On Wednesday night the Chicago White Sox did something that they have only done one other time in 2009: complete a sweep. With a 6-2 victory over the hapless Cleveland Indians, led by another stellar outing from Jose Contreras, the much maligned White Sox of ’09 moved to 40-38, tied with the Minnesota Piranhas at 3.0 games behind the Detroit Tigers.
The White Sox only other sweep of the season came at the end of May when the Good Guys swept three on the road against the Kansas City Royals. And as KVB and I lament to eachother all of the time, the White Sox never seem to complete sweeps. It always seems like any time we take the first two or three games of a series there is a letdown in the final game. Either the regular lineup sleepwalks through the game, we get a terrible pitching performance, or Ozzie throws out one of his crazy lineups where Brian Anderson is hitting cleanup.
I’m exaggerating…but not by much.
Not yesterday though. Last night, the White Sox continued playing the solid brand of baseball that has propelled them to five straight wins and 12 wins in their last 17 games. Over that same time span, a fan base — and maybe even a team and an entire organization — has been reborn into one that expects, rather than hopes, to be playing baseball in October.
At least that’s how I feel. And hopefully the rest of the South Side is with me. (And if you’re not, I have a few words from Steve Perry I’d like to share with you. That’s right, I went there.)
Truthfully, what has transpired over the last couple of weeks has renewed my faith that the White Sox will ultimately come out on top in a very competitive AL Central. I have to admit that through the ups and downs of this season it has been hard to maintain that faith. Case in point: Ozzie saying that we are in trouble if we have to bring up Gordon Beckham…and then shortly thereafter Beckham gets brought up.
And yes, I realize that the majority of the recent success has come against the inferior National League (and then the even more inferior Indians), so I will grant you that the White Sox haven’t exactly been mowing down the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays; but, the Brewers, Cubs, Dodgers, and Reds are all at least decent teams (especially LA, with our without Manny) so I don’t think you can simply chalk up the White Sox success to playing subpar competition.
No, there are many reasons why the White Sox are winning and the majority of them have to do with the players themselves and the better brand of baseball they are playing.
Will they make the playoffs? I’m not going to make any proclamations and jinx them. (Full disclosure: in preparation for this post I researched Jim Fassel’s infamous playoff guarantee when he was coaching the Giants and had planned on altering it for purposes of my own guarantee here. Then I thought the better of it.) But what seemed like a rather ridiculous conversation a few weeks ago is starting to look more and more realistic.
So in honor of the White Sox 40th victory of the season, and because it is my lucky number (in honor of my favorite basketball player of all-time), here are 40 reasons, in no particular order, why the White Sox have a great shot to win the AL Central and make a return trip to the playoffs in 2009.
1 — Ozzie Guillen. The SI players poll may suggest that other players don’t want to play for him, but his own players do. And they have proven it every year outside of that awful and anomalous 2007. As long as Ozzie is the skipper, I’ll always believe in the White Sox. Paws up.
2 — We actually have a productive 1-2 punch at the top of the order! Most White Sox fans had forgotten what that feels like. 2005 hero Scotty Pods and Sexy Alexei have reminded us over the last 50 or so games. If Podsednik can come close to maintaining his .368 OBP, and if Alexei can continue to put his early season woes behind him (and improve upon his .398 SLG), the White Sox will have the run production and speed they need at the top of the lineup.
3 — We get THE Carlos Quentin back around the All Star Break. Remember him? Mr. Porcelain, but also the best player in the American League through the end of August last year? The White Sox offense has fortuitously been able to find its footing over the last month without him, but no one has forgotten how important Quentin is to the overall makeup of our team. Assuming Quentin can even be 80% of his normal self throughout the rest of the season, he will provide a huge presence that has been sorely lacking.
4 — Jose F*****g Contreras. I love this guy. He’s like a phoenix. Every time you think he’s finished he rises again to prove why he was such a hot commodity upon defecting here from Cuba. And there are few guys that I trust more in big spots than Contreras. He was AWFUL to start the year, but since heading down to the minors he has found his touch again and has given up only 9 runs over five starts that have covered a little over 37 innings.
