The problem with the 2011 Chicago White Sox is simple to diagnose: More than half the lineup has been terrible for the just about the entire season. Case closed.
Of course, I imagine the problem is much more difficult to come to grips with from the ground. In this light, I'd say that Ozzie Guillen's reluctance to react is understandable. You won't see him on any sabermetric calendar, but he really is abiding by sample sizes. He has four players who are underperforming their averages to such a ridiculous extent that everybody's surprised the math hasn't kicked in yet. Even people who never liked Adam Dunn are rooting for him.
Under these arduous conditions, it has to be pretty easy to cling to anything for hope while waiting for the math to kick in. Juan Pierre had three game-winning hits! Alex Rios hiked his hands up! Adam Dunn says he feels normal!
These turn out to be blips and bleeps and blorps, but when you're in the clubhouse and dealing with the personal aspects of the performance, I imagine everybody wants to treat all positive noise as signals in order to generate positive momentum.
But we're a week into the fourth month of the season. Pierre went a little more than a month between successful steals of second. Dunn followed up a two-hit game with a silver sombrero, seemingly erasing all progress. Brent Lillibridge looks like his old self after striking out all four times and failing to even tip pitch -- and maybe he should still play over Rios.
These are the realities as the Sox approach the All-Star break, and it's hard to tell how gravely management is considering these issues. Maybe some time away from the players will help Guillen and Kenny Williams take their hearts out of the equation, and if I were the third wheel, there are two points that I would hammer home.
To Guillen, I'd throw out this chart:
June 1-July 4
I figured it makes sense to break their seasons at the end of May, when the slow starts and cold weather have officially run their course, and contrast them to June, when the weather heats up and the bulk of interleague play takes place. In all cases, there's no real improvement to hang one's hat on. In a couple, they've gotten worse. If there's been any progress, it's a runless recovery.
Pierre, in particular, is a good example of these phantom improvements. He had a great weekend in interleague that spawned some comical love letters from people who are theoretically paid to know better, but his game-winning hits merely served as icing on the cinder block. Prior to his fine performances at Coors and Wrigley fields, he carried a sub-.300 OBP through the month, which is unacceptable for just about everybody else in baseball.
And then there's Rios, whose problems you could chalk up to a bad first half, if you were feeling charitable. But he's been flat for a lot longer than April. If you dial back his stats to the last calendar year, he's hitting .237/.285/.355 -- over 155 games. He's 1-for-28 this season with a runner on third, including 0-for-17 with a runner on third with fewer than two outs.
Throw in Dunn's problems, and you have two big contracts and another power position that offer next to nothing for the offense. I would stress to Guillen to mitigate the damage these three can cause until one proves his worth.
Of course, he'll need new faces, and here's where Williams comes in. The incredible thing is that even with these massive failures, the White Sox are only 3 1/2 games back. If half the lineup was merely bad instead of a cold, lifeless abyss, they could very well be in first place. And so here's the second part to my suggestion:
To Williams: Look internally.
I don't have a great deal of faith in Williams to make wise decisions at the deadline. His last two summers explain where I'm coming from. In order, Williams:
- Traded Brandon Allen for Tony Pena.
- Traded Brian Anderson for Mark Kotsay.
- Traded Clayton Richard and friends for Jake Peavy.
- Claimed Alex Rios off waivers.
- Traded Daniel Hudson and David Holmberg for Edwin Jackson.
- Claimed Manny Ramirez off waivers.
Of all these moves, the Kotsay trade was the least objectionable -- and that still turned out to bite the Sox in the butt when Guillen fell in love with his Erstadity and the Sox left Jim Thome waiting by the phone. All the other moves smacked of desperation to varying degrees.
The Sox don't need to be desperate this year. They're two-thirds of the way to being a respectable contender, with six starters (no Brandon Beachy for Carlos Quentin, please) and a bullpen that's getting help from everybody, except that do-nothing Hector Santiago.
They just need to cut their dead spots in half. That's not a job for human dynamos. In this situation, even slightly below-average players will be difference-makers, and the Sox have have two of those guys waiting in Charlotte: Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza.
Here are two guys who capitalized on their White Sox auditions last season, and followed it up by doing everything they can against Triple-A pitching:
They fit the roster perfectly with their handedness -- Viciedo being able to platoon with Dunn at DH and Pierre in left, and De Aza is the left-handed center fielder that would take stress off Rios' weak contact and Lillibridge's complete lack thereof. He can also hit leadoff, if that's important to you.
Their only shortcoming is that they aren't major-league players now, meaning they aren't guaranteed to be any better than what's already on the roster. The good news is that their counterarguments are already on the roster. Given how Rios and Dunn faceplanted in their debuts, Williams may as well try putting responsibilities on cheap, promising players he already has.
Williams didn't listen to me last season -- I said to stand pat, he went ahead and traded Hudson for Jackson. But we did seem to agree that it would take a big move to make a difference, and he happened to think it was worth a chance.
This time, the Sox can make a significant improvement with in-house solutions if Williams can restrain himself. The creativity will have to be on Guillen's part. He managed a crowded outfield to hide underachievers in 2008, so I think he has the chops to do it again.
It will take careful planning, so I can accept them trying to ride out the current situation through the rest of the first half. The All-Star break is more conducive to emotional and intellectual closure, and gives the decision-makers time to regroup and get all ducks in a row. It's frustrating to watch, but I'd rather have the major moves made once and made correctly. You know, if they're made at all.