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New-look White Sox run into old problems at quarter pole

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New additions like Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche haven't come close to their track records, among other problems for offense 40 games in

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The 40-game mark is often considered the first solid measuring stick, and the White Sox offense deserves to be tied to the quarter pole.

While the pitching staff is now resembling its preseason expectations, the lineup is making U.S. Cellular Field play like Petco Park. The Sox scored just 15 runs over their 2-5 homestand, turning Robin Ventura into a slightly sympathetic figure (although #FireRobin is still very much a thing).

His hands are tied to a unhealthy extent, because it's not just the known mystery spots lagging behind. New guys  like Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche are causing their own kinds of problems for the offense, and so we're left to cross fingers and hope regression finally shows up.

At 19-22, and the league's worst offense causing the league's worst run differential, the causes for concern are multifold. But they're not all created equal.

Inherent

Team defense

Aside from Carlos Sanchez taking over for Micah Johnson and Conor Gillaspie potentially losing playing time to Gordon Beckham, it is what it is. I'm actually pleasantly surprised by the corner outfield play -- at least until Avisail Garcia's knee started barking -- while disappointed with Adam Eaton.

Team depth

If Garcia has to miss any serious amount of time, the Sox's options are limited, probably to a Trayce Thompson-J.B. Shuck platoon.

Second base

This was always the weakest link, and both Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez are who we thought they were. At least Sanchez is playing exceptional defense.

Low

Bullpen

When the offense sets up the Sox to win, the bullpen is finishing the job. Here are their records when leading in the late innings (2014 record)

  • Seventh: 9-0 (51-10)
  • Eighth: 12-0 (56-9)
  • Ninth: 16-0 (61-7)

David Robertson and Zach Duke are as advertised.  Jake Petricka's velocity is on the rise, and Zach Putnam has struck out 19 over his last 13 innings (four runs allowed). Dan Jennings has been shaky as of late, and there's a little bit of weirdness with two long relievers right now as the Sox try to get through eight games in seven days this week. Nevertheless, it's a big improvement over last year, it's worked out as they've drawn it up, and there are some options for tweaks.

Starting rotation

Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana haven't pitched like a Big Three when assessing their 2015 numbers, but they're rounding into form. Sale has lasted eight innings in each of his last three starts; Samardzija's done it in his last two. Quintana had a 2.08 ERA over his first four May starts before the lack of support derailed him on Sunday, and Brian Dozier's homer the first allowed by Quintana during the month.

John Danks is perpetually wobbly, but he had knocked his ERA down to last year's level before the Indians knocked him around in the first inning on Thursday. If Carlos Rodon outpitches Danks to the point where Danks is the clear fifth starter, then they're in better shape than most teams.

Jose Abreu

He's hitting .282/.349/.474, and on pace for just 28 homers and 92 RBIs, which isn't bad considering both guys ahead of him have OBPs below .300. It's possible last year's first half was an aberration, but the Sox touted him more as a well-rounded hitter than a home run king from Day One, and he's getting his hits. Now he just needs bases occupied.

Moderate

Adam Eaton

He looks better at the plate this month, not just because he's hitting .284/.338/.446. He's able to get lift to the pull field again, which is opening up his options for getting hits and extra bases. Look at his spray charts from April to May:

I'd put his bat alone in the "low" category. However, his overall game is still leaky. He's on pace for a piddly four stolen bases, and his defense in center has been riddled with mistakes of the less forgivable variety (oddly enough, he's ranging laterally and backward with a lot of confidence). He's somebody who is supposed to provide value on the margins, and his below-average starts in both those categories have been a drag on the team.

Alexei Ramirez

Ramirez's offense profile is returning to its 2012 level, when he walked just 2.5 percent of the time and had an OPS+ in the 70s. Yet back then, he could be counted on for Gold Glove-level defense and 20 steals. This year, the metrics have him average at best in the field, and he's just 3-for-5 in the latter category. We know that he can get hot in a hurry, but he's had a season in his past where his power disappeared and it exposed his lack of patience, and he can't afford it with his other skills deteriorating this time around.

Melky Cabrera

I feel comfortable calling the new left fielder the biggest drain on the offense, and it's also the hardest to explain. Hitting between Eaton and Abreu, Cabrera is hitting just .239/.287/.270, including a 3-for-39 performance from the right side. Cabrera has seldom been this bad over smaller samples, so this 40-game output is especially confusing -- especially since he's playing his same position and hitting in the same spot in the order. Nothing extraordinary is being expected of him.

He's hitting line drives like usual, so it seems like he's in line for a hellacious turnaround. However, the Sox have a history of guys who show up and forget how to hit, so it'd be nice if he started showing it soon.

Adam LaRoche

Writing for ESPN Insider, former Seattle executive GM Tony Blengino called the LaRoche signing "a perfect marriage of club, player, ballpark and contract," saying that would outhomer Nelson Cruz and compete for the American League home run crown. During his typically slow start, LaRoche is doing everything but hitting them out of the park:

  • April: .191/.286/.353, 3 HR, 8 BB, 29 K over 77 PA
  • May: .221/.378/.368, 1 HR, 18 BB, 17 K over 77 PA

LaRoche wrested control of the strike zone back to his typical levels this month, but the power is still nowhere to be seen. This could be the sign of a slow-and-steady upswing, or the same Sox-centric caveat applies to LaRoche as it does to Cabrera.

Here's one case where I wish Ventura had more of an imagination when it comes to his lineup card. If LaRoche is seeing a lot of pitches and getting on base -- and if Eaton and/or Cabrera aren't -- why not bat LaRoche in front of Abreu and Garcia for a game or two, just to see what happens?

It'd be incredibly wacky by Ventura's standards, but it's a maneuver that can be easily explained with, "I'm attempting to play to a strength." Maybe it'd be a recipe for disaster, but when things are going this poorly, it'd be nearly impossible to discern the difference.

(The batting order hasn't changed, and Beckham hasn't started one game at short, both of which make the Ventura's idea of starting Abreu at third base during the Milwaukee series even stranger.)

Elevated

Catcher production

Only the Marlins, Rays and Brewers have received less offense from their catchers than Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto have provided for the Sox. The weird thing is that Flowers is actually making more contact this season -- the problem is it's bad contact (25 percent infield fly rate!). That makes regression a double-edged sword, in that any normalcy in his batted-ball profile will be offset by more strikeouts.

He found himself on the ropes last year with a two-month production outage, only to slug .553 out of nowhere in the second half. With Geovany Soto drawing just one walk to 18 strikeouts, it seems like the only option is to let Flowers try swinging his way out of it, which is an unsettling proposition.

Third base

Even with a strong May, Gillaspie is hitting a subpar .248/.287/.396. That makes him a replacement-level player, as his defense is now the biggest individual liability after the Sox swapped second basemen earlier this month. Oh, and he's also suffering through plantar fasciitis.

Ventura could play Beckham more, but he's sliding back to his old ways (.188/.250/.344 in May), and he's been no better than Gillaspie against lefties. The integrity of the infield relies on second base being by far the least productive position, and right now, both shortstop and third base are challenging it. The hot corner situation wasn't going to be the most seamless of platoons, but it's even more ragged than expected, and there isn't a rich history of upside between the two of them. Matt Davidson would be a desperation play.