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Goodbye to Jose Contreras and Jim Thome: An Appreciative Thank You

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Goodbye to Jose Contreras and Jim Thome: An Appreciative Thank You
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Wow.

I was a little out of the loop last night, leaving my computer at the office for the first time in who knows how long and then going to see a movie with the girlfriend.

Every now and then it’s good to get away from sports and blogging for a night. Plus, I was dreading the results of the White Sox's first game in Minnesota and didn’t want to be put in a bad mood.

Of course, as a proud iPhone owner and MLB At Bat app user, I could not escape finding out about the Sox's 4-1 loss to Minnesota—our ninth loss in 11 games—but, and this is the most disheartening part, it didn’t really disappoint me too much because I was expecting it.

What I just saw this morning upon arriving at the office, however, I did not expect. I guess I probably should have.

The White Sox have traded veterans Jim Thome and Jose Contreras to the NL West.

Thome goes to the Dodgers and Contreras to the Rockies. In return for the players and “cash considerations” (whatever that means), the White Sox received infielder Justin Fuller from the Dodgers and pitcher Brandon Hynick from the Rockies.

Clearly both of these moves were salary dumps by Ken Williams and the first steps in piecing together the 2010 White Sox.

Fuller is a 26-year-old “prospect” still mired in A ball.

Hynick, on the other hand, does seem to have a bit of potential. A 24-year-old righty, Hynick has had a solid season at Triple-A: 3.83 ERA and 92/48 K/BB ratio. According to RotoWorld, Hynick could be an effective reliever at the big league level by next year.

But this post isn’t about analyzing two basically nondescript minor leaguers who may or may not ever contribute to the success of White Sox baseball. This post is about saying goodbye to two White Sox veterans who contributed to some really good times during their South Side tenures.

First, Jim Thome.

I was wholeheartedly against the Thome acquisition when it happened. Still hating him from his days in Cleveland, I just could not wrap my mind around rooting for a guy that for so long had been a sworn enemy.

Plus, after we tanked in the second half of 2006 and then sucked beyond belief in 2007, I began to believe that by signing Thome and letting Aaron Rowand go the White Sox had somehow cursed themselves.

But finally, late last season, after his home run proved to be the difference in the one-game playoff against the Twins, I fully embraced Thome. I figured a trip to the playoffs was enough to erase whatever curse might have existed.

But like everyone in the White Sox lineup, Thome has struggled in 2009.

His home run totals have gone as follows during the previous three seasons: 42-35-34. In this, his fourth season with the White Sox, Thome had only hit 23 before being traded, to go along with a .252 average and a .375 OBP that would be one of the lowest of his career.

At 38, Jim Thome clearly was not a part of the White Sox's long-term future. With Williams adding so much salary by acquiring Alex Rios and Jake Peavy, the writing had been on the wall that Thome would not be a South Sider for long.

Now he is not, heading to the Dodgers to most likely be in the playoffs and contribute as a pinch hitter.

Best of luck Jim. I didn’t like you when you arrived in Chicago, but you won me over with your attitude, leadership, and clutch hitting. I’m sure the Dodgers will benefit from your presence.

It is much harder to say goodbye to Jose Contreras.

I know, Contreras has basically been awful this season except for one short stretch after he went to the minors. His numbers on the year: 5-13, 5.42 ERA, 1.448 WHIP. Terrible, awful, putrid...whatever negative adjective you want to put on it, go ahead.

But this is the season I will always remember and appreciate Jose Contreras for: 15-7, 3.61 ERA, 1.231 WHIP in the regular season; 3-1, 33 innings pitched over four sterling starts during the playoffs.

The season, of course, was 2005, when Contreras teamed with Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, El Duque Hernandez, and Jon Garland (who was also traded to the Dodgers last night) to produce perhaps the greatest team playoff starting pitching performance in the history of Major League Baseball.

Maybe I’m overhyping it, but that’s certainly what it felt like.

And isn’t it telling that three of the pitchers from that staff—Garcia, Garland, and Contreras—are past their prime and battling through tough years and injuries, yet they were acquired by contenders for the stretch run?

That’s how indelible the memories are of their tremendous performances when it mattered most.

Look, I don’t know exactly why I’ve always liked Jose Contreras so much. For his White Sox career he had a 4.66 ERA and went 55-56.

While most people think he “blossomed” once he got out of New York—and yes, his two best full seasons were in Chicago (2005, 2006)—his ERA was 4.64 as a Yankee and was 4.66 with the Sox. Essentially, Jose was what he was: a mediocre big league starting pitcher.

