Friday, September 29, 2006

The White Sox: What Happened? What's Next?

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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.


The Cheat said...

I'll answer some of the basic questions because I stayed home on a Friday night with impending binges planned the next two nights.

The payroll will increase next year. The Sox have a history of reinvesting the previous season's gate reciepts into the following season's payroll. The increses/decreases have almost always been within a couple million dollars of the +/- figures that Forbes releases mid-season. They're really only on the hook for about 95M this season thanks to cash from the DBacks, Phils, and Yanks. The attendance bump from the world series nearly pushed the Sox to the 3M mark, about 15% more than '05.

Even with that increase, they will, in all likelihood, shed some payroll in the form of one of the starters, with McCarthy moving into the rotation. They have everyone (save Riske and Alomar) under contract, or at least in their first 6 years and under club control, but given the salary increases, the payrolls appear to be around 110M to fill out the 25 man roster bringing everyone back. That doesn't include the money from PHI, and ARI, which is substantial, something like 8M. I expect the final payroll to be over 100M, but not by much.

McCarthy's ERA is very deceiving. He's been very effective in long stretches, but poor in high-leverage late-inning short work.

The theory is that he lacks the time to gain the feel for his best pitch, the changeup. He has a grip that I've never seen before on his change, and I think it requires quite a bit of feel to be able to throw it effectively. He does have a problem with the long-ball, but I would expect him to finish the '07 season as the Sox starter with the lowest WHIP, so the HR rate doesn't hurt as bad. The HRs will be the one thing that holds him back from being a front line starter in the future, but he should be good for 200IP of 4-4.25ERA ball.

Garcia seemed to be the most logical pitcher to move, topping out at 87MPH and being largely ineffective for much of the season, but he's recently added a splitter and has been a completely different pitcher. I still think he's the pitcher most likely be in another uniform next season, but now, at least, I wouldn't mind having him back. If Williams really has some balls, he'd be shopping Buehrle, but that could really come back to bite him. It's just hard to shake the fact that Buehrle has been the worst starter in baseball since July and his K/9 is trending in the wrong direction. Ultimately, the decision will come down to the medical reports that have been kept largely under wraps. Buehrle insists there's nothing wrong with him, and Garcia is puzzled as to where his 5MPH went. Contreras definitely had some nagging injuries (leg/back/sciatica), as did Garland (dead arm) at the beginning of the year.

In a way, the White Sox didn't experience enough of the injury bug this season, but that's it. They all pitched through their maladies, which probably hurt more than it helped. They might have been better served by having McCarthy in the rotation all year, with one of the other 4 with the nagging injuries getting healthy on the DL. It's really impossible to overstate how bad Buehrle has been since July, or Garcia from June through August, or Contreras after his DL trip, or Garland's first 10 starts. If the Sox had gotten just league average starting pitching during that time, they would have waltzed to the Central crown. And that's why the medical reports are so important. If all they need is some rest... lookout. The Sox will have a great pitching staff to go with their potent offense.

Walter Hanson said...

What an interesting set of two comments.

The White Sox blew fewer saves this year just because with Jenks you didn't have the roller coaster of the hurt Hermandson and relying on a committee. The deep bullpen helped to get the games to Jenks. Besides the Twins are looking at three or maybe four basically rockie starters entering their sophmore year. Usually that's when the league catches up. There should be more concern about the Twins staff than the White Sox in this comparrison.

What offensive asset can the White Sox trade?

Thome who still has a big contract and might get hurt again. Besides he's in his home town area.

Korenko took a lower salary to stay in Chicago, besides who needs a first baseman that can trade pitching (Los Angeles Angels comes to mind)

Dye had a career year that might not get repeated. Besides they have been having trouble replacing their CF they don't need another debate in RF?

The Twins have the luxury that with so many talented players with less than six years to lock up a bunch of their talent for a couple of years to be in a position to have a $100 million payroll when the revenues from the new stadium comes in 2010.

The White Sox might need to go to the minors and pray their AAA team can help them win like the Twins needed their team this year.

Walter Hanson

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