5 — Mark Buehrle is Mark Buehrle. He’s not always pretty, and he’ll get knocked around every now and then, but the numbers are always there. This year he’s 7-2 with a 3.26 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. He’s an ace. You have to have one to win division titles, and I’ll just say it: you’re wrong if you don’t think Mark Buehrle is an ace.
6 – Gavid Floyd has become the good Gavin again. Gavin’s season has followed an arc similar to Contreras’. He struggled mightily out of the gate, but look at his game log since May 22. Floyd has not gone less that six innings or given up more than three runs in any start. That’s eight quality starts in a row. Even more exciting is the fact that he hasn’t walked more than three batters in any of those starts either. This guy was the #4 overall pick in 2001 by the Phillies for a reason. We’ve seen why over the past 6 weeks.
7 – John Danks has become the good Danks again. Danks is another pitcher who had an up and down first 6 weeks of the season, but has turned it around. And he’s saved his best outings of the season for his two most important starts thus far: his two outings against the Cubs. Danks gave up one run over 14 innings against the Cubs. Yes, their offense sucks, but Danks has pitched four straight quality starts, going at least seven innings in all four, and the guy proved last year that he’s clutch.
8 – Is the quartet of Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks, and Jose Contreras reminding anyone over the last month or so of another White Sox pitching staff of recent vintage? Eating innings, throwing quality starts almost every time out, and stepping up big in key spots…sounds a lot like the 2005 staff to me. Buehrle and Contreras are the holdovers, but Floyd and Danks have been every bit as good as Garland and Garcia. And remember, neither El Duque or Brandon McCarthy was that great in the fifth spot during the regular season that year. If the pitching continues on its current trend, and we know they are capable, this is a World Series-quality staff.
9 – Gordon Beckham is here and he’s every bit as good as advertised. Yeah, the kid struggled out of the gate, but look at his last seven games: 12-21 with a HR and 6 RBI. We all love Josh Fields and wish he had taken ahold of the hot corner when he had his chance, but Beckham is the future. And he is proving that he just may be the present as well.
10 – Did I mention Carlos Quentin is coming back at the All Star Break?
11 – Aaron Poreda is with the big club now and has not given up a run in his first five innings of work out of the bullpen. He has six Ks and only one BB and has given up only four hits. The Rays received a jolt from their phemon pitcher David Price last year. Could Poreda fill a similar role for the White Sox? He’s certainly had an auspicious beginning.
12 – Bobby Jenks is still one of the best closers in the game, and is as battle tested as anyone not named Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon. The big man has 18 saves on the season and has 28 Ks in 28 innings this year, a drastic improvement upon his sharply declining K rate from last year. He may not have the same gas he had back in 2005, but he is a much better pitcher now. And he’s already proven his stones on the biggest stage.
13 – Still, there are rumors that the White Sox might trade Bobby Jenks before the trade deadline. I do not want to this happen, nor do I think it will now that we’ve reemerged as a legitimate contender. Closers with Bobby’s stuff, talent, moxie, and proven experience do not grow on trees; and it’s rare to see a team get far in October without one. Regardless, on the off chance that we do trade Jenks, we’ve got a great bullpen filled with guys I would have confidence in to take over the role. (But Kenny…if you’re listening…don’t trade Bobby!)
14 – Matt Thornton has had a few rougher outings of late, but is still holding opponents to a .214 average and has struck out 39 batters in 31.2 innings.
15 – Octavio Dotel is walking way too many guys (21 in 30.2 innings) but has 39 strikeouts of his own through 30.2 innings and has successful closing experience in his past.
16 – D.J. Carrasco has come into his own as a very valuable asset in the bullpen. He’s logged 48.2 innings in 26 games and has an ERA under 3.00. He has given up seven runs over his last six outings though, so he needs to get himself back on track. But, as a former starter, he has the arm strength to be a bullpen savior on days when we need one.
