As the month of July draws to a close, the MLB pennant and wildcard chases have only continued to rage forward.
The addition of a second wildcard team has done wonders for maximizing the duration of “meaningful baseball” for many cities who, at this time last year, were having more trouble trying to draw fans than a Matisyahu concert taking place in Syria.
Exactly one year ago today, the Yankees led the AL wildcard race with a 63-42 record, and only one other team was within five games of the Yankees (the Angels). This year on the other hand, the AL wild card race is eight teams deep, with six teams all within 5 games of the wild card leading A’s and Angels.
As for the NL, the theme has been less about parity and more about redemption. Two of the current NL division leaders–the Nationals and the Dodgers–were a combined 29.5 games back from their respective division leaders at this time last year.
Meanwhile in the top of the NL Wildcard standings sit the Pittsburgh Pirates who have a very real chance of ending a multiple decade playoff drought. Just how long has it been since the Pirates last made the playoffs? Consider this: the last time the Pirates were in the playoffs, their best offensive player was Andy Van Slyke (yes, he had a better year than Bonds) and their best pitcher was Doug Drebek. Today, Andy’s son Scott plays for the Dodgers while Doug’s son Kyle plays for the Blue Jays.
With 17 teams very much still in the hunt and no division leader more than 7.5 games up, the current division and wildcard leaders could find themselves on the outside looking in by the time postseason baseball rolls around. Over the next couple of weeks, each of these teams will be highlighted with respect to their current performance and their postseason chances.
Because this is technically a “midwest” centered site, it only seems appropriate that we start with the crown jewel of the midwest–Chicago.
Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox entered today just 1.5 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers for the division lead, which should make them feel just slightly more comfortable than Jerry Sandusky’s new bunkmate.
The White Sox, however, have plenty of reasons for optimism as they boast a roster with as much if not more talent than their 2005 squad, which won the World Series.
But before we dissect the strengths and weaknesses of the White Sox roster, it’s worth recognizing the remarkable turnaround that this team has undergone in only one year’s time, despite having a roster that is predominantly the same as their 2011 squad.
Recently, I was reading an article which referred to Adam Dunn’s 2011 season as a “bad year,” which very well might be the understatement of the century. 2011 was a “bad year” for Adam Dunn in the same way that 1986 was a “bad year” for Chernobyl. But while Dunn seemed poised to soon assume the title of “worst White Sox free agent acquisition not named Jaime Navarro,” at least he wasn’t alone.
Major parts of the expected “nucleus” of Chicago’s 2011 offense–Alex Rios, Gordon Beckham, and Alexei Ramirez–all had forgettable seasons for a Chicago team that had only one hitter eclipse .300 (Paul Konerko) and only two that hit 25 home runs (Konerko and Carlos Quentin). Meanwhile Chicago’s rotation, which was expected to be one of the deepest in the AL going into the 2011 season, failed to have a starting pitcher with 15 wins or an ERA south of 3.5.
After an offseason, in which the White Sox got rid of two of their most consistent players in 2011 (Quentin and Mark Buerhle), the future of the pale hose appeared….well, pale.
So why the sudden turn around?
Not Dunn Yet
After their epically bad 2011 seasons, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn have rebounded in a big way.
Dunn is currently leading the majors with 31 home runs, while Rios’ current triple slash of .310/16/63 puts him on pace to set career highs in all three of those respective categories. Rios’ contribution however hasn’t been limited to the plate, as his fielding metrics place him in the upper echelon of American League outfielders.
Meanwhile, Dunn’s has mitigated his .215 batting average and record-setting strikeout pace with a very respectable .356 on base percentage aided largely by his league leading 77 walks. His OPS of .871 puts him in line with his career average (.876). Furthermore, Dunn’s year-to-date BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is nearly 30 points below his career average, which indicates that he’s likely due for a spike in his batting average in the second half.
In short, Dunn and Rios are each having career years, which is an 180 degree reversal from where they each were at this point last year.
The Unsung Heroes
Outside of Chicago, not too many people know the names “De Aza” and “Viciedo,” and yet each of these players have played pivotal roles for the White Sox this season.
Alejandro De Aza’s .278 batting average as the White Sox lead off hitter this year is very similar to Juan Pierre’s .279 batting average as the White Sox lead off hitter in 2011. But outside of batting average, the two have been entirely different players. De Aza’s on base percentage is nearly 20 points better than Pierre’s was last year, and he is on pace for twice as many extra-base hits and more steals with a higher percentage of actually converting those steals. Most importantly, De Aza is on pace to score over 30 more runs than Pierre scored last year.
Not to be outdone, Viciedo is on pace to hit over 25 home runs and continues to provide consistent punch from the back end of the White Sox lineup.
Danks for Nothing
Despite losing Mark Buerhle to free agency and John Danks to injury, the White Sox’s 2012 rotation has been nothing short of tremendous.
Chris Sale’s transition from closer to starter has transformed the phenom into a legitimate Cy Young candidate. Jake Peavy has been almost as good, and he is on pace to throw over 200 innings for the first time since he won the NL Cy Young in 2007.
The recent addition of Francisco Liriano gives the Twins a third front-of-the-rotation caliber starter and will make them very intimidating to play against in the season’s final two months.
In a rotation full of surprises, however, nobody has been more surprising then Jose Quintana, a 23-year old Colombian rookie who started the year in double A ball after making the team as a minor league free agent. Through the first 11 starts of his major league career, Quintana has posted a ridiculous 2.58 ERA to go along with a very commendable strikeout-to-walk rate of 3.14.
If Quintana is able to continue pitching at anywhere near the level he has pitched thus far, the White Sox could run away with the division.