But throughout 2005 and through the first half of 2006 (during which time he was one of the best pitchers in the game before his season fell apart), I just developed a really strong belief that Contreras would always come up big in big spots.

I don’t have stats to cite or a whole lot of anecdotal evidence other than the obvious from the 2005 playoffs. All I know is this: If it wasn’t Buehrle on the hill in a big spot, I wanted Contreras there.

I appreciated his back story and all that he went through to pitch in the Majors. I appreciated how quickly he seemed to warm to Chicago after being traded from New York.

I appreciated the steely determination in his eyes when he took the hill. I appreciated the fact that he always looked like his only thought was putting his team on his back and carrying them through that night.

I think his teammates and his manager saw the same thing.

That’s why Jose could go 10-17 with a 5.57 ERA in 2007 and still be in the rotation in 2008. That’s why, after surprising everyone by coming back this spring training from a terrible 2008 Achilles injury, Ozzie Guillen did not hesitate to put him in the rotation. 

There is one word I would use to describe Jose Contreras: resilient. For a time in 2009, it looked like his resiliency—and Ozzie’s faith in him—would pay dividends.

Jose had a great stretch in the middle of the season after being sent to the minors, but he just couldn’t hold onto it. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort, but perhaps more a lack of trust in his own abilities.

Jose didn’t trust his fastball and tried to get everyone out with his breaking stuff. It led to walks, way too many hits, and killer big innings that doomed Jose and the White Sox.

In the end, it led to Jose Contreras’ departure from Chicago and our departure from the playoff race.

What are we losing statistically? I don’t really know. It pains me to say this, but not a whole lot.  

A 5.42 ERA should not be difficult to replace, and our young pitchers Gavin Floyd and John Danks have had time to learn from Jose and soak in the lessons from Contreras’ incredible and unique career in baseball.

So perhaps the timing is perfect for Jose to move on. Ever since the second half of 2006, Contreras has been a shell of the pitcher that he was in 2005. But for that one season, and even for half of the next, Jose Contreras was as good a pitcher as the South Side has seen in many years.

Say what you will about his struggles over the last three years, but one thing is for certain: There was one time during his White Sox tenure that the team, the fans, and the city needed him more than any other—the playoffs in 2005—and he stepped up huge.

I’ve never forgotten that, and neither probably have Ozzie and Jose’s veteran teammates. And maybe that’s part of the problem. The 2005 Jose Contreras just isn’t there anymore, no matter how much we’ve all wanted to see it and how many chances he’s been given to recapture that brilliance.

In brief flashes he is the same pitcher, but not consistently, and certainly the flashes are fewer and further between.

He was a spry 33 in 2005 (purportedly) and is now 37 coming off an injury. I still see the same look of determination in him, the same will to win that he’s always had, but Jose’s mound presence and pitching no longer are defined by the same level of confidence he once had. At least not to me.

So maybe it would have been better for the White Sox to have just cut ties with Jose once his season went south in 2006. Had they, the only memory White Sox fans would have of Jose Contreras would be 2005.

But that’s not how it happened, and to all White Sox fans—many of whom, like myself, are rightly frustrated with Jose’s recent performances—I will just say this: Remember Jose for what he was in 2005, what he helped deliver to the White Sox and the city of Chicago, and for the leadership and attitude he provided even during his most egregious struggles.

Jose Contreras will always be a positive part of White Sox history. The time has come for him to move on and ply his trade elsewhere, but I will always remember him fondly—and the Rockies just became my favorite NL team for the rest of 2009.

As to the overall mindset that created the impetus for these two moves, I’m on board.

Ken Williams did everything he could to solidify the pitching staff and lineup for the stretch run this year. But a 2-9 record with the division lead right there for the taking just is not going to get it done.

With the Peavy and Rios acquisitions clearly meant for the future as much as they were meant for this year, Ken couldn’t just sit on his hands while the team pissed away a golden opportunity to defend its division title.

It’s sad to see two tremendous veterans go, and ever sadder to understand the circumstances for why they are leaving—the team’s failure—but I certainly understand it.

Best of luck to Jim Thome and Jose Contreras (and Jon Garland) in their new digs. Their roles will no doubt be different, but at least they will be playing for something. Unfortunately, after the last two weeks, that’s more than can be said about the teammates they leave behind.

Scott Merkin has a great post at his official MLB.com blog, Being Ozzie Guillen, about Jim and Jose entitled "Thome, Contreras = Pure Class." I agree wholeheartedly.

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