If nothing else, the 2008 season was full of surprises for the Southsiders.
Before the season began, if someone had said that the Sox would win the division, the Tigers would come in last, and the Indians would crash, burn, go into rebuilding mode and then mount a respectable comeback to finish the season at .500, I would have recommended a good therapist to them.
And if any of us had been told that John Danks would be the ace of the staff and Gavin Floyd would throw a couple of almost no-nos and win 17 games, we would have requested that person to submit to a urine test. Or asked for a shot of the kool-aid that Kenny Williams seemed to have been nipping on.
I have to admit that by opening day I had found myself lost somewhere in the boonies, far south of optimistic. Starting pitching was my main concern, with the athletically bi-polar hurlers Jose Contreras and Javy Vasquez as two of the staples of the rotation.
Not to mention a 22 year-old Danks, packing a 5.50 ERA coming off of a 6-13 year and Floyd with his 6.32 career ERA over parts of four seasons.
I had my doubts about the offense as well, after a year in which they had all but lost interest in scoring runs. And could they possibly be any slower on the basepaths? There was a rumor that Ron Santo challenged the team to a 40-yard dash and came in third.
And who was this Carlos Quentin guy and why was he starting in left field? Alexei Ramirez with zero experience in professional baseball playing second? Yeah, it was gonna be another banner year on the south side. There wasn’t even “dollar dog” night to look forward to anymore.
I started to grow a mullet. If I want to pay to get into a circus, I’ll wait until Cirque du Soleil comes to town.
But with Kenny Williams apparently doing some type of voodoo dance, the team began to click. Danks and Floyd, Quentin and Ramirez, even old codgers Dye and Thome got involved. And of course Buehrle was vintage Buehrle.
Yeah, Konerko reintroduced his disappearing act from 2003, and Nick Swisher never quite got it together, but the combination of old and new talent put enough wins on the board to do the trick.
They fizzled against a better and hotter team in the playoffs, but the most important measure of success for Sox fans in '08? The playoff game victory score: Sox 1 Cubs 0. They gone! Sox win!!!
And for that matter, in 2007 the Sox won just as many playoff games as the Cubs, so on the South Side the consensus has been to concede that season as being a draw.
So what about 2009? Well, there are a few question marks and a couple of variables.
Despite good overall performance in ’08, the pitching staff is in question. Danks is rock solid and the Buehrlesque show will go on as scheduled. Floyd didn’t pitch nearly as well in the second half as the first but I think he’ll be a solid number three.
Jeff Marquez, a 24-year-old minor leaguer acquired from the Yankees in the Nick Swisher deal is expected to compete for a slot in the rotation. Marquez was 6-7 with a 4.69 ERA last year in triple-A.
Clayton Richard and Lance Broadway should also vie for a spot.
Jose Contreras is out until at least May. And I don’t think K-Dub (Kenny Williams for the squares in attendance) is counting on much from the (at least) 37 year-old when he returns.
Javy Vasquez has been traded to the Braves in exchange for three minor leagers: Class A first baseman Tyler Flowers, Class-AAA infielder Brent Lillibridge, Class-A third baseman Jon Gilmore and 20 year-old Rookie League pitcher Santos Rodriquez.
With the trade, the Sox dump $23 from their payroll over the next two years. Hopefully K-Dub can locate a quality starting pitcher to spend that on.
But at this point, barring a new arm or two rolling into town via the trade market or free-agency, the back of the rotation may end up being vetted at amateur night.
The bullpen is much less of a concern. Bobby Jenks is a legitimate first-rate closer. Although wasn’t he much more enjoyable to watch when he was just blasting guys out with heat and occasionally making them look like girl scouts when he dropped the hook on them?
Dotel and Linebrink were solid for the most part with occasional blips and Matt Thornton was stellar.
The offense is going to get a tweaking.
K-Dub is planning on making his team younger and faster over the winter. The biggest issue the team faced last season was the inability to manufacture runs. They too often resembled old codgers running the bases with invisible pianos in tow.
It’s amazing that a guy like Paul Konerko has the bat speed to turn on any pitcher in the league’s fastball but would lose a footrace to an average power walker.
They will do well to sacrifice a little bit of power for the ability to get on base and run. The latest rumors have the Sox dangling Jermaine Dye in hopes of luring some younger talent, possibly a pitcher. Chicks may dig the long ball but GMs certainly don’t.
What’s the deal with Josh Fields? He looked like a certain 30 and 100 guy in filling in for Crede in 2007. Then he gets demoted, has a horrible year in triple-A and craps out in very limited action after he is called up.
He ends up on the bench, playing behind Juan Uribe. Let’s hope he can return to form in ’09. Crede and his aching back are history and they’ll need Fields to step up.
Wilson Betemit, also acquired in the Swisher trade, appears to be the new utility infielder in place of Uribe. His numbers are reminiscent of Uribe’s, and he comes with a cheaper salary. I guess you could call him a poor man’s Juan Uribe, if such a thing were possible. And at 6’2’ and 155 pounds, maybe Alexei Ramirez will now have someone he can push around.
They most interesting of the new acquisitions to this point is 19-year-old Cuban phenom Dayan Viciedo, who made the Cuban all-star team at age 16. He plays third base but is likely to start his professional career in the minors.
There are also two main variables which are yet to be determined:
One is obviously from the competition, which underperformed in ’08. Will Detroit be able to turn it around and contend? Will the Twins improve? How about Cleveland? They went on a nice run late in the season and always seem to be a threat in recent years.
The White Sox won the division with 88 wins. How much will they need to improve on that in order to stay on top?
The other variable is the kind of deals K-Dub can pull off. He is ready to wheel and deal and when he does anything is possible. No one knows what to expect, but as he heads out west for the winter meetings with his spurs-a-jangling, you can be sure that something is gonna go down. Maybe something big.