If you hadn't noticed, I've been having trouble finding much to talk about around here since, oh, let's say late August. To help generate some discussion, I invited some of the best Sox bloggers -- and Keith. He's not much of a blogger -- to join in a friendly chat about the issues facing the Sox this off-season. Joining me are Jim from The Sox Machine, Vince from Exile in Wrigleyville, Keith from up there in cheesehead country, James and Jeeves from ChiSox Blog, Tom Fornelli from Foul Balls, and Criminal Appeal from around Ron Karkovice Fan Club.
The discussion ended up being just a tad over 600,000 words, or somewhere in that neighborhood, so we're going to break it up into a few parts. Let's call this Part 1 of 24: laying the groundwork.
Before the 83-win Cardinals won the 2006 World Series, I had taken to calling the '06 White Sox "90-win Failures." I think the Cards' title might have taken some of the sting off the season, for me at least. How did you react to seeing a number of playoff teams with gaping holes playing in October? Has the fickle nature of post-season changed your view at all? Or did you never consider missing the playoffs a failure?
Jeeves: For me, the Cardinals triumph actually furthered my frustrations with the Sox season, but it didn't make it any less or any more of a failure in my eyes.
As the season wore on, I clung to the belief that as long as the Sox somehow slipped into the playoffs, they would be able to do some damage and make a legitimate run at the title. I will admit that outright homer-ism did fuel this belief, to an extent, but looking back at some of the prior World Series participants from the Wild Card era fed this feeling as well.
After all, the Sox did sputter in the second half before sweeping away Cleveland's hopes and running through the playoffs in '05. Then there's the '04 Wild Card Red Sox miraculous come back from an 0-3 deficit in the ALCS, plus the Wild Card Marlins from '03 and the Wild Card Angels from '02. I'm not trying to spark a debate about whether or not it's important to finish the regular season strongly or whether or not the best team always wins, but I do think the MLB playoffs are the biggest crapshoot of all the major sports. No matter how bad your team looks on paper, if you make it to the post-season there's a decent chance you could take the title.
The Cardinals only reinforced this idea with their win. All the pundits, talking heads, anda good number of bloggers dismissed the Cards, but they came through and won it all. All the while, all I could think, is that could have been our boys out there.
Now by all means, I don't count this season as a complete failure. Our goal coming into the season was to repeat as Champs, so in that respect we failed, but we did have a pretty solid season. This is the first time since the Go-Go Sox of '63,'64 and '65 that we've had back-to-back 90 win seasons. Some of our players regressed to their career means, but we still put together a good run. If we can improve on this performance, next year; we just may have another banner to raise. So in my opinion, the season wasn't a complete fiasco, but it wasn't satisfactory either.
James: If recent World Series winners tell us anything, it's that anyone can win in October as long as the pitching is solid. Four of the last seven WS were wild card entrants, but those WC teams had some solid pitching.
How the St. Louis Cardinals won with a pitching staff full of more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese is a mystery to me. And that exacerbates the failure of the White Sox 90-win season even more so.
Obviously the whole team is to blame, but the lion's share of the failure lay squarely at the feet of the White Sox pitching staff, a clearly superior staff to that of the Cardinals. Were someone to play a seven-game series on paper between the White Sox and Cardinals, eight out of the ten sheets would have the White Sox winning.
How does it not feel like salt in the wound that a team with Jeff Weaver (a modern day Jack McDowell -- overrated) leading them won?
Keith: I'm dissappointed in the simple sense that this team didn't make the playoffs when it was built to precisely do that.
But unfortunately, it's not that simple. Looking within the context of this division, you had a team who had the best pitching in baseball and the best defense in baseball. You had another team that, for around three months (give or take), had arguably the two best lefties -- some could make a case to change "lefties" to "starting pitchers" -- pitching two out of every five days. That same team had two MVP candidates in Mauer and Morneau.
