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So, what went wrong?
It’s almost a ridiculous question to ask when a team is going to win 90 games. It’s easy to write off the year on high expectations that might have been inflated by last year’s white-hot postseason run. Or maybe they can be blamed on bad luck, especially the bad luck of finding themselves in the loaded American League Central.
But that overlooks some hard realities, like the losing record they had to the Twins and even to Cleveland. It also overlooks their 31-40 record since the all-star break. And it overlooks the 10-16 record they’ve had in September, when the games meant the most. All while many were still convinced they were the team to beat in the AL Central.
The biggest problem, or at least the expectation that was most unrealistic, was the starting pitching staff. Only one team, the Kansas City Royals, gave up more runs than the White Sox starting rotation. That’s somewhat misleading, because they also led the league in innings, and will finish in the middle of the pack in ERA. But mediocre wasn’t good enough, not when they carried the team to and through the playoffs last year. And it certainly wasn’t what the organization had in mind when it committed to spending about $45 million last year just on their five starters - Javier Vazquez, Freddy Garcia, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras. That’s nearly half of the White Sox payroll.
The decline in pitching couldn’t be patched over by the offensive improvements. The White Sox are second in the major leagues in runs scored. Minnesota is eleventh. The season isn’t over yet, and the White Sox already have scored 116 more runs than they did in 2005. Of course, the White Sox missed the playoffs regularly this decade with better offenses than they had last year, and one might wonder if the decreased emphasis on small ball might have led to the slip.
Whether you choose to believe that or not, one thing is for certain – the White Sox didn’t win as many close games this year. Last year’s White Sox ended up 35-19 in one run games. This year’s team is just 23-21. And while some have lamented the state of the Sox bullpen, they’ve actually blown two fewer saves than they did last year.
So while it’s not a ridiculous question to ask of a team that’s going to finish nearly 20 games over .500, it’s still a hard one to answer. There were a lot of little problems, a less than stellar bullpen, a very tough division, and probably less team speed. But mostly, it looks like the team committed itself to a veteran starting pitching staff that under performed.
Which naturally raises the question about what the White Sox can do next year to make sure they aren’t the odd team out.
Well, for starters, they’re going to need to spend like crazy again. One of the underreported stories this year was exactly how high the White Sox payroll sky-rocketed this year. The White Sox rode the momentum of last year’s postseason success and received an infusion of cash from some trades to increase their payroll by $27 million this year, up to $102 million. For years, White Sox fans have complained about how cheap owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been with his payroll, making 2006 a true departure – it was double the payroll the White Sox had as recently as 2003.
What isn’t clear is whether this is a new level of spending based on increased interest in the White Sox, or whether it was a one-time boost partly based on cash the White Sox acquired in trades. Because you’ll never guess how much money GM Kenny Williams received from the Phillies and Diamondbacks to cover the salaries of Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez last year. That’s right - $27 million.
It’s an important question for White Sox fans because there isn’t much payroll flexibility next year. It looks like the White Sox are committed to about $90 million in guaranteed contracts, arbitration dollars, and contract options before they start to improve their team. And that’s assuming that they don’t bring back perennial staff ace Buehrle, whom they can opt to have back for $9.5 million.
The leading candidate to replace Buehrle in the rotation would be Brandon McCarthy, but his 4.88 ERA as a long reliever this year hardly inspires confidence. That single hole in the rotation is surrounded by four other starting pitchers who will each be guaranteed $10 million, and none of them have an ERA lower than 4.27. Williams likely will need to trade some offensive assets for pitching, and that still may leave the problem of what to do with some $10-million-per-year pitcher that currently is in a starting slot. His only other choice is to hope they pitch better next year, when they’re all a year older.
The White Sox biggest hope for improvement might be offensively. If the White Sox decide to offer 2005 hero Scott Podsednick arbitration, he’ll likely make $4 million. Podsednick stole 40 bases last year, but also hit just .260 and only made it on base about 33% of the time, so it wouldn’t be too shocking if the White Sox identified left field as a place they can upgrade. Brian Anderson’s first year in center field this year was also disappointing (he hit just .230), but upgrading that is going to take money, because for all his faults, at least Anderson was cheap.
The best bet is that Williams is aggressive in trades again this year, moving one of his offensive assets for some pitching. It'll be interesting to see if he has any wiggle room on their payroll, and how White Sox fans react if the payroll level drops.