No Fire Sale
Unlike last year when the White Sox were sellers at the deadline (trading Edwin Jackson to the Cardinals), Kenny Williams has kept his nucleus intact and simultaneously made three outstanding additions via trade.
The most notable was last month’s acquisition of Kevin Youkalis, who, through 22 July games (all with the White Sox) has tallied a blistering .931 OPS.
Liriano, whom the White Sox acquired this past week, has pitched much better then his over-5.00 ERA would suggest.
Since the beginning of June, Liriano is averaging over a strikeout per inning with an ERA of 4.05. And if you throw out Liriano’s last start, where he gave up 7 earned runs in 2 and 2/3rds innings, his ERA drops all the way down to 3.14.
Normally I don’t like to manipulate stats in this way, but given the swirling trade rumors, which had Liriano going to as many as 10 different teams, it is understandable that he didn’t bring his A game to his final start as a Minnesota Twin. Aside from that start though, Liriano has truly been dominant as of late and has the potential to be a major difference maker down the stretch for Chicago.
In my opinion however, Chicago’s most important addition is the one that has received the least amount of fanfare–their acquisition of relief pitcher, Brett Myers. Myers is an established veteran who has spent the vast majority of his major league career as a starter. In other words, he’s a relief pitcher with a starter’s arsenal and a veteran’s poise–the sort of guy you need to make a successful playoff run.
By trading for a veteran relief pitcher and a top-of-the-rotation caliber starter, the White Sox addressed their two biggest needs: 1) Adding depth to their bullpen, and 2) Shoring up the back end of their starting rotation.
Whether these trades will be enough remains to be seen.
As good as the White Sox starting pitching has been, there are plenty of reasons for pessimism as well.
Take Sale for instance. There is no guarantee that he will be available for the White Sox until the season’s end. It has been widely speculated that Sale is being kept on an innings count and recent reports of Sale’s “dead-arm” have only increased speculation that Sale will inevitably be shut down before the end of the regular season. Some analysts have theorized that the main impetus for the Liriano trade was to ensure that the White Sox will continue to have two ace-caliber pitchers in their rotation if they decide to shut Sale down.
And that leads me to my second concern: I’m not convinced that Jake Peavy is “ace-caliber.”
Despite having a very impressive ERA (3.15) and WHIP (1.06) to this point in the season, Peavy’s ERA and WHIP over the past 3 months have been entirely more pedestrian. Specifically, Peavy has an ERA of roughly 3.7 and a WHIP of roughly 1.2, which granted, is good, but by no means, is elite.
If the worst case scenario for the White Sox pitching staff comes true–Sale gets shut down or injured, Liriano and Quintana implode, and Danks is forced to miss the rest of the year, can the White Sox really lean on Peavy? Based on how he’s pitched the past three months, I’m not so sure.
Liriano presents yet another question mark as despite his recent success, you simply cannot ignore his 5.31 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. Much of the reason for those bloated numbers is Liriano’s well-documented control issues. And as good as he’s been as of late, those control deficiencies have been more glaring than ever. Through his five July starts, Liriano is averaging nearly 5 walks per 9 innings.
While I haven’t exactly been scouting Liriano, I’ve watched him enough this year to know that in terms of accuracy, he just doesn’t pass the eye test. Too many times in a 3-2 count when he absolutely had to hit his spot, he misses–and misses badly (either by walking the batter or leaving a belt-high fastball down the middle of the plate).
Perhaps the biggest concern for the White Sox is their bullpen, which fails to boast even a single member with a sub-3 ERA.
The bullpen is currently being anchored by talented youngster Addison Reed, who has shown flashes of excellence but has also dealt with bouts of inconsistency (as evidenced by his 4 ERA). The White Sox entered the year with Hector Santiago slated to be their closer, however they gave him the quick hook after a couple of disappointing April outings.
Matt Thornton has closing experience but has proven more effective in a set-up role throughout his career, and it appears as though the White Sox feel more comfortable keeping him in that role.
Finally, recent acquisition, Brett Myers has assumed the role of righty set-up man and has performed admirably in the early going
Ultimately, the White Sox will only be able to go as far as their bullpen is able to take them, and with Reed’s inability to dominate on a consistent level, Myers will continue to lurk in the background as a potential replacement.
If the White Sox are going to go deep in the playoffs, I believe it has to be on the shoulders of Myers, who is better suited for a ninth inning role than Reed due to his superior command and experience. Myers has the “stuff” to be a closer, but it is likely that he will be more consistent than Reed.
[Editor’s note: It is important to note that Myers has a $10 million vesting option for 2013 that will kick in if he finishes 45 games this year. He has already finished 30, so converting Myers to closer would impact more than just the stretch run in 2012.]
There should be no doubt that the White Sox offense has the firepower to take this team to the playoffs and beyond.
Boasting a top-to-bottom lineup filled with All-Star caliber talent at almost every position, this team is as dangerous as any in the AL. It is also worth mentioning the outstanding play of Paul Konerko, who continues to defy age and quietly build upon a Hall of Fame-caliber career.
The pitching is where things get murky.
As good as the White Sox starting rotation looks on paper, there are serious question marks for the top 3 starters. Even Jose Quintana, who has enjoyed phenomenal success in his rookie year, could inevitably turn into a pumpkin.
But even if the rotation remains intact and productive, the White Sox’s bullpen is dangerously thin.
Addison Reed has hardly been dominant and the coaching staff clearly doesn’t trust Hector Santiago as evidenced by their refusal to put him in the game during important situations. Brett Myers may be the answer, but despite all of his major league experience, only two of those years were spent as a relief pitcher. Perhaps the White Sox have another trade left in them–perhaps for a lefty specialist.
What is clear is that the White Sox have the talent and the potential to not only make the playoffs but make a significant run during them.
That is, unless the White Sox suddenly turn back the clock to 2011.