The White Sox have had a great offseason. Somehow Kenny found a way to bring in one of the most feared free agent hitters in Adam Dunn, while also being able to keep our own free agent slugger, Paul Konerko. Although we lost J.J. Putz and Bobby Jenks, we were able to bring in Jesse Crain to team with Matt Thornton and exciting youngsters Sergio Santos and Chris Sale (if they go that route). We have a very strong 5 man rotation, and a very formidable lineup. It should be an awesome summer on the South Side of Chicago. At Soxfest last weekend everyone was very excited about the upcoming season. Then I got the opportunity to see one of my favorite relievers the Sox ever had and I remembered feeling this way before - and ultimately was left feeling disappointed, let down and questioning my loyalty for the only baseball team I ever loved.
The man I saw at Soxfest was Roberto Hernandez and the year I immediately remembered was 1997. There are some similarities to this offseason and before that season. Albert Belle was the biggest name on the market and Jerry remarkably opened up the purse strings to acquire him. They also brought in a horse of a pitcher in Jamie Navarro and a former Cy Young winner in Doug Drabek to replace the departing Alex Fernandez and Kevin Tapani. I remember being so excited to see this team when the year started. With a middle of the order that featured Frank Thomas, Belle, Robin Ventura and Harold Baines... how could we possibly lose?
Unfortunately, things didn't start out well in Spring Training when Robin Ventura broke and dislocated his ankle. Ventura was thought to be done for the season. Chris Snopek would take over 3rd base and would really struggle posting a .218/.263.319 line with 5 home runs.
Meanwhile, Ventura was making an astounding comeback. Even though his ankle looked like Joe Theismann's on Monday Night Football in Spring Training, Rockin' Robin made a triumphant return on July 24th vs. Texas. The Sox won the game on a double by Ventura and moved within 3.5 games of Cleveland, even though the record stood at a pedestrian 51-49 after 100 games. Unfortunately, the Sox lost the next 3 games. Those would be the only 4 games of the season we would see the dreaded middle of the order of Ventura, Thomas, Belle and Baines as Baines was traded to Baltimore on July 29th.
On the afternoon of the 31st, however, the Sox would do something that would have everyone scratching their heads. It was announced that Roberto Hernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin had been traded to the San Francisco Giants for prospects Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry, Mike Caruso, Lorenzo Barcelo, Ken Vining and Brian Manning even though the team was just 3.5 games out.
Hernandez was having his usual fine season with the Sox, posting an ERA of 2.44 with 27 saves and an 8.8 K/9. Alvarez was the teams best starter with a 9-8 record, a 3.03 ERA and 110 K's over 145.2 innings. Darwin was an aging veteran but was pitching well at the time going 4-8 with a 4.13 ERA over 113.1 innings. The other 4 guys who made at least 10 starts that year all had an ERA over 5.00 ( Navarro, Drabek, James Baldwin and Scott Eyre).
Surprisingly, when the season ended, the Sox finished in 2nd place at 80-81, only 6 games behind the 86-75 Indians. One has to think that if the middle of the order had the opportunity to shine and they kept their 2 best starters and their closer we may have given the eventual World Series losers a run for their money. The Chairman panicked though, and saw that there wasn't a massive jump in attendance or results in the early months. So he packaged the guys who were free agents at the end of the season to stock the farm system and proclaimed that "if anyone thinks this team can catch Cleveland they're crazy".
The problem wasn't so much the trade itself, but the timing of it. True the team was around .500 the entire season, but they were so close. Hernandez went on to pitch another 10 years and is currently 12th all time in saves. Alvarez signed a big contract with Tampa in 1998 (as did Hernandez), but never lived up to it. He had a good 2003 with the Dodgers and retired after the '05 season. Darwin stuck with the Giants for one more season to close out his 21 year career. Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry went on to become successful relief pitchers- helping the Sox claim the division crown in 2000, Caruso had a good rookie year and then struggled mightily in 1999 and only resurfaced again for 12 games in 2002 with the Royals. Barcelo (66 IP) and Vining (6.2 IP) didn't make an impact in the majors for whatever reason and Manning never made it at all. One has to wonder though, could the Sox have gotten it together in 1997? We will never know.
With the White Sox putting up a payroll in excess of 120 million dollars this year, and having plenty of guys who are free agents at seasons end, will the same thing happen? Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, Matt Thornton and Juan Pierre are all guys who's contracts are up at the end of the season. Getting off to a good start is absolutely mandatory. If the Sox struggle out of the gate and attendance isn't much different than years past, will they wave the flag again? I hope not, but I didn't think it would happen in 1997 either.