One trade often seems like, but seldom is, what a season pivots on. It was more the media collectively releasing the tension of a long, drawn-out Bartolo Colon trade than actual fact that led everyone to suddenly brand the White Sox as the AL Central favorite. Colon is a good pitcher, but he also looks like Rich Garces after a few too many Krispy Kreme benders. We all know what happened the last time the White Sox brought in a fat guy with big expectations.
To beat the Twins, the Sox will need a bit of luck, plenty of talent, and like any other team hoping to contend, a lot of health. Head Athletic Trainer Herm Schneider made his reputation by getting Bo Jackson back, but he's also kept the Sox above average in most other health measures for over a decade. Most of the team's major injuries in the last few seasons have occurred traumatically, such as Frank Thomas' stomach-churning triceps tear. However, the pitching staff has been brutalized by extensive injuries. From Jon Rauch to Mike Sirotka, expectations often fall to injuries on the South Side.
Going into this season, the Sox appear relatively healthy, with just a few question marks. The pitching situation remains somewhat worrisome. Bartolo Colon may or may not have come to terms with his inner David Wells, depending on your interpretation. He pitched more efficiently last year, inducing more balls in play that went for outs. That tack cuts both ways. A huge drop in his strikeout rate over the last two years doesn't bode well for his long-term future, given the much higher success rates of high-strikeout pitchers over the years. His lower walk rate is encouraging though. Colon won't be as bad as Wells was in his Sox stint, but this acquisition alone doesn't put them in position to challenge the Twins.
What might, then? Perhaps a healthy and angry Frank Thomas. Thomas hasn't been the same player since his triceps tear was mishandled, but his "diminished skills" remain dangerous. I've had a lot of insiders tell me that Thomas has refocused himself and is ready to break loose. I'll believe it when I see it. Thomas clearly had the talent just a few years ago, but PECOTA is spotting his most comparable players as Cecil Fielder (once again, I get to say fat in this report and egg on the Sox fans to e-mail me) in the last year of his career, and Jose Canseco in the last good year of his career. If the Sox are looking for the old Frank Thomas, I'd advise ESPN Classic. If they're looking for a decent DH that can put up a .900 OPS, they have that now.
Longtime UTK Readers know that one of my original ideas for the title of my column was "Sandy Alomar's Hurt Again." I could go on and on and on about why Sandy Alomar is worth a red light, but beating that dead horse is so five years ago. Josh Paul will be asked to catch more than he has since Double-A in '98, so he's a slight risk. Miguel Olivo may be the long-term answer; Alomar is simply a placeholder.
The rest of the team is quite healthy. D'Angelo Jimenez just missed a yellow light based on some lingering effects of his near-fatal auto accident, but I'm more inclined to give him credit for an amazing comeback. The Sox also have plenty of insurance types and options to be able to make it through the inevitable injuries every team suffers through.
Back to the pitching. The staff is quite young, which is always a concern. Mark Buehrle gets a yellow light due to his heavy usage and the drop in K rate. Buehrle was asked to throw 100 or more pitches in each of his last seven starts, including 123 on the next-to-last day of the season. Why this happened with the Sox miles out of contention is anyone's guess, especially as his velocity steady declined each time out. This is the stuff that should get managers and pitching coaches called on the carpet. If Buehrle comes up lame or acts on his desire to get out of Chicago, we can look back on this period and wince, Tony LaRussa's tampering aside. Buehrle did keep up his excellent numbers when examined over a whole season, though. According to Lee Sinins of Sabermetric Encyclopedia fame, Buehrle is number two all-time for best ERA versus league average for a 23-year-old.
Meanwhile, Jon Rauch gets a red light for two reasons: 1) His severe shoulder problems, including the dreaded torn labrum; and 2) Because at 6'11", it's so difficult to compare him to any other player. Randy Johnson comes to mind, but the differences are far too glaring. I hope Rauch can come back, but I've got no data to suggest that such hopes are realistic.
The Sox have some margin of error in a weak division. Win the Central? Maybe, but it won't be easy. After all, the physical health of the team is only half the equation; the front office's ability to make the right moves down the stretch remains a major question mark.