talk about that stuff all day but it all boils down to one thing and that is we haven't played very good baseball all year. It's been very disappointing."

However, as Guillen suggested, the club's biggest problem is an anemic offense that is last in the AL in runs scored with an average of 3.9 per game. The lineup is also now without third baseman Joe Crede after he underwent back surgery this past week, while left fielder Scott Podsednik and center fielder Darin Erstad are also the Disabled List.

"Nobody is hitting," Konerko said. "At various points in the season, you'll have times where maybe two or three guys are slumping, but our whole lineup has been in a slump all year."

Indeed, the numbers are ugly up and down the lineup, as many of the White Sox rank among the worst in the AL in VORP. Excluding the center field platoon of Luis Terrero/Jerry Owens replacing Erstad and rookie third baseman Josh Fields because of small sample size issues, but including Crede, here's how they're doing, and where they rank among the 299 American Leaguers who have registered a plate appearance so far this season. We've also thrown in batting average to illustrate Guillen's point:

Player            PA   AVG  VORP  AL Rank
Jim Thome        162  .288  18.7    26
Paul Konerko     261  .240   3.9    89
A.J. Pierzynski  217  .239   1.7   116
Tadahito Iguchi  232  .250   0.6   139
Jermaine Dye     252  .225  -0.8   212
Rob Mackowiak    168  .224  -5.2   285
Juan Uribe       203  .206  -5.8   287
Joe Crede        178  .216  -9.9   295

The bullpen hasn't helped matters any, as the White Sox' 5.79 relief ERA is tied with Tampa Bay for the worst in the major leagues. However, it is the hitting that has Guillen perplexed. "We have good players who have performed well in the past," Guillen said. "That's why I don't understand this. We've tried every (messed) up lineup I could think up to try to break out of it and nothing has worked."

The White Sox may want to start thinking about the future. Left-hander Mark Buehrle, Iguchi, and Dye are all eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and could be dealt if the White Sox don't pull out of their slump soon. "It's definitely a possibility," Guillen said. "I hope it doesn't happen but I also understand that at some point in the season you've got to start winning some ballgames. It's not early in the season anymore."

  • Oakland General Manager Billy Beane had his contract extended two years this past week; his deal now carries him through 2014. Ever since Lew Wolff became one of the Athletics' owners, Beane has said he has no desire to work for another baseball team. However, there continues to be speculation that Beane may branch out into another sport.

    "I still love doing this job," Beane told the San Francisco Chronicle. "This year has been challenging but fun. The great thing about being with Lew is that it is really stimulating, not just with the A's, but also with the other endeavors that Lew is involved with."

    Wolff is also trying to buy a Major League Soccer franchise, and there is a chance Beane could either turn his full attention to that sport or serve as GM of both teams. Beane has taken an interest in soccer in recent years, particularly with the sport's business models in Europe. What if that interest claims all of his time? David Forst, the Athletics' assistant GM, is highly regarded, and has turned down interviews with Arizona and Boston because he wants to stay in Oakland. Thus, the Athletics have a replacement at the ready if Beane decides to focus on the soccer pitch instead of pitch counts.

  • Speaking of Beane, he once tried to hire Dave Littlefield as his assistant general manager in Oakland. Littlefield decided to stay in the same job with Florida under then-Marlins General Manager Dave Dombrowski, and subsequently became the Pirates general manager midway through the 2001 season.

    While Beane became famous in Moneyball for his ability to exploit market inefficiencies, Littlefield has built the "anti-Moneyball" roster with the Pirates this season, and tying up a large chunk of the payroll on unproductive players. Jack Wilson, the Pirates' highest-paid player at $5.25 million, was benched after seven seasons as the starting shortstop this past week, while right-hander Shawn Chacon, making $3,925,000, was dropped from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Last month, right-hander Tony Armas and his $3-million salary were banished from the rotation to a mop-up relief role.

    That is $12,175,000 tied up in what are essentially fungible roster spots, a whopping 31.6 percent of the $38.5-million payroll. Throw in the fact the Pirates are on pace to lose 90-plus games this season and have lost at least 87 in each of Littlefield's first six seasons, and it becomes understandable why speculation is rampant that he could be fired by the end of the season.

  • Left-hander Eric Milton's time with Cincinnati essentially ended this past Friday, when he underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. Thus, the book is closed one of the worst free-agent signings by a low-revenue franchise in recent years. The Reds gave Milton a three-year, $25-million contract prior to the 2005 season, and didn't get much return on their investment. Milton went 16-27 with a 5.83 ERA in 66 starts in his three seasons. He also accounted for a SNLVAR of 2.0 spread across 66 starts from 2005-07.

    It was former Reds General Manager Dan O'Brien who signed Milton. However, current Reds manager Jerry Narron says it is not fair to be overly critical of Milton's ill-fated career in the Rhineland. "Injuries happen and are part of the game, and I doubt if he was ever 100 percent healthy in his time here," Narron told the Dayton Daily News.

  • From the rumor mill: Already hopelessly out of the AL West race, Texas is ready to trade a number of players, including first baseman Mark Teixeira, center fielder Kenny Lofton, right fielder Sammy Sosa, and relievers Eric Gagne, Akinori Otsuka, and Joaquin Benoit. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has no plans to fire Guillen or pursue New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez if he becomes a free agent at the end of the season, as expected. Minnesota is looking for a right-handed hitter who can play third base, and has its eye on Tampa Bay's Ty Wigginton. Philadelphia center fielder Aaron Rowand makes no secret that he would strongly consider returning to the White Sox as a free agent in the offseason. Rowand is one of many center fielders who could hit the open market this upcoming winter, along with Atlanta's Andruw Jones, Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, Minnesota's Torii Hunter, and San Diego's Mike Cameron. The Angels could very well wind up releasing designated hitter/first baseman Shea Hillenbrand when infielder Maicer Izturis comes off the Disabled List, likely during the early part of the week The Chicago Cubs are willing to trade outfielder Matt Murton, optioned to Triple-A Iowa this past week, and also would be willing to move catcher Michael Barrett once Henry Blanco comes off the disabled list (perhaps in two weeks), after Barrett's dugout confrontations with pitchers Carlos Zambrano and Rich Hill in the past two weeks. Blanco and Koyie Hill would share time behind the plate if Barrett is dealt. Florida will consider moving shortstop Hanley Ramirez to center field next season. Baltimore's selection of Georgia Tech catcher Josh Wieters with the fifth overall pick in the draft earlier this month is seen as the Orioles' way of testing the waters with agent Scott Boras as a warm-up to making an all-out effort to sign Teixeira, who grew up in the Baltimore area, when he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2008 season.

    John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
    Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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