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March 15, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Day 6 in Cactus Country

by Christina Kahrl

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CAMELBACK RANCH—Seeing Jake Peavy take the mound is always going to be interesting, for any of a number of reasons. You might be wondering whether Kenny Williams is going to get any significant fraction of value for the former Pads ace that he acquired under circumstances almost as controversial as those that attended the addition of Alex Rios, or merely skeptical that Peavy can be good for 26 starts this season (where we've got him initially for 2006). How he does is no minor matter: with that projected playing time, PECOTA pegs Peavy as the club's top pitcher via WARP (4.0) and VORP (38.8).

Every new day with Peavy on the mound represents a new, interesting suggestion that maybe, just maybe, Herm Schneider's White Sox training staff have pulled off another of the everyday miraculous recoveries that have ranked theirs among the best training-room units in the game. However, there's also the necessary grind of getting in gear, and yesterday's contest was a great example of process. Peavy's coming along well, but he's also not all there yet, as a series of near-misses and struggles to get out of jams because of problems pitching from the stretch finally came to a head in the fourth inning, when he gave up three runs. In the second and third innings, Peavy got the first two outs, only to put a man on, then each time give up a base hit to a lefty hitter while pitching from the stretch. In the fourth, he didn't get the benefit of the early outs, as Cameron Maybin led off with a single through the infield, with two lefty batters due. Cedric Hunter then doubled, scoring Maybin, and Mike Baxter homered.

Peavy's problem's pitching without a full windup only exacerbated concerns over how he had recovered from his last spin. "I was a little bit nervous, didn't bounce back as well as I thought, and fatigue sets in around 50-60 pitches," he later explained. (Peavy topped out at 67 pitches on the day.) Of his struggles throwing from the stretch, especially against left-handed pitchers, Peavy attempted to defuse concerns by noting that he was "trying to throw the ball in to all of them, trying to get the fastball in." In retrospect, he considered this in-game issue to be a useful exercise, asserting, "I got way more out of today, versus the other day, from the full windup." Ozzie Guillen subsequently noted, "I think today he was more aggressive, instead of hurling."

The other interesting wrinkle to the contest was that it came against the Padres, Peavy's former employer. After the game, Peavy noted that he'd already dined with his former skipper Bruce Bochy (now with the Giants, natch). With an evening's fishing with Pads pitching coach Darren Balsley on tap ahead of him, Peavy couldn't help but consider how his day had turned out, noting, "I'd be a fool not to talk to him." But even there, Peavy felt as upbeat as ever, noting, "If we do have a setback, as far as we've come, it won't be a big setback." What will the next day bring? "Some soreness... we're just going to take it outing by outing." But as Guillen noted about Peavy's preparation, "He's better than anybody. He did everything he had to, to be ready for spring training."

Further out than that is tough to tell. The Sox might not need their fifth starter more than once in the first couple of weeks, and might choose to leave Peavy behind in extended spring training if they're concerned about his pitching in colder climes or without first demonstrating complete health. As Guillen asserted, "He's not ready to break camp with the team. We're still waiting for the next start. ... Either way, we take him with us, we don't, it's a risk."

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On the Pads' side of things, they got useful outings out of both Aaron Harang and Cory Luebke, or what might be two-fifths of the team's rotation. Harang's day was of the bend-don't-break variety, with a homer surrendered to Lastings Milledge representing the only real lowlight. Luebke's bid to join Harang, Mat Latos, Clayton Richard, and Tim Stauffer on the staff's front five took its first hit, as he gave up a pair of two-run homers in his four innings, to A.J. Pierzynski and to Alexei Ramirez; he also yielded a crushed ground-rule double to center field off the bat of Alejandro De Aza. However, the Ohio State alum also managed to skip walking anyone with his low-90s heat, while striking out seven Sox. High flies in Cactus action don't always mean the same thing, especially when Petco would be his destination, so I wouldn't quite chalk this up as a major setback for Luebke's chances of beating out Wade LeBlanc and Dustin Moseley. His live stuff was a big part of the argument for why he represents the upside choice over the alternatives; even with the big blasts, he nevertheless showed that off to good effect.

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Peavy's day wasn't all the only mixed bag for the Sox to ponder. Chris Sale put an additional two-outs three-spot on the board in the fifth when he gave up three straight hits (and a double steal led by Chris Denorfia), capped by Jesus Guzman's two-run double. Ozzie subsequently grumbled, "I'm disappointed, he missed spots." When asked if he'd consider a bullpen by committee, Guillen reminded the beat writers, "I go with the guy with the best stuff," which wasn't exactly an answer, since he's been willing to ride the hot hand and mix and match as needed in past seasons. Since Sale isn't hot and is just as left-handed as veteran Matt Thornton, I'm left thinking that the glory stats will get piled upon the pitcher who's ready, well-compensated, and more than good enough, given his track record.

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Finally, in position-player fights, the start at third went to Brent Morel, who squeaked out an infield hit against Harang and a better-hit safety against Luebke. Even so, the job seems to be Mark Teahen's to lose, and while Teahen's glove may do that for him, Ozzie's postgame comment that "if Teahen wins the job, Morel needs to go play every day"—presumably in Triple-A—seems less than encouraging if you're among those harboring hopes for a job-sharing arrangement. As for the ongoing battle between Milledge and De Aza, it doesn't look like even the temporary absence of Dayan Viciedo (two weeks or so instead of four or more) will buy them much respite in what looks like a deathmatch. As Ozzie stated, "that's going all the way through to the end, that's going to be the toughest cut." Will De Aza's value on the bases and ability to play center triumph over the wishcasts so frequently conjured up for Milledge's unrealized potential? Beyond the grind of getting the front-line players in gear, it's these sorts of desperate camp battles that will always capture my interest.

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

Related Content:  Jake Peavy,  Cory Luebke

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