With the Bears loss in SBXLI, the baseball writing season is officially open in Chicago. The Tribune's Dave van Dyck was the first to offer up what could be considered a season preview, though it was more a collection of questions; questions I intend to answer here.
Return to smallball: Was it the "little things" that made the Sox so good in 2005? Well, compare that team's 35-19 record in one-run games with last year's 24-21No. Compare the teams 4.61 ERA in '06 with the 3.61 they posted in their championship run. The offense improved from '05, and should bear little of the blame.
Podsednik predicament: So who bats leadoff? Newcomer Darin Erstad? Tadahito Iguchi? Pablo Ozuna? Maybe rookie Jerry Owens?Leadoff hitter isn't a position, it's simply the guy who bats first. Erstad, of the .320-something-OBP Erstads, shouldn't even be considered an option, but unfortunately seems like the frontrunner if Ozzie gets his way. I'd just shift the entire lineup up a peg. Iguchi-Dye-Thome-Kong.
Buehrle business: At 27, has Buehrle seen his better days?The easy answer is yes, Buehrle's best days are behind him. He's not going to put together a 3.15 ERA season any time soon, not with his declining velocity and strikeout rate.
The second issue is keeping Buehrle's sands-through-the-hourglass contract from becoming a major distraction. That will be up to Buehrle.
The second issue seems more like a question for the media itself. KW tried to keep the Buehrle negotiations quiet, and said some things that MB may have interpreted in the wrong way. We had the story for about 24 hours during SoxFest, but the air has been cleared. I don't think it will be much of a problem unless...
The media decides to make it an issue. I can imagine Buehrle off to a 4-0 start on the season fielding questions not about the game but about how this affects his impending free agency and current negotiating position with the White Sox. It will probably start even earlier than that.
Buehrle is not the first All-Star pitcher to enter the last year of his contract without a guarantee that he'll return the following season. He's not even the only one in Chicago this year.
The Vazquez puzzle: Why can't he get past the sixth inning? Why do opponents hit .220 the first two times through compared with .337 after? Why was he fourth in the AL in strikeouts but had the ninth-worst ERA among AL starters? Why was he 2-8 after the All-Star break?Poor pitch selection. Vazquez seemed much more effective when he was using his breaking stuff sparingly. He often went to his curve and slider one too many times, hanging a fat pitch over the heart of the plate at the most inopportune time.
Why was he 2-8 after the All-Star break? Because the offense, which I said wasn't the problem above, was pretty damn poor in the second half. Half the starters had an OBP under 300 in the second half, and they were particularly poor every 5th day with Vazquez on the mound. Vazquez had a 3.60 ERA in August and September combined, yet won only two games. Guess that proves he just doesn't know how to win.
Fifth-starter search: Does no McCarthy mean no problem?I would rather be entering the current season with McCarthy, but he wasn't exactly a sure fire bet to step right into the rotation without any speed bumps along the way. In fact, were McCarthy with the team today, van Dyck's column would have featured a question something like this: Will we see the McCarthy who helped the '05 team from completely falling apart or will he continue to melt down in pressure situations like he did in '06?
Will the replacement be 24-year-old Gavin Floyd, brought in from Philadelphia in the Garcia trade after being a disappointment for the Phillies? Or maybe 21-year-old lefty John Danks, brought in from Texas in the McCarthy trade?
I don't have high hopes for Gavin Floyd. Of all the talent we obtained this off-season, he's the one I'm least impressed with. Hopefully that means he's just this years version of Matt Thornton, guy that I was 100% wrong about. The competition will be between Haeger, another guy that I'm not very high on, and Floyd with Floyd holding the edge thanks in part to the thin air in Tucson where it will be hard for Haeger to have a whole lot of movement on his knuckler.
Finding Uribe: Which Uribe will show up, and when?It's more reasonable to assume that Uribe will return to his low-but-acceptable OBP around .300 than it is to think that he'll post another full season with just 13 walks. Also, Uribe did pound the ball last year, posting an ISO of .206 nearly matching his career high of .223 from '04 and well ahead of the .160 he posted in the championship run.
Sox management is not assuming Uribe will return to his 2005 form (.301 on-base percentage). He reported overweight to work last February and never could pound the ball (.257 on-base percentage).
As for his troubles in the Dominican, I think we've all learned to expect the unexpected in that regard. Nobody, not even Uribe himself, can say for certain when or if he'll report to camp.
Hole in the center: One thing was clear last season: Brian Anderson was no Aaron Rowand.From the magic date (June 11th) when Anderson finally started to look like a major leaguer, a below-average major leaguer but a major leaguer nonetheless, Anderson outhit and outfielded the mythical Mr. Rowand. Anderson figures to improve while Philly now thinks of Rowand as an overpriced 4th outfielder.
Health plan: Two major offensive contributors battled bad backs last season, DH Thome and third baseman Crede.Crede has battled his back for the better part of two seasons now. We know what to expect from him which is about 1 DL trip per year. Josh Fields waiting in AAA should make that trip more comfortable for the Sox this season.
Thome battled his hamstring more than his back last year, and his elbow was the main reason for his poor year in '05. While his back may be a concern, I feel that it's less of a concern than Crede's back or Podsednik's persistently punctured tire.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera: Don't have enough to worry about yet? We'll take this ninth inning to take a last look at other possible issues, such as: Can Jermaine Dye be re-signed before free agency and, if not, will it affect his play? Can Erstad return to All-Star form at age 32, having missed most of last season with an ankle injury? Will the loss of fat mean a loss of velocity for closer Bobby Jenks?This laundry list of questions is nothing compared to the list you could have made in February '05.
I like Jermaine Dye and would love to see him spend an additional couple seasons on the south side. The problem is he'll be looking for a 4-year deal and will being compensated for a performance the last 3 years that he'll be unlikely to match in any of the years on his new contract. Translation: thanks for the memories.
Erstad was a fluky ass All-Star and will never make another All-Star team, let alone "return to All-Star form." He sucks. Non-disasterous 4th outfielder at best.
Jenks was throwing 99 when he was 50 pounds lighter than he is today. (Remember It was just last February when the Sox were citing the weight gain for a dip in velocity.) The weight loss should only increase his durability. It's a total non-issue regarding his velocity.