2008 MLB Preview: Chicago White Sox

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2008 MLB Preview: Chicago White Sox

Manager: Ozzie Guillen
Arrivals: SS Orlando Cabrera, RP Octavio Dotel, RP Scott Linebrink, OF Carlos Quentin, IF/OF Alexei Ramirez, OF Nick Swisher
Departures: RP David Aardsma, IF Alex Cintron, OF Darin Erstad, SP Jon Garland, IF/OF Andy Gonzalez, OF Scott Podsednik, OF Ryan Sweeney, OF Luis Terrero

Offseason grade: C+

 

An explanation: Back in November, I wrote this article about how to fix the White Sox in the offseason. Let's see how they fared against what I said they need to do, now that we're just a few days away from Opening Day:

1. Trade Jon Garland or Jose Contreras, and resolve the Joe Crede/Josh Fields dilemma.

Did it happen? Part one, yes. Part two, no. Garland was traded to the Angels for Orlando Cabrera in a very savvy move, but Crede is still with the club while Fields has been shipped off to AAA Charlotte. 

The Garland deal not only saved the Sox $3 million (nearly enough to pay all of Alexei Ramirez' contract), but Garland is a Type B free agent while Cabrera is a Type A. Therefore, if the Sox lose Cabrera, they'll get a higher supplemental draft pick next year  than if they had lost Garland to free agency. So, while the move depleted the starting rotation, it still was the right call.

 

2. Make a big splash, either through a trade or free agency.

Did it happen? Yes, when the Sox traded away Gio Gonzalez, Fautino de los Santos, and Ryan Sweeney for Nick Swisher. When I wrote that they should make a big splash, I really was hoping it'd be through free agency (like signing Torii Hunter) so the Sox wouldn't have to part ways with a player like Gonzalez. Unfortunately, due to the Swisher trade, the Sox now are left with only one good pitching prospect–Aaron Poreda–in their farm system.

 

3. Get a leadoff hitter.

Did it happen? Short answer, no, long answer, yes. The Sox didn't acquire Swisher with the intention that he'd lead off, but he may end up doing that for a good portion of this season if Jerry Owens can't stay healthy. Ramirez also is a future leadoff hitter, but he probably won't see much time there unless Owens struggles and Swisher's bat is needed in the middle of the lineup.

 

4. Fix the bullpen.

Did it happen? They certainly did their best to fix the bullpen in getting Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel. I can't complain about either of those signings.

 

5. Remember that last season was an anomaly.

Did it happen? Seems like it. Nobody really expects the Sox hitters to do as poorly as they did last year.

The C+ grade was because the Sox didn't acquire that true leadoff hitter, traded away their two best pitching prospects, and didn't resolve the Crede situation. 

 

 

Starting rotation

Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez will lead this rotation and are a very underrated 1-2 punch.

Buehrle is one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the game today. Seven innings and no more than four runs is the norm for Buehrle, who saw his win total drop to just ten last year due to the White Sox struggles on offense and in the bullpen.

With an offense that doesn't mysteriously slump and a bullpen that has a much stronger bridge to Bobby Jenks, expect Buehrle to win around 15 games with that same ERA hovering around 3.50.  

Vazquez is my sleeper pick to win 20 games this year. Despite all the problems the White Sox had in 2007, Vazquez still managed to go 15-7 with a 3.74 ERA and 213 strikeouts. 

The key with Vazquez is comfort. He never was comfortable in New York, Arizona, or even in his first year with the White Sox. Why? He was either being criticized or mentioned in trade rumors and never was able to settle down.

That all changed when the White Sox gave him a three-year, $34.5 million extension on March 6 of 2007. It wasn't a coincidence that Vazquez turned out his best season since his Montreal days with his comfortable new contract. 

Now that he's firmly settled in with the White Sox, don't be surprised if Vazquez keeps on pitching like he did with the Expos. This time, though, he has a quality offense to back him up, so 20 wins and an ERA around 3.50 is not out of the question.

The White Sox know what they're going to get out of Buehrle and Vazquez. The overall success of this rotation (and the team, for that matter) will depend on John Danks, Jose Contreras, and Gavin Floyd.

Danks was pretty good in the first half of 2007 before the league caught up to him in the second half of the year. He finished the year an unimpressive 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA but will be just 23 on April 15.

The addition of a cutter to Danks' repertoire could do wonders for him. If he can learn from Buehrle about how to bust hitters in with a cutter, Danks really could take off. Remember, he wasn't even slated to pitch in the majors last year–but he won a spot in the rotation out of spring training and completely skipped the usual stint at AAA.  

