Sunday, July 27, 2008

Real and Fabulous

“By the way, they’re real. And they’re FABULOUS.”
- from Seinfeld

Even for Twins fans, it’s been hard to accept. We find our team exceeding preseason expectations and solidly thumping the division favorites. And then we look at the standings and see the White Sox are in first place? Surely they (and not us) are an anomaly, right? After all, isn’t this the completely dysfunctional club that imploded last year for just 72 wins? We shouldn’t need to worry about them for another 90 years or so, right? And Bonnes wouldn't dream of adding a fifth straight question to this paragraph, would he?

Well, the bad news is that they’re real. If the four game sweep last month (where the Twins were outscored 40-15) didn’t convince you, maybe this will: they’ve outscored their opponents by 88 runs. That’s the third best mark in the majors, ahead of the Angels, the Devil Rays, the Yankees and even our Twins (+23).

So what changed from last year? It’s been a mixture, but the short answer is that General Manager Kenny Williams brought in some young talent that has absolutely exploded.

And that’s the REALLY bad news. Because they’re likely going to be real for several years to come.

The most interesting of that talent is on the pitching side, because Williams didn’t bring them in this year. Both John Danks and Gavin Floyd were acquired from other organizations before last season, and both spent last season struggling. And now both of them have ERAs under 3.50 and are the core of the White Sox starting rotation.

On the offensive side, the White Sox traded for an outfielder from the Diamondbacks who had batted just .214 last year. They picked up Carlos Quentin despite being damaged goods; he underwent shoulder surgery in October. Interestingly, a week before that trade the Pioneer Press reported that Quentin’s right-handed bat had been mentioned in trade talks with the Twins for Matt Garza. We might well have ended up with him instead of Delmon Young. Since getting his shoulder repaired, the 25-year-old is hitting .279 and slugging .550 with 27 home runs and 78 RBI. Imagine THAT hitting behind Justin Morneau.

An even stranger pickup happened in January, when the White Sox handed Alexei Ramirez a four-year, $4.75 million contract after he defected from Cuba. (Is this a great country, or what?) Ramirez struggled early, hitting just .114 at the beginning of May. Just how hot has he been since? Hot enough to raise that batting average all the way to .315 in less than 3 months. He’s also just 26 years old, and the Sox aren’t going to need to go to arbitration with him until 2012. His only flaw might be his glove at second base.

These guys have joined some of the White Sox we know and love (to hate) who are also having huge years. The White Sox spent most of last season debating whether they should trade or sign Mark Buehrle. They chose to sign him, and he’s on pace for his eighth straight season of throwing 200+ innings. Many Sox fans felt like Jermaine Dye was robbed of the MVP award two years ago by Morneau, and they’ll likely get a chance to kvetch again given his .314 batting average, 24 HR and 64 RBI. AJ Pierzynski is hitting .288 with a little power and plenty of attitude. And Jim Thome, after struggling earlier in the year, has hit 19 home runs, driven in 59 RBI, and is getting on base at a .383 clip.

Finally, the White Sox bullpen has been formidable this year, too. Their collective ERA is just 3.15, which is good for fourth in the major leagues. But lately there have been some concerns. Closer Bobby Jenks has just returned from about a month off with a sore back, and has been effective, but not dominant. Set-up man Scott Linebrink is out with a shoulder injury, and Matt Thornton was unavailable for times last week because of a sore back. In their absence the Sox relied on Octavio Dotel whose wildness can be deadly to both teams on the field. We’ll probably also see DJ Carrasco, a 31-year-old who has been effective this year at both AAA and the majors. Still, if there’s one advantage to facing the White Sox right now, it’s that the Twins might get to test the Sox’ bullpen depth.

Twins Takes
That four game sweep the Twins suffered at the hands of the White Sox is a lasting memory, and you can be forgiven if you think that the White Sox have manhandled the Twins all season. But prior to that series, do you know what the Twins record was versus the White Sox this year?

It was 4 wins and 3 losses.

BTW, if any of you are going to the Twins game on Wednesday, be sure to get there early and watch the pregame festivities. I'll be throwing out the first pitch.