Does the Chicago White Sox Offense Have Enough Punch?
There has been a lot of discussion about the quality of the White Sox offense recently. Most of it revolves around their decision to not sign Jim Thome and enter the season with a DH platoon of Andruw Jones, Mark Kotsay, and Omar Vizquel.
The general point of their argument is that the Sox offense isn't good enough to take that risk at the designated hitter spot.
Can the Sox really play those less then stellar offensive options at a position where their only job is to hit and still be productive? How much of a dent does that put in their hopes to contend? Are Ozzie and Kenny out of their minds?
Let's take a look at two different perspectives on the offense and weight the validity of their respective points.
The Pessimist's View
The Sox are in trouble this year on offense.
They tied for 12th in the American League in runs scored last year and let two of their most productive offensive players walk without finding a solid replacement.
All of their projected starters have question marks.
Gordon Beckham has less than 400 major league at-bats on his resume but they are counting on him to be a major part of the offense.
Carlos Quentin is supposed to be their best run producer, but he can't stay healthy. He's only played more than 100 games once and only reach 130 even in his best season. He's also struggled with his batting average even when healthy, evidenced by his .254 career mark.
Paul Konerko has been a roughly average first baseman at the plate the last few years. He will also be 34 on Opening Day and could be facing a decline in production.
Alex Rios had an atrocious 2009 season, especially while on the Sox. He doesn't seem to care since he signed his big extension and expecting him to regain his old form is foolish.
Juan Pierre has no power and takes very few walks. He also relies very heavily on his speed, which is hazardous given that he will turn 33 this year.
AJ Pierzynski and Alexei Ramirez are decent hitters given the positions they play, but they are not impact hitters. Neither takes very many walks and have average to slightly above average power.
The same can be said of Mark Teahen, except that his .331 career on base percentage and career average of 12 homers a season aren't exactly good numbers for a third baseman.
And then there is the previously mentioned DH spot, where the Sox appear to be going with a platoon.
Omar Vizquel and his career .693 OPS should not be anywhere near the designated hitter role on a contending team. The bulk of Vizquel's value to a team comes from his stellar defense at short stop, not his extremely modest contributions at the plate.
Mark Kotsay isn't much better. Mark hasn't been a productive every day player since 2004 and holds a career OPS of .749. If you could get the younger Kotsay that posted an OPS of around .800 for several seasons that might work, but he's 34 now and is far from a lock to produce.
The only DH candidate that should really be in the running for the job is Andruw Jones, and even then he's past his prime. While he was a perrenial .260/.340/.500 type hitter for much of his career, he hasn't been able to hit up to his 240 playing weight since 2006.
If the Sox wanted an all-or-nothing slugger, they could have just kept Jim Thome, who is also left-handed and draws a much higher number of walks.
The Sox have cobbled together a group of average to slightly above average hitters, which will likely lead to a lot of 4-3 losses and waste the efforts of a talented pitching staff.
The Optimist's View
Yes, the Sox struggled on offense last year. However, their offense had some pretty glaring holes on Opening Day, had a very key injury and suffered a shockingly bad run from a former all-star at the end of the season.
With fewer questionable players on the roster, improved health from one key hitter, a return to form from another and a full season from one of the best young talents in the game, the Sox offense could be a lot better than it was on 2009.
Let's start with the Opening Day lineup.
Dewayne Wise was the leadoff hitter, Christ Getz hit second, and Josh Fields was the starting third baseman. Those guys posted on base plus slugging percentages of .628, .670 and .640 respectively in 756 combined at bats.
Things got even worse when Carlos Quentin developed foot issues, forcing Brian Anderson and his .641 OPS into the lineup for 185 at bats. And who could forget Brent Lillibridge, who put up a horrendous .452 OPS in 95 early season at bats.
That's over 1,000 combined at bats from players that were at least 80 OPS points below the major league average. The Sox won't be throwing anywhere near that many bats away on guys that shouldn't regularly be in a major league lineup.
Another major boost to the lineup is a full season of Gordon Beckham. Even as a rookie, Gordon was arguably the most productive player in the Sox lineup for several months, slugging 14 homers and driving in 63 runs in only 103 games. Beckham is one of the most talented young players in the game and 200 to 250 more at bats from him would make a difference even if he didn't improve on his .270/.347/.460 rookie batting line.
They also faced a significant drop-off in production from Quentin, who had been an MVP candidate the year before. Even if one assumes that 2008 was an outlier, he still produced 21 homers in only 351 at bats and had some horrendous luck on balls in play that killed his average (as explained in this old article I wrote).
The final major issue for the Sox offense last year was the awful stretch of games turned in from Alex Rios. Rios hit below the Mendoza line in 41 games for the Sox and had an unsightly .229 on base percentage. Even if you think Rios is overpaid and on the decline, you have to think that he won't be as awful in 2010.
His previous career worst OPS was .703 compared to the .530 he posted in a quarter of a season with the Sox, and his career mark is .774. That suggests that he will be at least averge for the Sox this season, even if he doesn't reach his previous All-Star form.
The other returning hitters (Konerko, Pierzynski and Ramirez) all had seasons at or below their career norms in 2009, suggesting that their performance is highly repeatable.
As for the two new guys, Pierre has a highly comparable career line to the guy he is replacing (Podsednik), and while Teahen isn't an impact player he's still at least a league average hitter, which is more than you can say about the two regular infielders that are no longer in the lineup.
The DH spot could be stronger, but with Andruw Jones likely getting the bulk of the at bats, the Sox won't lose much power. Jones slugged 17 homers in only 281 at bats for Texas last year, which largely made up for his sub-par batting average.
Overall, the Sox have put together a lineup that doesn't have any huge liabilities on paper barring some occasional tinkering at designated hitter. They also have several players that could provide the elite production that many think they lack in Beckham, Quentin and Rios.
With a pitching staff that looks to be among the best in the league, they should have enough to be competitive and have the potential to be much better if some things break their way in 2010.
So What Is The Verdict?
Overall, I think the points on the pessimist's side have more merit. Thome and Dye produced a lot of runs for them last year, though they weren't particularly consistent.
When you look at this lineup on paper, there isn't a single guy you can point to as a lock to put up an OPS of .850. That could make it hard to have a consistently productive offense when everything has to be a team effort.
That said, I think they do have far fewer horrendous hitters making their way into the lineup, which should give them some more chances at the plate. They also do have the potential to get impact seasons from the three players I discussed extensively in the optomist's section.
The good thing for the Sox is that they do have the starting pitching to hang with anyone. It just looks like they're going to have to win a lot of games 4-3 right now.
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