Danks certainly has the stuff to be a very good pitcher in this league, from a low 90's fastball that he throws with pretty good accuracy to a devastating curveball to an above-average changeup. Once he learns how to pitch and utilize those pitches and his cutter, he'll be good. And that could happen as soon as this year.

As you can tell, I'm pretty high on Danks. I'm not so high on Contreras and Floyd.

Contreras went from being one of the best pitchers in baseball from the All-Star breaks of 2005 to 2006 to being one of the worst pitchers in baseball from the All-Star break of 2006 to the end of 2007.

Things would usually start to go south for Contreras when he relied on dropping down and throwing three-quarters or sidearm. His fastball had a tendency to either completely miss the strike zone or run right down the middle and his splitter had significantly less drop than if he was throwing over the top. 

The key for Contreras is to throw over the top and occasionally mix in a sidearm fastball to keep hitters off balance. However, even if he does that, I don't see him regaining the magic he had going for him down the stretch in 2005.

I'm even more skeptical about Floyd. The White Sox brass has been raving about what Floyd has done this spring, which is curious because his spring ERA is 6.55. 

Floyd did have a few good starts last year (namely, a couple against Detroit), but I'm not so sure he can be consistent over a full season. Don't be surprised if he and Contreras both find themselves with ERAs well above 5.00 at the end of the season.

I've been saying all offseason that, for the Sox to contend, they're going to need all three of Danks, Contreras, and Floyd to pitch well. The way I see it, only one of those three will pitch well, and thus, this team will fall out of contention unless GM Kenny Williams can swing a trade that brings in two bona fide starting pitchers, something almost certainly won't happen given the state of the White Sox farm system.

Starting rotation grade: C+

 

Bullpen

While Bobby Jenks may not throw in the upper 90's like he did in 2005, he doesn't need to. Jenks has learned how to pitch over the last two seasons, sacrificing velocity for accuracy on his fastball. He's also added a very good cut fastball to go along with his devastating 12-6 curve that makes him one of the best closers in the game.

Don't believe me? Ask any one of the 42 batters he retired in a row last season.

Jenks was about the only bright spot in the White Sox bullpen last year (Ehren Wasserman excluded, he only pitched about two months and may not even make this year's Opening Day roster) that, like the offense, mysteriously struggled after doing so well in 2006.

Matt Thornton turned in a subpar year after being so good in 2006 (ERA of 3.33 in 54 innings), throwing 56.1 innings with a 4.79 ERA. I don't expect Thornton to pitch as well as he did in 2006, but I do expect him to see a little bit of improvement and have his ERA settle somewhere in the low-four range.

Boone Logan will be the other left-handed in the Sox bullpen this year. Logan, who will turn just 24 in August, has struggled through his first two MLB seasons with a career ERA of 5.82.

However, there are a lot of people in the White Sox community who think Logan is due for a big year. His fastball is creeping up into the mid-90's and you have to keep in mind that he spent the majority of his minor league career in rookie ball before surprisingly making the MLB squad in 2006. 

If Logan emerges into the pitcher many think he can be, it'll take a lot of pressure off Thornton to be the No. 1 lefty in the White Sox bullpen, taking him out of a lot of the pressure situations that he struggled in last year.

From the right side, the additions of Linebrink and Dotel give some much-needed depth to this bullpen. Both of the free agent signees are seasoned veterans who should be counted on to pitch in big spots.

I don't expect Linebrink to be as good as he was in San Diego (which was largely due to the park he was pitching in), but he still should be a quality eighth inning setup man.

Dotel has struggled in spring training, but if he can stay off the disabled list, I think he'll be just fine pitching in the seventh or eighth inning as well.

The final two spots in the bullpen have not been determined yet. Nick Masset, Mike MacDougal, and Ehren Wassermann are all competing for those final spots and a decision has not been reached yet.

Masset is out of options and likely will make the team. He was another piece of the Brandon McCarthy trade that also brought Danks over from Texas after the 2006 season and the organization is very high on him. He throws a good, low-to-mid-90's fastball with average breaking pitches and still has a ways to go before he can be a starting pitcher in the majors like the Sox believe he can be.

If the Sox are looking for a long reliever and spot starter, Masset is their best option. They might as well try him in the majors, and if he struggles, the Sox probably will just waive him.

Mike MacDougal was absolutely atrocious last year. If he didn't walk the batter, he would get the count to 3-1 before laying a fat fastball right down the middle for a hitter to crush for a home run. 