17 – Scott Linebrink has not been great this year, but still has an ERA of 2.17 and averages more than a K per inning. He is not closer material — Thornton or Dotel would pick up that slack if Jenks is moved — but he remains a solid option as a setup man.
18 – Regardless of whether or not Kenny trades Bobby (don’t do it!!!), each of those four guys plus Poreda gives the White Sox an outstanding bullpen that I’d put up against any in the league. Still, I think Kenny will hang onto a proven closing commodity like Jenks, so each of the bullpen guys will get to stay in the roles they have been successful in and form one of the most unsung units in all of baseball.
19 – Ken Williams. He has to be listed as a reason why the White Sox can (and will!) make the playoffs. As White Sox fans we may not agree with all of his moves, but we have to give him this: he never stops being proactive to improve our chances. And I think his gameplan entering this season was brilliant. He put together a vet-laden team with a few new additions that, if everything fell right, had a good chance to make the playoffs. But he also has been restocking the farm system to the point where we can all feel pretty secure that when the Buehrle-Konerko-Dye era ends, the White Sox will be okay.
20 – Let’s get back to the offense, because its resurgence is one of the main reasons why the White Sox have started playing better baseball. And the most important cog in the White Sox offensive machine is still Jermaine Dye. As usual, Jermaine is quietly putting up solid numbers (.294, 18 HR, 48 RBI) and providing a steadying and consistent presence in the middle of the lineup. This guy was a World Series MVP in 2005 and was damn close to being the league MVP in 2006. He’s not quite the same player now — age will do that to you — but he is still good enough to be the second best hitter on a team that makes a deep playoff run.
21 – Carlos Quentin, of course, will hopefully resume his role as the best hitter on the team when he returns. And did I mention that he’s coming back around the All Star Break? My apologies if I didn’t. Quentin is coming back around the All Star Break.
22 – Paul Konerko, like Jermaine Dye, is having a solid season in the heart of the order (.290, 13 HR, 49 RBI). Like Dye, Konerko is not as ferocious as he once was, but is still good enough. And like Dye, Konerko has proven himself in clutch situations. I know that the combo of Dye and Konerko may not be all that sexy or exciting, but there is something to be said for battle-tested veterans who are team leaders and the essence of the term “professional hitters.” Paulie is still getting the job done both at the plate and in the field, as is JD.
23 – Chris Getz sometimes gets lost in the shuffle with all of the hullabaloo about Gordon Beckham, but Getz is providing something that our lineup has sorely lacked over the last couple of years: speed. He, Scotty Pods, and Alexei all have 11 or more stolen bases. Finally the White Sox have some people who can put a little pressure on other teams with the running game.
24 – AJ Pierzynski will never wow you with his stats, and he’ll do things that make you scratch your head sometimes (like his putrid ground out on the first pitch with the bases loaded at the end of one of our games last week), but he’s scrappy and he’s a winner. AJ comes through in the clutch more than often than not, and is underrated behind the plate (except for his arm, which can’t really be rated low enough). You need a good catcher to win, and the White Sox have one in AJ.
25 – The White Sox also seem to have found a backup catcher. Ramon Castro has blasted two home runs in 21 ABs since joining the team a couple weeks ago and is a guy who has always had monstrous power. Playing half of his games at The Cell with the weather warming up may be just the opportunity he needs to show that he can be a 25-30 HR guy someday. We’ll gladly take production anywhere close to that from our backup.
(BTW…all stats for the last six or seven of these have been taken from the White Sox hompage.)
27 – Detroit has only three starters worth a crap (Verlander, E. Jackson, Porcello) and one of them is a 20-year old rookie (Porcello). Yes, Porcello has been very good this year, but how is his arm going to be holding up in September? He supposedly has a great makeup, but he’s never been through the pressure of a pennant race. If the Tigers cannot some more starting pitching, they are going to fall back even further to the pack.
