For several seasons, the White Sox have spent winters wondering why they always seem to flatten out in September. Nobody in the brain trust had any clear answers to offer this time around, and it wouldn't matter if they did, because any "eureka!" claim would ring hollow until the Sox got a chance to back it up.
But looking only at their April play, they may have stumbled onto one solution -- playing just as poorly before September. For some odd reason, there's not much solace in relativity.
After closing out the 2012 season with an 11-17 September, they've opened 2013 with a 10-15 April. Add the few meaningless games in October, and they're 23-33 over their last 56 games.
The Sox have been that bad in the recent past. They opened the 2010 season by going 24-33; tack it onto their 23-30 finish to the 2009 season, and that's 47-63. And yet despite that negative inertia, they recovered to finish that season with 88 wins.
That figure seems slightly ambitious at the moment, given that these Sox are on pace for 65 wins. But really, it doesn't make much sense to project outward from this moment. This team isn't complete. Not with Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham on the DL, and Jeff Keppinger missing several games, and Gavin Floyd gone from the rotation. We can gripe about the league's worst offense, and the fact that Beckham's stock has benefited immensely from watching the team defense without him, but the only real solution involves waiting it out. The Sox are fielding too many part-time players and cast-offs to expect them to dust themselves off individually, much less as a cohesive unit.
(Given the way this year has started in terms of health, maybe the Sox will never be complete. And if that's the case, there will probably be the trades and high draft picks many have been waiting for.)
While it's hard to assess the offense and defense without the power of our imagination, I think we can set aside the bullpen for closer examination at this point. Unlike the other facets, its current construction could last much of the season, and with Hector Santiago moving into the rotation, the cracks are more apparent and need monitoring.
We've talked about Donnie Veal crashing to Earth the way the way Randy Williams and Will Ohman faltered before him. We haven't talked about Nate Jones yet, but his case is rather simple -- relievers are volatile enough, and Jones' track record doesn't scream consistency. If he comes close to repeating Tuesday night's incredible wild pitch-wild pitch-home run combo, he could be making his first career appearance in Charlotte soon enough.
But I have no idea what to make of Matt Lindstrom, and it seems like he's a rather important guy to understand early.
Let me start by slapping his game log up here, because it describes the disorienting nature of his season to date:
After being pretty much lights-out over his first eight appearances, he looked ragged in two of his previous three outings leading into Tuesday night. Had better options waited in the wings, I could see why Robin Ventura would have him on a short leash in a close game.
Problem is, the circumstances surrounding the rest of the sixth inning didn't line up.
Lindstrom retired the first batter he faced on a flyout, then walked Geovany Soto on five pitches. Ventura then came out to pull Lindstrom, which would be fine if, say, Santiago or (good) Matt Thornton were behind him, because the lefty (Mitch Moreland) was followed by a bunch of righties, and they can handle the rest of an inning.
Instead, it was Veal -- a guy who never had a historical LOOGY profile until half of last season, and has started 2013 by allowing a .571 OBP to left-handed hitters. We can revise that up to .600 after Moreland doubled to drive in Soto.
(Another Veal fun fact: He's allowed the first batter to reach base in nine of his 12 appearances this year. That's not good for a guy who is often called upon to only face one batter.)
After the double -- which Lindstrom could have allowed himself, really -- it probably would've made more sense to leave Veal in, considering his historical profile. Instead, Ventura went back to a righty by summoning Jones from the bullpen. At that point, Ventura had burned through three relievers over four batters with more than three innings left to play, and ended up with the lesser righty carrying a heavier, more significant load.
I'm reluctant to dissect and embiggen pitcher-pulling from a single game, because the significance is often fleeting. Sometimes there are certain things under the surface Ventura needs to see, even if it may not be the best choice for that game. Other times, a manager just gets caught in between. It happens.
But we saw Ventura become overactive with the pitching staff last September. With the team getting stuck in so many close games and losing too many, there's probably a massive urge for a manager to exploit every possible opportunity. Last year, he got so wrapped up in army managing (left, right, left right) that he lost a sense of proportion. Much like everything else that's gone wrong over the last two weeks, Tuesday's sixth-inning meltdown hit a little too close to home.
The lagging offense hasn't provided Ventura opportunities to fall into a 7-8-9 groove, so he'll have to develop a feel for Lindstrom some other way. All we know right now is that he was acquired to be a stable, full-inning presence. We still don't know if he's up to the task, but given that he's crucial to the bullpen's architecture, I'd like to find out if he can clean up his own messes sooner rather than later.