After struggling early in spring training, MacDougal lowered his ERA to 4.60 after a scoreless inning against Milwaukee March 26. If he can regain the limited command he had before 2007, he could return the form he had in 2006 and earlier, but that's a big "if". The good news about MacDougal is that he still has a minor league option left, so if he struggles, he could be sent down.

Wassermann is my bet to be the odd man out of this group despite being the best pitcher of the three. Wassermann is a rare "ROOGY" (right-handed one out guy) and an ever rarer major leaguer signed out of a tryout camp who held righties to a .174 batting average over 69 at-bats last year. 

He didn't have much success against lefties, however, who hit .533 against him in 15 at-bats. In the end, I think Ozzie Guillen will want to pick somebody who can be regularly used against righties and lefties, and MacDougal and Masset fit that role more than Wassermann.

That doesn't mean Wassermann will toil in the minors all season, though. I think think he'll appear in around 40 or so games at the MLB level if MacDougal or Masset can't cut it at the MLB level.

While this bullpen certainly is improved from last year, guys like Thornton, MacDougal, and Masset likely will struggle more often than not. Logan has the potential for a breakout year, but he also could see himself struggle. If Linebrink and Dotel struggle, too, then it'll all be back to square one for this White Sox bullpen.

Bullpen grade: B-

 

Lineup

With Jerry Owens pulling his best Scott Podsednik impression (no, not stealing 59 bases and leading a team to a World Series, but having a nagging groin injury), Nick Swisher will lead off and play centerfield while Owens is on the disabled list.  

So, for the first couple of weeks of the season, Swisher will lead off. If Owens returns and struggles or goes back on the disabled list, Swisher could see significant time as the White Sox leadoff hitter throughout 2008.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Swisher has had high on-base percentages the last two years and certainly would create scoring situations for the middle of this lineup by getting on base. If Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko rebound to their pre-2007 averages, this lineup won't miss Swisher's production in the middle of it. He won't steal 50 bases like Owens can, but he ultimately could be the better leadoff option.

If Owens is healthy, I can see him hitting around .270 with a relatively low on-base percentage for a leadoff hitter. Like I said earlier, he can steal 50+ bases and having him leading off would mean Swisher would get a lot more RBI opportunities.

Owens reminds me a lot of Juan Pierre in that he has good speed but doesn't hit the ball with authority and has a noodle arm in center or left. However, Owens, isn't nearly as good of a bunter as Pierre is, a skill that the Dodgers outfielder frequently uses to get on base. 

I don't know what to make of Owens yet. I'm not sold that he's a starter, but I'm also not sold that he's just a fourth outfielder. If he frequents the disabled list, he certainly can't be considered an everyday starter, but if he hits the way he did after getting recalled from the minors for the second time last year, he's worthy of starting and leading off. I guess only time will tell as to what role Owens fits.

Hitting second in this lineup will be Orlando Cabrera, one of the best No. 2 hitters in baseball. Cabrera is proficient at hitting the ball to right field and sacrificing himself for the big boppers in the middle of the order.

While I'd be shocked if Cabrera hits over .300 again, I do think he'll hit around .280 and do an excellent job of moving runners over when he has to while playing slick defense at shortstop.

Jim Thome will hit third, although that may change against lefties if he continues to struggle against them. If healthy, Thome still can hit 30-35 home runs with one of the better on-base percentages in the league, but it's unreasonable to expect 500 at-bats from Thome at this point in his career.

If he can play in about 140 games and pick up around 450 at-bats, I'd be happy with his performance. The offense will be there for Thome–it's just a matter of whether or not he can stay off the disabled list.

Paul Konerko's mysterious drop in production last year was a huge reason why this linuep struggled so much. After hitting 35 or more home runs and driving in 100 or more runs from 2004-06, Konerko hit 31 home runs, had 90 RBI, and hit just .259 in 2007.

I don't think Konerko will hit at that clip again in 2008. I expect him to return and hit around .280/35/100 as the Sox cleanup hitter this year. 

Jermaine Dye also saw a huge dropoff in production in 2007, hitting just .254 with 28 home runs and 78 RBI. While I don't think Dye will ever match his 2006 numbers of .315/44/12, I do expect him to hit about as well as he did in 2005, when he hit .274 with 31 home runs and 86 RBI.

AJ Pierzynski also saw his batting average take a massive hit last year, dropping from .295 to .263. I also think he'll see a rebound in his batting average and hit around .275 out of the sixth, seventh, or eighth spot in this lineup depending on where Swisher is hitting and if Joe Crede can produce. 

