I've said a few times -- both here and in best-selling tomes -- that Kenny Williams took a skeleton of a contender into the season. The bones are solid, but there's not a whole lot surrounding them, either in terms of depth or payroll flexibility. In other words, they gotta dance with who they came to the dance with.
The 2012 White Sox had (and still very much have) a non-negligible chance of competing this year. But it wasn't going to be easy, and with the specter of a significant injury looming, the coast would never be clear.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that things are getting rocky. The Sox, despite Jake Peavy's best intentions, have lost their last four series, and 10 of their last 14 games. A fortnight before this stretch, they had won 13 of 14. Consider it the result of .500's tractor beam.
Nor should it catch anybody off-guard, inside or outside the organization, that the Sox are bailing water at the one position they've already tried to fix from the outside.
Orlando Hudson made himself quite conspicuous by popping out with the bases loaded, then committing an error on the most routine of third-base throws, which started a game-losing two-run rally. Nobody has to tell him how he factored into another disheartening loss, either:
"I f***ed it up," Hudson snapped after going 0-4 with a key error as the Sox lost 2-1 to the Cubs Tuesday at U.S. Cellular Field. "I lost the game for [Peavy], that’s it. The man threw a hell of a game, I lost it for him. Point blank. Case closed. We lost. My bad. That’s it."
It's not the first time his defense has dragged the Sox down, but this error was more egregious than the rest. He didn't botch the play because he didn't react quickly enough or wasn't in the right position. His lack of experience would make those mistakes more forgivable. Getting way too cute with the throw, on the other hand, is inexcusable, and he seems to realize it.
On top of it, his line plummeted to .167/.253/.282 after an 0-for-4 night. Pair it with his glovework, and he has nothing to offer the Sox. At this point, starting Eduardo Escobar at least gives the Sox a better edge defensively.
Looking at it another way, though, Hudson did serve a purpose. Through the Sox's nine-game winning streak, Hudson posted a .333 OBP. That's not mindblowing, especially when it's part of an uglier overall line of .200/.333/.300 -- until you look at what it replaced. That temporary production gave the White Sox lineup a face lift after getting weighed down by 35 games of bad-back sad-sack Brent Morel. The Sox saw the benefits of removing an automatic out from the lineup.
Of course, now it looks like the Sox have to find a replacement for Hudson. That's going to be the way this season goes -- hunting for makeshift solutions until a better one emerges. The Sox have lucked out with the rotation so far -- down goes John Danks, and up comes Jose Quintana and his surprising impression of 2005 Aaron Small so far.
The Sox haven't been nearly as lucky at third base, and baseball usually isn't that kind. In all likelihood, it will continue to be a messy experience, because the best-case scenario is incredibly unlikely (Morel stabilizing his back and doing what he was supposed to do at the start).
The other solutions will require a lot of trial and error -- perhaps a brief audition for Escobar, or giving Brent Lillibridge a chance to find his stash of pixie dust, or dumpster-diving a couple more times. Basically, if the Sox are really contending this season, hustling will play a big part -- and not just on the field.
That's especially true if Williams doesn't have the resources to acquire a more respectable talent, whether with prospects or by eating an expiring contract.
At the moment, Williams is supposedly trying to avoid laying down a guilt trip on stay-at-home fans:
White Sox general manager Ken Williams said his ability to make trades and add salary for a second-half pennant drive continues to depend on ticket sales, which have been lagging at U.S. Cellular Field even though the Sox are in first place.
"Yes,’’ Williams said. "I don’t want to expound. Then I get buried because I’m crying about money.’’
Either that, or Williams doesn't have to expound, because the media will offer constant reminders. The Sox's broadcast partners will encourage and/or scold the fans who don't show; the beat writers will merely comment on empty seats and paid attendance figures. Either way, it's all the same -- you have people who are paid to attend games making paying fans uneasy, just because they don't want to invest in a team that has made justifying the cost increasingly difficult.
The thing is, nobody in their right mind should have expected the Sox attendance numbers to help the cause at any point this season. They've been laying the track for a cratering over the last several years.
I'd argue that nobody or nothing has done more to cement the notion that "White Sox fans will only support a winner" than the White Sox front office itself. By steadily raising the cost of going to the game as attendance, team quality and the economy declined, the Sox put the onus on themselves to provide worthwhile entertainment. Premium prices imply a premium product, right? That raises the stakes for everybody, which makes last year's yearlong display of bad-faith baseball especially damaging to the relationship.
To their credit, they have finally put some creative offers together to get fans into the park beyond dynamic pricing (which may always be a loaded term, since it can be used against fans in bullish times). Deals like $5 upper deck seats and reduced tickets/food voucher combos are a great place to start. But fans have to work to find them, and the Sox have to avoid making it common enough to be the new normal, lest they devalue their standards of "face value," which is really the bigger problem...
... and we're back where we started. It doesn't matter whether we're looking at third base or Gate 4 -- everybody's improvising to improve. The whole damn season is a precarious balancing act, so everybody should get comfortable with being uncomfortable.