28 – Curtis Granderson (.339 OBP, 18 HR, 13 SB) and Miguel Cabrera (.331 BA, 16 HR, 47 RBI) are really good, and Brandon Inge has certainly rebounded this year (18 HR, 52 RBI) from his subpar 2008, but what do the Tigers have after that? Magglio is on the sharp downside of his career and just is not supplying power anymore. Look at the other names that have chewed up the most ABs for Detroit this season: Placido Polanco, Gerald Laird, Adam Everett, Josh Anderson. Call me crazy, but I’ll take our offense for the rest of the season…especially once Quentin gets back.
29 – By the way, Quentin is coming back at The All Star Break.
30 – Minnesota is the Chicago’s other main competitor in the AL Central, and they have as many holes as Detroit. I do think that Minnesota’s pitching is better than what the numbers show (i.e. Baker’s 4.99 ERA and Slowey’s 4.41 ERA despite better peripherals) but this is a team that needed Francisco Liriano to be be an ace. Detroit has its ace in Justin Verlander and we have ours in Mark Buehrle. Who is it for the Twins? Baker and Slowey and very good #2-#3 starters, but the Twins do not have a guy who has proven he can take the ball and throw a gem in a big spot when the team needs it. Argue if you wish Twinkie fans, but that’s how I see it.
31 – Offensively, Minnesota has been surprisingly balanced this season. Look at the their team stats and tell me you aren’t surprised to see five guys with double-digit homers on the 2nd of July. In addition to the usual suspects (Mauer and Morneau), Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and (*sob*) Joe Crede all have 11 or more dingers. Add in the speed of Denard Span and Carlos Gomez and the Twins have a more dynamic offense than usual that has been able to somewhat compensate for its struggling pitching. However, this is still a team that goes how Mauer and Morneau go, and you may be surprised to learn that both hit below their career averages against the White Sox. In 331 career ABs against Chicago, Morneau (a .284 lifetime hitter) hits only .275. He has a career OPS of .858 that drops to .840 when playing against Chicago. (For the record, his HR rate is almost identical.) As for Mauer, Mr. .400 blah blah blah, he is a .324 career hitter with an OPS of .881. Against the White Sox that drops to .313 and .858. Are Mauer and Morneau terrible against Chicago? No. Have they come up big at certain points against the White Sox in the past? Yes. But they sure as hell didn’t against John Danks in last year’s one-game playoff, and anytime you make those two hit worse than normal you have a great chance to beat Minnesota.
32 – Detroit and Chicago are big-market teams that will make moves at the deadline to improve their chances this year. Minnesota does not have the same luxury. That knocks the Twins down at least a peg in comparison to the Tigers and White Sox.
33 – Take a look at a quick comparison between the aces of the White Sox and the Tigers. In 15 career starts against Chicago, Justin Verlander is 3-9 with a 5.44 ERA. In 27 career starts against Detroit, Mark Buehrle is 14-8 with a 2.99 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. And, for the record, Buehrle is 23-13 lifetime against the Twins. So Peter Gammons and all of the other baseball analysts can go into the bathroom with a moist towelette and a mental image of Verlander’s incredible “stuff”, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t get the job done against his division rival. The underrated Buehrle, of course, does. So, in review: Minnesota has no ace, the Tigers do but he sucks against Chicago, and the White Sox ace (who many people erroneously don’t consider to be an ace) dominates the two best teams in his division. HUGE advantage White Sox.
34 – The White Sox schedule in the second half of September sets up beautifully for a late charge to pull away from the pack. From September 21-27 the White Sox play the Twins and Tigers three times each, all of which are in Chicago. These six games are sandwiched between three at home against Kansas City and then three on the road at Cleveland to end the season. And there is actually a good chance Cleveland will have just called off the season by then, giving the White Sox a three-game sweep by forfeit.
35 – Since the White Sox have no more games against the Rangers, I most likely will not be able to see them play live for the rest of the regular season. This is good because I think the White Sox have a .200 winning percentage in games I’ve attended over the years. When KVB and I go together it’s even worse than that. (Be thankful that we never moved to Chicago and got season tickets.) If the Sox make the playoffs, however, and especially if they go deep, I may not be able to stay away. My apologies in advance.