After winning the Silver Slugger award for third basemen in 2006, Crede was hampered by a back problem that, in retrospect, he should have had corrected by surgery after the 2006 offseason. However, Crede was coming off the best offensive season of his career and didn't want to risk losing out on a long-term contract, so he tried to play through the back problem in 2007.

Two months and a .218 batting average later, Crede decided to have that back surgery. And, because his status was up in the air because of that back surgery, the White Sox were unable to trade him unless they were willing to take Randy Messenger or Scott Williamson from the Giants.

Williams didn't want to just give up Crede for next to nothing, so he decided to keep him on the team and send Josh Fields down to the minors despite hitting 23 home runs in 100 games with the Sox last year. 

Benching Crede to open the year would mean the Sox would have an unhappy and un-tradeable third baseman on the team. There really wasn't much the Sox could do because they decided not to non-tender Crede in the offseason, hoping that somebody would bite on a trade.

Crede is a notoriously slow starter, but he'll be on the hot seat from day one, especially if Fields lights it up at AAA. Fields has a very high offensive ceiling and could easily hit 35 home runs over a full MLB season once he cuts down on his strikeouts. While his defense doesn't compare to Crede's, it'll come with time.  

A few weeks ago, when it was becoming apparent that Crede was going to be the starter at third, I wrote this article about why Fields should be starting over Crede. Rather than rehashing the whole argument, I'll just link it. 

With Owens out, Carlos Quentin appears to be the starter in left. After a slow start, Quentin has upped his batting average to .290 for the spring. He's just 25 and has yet to play more than a half-season in the majors due to his inexperience or an injury. 

Arizona had no use for Quentin in their crowded young outfield, so they traded him to the White Sox for Chris Carter, a first baseman who never has played above low-A ball.

If Quentin is given the opportunity to start (read: if Owens is hurt or struggles), he easily could hit .275 with 20-25 home runs out of the No. 8 spot in this White Sox lineup.

Rounding the White Sox lineup for now is Juan Uribe, who was placed on waivers no less than a week ago. He'll start at second base after a good offensive spring, but his track record indicates that it won't carry over to the regular season. With Alexei Ramirez waiting in the wings, a slow start from Uribe could lead to him being benched in favor of the speedy young Cuban.

Ramirez also will see some decent playing time as a centerfielder this year, mainly against lefties.

Brian Anderson also deserves to see some significant playing time after his excellent spring in which he is hitting .353 with a few home runs all while playing sparkling defense. Anderson has struggled at the plate over the course of his MLB career and is in Guillen's doghouse for no apparent reason. He'll likely spend this season as the team's fourth outfielder, but he should be starting somewhere in the majors.

I don't see this lineup struggling like they did last year. Thome is still productive at his old age and the rest of the players who struggled still should have a good year or two left in the tank. The additions of Swisher and Cabrera could really spark this lineup back to a level a few ticks below their 2006 form.

Lineup grade: B (If Fields takes over at third and Ramirez at second, would move up to B+)

 

Bench

Pablo Ozuna is one of the better utilitymen in the league, able to play second, third, and left field all while brining a certain spark to the lineup when he plays. He'll get the Opening Day start against Cleveland's CC Sabathia and will see a lot of playing time against lefthanders this year.

Ramirez will be an excellent utility player before he earns a starting spot somewhere on the field sooner rather than later. He can play second, short, and a bit of center and will find his way into more than a few games early in the year.

Anderson is an excellent defensive outfielder who, if he finds himself on the bench, should at least be used as a late-inning defensive replacement for Swisher or Owens. 

Quentin will be a very good pinch hitter and late-inning defensive replacement if he's relegated back to the bench. If he somehow keeps his job over Owens, then Owens will be a very good pinch runner for some of the "slower than molasses" runners of the middle of this Sox lineup (Konerko, Thome, Crede, and Pierzynski, I'm looking at you).

Toby Hall isn't exactly an ideal backup catcher, as the offense loses a significant amount of production when he and his .225 on-base percentage is in the lineup.

Bench grade: B

Like I said earlier, what this White Sox ballclub does in 2008 hinges on Danks, Contreras, and Floyd. If all three of them pitch well (average of 13 or so wins, ERA around 4.00), the White Sox will contend for the AL Central.

If two of the three pitch well, the Sox will end up a strong third in the division.

If one of them pitches well, the Sox will hover around .500 and will still finish third.

If they all struggle, the Sox will be headed back to fourth place in the division.

The bullpen should be decent and so should the offense. The problem is is that the pressure for this team's success falls on two pitchers who are both under 25 and somebody who's about double their age. 

 

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