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September 30, 2009
Chicago White Sox
Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 76-86, fourth place
Hey, remember Buehrle's perfect game?
Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take
What went wrong: GM Kenny Williams says flatly that the team underperformed in 2009, and rival executives agree. "I don't know what happened, because they have the most talent in the division," said one talent evaluator. Mark Buehrle slumped badly after throwing his perfect game, losing seven of his last eight decisions before being shut down. Chicago's front office defied conventional wisdom within the game by ignoring the red flags about Alex Rios and placing a claim on the center fielder-and then Rios was a complete bust for the White Sox, hitting just .176. And at about the time Rios's arrival called attention to the likely departure of Jermaine Dye, the right fielder stopped hitting. This contributed to a severe power shortage on the South Side: the White Sox hit 235 homers last year, but should end up with fewer than 190 in 2009. In short, the last two months of the season were a mess for the Sox, who might finish the year with fewer wins than the Athletics.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: How do they improve the team for 2010, given the big contracts they took on in 2009? The White Sox added Jake Peavy and Rios, about $120 million in salary obligations-but they also will presumably shed Dye's contract (which would pay him $12 million next season, if they picked up his option) and those of Jim Thome and Jose Contreras, who were both traded. A lot will depend on how much flexibility ownership gives to the front office, given that the team spent more than $100 million in 2009 without success. But there are good pieces in place: the White Sox could reasonably expect Carlos Quentin to overcome health problems. They successfully injected rookie Gordon Beckham into their lineup, and Beckham looks like he could be a leader for this team for years to come. Once again, the White Sox will probably go into next season as the AL Central's best team, on paper.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
In February PECOTA saw the Sox as potentially winding up in last place, but as I argued at the time, that was a prediction based on a lot of unanswered questions. Would veterans like Dye, Thome, and Paul Konerko age well? Would Quentin bounce back from injury? Who's in center field? What's the infield alignment in the interim with Beckham due to arrive at some date in the future? Those questions could have had happy answers that might have propelled the Sox to first place; certainly, I thought so, picking them to win the AL Central in our pre-season poll of BP staff. Unfortunately, even though Beckham arrived sooner rather than later and at third base to replace Josh Fields instead of second to take Chris Getz' job, generally the answers to those questions weren't all that happy. Dye has played his way out of getting his 2010 option picked up, and Quentin added to his lengthening list of nagging, performance-altering hurts. As far as trying and failing to find solutions to their outfield problems in-season, claiming Alexis Rios-another one of the infamous Blue Jays big-buck boondoggles, so when it comes to asking for more money, chutzpah, thy name is J.P. Ricciardi-off of waivers in August didn't fix their problems, but it does mean that one of their outfield slots belongs to Rios until after the mid-term elections of Obama's second term, and for only slightly less than the cost of national health care. The Sox did climb as high as just two games behind the Tigers on August 19, but then they tumbled through a 3-10 slump against the Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees and Twins that cost them five games on the Tigers on the standings, and precluded another season-ending title run.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Key stat: -24.5
That's the combined VORP of White Sox center fielders, starting with that long-gone Opening Day platoon of DeWayne Wise and Brian Anderson, Scott Podsednik's return engagement, all the way to "Blame It On" Rios. It's also the second-worst single-position mark in any major league outfield, behind only the Mariners' left fielders. For the sake of historical comparison, that unit-wide rate is worse than any single center fielder's VORP of the last 50-plus seasons covered in the Retrosheet era, topping even Darren Lewis' infamous 1999 season with the Red Sox (-24.1). Add in that Chicago's right and left fielders weren't exactly tearing up the league, and the White Sox outfield ranked 29th in production via MLVr, ahead of only Kansas City. When you're not getting runs from your outfield, you're going to have a hard time contending for anything but KC-style ignominy.
It needs to be noted, though, that the White Sox put up a .518 team Support-Neutral Winning Percentage, which ranked second in the American League. This suggests that White Sox starting pitching was doing its job better than all four playoff teams' rotations in the junior circuit. While pitching might be whatever percentage of baseball suits your aphorism of choice, you don't win if you don't score.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
ESPN.com Rumor Central
Free agency: Don't be so sure the Sox won't try to keep Dye. For one, he really, really wants to stay on a team most consider the most talented in the AL Central, and the Sox could have a great idea of how to use him. Dye has made nearly $80 million, so the kids are fed. So even if the Sox decline his $12 million option they could try to keep him around at a discount, and maybe get a cheap 30 homers out of him in the DH slot.
Trades: Since Bobby Jenks came out of Nowhere, Idaho, in 2005 to close out World Series games for the White Sox, he's been pretty reliable. He has 146 saves since that time, and his career WHIP of 1.176 is solid. But he might also be a commodity the team needs to move, because he could get a hefty raise due to arbitration. The Sox are giving Matt Thornton a hard look this week with Jenks on the shelf. Jenks is well-liked in Chicago, but Williams may prefer some flexibility.
Who 2 Watch 4: Dan Hudson, RHP
No pitcher in the minor leagues took a bigger step forward this year than Hudson did. A fifth-round pick last June out of Old Dominion, he was seen as a solid enough arm coming into the year, but he ended it as one of the better pitching prospects in the game, starting the season at Low-A and getting all the way to the majors while making a stop at all four full-season affiliates. With a 92-96 mph fastball and two solid secondary pitches (slider and changeup), Hudson wound up with a 2.32 ERA in 26 minor league starts while striking out 166 and walking just 34 in 147
The Bottom Line
A full season of Peavy plus the established trio of Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd is a platform for success. With Hudson lined up behind them, a quality rotation is this team's win-now asset above any other. The question really is whether or not the Sox can find the outfielders and a DH to shore up the moribund offense and propel this club to another division title, because if they don't, Ozzie Guillen and spontaneous combustion might get acquainted at a 2010 post-game press conference TBNL. There are already some answers to those questions on hand, for better and for worse: the farm system should produce another quality prospect in Tyler Flowers, who ought to help out at first and DH when he isn't sharing time behind the plate with A.J. Pierzynski, but they're stuck with the task of fixing Rios now that they have him. The biggest overall question is whether they can count on Quentin to come back to his former flashes of potential greatness, and who they'll find to replace Dye and Thome.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .