Chicago White Sox 2011: 10 Things That Must Go Right To Get Back That 2005 Feel
The 2010 season ended on sour notes for Ozzie Guillen's Chicago White Sox. After battling into mid-September for the division title, they fell out of contention when the Minnesota Twins thumped them in a three-game sweep that month. Bobby Jenks and Guillen had a nasty falling-out, and Guillen only narrowly kept his job after a highly-publicized quasi-feud with GM Kenny Williams.
Williams did not hold his frustration with Guillen against the team, though, and instead, he made several aggressive moves. A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko will be back after re-signing as free agents, while Adam Dunn and Jesse Crain are expected to make this team better. The White Sox feel as though they belong atop the AL Central this season and are contenders for the American League pennant. For that to come to fruition, though, these 10 things must go right.
This is the sixth in a series of pieces listing 10 things that would have to go right for each MLB team to win a pennant this season. To find out when your favorite team's article comes out, follow me on the twitter @MattTrueblood, or sign up for your team's Bleacher Report newsletter.
1. Jake Peavy Shoulders a Full Load
When the White Sox traded Clayton Richard and other prospects for Peavy in 2009, it looked like a smart deal: Richard had a 5.14 ERA in 136.2 innings over two seasons for the White Sox, while Peavy was an elite (if banged-up) starter with a track record of success.
A season-and-a-half later, here are the numbers for the two pitchers:
|Player/Statistic||Jake Peavy||Clayton Richard|
Peavy's 2010 ended prematurely with a detached shoulder/back muscle, an injury from which no big-league pitcher has ever recovered to pitch again at this level. Yet, he was thoroughly impressive in his Cactus League debut and the White Sox remain hopeful he can be ready the first time the team needs a fifth starter. What he does thereafter will determine a lot about the Sox's season, because if Peavy is not himself, the Sox have a lot of question marks in their starting rotation.
John Danks is not elite, but is a serviceable top starter. After that, though, Peavy is critical. Gavin Floyd is a fine third starter, but a poor second option. Edwin Jackson is a great fourth guy but a middling three, and Mark Buehrle is as volatile in potential results as he is steady in mound approach. Peavy is the key to the Sox's pitching staff being good enough to match Minnesota's, or not.
2. Someone Takes the Reins at Third Base
Mark Teahen looked bad at third base last season, and the early returns this spring are no better: He notched two throwing errors Saturday alone. Brent Morel is a much more plausible candidate to begin the year at the hot corner for Chicago, but he has something to prove himself.
Morel has never walked much: Even in the minor leagues he posted walk rates below the league average at every stop. Contact also became a problem when he reached Chicago late last summer, and Morel finished with a .231/.271/.415 batting line and 17 strikeouts in 70 plate appearances with the parent club.
Still, this kid has modest power (58 extra-base hits across three levels last season) and has a strong glove at third base. He compares fairly evenly to Minnesota's Danny Valencia, and that could be enough for Chicago, but they need him to consistently produce at least on that level.
If Morel is not equal to that task, Dayan Viciedo may get a chance. Viciedo is Pablo Sandoval reincarnate: a free-swinging fat man with little only adequate defensive skills but power upside in the 30-homer range. Viciedo hit .308/.321/.519 in 106 plate appearances last season, but he will need to show some serious thump to take the job from the much more athletic and Ozzie-ball-friendly Morel.
3. Paul Konerko Has a Second Last Hurrah
I have this theory, that certain very good players—especially sluggers—experience a "last hurrah" season. By definition, such a season must come after age 31, must come after the player has begun to show definitive signs of declining skills and must be roughly as good for that one year as he ever was in his prime. Here are a few guys who have had such seasons recently, with their OPS figures for the "last hurrah" and for the subsequent season listed:
|Player||Hurrah OPS||Year After|
|Derrek Lee 2009||.972||.774|
|Chipper Jones 2008||1.044||.818|
|Derek Jeter 2009||.871||.710|
|Jason Giambi 2008||.876||.725|
|Paul Konerko 2010||.977||???|
None of that is to say that Konerko cannot remains very effective in 2011; there are exceptions to every rule. Revivals by Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds carried into a second season. Still, Konerko is at a dangerous point here: Chicago paid him handsomely on a three-year deal. Sooner or later, Kenny Williams will regret that signing, but if Konerko can produce 30-plus home runs with a good batting average again in 2011, it may go a long way toward making the deal a good investment for the short term.
4. Somehow, Someway, Carlos Quentin Just Gets a Whole Lot Better
Carlos Quentin does some things well. He has averaged 27 home runs over the past three seasons in (on average) only 120 games per year. He also draws walks and makes fair contact for a power hitter.
But yikes, does Carlos Quentin ever do some things really badly. His career batting average on balls in play is a meager .251, and it is not bad luck: He hits a ton of fly balls and infield pop-ups, hardly ever straightens out a line drive and runs like his legs are lead from knee to toe.
He is also (arguably, but not really) the worst defensive right fielder in baseball. He cost the White Sox 22.9 runs with his mixture of slow-footed pursuit, poor routes and an arm that used to be a cannon but now seems below-average, according to FanGraphs' UZR.
If he cannot remedy one or more of the serious problems with his game, this is a black hole in a would-be contender's lineup. Quentin projects as the Sox's sixth hitter and that role is important in the American League, so he had better be healthy and more athletic by Opening Day, if nothing else.
5. Jesse Crain Gets His Slider Down
After firmly establishing himself for several years as a neutral pitcher, Crain became a flyball guy last season. His groundball-to-flyball ratio fell to 0.89, the lowest it has ever been. Now, it was not much of a problem in roomy Target Field in Minnesota, as that place played as the least accommodating home-run park in baseball last year. U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox, is at the far opposite end of the spectrum, so Crain had better figure out how to keep the ball grounded more often in 2011.
The answer might be in pitch selection and location. Crain has three pitches: A fastball with some sink on it, a curve that can be nasty at times and a sweeping side-to-side slider. He established a clear pattern of use from 2007 to 2009, throwing the heat roughly 60 percent of the time, the slider a little more than 20 percent and the curve between 10 and 15 percent.
The suddenly, in 2010, he went to the slider much, much more often. He threw it 46.3 percent of the time. That was more often than he threw the fastball, and he even shaved some use of the curve in order to use the slider more. It was a devastating offering, according to FanGraphs' pitch values, coming in at 14.6 runs above average for the year. His strikeout rate floated up to 8.21 per nine innings, the best number of his career.
The only tradeoff was that the slider, a pitch Crain throws from a lower arm angle and gets much less on top of, tended to ride higher in the zone than most sliders do. When hitters made contact, they often got loft on the ball. Those balls might not come back to Crain if he keeps that up this season, so although the pitch is clearly a weapon he ought not to desert, commanding it will be more important this season than in past years.
6. Franchise Lifts Ban on Walks
Of 149 qualifying hitters in 2010, A.J. Pierzynski had the lowest walk rate in baseball. Alexei Ramirez was seventh-lowest. Juan Pierre was 28th. Alex Rios was 31st.
Not everyone has to embrace sabermetrics and hand out pedometers on the first day of spring training, but the White Sox are a team badly in need of a new approach at the plate. Guillen has given too much freedom to his hitters at the plate, and it resulted in a scarcely average offense last season despite a .268 team batting average that ranked seventh in baseball.
Williams has tried to impress the value of patience upon Guillen in about the most passive-aggressive way possible this winter, signing Adam Dunn to add some wait-em-out to the heart of the batting order. If Guillen does not mutiny first, perhaps his charges will take some cues from Konerko and Dunn.
7. Beat the Twins
If it sounds easier said than done, that's because it is. But the Sox simply must get over the hump against their northern rivals. Minnesota has won 25 of the last 36 games between the two, spanning the last two seasons. That's 14 games. In the two years combined, they have finished 13.5 games ahead of Chicago in the standings. swing the pendulum the other way, and the Sox would be three-time defending AL Central champs right now.
The key to beating Ron Gardenhire's squad has always been depth, and the Sox have generally not had it. Therefore, the most important thing that can change this year would be for the team to stay healthy and get strong performances from Omar Vizquel, Lastings Milledge and whoever else mans the bench. Without a doubt, as Twins role players so often have in the past two years, those guys can swing key intradivisional games.
8. Ozzie and Kenny Make Nice for the Kids' Sake
In my humble opinion, Ozzie Guillen really does more harm than good. His philosophies of running so irrepressibly, playing small ball and making scenes over every little thing all run against the grain of my baseball gut instinct. That said, the team has largely been built in his image, and Guillen is the right guy for the job in 2011.
Kenny Williams, for his part, is a good, smart baseball man. Heading into his second decade as Sox GM, he already has a World Series title to his credit. Unfortunately, he is missing whatever crucial piece of front office DNA that tells one how to speak or act diplomatically. He and Guillen have clashed; he and Albert Pujols have somehow clashed. Both of the Sox's primary stewards are flawed fits for their current gigs.
For this one more season, though, before Konerko and Pierzynski and Buehrle and Vizquel and probably Pierre all collapse into futile old age, the two need to go along to get along and try to push forward for a winner.
9. Start Strong
Through the end of May, the 2010 White Sox were 22-28 and looked to be falling out of the race. Then they came to life, slashing their way through June and July so ruthlessly that only a real stumble through early and mid-September could knock them back out.
Gordon Beckham best exemplified the Sox's season. The would-be sophomore phenom floundered through the first half, hitting .199/.270/.251 as late as June 23. Thereupon, he hit a home run against the Cubs on June 24 and would bat .330/.385/.564 over the next 56 games through September 4. From there on, though, he would miss time with injuries and struggle to a .160/.250/.160 in just 11 games and 28 plate appearances.
In order to get the fans coming through the gate and encourage any midseason maneuvering Williams may need to do, Beckham and the Sox must establish positive consistency sooner in 2011.
10. Somebody Busts Out
Quietly, Alexei Ramirez was one of the AL's elite shortstops last season. He has the potential to do even more in 2011. Adam Dunn also has breakout potential: He has never played in a hitter's park quite this good, after all. Obviously, Viciedo and Morel offer a glimmer of hope on that front. Edwin Jackson has a no-hitter to credit and there may be another in his arm. Chris Sale is the bullpen wild card.
Whoever it may be, though, the White Sox need a breakout performance this season. They need someone to just lose their minds for seven months. That is their only hope of reaching the world Series, but it isn't impossible: Ask Jose Bautista if it's ever too late to go bonkers.
Matt Trueblood is a National MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and for AtHomePlate.com. He is on twitter @MattTrueblood. Matt will graduate with a degree in journalism from Loyola University Chicago in May.