There’s a number of ways to indicate the bipolar nature of this team, but looking above you’ll see that there’s one big problem that the White Sox face heading into 2004: not enough innings on the board.
The White Sox have begun a half-hearted rebuilding job under Ozzie Guillen without actually making the team better. One assumes that the money not spent on Bartolo Colon could be used to lock up Magglio Ordonez, but that’s not clear. There were no other big moves, and instead, the White Sox find themselves in limbo. That may still be enough in a weak AL Central.
Bringing in Guillen to clean up an underachieving team with a divided clubhouse might make sense on some levels, but his rapid-fire and often profane diatribes can only be expected to do so much. He’s definitely the opposite of Jerry Manuel, who “led” the most divided clubhouse since the days of the “24 players, 24 taxis” Red Sox. Oddly, Guillen comes to his first managing job much like Manuel did, fresh off a World Championship with the Marlins. Manuel and fellow coach Larry Rothschild (now Chicago’s pitching coach) both had limited success as managers, so the questions about Guillen remain. He’s short on experience, has no experience handling pitchers, and played with several of the players on his team, including Frank Thomas.
Guillen’s major task will be to find innings that seemingly aren’t available. Losing 200+ innings when Colon left did more damage to this staff than it might have to any team. It’s never easy to replace 200 innings, but the White Sox, short of a free-agent signing, had no realistic options. Early in camp, Guillen’s discussed his desire for pitchers to complete games and for increased pitch efficiency, so it remains to be seen how he’ll actually handle the staff. One injury could cause a cascade of massive proportions.
The new nominal ace of the staff is Mark Buehrle. At 25, he’s cleared the injury nexus and proven he can take a 230-inning workload, but his velocity keeps sliding as his ERA keeps climbing. While some have traumatic breakdowns, other pitchers simply slowly lose the edge they need to be successful. There’s more than one way to break a pitcher.
Dan Wright has had a nice spring, but his 2002 workload–just shy of 200 innings–resulted in a tender elbow and a lost 2003. More than any other pitcher, he’d do well by listening to the efficiency part of his manager’s speeches. Jon Rauch, on the other hand, seems better suited to another role. Being tall doesn’t make you Randy Johnson, and the sooner Rauch’s handlers realize this, the more they’ll realize he’s more likely to be the right-handed Kelly Wunsch than a righty Big Unit. Rauch’s never gone more than 150 innings without problems and there’s no reason to believe he can survive that workload.
Esteban Loaiza was a great story last year from many angles, but he’ll be hard pressed to repeat his Cy Young-type season. Last year was his first over 200 innings and was a major increase over his injury-plagued 2002 campaign. Simple regression to the mean will account for some reduction in effectiveness, but Loaiza has always been unable to string together consecutive healthy seasons.
Not listed above, Scott Schoeneweis is competing to step into the rotation, but he will be facing a major increase in innings by the All-Star break. Conversions to the rotation need to be handled properly, and one leading indicator for success seems to be pitch efficiency. At nearly 16 pitches per inning, Schoeneweis is less efficient than Danny Graves was going into his move last year. If he does crack the rotation, don’t expect him to stay there.
The bullpen is again supposed to be a strength of the club, but Guillen is again an open question. He at least should have a healthy bunch this season, assuming he doesn’t tax them when his starters aren’t able to go as deep as he’s expecting. PECOTA doesn’t have high hopes for Shingo Takatsu, but at least this pen is deep. In fact, instead of looking for the innings in the rotation, this is where Guillen should be looking. If he could overcome ‘the book’ and start using this deep and potentially very effective pen for longer stretches, he’d be placing his team in a much better position to win.
There are no reds or yellows for the position players, something I don’t think has occurred before. While a couple traumatic injuries are sure to occur along with the expected and inevitable minor injuries, this lineup should offer some consistency. It all then comes down to the pitchers. If Guillen keeps them healthy and effective, the Sox can certainly compete in a mediocre division. If not, Southsiders won’t be able to even dream of an “El” Series.