36 – I know, I know…I’ve left someone out who deserves mention: Jim Thome. Now that the White Sox are back playing in AL parks, Thome has returned to the lineup. He is by no means the masher he was in Cleveland or Philly, but the guy is still a productive hitter (.402 OBP, 13 HR, 42 RBI) and a tremendous leader in the clubhouse. It took me a while, but I’ve fully embraced him as a true Good Guy and he is another one of our battle-tested veterans who heats up with the weather.
37 – Time to address the elephant in the room: defense. This is the White Sox biggest weakness. Currently, there are only five teams in baseball with more fielding errors than the White Sox. And no one has had worse defense at the hot corner than Chicago (17 errors, .922 fielding percentage). With Joe Crede gone and the combo of Josh Fields-Gordon Beckham over there, that is to be expected. But on the bright side, this has no place to go but up. And considering that Gordon Beckham has only been playing third base for about a month, his struggles were anticipated. Most seem to think that he is a good enough athlete to become very good defensively at third. As the season goes along, I think we’ll see his production in the field improve.
38 – Another area on defense where the White Sox have struggled is at shortstop, where Alexei Ramirez recently drew the ire of Ozzie Guillen for lackluster and unfocused play. I definitely see this improving. Alexei has all of the tools to be not just a good shortstop, but a great one. And there is no way Ozzie will allow that position to be a consistent weakness.
39 – Getting back to pitching because I forgot someone: Clayton Richard. On the season he is 3-1 with a 4.48 ERA in 22 games (10 starts). Immediately after stepping into the rotation when Bartolo Colon went on the DL, Clayton strung together three straight excellent starts. I then picked him up on my fantasy team and he hasn’t thrown a quality start since. White Sox fans will be happy to know that I’ve dropped him again, which means that he will likely turn things back around. All kidding aside, Richard is nothing more than a 5th starter right now, but he is adequate. And when Colon comes back to the rotation (if he even does), he gives the White Sox a veteran presence who is still capable of putting up halfway decent numbers. The point is that while the White Sox don’t have a world beater in the 5th slot of the rotation, the guys they are throwing out there aren’t horrible. And with the offense picking things up, we can win with Richard or Colon on the bump. And who knows, maybe Poreda steps in there at some point and provides Porcello-like production. Either way, this slot will not keep up from winning the Central.
40 – And finally, reason #40 why the White Sox can, should, and I think will win the AL Central: the return of Carlos Quentin. Am I putting a lot on his shoulders? Yes. Is there a chance he comes back and gets injured again? Yes. But is his presence in the lineup necessary for this team long-term in 2009? I believe it absolutely is. The White Sox are proving they can without TCQ, but when you get one of the best players in the AL back after an extended absence it cannot be anything but a boon to your chances. And Carlos will have the entire second half of the season to get his timing back. Perhaps this year will be a reverse of last year in that Quentin will save his best for September in 2009. We missed him in September last year, but still found a way to claw our way to a playoff berth. With Quentin in September this year, I think the White Sox have a good chance of heading into the playoffs with momentum and their best all-around player hitting on all cylinders.
Say what you will about the 40 reasons listed above, but one thing is certain: those who stuck a fork in the White Sox a few weeks back did so prematurely. For some reason, people always seem to underestimate the managerial and leadership ability of Ozzie Guillen and the heart, character, and talent in the White Sox clubhouse. The good thing is that the only people who matter (Kenny, Ozzie, and the team) never doubted. Over the last three weeks we have seen why, and White Sox fans have every reason to believe that a return trip to the playoffs is not only possible but, at least in my opinion, very probable.
So sit back, relax, and strap it down, and let’s all enjoy what should be a great three-team race for the 2009 AL Central crown…one that will be made all the more exciting when the White Sox end up repeating as champions.
* – Scott Podsednik photo credit: MouthPieceSports.com