Looking back at it, the Sox had (in my mind) three starters who pitched a fair chunk of the season injured, in Garcia, Contreras, and probably even Buehrle. The last name might be pure speculation on my part, but when Buehrle's fastball is topping out at 86 MPH, something is wrong. Whether or not the situation of handling these "injured" pitchers was handled appropriately is another topic within itself.
It wasn't all gloom, though. Jermaine Dye put together one of the best offensive seasons in a Sox uniform that I have personally seen in my short lifetime. Joe Crede finally had the year we Sox fans have all been waiting for.
So, in the context of everything, I'm not as disappointed as one might think a White Sox fan should be. Going strictly on intangibles and the senses, this 2006 team just didn't have the "feel" of the 2005 group.
Jim: It was a failure in the dictionary sense of the word. I thought they would get into the playoffs, the Sox thought they would get into the playoffs, and they didn't. That's a failure.
But as far as the emotions tied to failure -- anger, disappointment, frustration -- those didn't surface on the radar in anything more than a fleeting state. They were outplayed by worthier teams. It's not like an AL East team feasted on three bottom-feeders to beat them out for a playoff spot.
The Tigers and Twins had to play the same schedule as the Sox, and the Sox had a bigger hole than either team -- having nobody on the pitching staff, rotation or bullpen, on whom they could rely. That wasn't a problem of planning or even usage, but getting the job done. Sometimes that doesn't happen. We move on.
Vince: I considered it a failure that the White Sox did not make the playoffs, but only a small failure. Considering where the franchise as a whole is now compared with two or especially three years ago, the 2006 White Sox have to be considered a qualified success. The Sox were legitimate contenders for nearly the entire season, reinforcing what they accomplished in 2005. Off the field, the Sox are more successful than they have been in years, with ticket sales and TV ratings up significantly. The playoffs, and specifically the success of the Cardinals, didn't change my thinking about the 2006 White Sox.
Tom: For me it pissed me off a little more. I didn't like seeing a team with so many flaws win a World Series, but at the same time I wasn't that surprised.
I think it just went to show how bad the National League was this year. Sure the Cardinals won the World Series, but they just got "hot" at the right time, and ran into Detroit when they were at their worst. Had the Cardinals been in the AL they would have been a 4th place team in the AL East and Central, while finishing 3rd in the West.
Heading into this off-season, what do you see as the Sox' 'gaping holes?'
Jeeves: The things that most people point to that need fixin' are the pitching, the outfield, shortstop, middle relief, and the lack of a lead off hitter. You must admit, that's a pretty long laundry list of things to improve. We may have holes at all of those positions, but I wouldn't necessarily say that all of them are gaping. The two things I would most like to see addressed are the outfield and the pitching.
I'll start with the outfield, because I believe that we'll have to look outside the organization to solve our problems. We are weak defensively and offensively in left, and we are weak offensively in center. I won't address specifically what we should do to solve the problem, because I'm sure that's fodder for another question (correct me if I'm wrong Cheat), but I will say Pods has to go. I think between Anderson, Sweeney, Mackowiak (only if he's in left), Pablo, and Jerry Owens, we could cover one of the outfield spots, but I would like to see a savvy (i.e. don't panic and overpay) move to plug into the other spot.
The pitching is where things get hairy. It ultimately needs to be addressed, but the question is how and to what extent. Do we shake up the rotation or do we see if our starters return to form and pitch more like the '05 staff? If we do shake things up, who gets shipped out? Those are tough questions to answer. It seems like either way we go, we could plausibly come out smelling like roses or come out regretting our decision.
Our starters weren't terrible; they were just terribly inconsistent. Any change in the rotation would require the jettisoning of one of our starters, as I highly doubt any of them would move into the `pen. When it comes down to the `pen, I think KW can solve that problem much as he has in the past with Jenks, Thornton, MacDougal, Cotts of '05, et al.
So, to make a long circuitous answer more direct, the biggest holes in my mind are left and center field and the pitching, although, the pitching has the potential to straighten itself out.
James: My White Sox gaping holes, in order of importance...
