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Second half, pennant race pose new challenges for Robin Ventura

Robin Ventura and Paul Konerko
Robin Ventura and Paul Konerko

Robin Ventura's unassuming nature has worked well for everybody over his first half-season as manager. But he has also benefited from a bunch of developments that nobody could assume.

Like any team, the White Sox have had to overcome their share of obstacles in the first half. It just so happens that in a couple of high-profile cases, the primary offenders removed themselves from the proceedings, and Ventura was presented with better solutions than anybody could have imagined.

When the Sox finally decided Brent Morel couldn't overcome his bad back, they tried Orlando Hudson. When Hudson showed that he wasn't any more useful then Morel, Kenny Willliams traded for Kevin Youkilis AND SOLVED THE PROBLEM FOREVER (provided he stays healthy).

It's the same thing with John Danks, who looked nothing like himself before he hit the DL with the subscapularis tear. The Sox promoted Jose Quintana as a stopgap solution, and of course the unheralded minor-league free agent outpitched Danks to the tune of a 4-1 record and a 2.04 ERA over eight starts.

Musical chairs can lead to awkward Wally Pipp situations with hurt feelings and bad blood and people taking sides (hell, look how the White Sox got Youkilis). However, neither Morel nor Danks are sure bets to return this season, so plenty could change before Ventura even has to consider accommodating the Opening Day starters on the sidelines. At the moment, a meritocracy decides the pitching staff and lineup cards, and the Sox are paying all their reserves the league minimum, so nobody has any grounds for complaint.

There will come a time when Ventura has to negotiate the politics of playing time, and it'll be interesting to see how he handles it. But as the Sox enter the second half, his 25-man roster is as set as it can get. Rather, there are four other areas that could throw complications at Ventura as he girds his loins for his first playoff push.

The rest of July

The White Sox open the second half playing 16 of their first 19 games on the road. It's not going to be easy:

  • Three in Kansas City
  • Four in Boston
  • Three in Detroit
  • Three at home against Minnesota
  • Three in Texas
  • Three in Minnesota

This might not turn out be a disadvantage, because at 23-16, the Sox have the second-best road record in the league to the New York Yankees. But there's just one off day, and the Sox will finally face Justin Verlander for the first time this season in the series opener at Comerica Park, so they're going to have to put on their resilient pants.

That said, the other two Central contenders will have their hands full through the end of the month, too.

  • Tigers: At Baltimore, vs. Los Angeles, vs. White Sox, at Cleveland, at Toronto, at Boston
  • Indians: At Toronto, at Tampa Bay, vs. Baltimore, vs. Detroit, at Minnesota, at Kansas City.

Lineup shuffling

Since none of the reserves have made compelling arguments for more playing time, Ventura has been able to recycle his lineup cards with uncommon consistency. Through his first 85 games, he's used 43 different lineups, and he's used his most common order 14 times.

That doesn't sound all that stable, but the 2011 season gives it some context. Ozzie Guillen didn't use one lineup more than five times in one season, and he used 113 overall. By comparison, since Kevin Youkilis' arrival, Ventura has already found one lineup he's liked enough to use seven times.

If Adam Dunn can straighten himself out, then expect more (and more, and more...) of the same. But he's been in a malaise since June, and has struggled mightily over his last 15 games (.132/.303/.264). Moreover, he has just three hits in his last 31 at-bats against left-handed pitching.

Ordinarily, we'd treat this as a normal slump. Robin Ventura is maintaining that line -- he has no plans to shuffle Dunn down, even against lefties. But given what everybody lived through last year, we now know it's possible that the bottom can fall out, so Ventura will have to tread a careful line between showing confidence in a key player, and avoiding a relapse and the consequences thereof.

Rookie bullpen

As a group, White Sox relievers own the second-worst ERA in the AL at 3.78, so there's plenty of room for improvement. That said, it seems like the bullpen has been more effective than that number lets on. Installing Addison Reed as the closer eliminated the ninth-inning headaches, and Matt Thornton picked a good time to straighten out his game, stepping up big-time as Jesse Crain went down.

That said, Reed was used in three straight games before the break, and Thornton made 41 appearances in the first half. If Crain can't be relied upon to stay off the DL, it gets a lot hairier. Nate Jones has pitched his way out of bad times, but he's not a comfortable third option in the bullpen. Hector Santiago hasn't proven he can take any of Thornton's situations, and Leyson Septimo fumbled his last two LOOGY situations, which is problematic considering he's pitched in four games.

The Sox integrated a steady stream of greenhorn arms rather impressively this season, and I'm going to write more about the rookie relievers for Friday. But it's the kind of situation that can cause a lot of undue stress if the their confidence levels all capsize concurrently.

Crisis control

Ventura has cemented a certain style with the media -- he doesn't divulge more information than he has to and he responds to obvious questions with answers of equal or greater banality. Nobody seems holds it against him from day to day.

But his open-ended answers don't really work in more intense interviews, where probing questions are asked, rephrased and/or followed up, and it leaves him (and everybody else) searching for a consistent answer. The most notorious example is The Chris Sale saga, which ultimately resulted in no harm, no foul. It could have been far worse, considering the talent and emotions involved.

The Sox have been stable since, and closing out the half by winning 11 of 15 and holding a three-game lead in the division means all is forgiven. But flies will find their ways back into the ointment; Sale's workload will come under greater scrutiny when he crosses the threshold into record-workload territory, to name one. Don't get me wrong -- it's a great thing that he hasn't had to practice these skills, but we'll see if he's any better at making up answers during a season when many have been given to him.