- Relief pitching...Anyone who knows me knows I was pretty hard on Mark Buehrle last season, but as the numbers bear out, he typically goes thru some sort of slide from time to time, so it wasn't completely unexpected. What really came as a shock was the regression of Neal Cotts. The poster boy for the failures of the Sox relief staff not only lost his location but his confidence as well. Maybe the ball started rolling with the injury to Cliff Politte, maybe going into the regular season with a rookie left-handed LOOGY was a sign of bigger troubles. Whatever the case, outside of Matt Thornton, should White Sox fans trust anyone in the bullpen? And even they had their shaky moments down the stretch. Jenks is a balky back away from seeing a Freudian-like specialist, and I doubt torque-armed Mike MacDougal will ever make it through any season without a stint on the injured list.
- Leadoff Hitter...Pods mental meltdown at the plate leads the list of position player failures for 2006, and I'm sure KW is fast pursuing an alternative to the take-strike-one, swing-at-strike-two, take-strike-three king.
- Injury List...I know this is more subjective than anything, but lets be frank, in 2005, outside of the Big Hurt (pun intended), the team was very very healthy. Fast forward to 2006; 3 out of the 5 starters had ailments, we lost Politte and Nelson for the season. Pods had hammy issues to start the season; JD, Joe Crede, Tad Iguchi and Jim Thome all had ailments at the end of the season -- ailments I contend were of more than the usual "long season" variety. A return to good health would go a long way toward the White Sox success in 2007.
- Starting pitching. Unfortunately, I really don't think this is something that Kenny Williams can fix from the outside. Outside of moving someone like Garcia and plugging in McCarthy (which, in itself, most likely won't be an upgrade, as McCarthy certainly isn't a lock to give the Sox 215 innings of a 4.50 ERA, which is what Garcia gave the 2006 team), I doubt there is a whole lot that can be done. I've said this a lot, and I'll continue to stress it all throughout the winter: The 2007 rotation is going to be built on hope. Hope that the 2006 Mark Buehrle was nothing more than an abberation. Hope that Jose Contreras can stay healthy. Hope that Brandon McCarthy is the pitcher he was down the 2005 stretch, not the pitcher who came out of the bullpen in 2006.
- Left field. This was the position that provided the least to the 2006 teams. At least with the other highly berated positions such as centerfield and shortstop, you had strong-to-superb defense coming from those spots. Scott Podsednik provided absolutely nothing to the 2006 White Sox, and he (arguably) even held them back. I know the metrics say that Podsednik was a good left-fielder, but after watching him night in, night out for the past two years, I can't really say that Podsednik is anything more than average. Kenny Williams cannot go into 2007 with Podsednik as his starting left-fielder. So how does he fix the spot? I'm looking forward to that part of the conversation, as my ideas on how to fix the hole in left have ran everywhere from Carl Crawford to Ryan Sweeney.
- Relief pitching. I don't really see this as a huge problem. I believe the backend of the White Sox bullpen is as good as you will find in all of baseball, with three similar-but-still-different styles in Jenks, MacDougal, and Thorton. I think Charlie Haeger has all but locked up the "mop-up" spot in the 2007 bullpen, leaving two spots (in a six man bullpen). I think it's reasonable to guess that one of Neal Cotts or Boone Logan will take one of those two spots as a LOOGY, leaving one spot. Again, this is a spot that the Sox could go a number of different ways. They could go via free agency (Justin Speier and Kerry Wood are the two names I've liked); they could go via the international market (Japanese pitchers have seemingly excelled in bullpen spots across MLB. At the very least, they seem to have a one year 'grace' period, ala Shingo in 2004). They could also delve into their very own farm system, as Oneli Perez stormed through the ranks last year and will make some impression on the 2007 White Sox (big or small).
- For the record, I don't view SS or CF as holes. I still feel the main objective this offseason should be to improve the pitching, and an indirect way of helping the pitching is by making sure you have eight damn good defenders working with your pitcher. Thus, any upgrades offensively to SS and CF are most likely (there are exceptions) to come with a downgrade to the defense and ultimately a downgrade to the pitching.
- I also don't see "leadoff hitter" as a spot that needs to be addressed. I feel that the Sox have a perfectly acceptable leadoff man already on the roster in Tadahito Iguchi. I also don't think that Williams should be limited in his LF search. By that I mean that he shouldn't just be looking for that slap hitting LFer who will steal 35 bases. I'll expound on this later, but I think that one of the best options for LF available in the free agent market that doesn't necessarily fit into the leadoff hitter or number two hitter mold is Moises Alou.
To the extent, the Sox were not quite as good in 2005 as they were in 2006, the fall off is entirely attributable to the pitching. The Sox scored more runs, more consistently in 2006 than the previous year.
I'm not sure how to fix the pitching, and, as someone mentioned, I'm sure specific remedies for specific problems are sure to be future topics. I suppose inserting McCarthy and hoping for the best is the most likely step. For what it's worth, I think Buehrle is the guy we can trade for whom we might get fair value. I'm also pessimistic that Buehrle will ever be the pitcher he was before 2006.
I'm less worried about the bullpen, QUITE FRANKLY (those words must always be shouted at the top of the speaker's lungs). I think Jenks, Thornton and MacDougall will be just fine at the back end. So, I'd hate to see the Sox use resources for the pen that could be better spent elsewhere.
As I mentioned, I'm also pretty happy with the offense. However, in a division with four legitimate contenders, you have to aim high. Since it's hard to fix your starting rotation through free agency, I'd love to see the Sox invest even more on offense. I guess it's obvious that shortstop, left and center field are the team's holes. Uribe was below replacement level offensiveley, Podsednik is essentially worthless at this point and Brian Anderson plays a great defensive centerfield, but is essentially worthless with the bat. It may be unrealistic to expect Dye, Thome and Konerko to repeat their production from 2006. They aren't kids. So, it's risky to carry a couple of dead bats in the line-up, even at short and center. Still, Pods is the worst of the group, and plays a position that should be an offensive spot. However many of these guys are replaced, at least one of the new guys must be a high percentage on-base guy. That means Dave Roberts, not Juan Pierre (also, Matthews had a great year, but it came out of nowhere, and he's a poor fielder; I'd rather spend less and get Roberts). I also wouldn't mind if the Mike Young rumors are true.
Overall, this team's remaining window is a small one. While none of their holes are gaping, I wouldn't be afraid to trade prospects to fill what holes there are. A couple of moves and a little luck, and the 2007 White Sox could be right back where the '05 edition was.
Vince:With the benefit of getting to read the previous comments, I think the only gaping hole is left field. Scott Podsednik may bounce back somewhat in 2007, but it is going to have to be with another team. I can't see the Sox giving him another chance, and I don't think that they should. At his best, Podsednik is only a marginally useful left fielder, and I don't think his body can handle the pounding of the steal attempts any longer. I'll refrain for now in suggesting his replacement.
I think most of the rest of the gaping holes are in the form of whether certain players -- Mark Buehrle, Neal Cotts, Juan Uribe -- can return to previous levels of performance.
Tom: I think getting a leadoff hitter would be huge. Yes, the pitching is important, but a large reason this team failed in 2006 was Scott Podsednik.
Why did the Sox have to rely on the long ball tactics this season compared to last?
Cuz nobody else got on base besides Dye, Konerko, Thome, and Crede.
As far as the pitching, I'm not sure I would consider our starting rotation to have any gaping holes. I think what we all felt as fans as to how horrible the starters were this year was directly related to how great they were in 2005. Sure, Buehrle fucking sucked, but I have confidence he'll get better again next season. After Freddy developed that splitter in September, I do NOT want to see him traded now. I can deal with moving Vazquez and Mark, but for all the shit we give Freddy, we seem to forget he won 17 games this year.
Also I'd like to see some competent middle relief, and I don't mean David Riske.
I told you it was long. And we've got like 37 more parts of this thing just waiting in the hopper. Stay tuned tomorrow when we discuss the fictional Ditka vs. Rowand boxing match.