South Siders need rotation to deliver
MESA, Ariz. -- White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper missed part of batting practice Sunday against the Cubs, but manager Ozzie Guillen appeared unfazed by his absence.
"The way our staff has been throwing, we're better off without him," cracked Guillen, in reference to the Sox' 7.53 ERA after five Cactus League games.
And you think Guillen is lying when he talks about flunking sensitivity training?
Actually, Guillen just finished taking those classes mandated by Major League Baseball as penance for his slurring Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti, but his sensitivity trainer told him he's more incorrigible now than when the sessions began. Guillen provided confirmation last week when former Sox pitcher Brandon McCarthy made some innocuous comments about feeling more comfortable in the Texas clubhouse this year and Ozzie went all Sean Hannity on him.
Although Guillen's candor, humor and inability to self-censor can be endearing at times, White Sox fans might contend that his charm went a lot further when the staff ERA was a full point lower.
Offense wasn't a problem for the 2006 Sox, who scored 868 runs, compared with 741 for the championship club. Pitching was another story. The team ERA spiked from 3.61 to 4.61, and the Chicago staff allowed more homers (200 compared with 167) and a higher batting average (.271 versus .249) than in the previous season.
It's likely the Chicago staff paid for its valiant performance in 2005, when the starters led the majors in innings pitched and showed the fortitude of Iditarod racers in the postseason. The White Sox made the playoffs on the strength of a 35-19 record in one-run games, and they swept Houston in the World Series despite outscoring the Astros by only six runs.
"Those guys will never admit it because they're all gamers, but we just asked so much of them the year we won,'" Chicago first baseman Paul Konerko said. "We didn't give them too many 8-1 ballgames. And when you throw that many innings with that kind of intensity, there's definitely a little fatigue. I think it took its toll."
Jose Contreras, 9-0 with a 3.38 ERA at the All-Star break last season, went 4-9 and 5.40 afterward while dealing with back and hamstring problems, and Mark Buehrle was catching way too much of the plate for a guy with a reputation as a master painter. "If his stuff and command regress any further, he'll be less than a mid-rotation starter," one AL scout wrote in his report on Buehrle last fall.
So what's a general manager to do? Chicago's Kenny Williams, never hesitant to seize the initiative, consummated two noteworthy trades. First, he sent 17-game winner Freddy Garcia to Philadelphia for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. Two weeks later, he traded McCarthy to Texas for prospects John Danks and Nick Masset.
Notwithstanding the outcry in Chicago, the moves make sense on a certain level. Garcia is eligible for free agency in November, and his rate of strikeouts per nine innings has declined from 7.89 to 5.62 since 2004. And though McCarthy might develop into a top-of-the-rotation guy, his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio did not bode well for success at U.S. Cellular Field (or Texas, for that matter).
Economics, naturally, were also a factor. When Gil Meche, Ted Lilly and Jeff Suppan signed deals for $10 million or more annually, Williams suddenly envisioned Garcia, Buehrle, Jon Garland, Javier Vazquez and Contreras all hitting the open market between now and 2009. He was intent on stockpiling some young arms and, in his words, not being "held hostage" to exorbitant free-agent prices.
Good for long-term planning. Not so good for public relations.
"I've been raked through the coals," Williams said. "This has not played very well in Chicago."
Then again, Williams sensed a potential backlash when he outlined his plan to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf in the fall.
"Like I told Jerry, 'We're going to take some bullets. But we're going to take them from November to April,'" Williams said. "Once we take the field and people start to see what we have, there'll be a realization: 'That's why they did what they did.'"
Meanwhile, the White Sox are offering up a buffet of story lines this spring. They have veterans looking to reassert themselves and prospects out to prove they belong. They have hard throwers galore in the bullpen, and a guy trying to make a positive impression at 65 mph.
One of the most compelling story lines of the spring involves the fifth spot in the rotation, where Floyd, Danks and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger are holding a spirited competition.
Floyd, once regarded as Philadelphia's top prospect, has developed a reputation as overly analytical and lacking in self-confidence.
"He's almost too nice a kid," one National League scout said. "You wish he had a little bit of a mean streak."
The Phillies also were concerned that Floyd had developed a nagging habit of drifting back in his delivery and becoming too deliberate and almost robotic. He lost some zip on his fastball and bite on his curve as a result.
Upon arrival in Arizona, Guillen advised Floyd to clear his mind of all that clutter.
"I told him, 'When you think, you don't have confidence. So grab the ball and throw it in the middle of the plate and wish for the best,'" Guillen said. "That's my philosophy. Attack the strike zone and don't worry about the rest."
Haeger's biggest challenge is harnessing his knuckleball, which also has a mind of its own. Last season, the White Sox brought in Charlie Hough for a tutorial, and the lessons apparently stuck. Haeger went 14-6 with a 3.07 ERA for Triple-A Charlotte, and now the Sox are giving some thought to carrying him as a long reliever if he fails to crack the rotation. Unless Williams springs a trade for Doug Mirabelli, it'll be up to A.J. Pierzynski and Toby Hall to catch the dreaded thing.
Danks, Texas' first-round pick in 2003, has the highest upside of any of the kids. He has 439 strikeouts in 426 minor league innings, and he's spent the past season cultivating a changeup to complement his low-90s fastball and tight curve.
Although the Chicago brass wouldn't mind sending Danks to the minors for further refinement, he is anxious to speed up the timetable.
"I've been champing at the bit for some time," Danks said. "Since I'm a younger guy, they're going to be slow with me. But if I can come here this spring and put it in their minds that I'm capable of getting big league hitters out, I don't think they'll shy away from having me up there."
Ultimately, the White Sox will go as far as the big boys carry them. Garland came on strong after the All-Star break, and Buehrle seems rejuvenated in the Cactus League. The most gratifying moment of his start against Milwaukee on Monday came when Brewers infielder Tony Graffanino, bat in hand, turned to Pierzynski and asked, "Is Buehrle throwing harder this spring?"
Buehrle's stuff is nothing compared to the hell Chicago's opponents will encounter in the late innings. Bobby Jenks (6-foot-3, 280 pounds), Andrew Sisco (6-10, 270), Matt Thornton (6-6, 235), David Aardsma (6-4, 205), Mike MacDougal (6-3, 185) and Masset (6-4, 235) are likely to make up the White Sox bullpen. They run the gamut in velocity from 90-plus to "Oh my gosh, that sure sounded fast."
As a bonus, the White Sox relievers should do a great job of dominating the offensive boards.
"I think the idea was to just round up some guys who have really above-average arms and try to harness that," Konerko said. "We definitely have some guys who throw hard. And they're all big, so if we get into a fight, we'll be OK."
Guillen's banter notwithstanding, the White Sox have immense faith in Cooper's ability to get the most out of the talent on the staff. Cooper tapped Jenks and Thornton's potential in a hurry and coaxed a 21-win season out of Esteban Loaiza in 2003, so he has a track record for doing the Mr. Fix-It thing.
Given the small margin of error at U.S. Cellular Field, the White Sox like the idea of having hard throwers who challenge hitters. But most of their relievers have suffered from the wandering-strike-zone syndrome at various stages of their careers, so watching from the dugout won't always be pleasant.
"Ozzie is going to need some Maalox," a scout in Arizona said.
And if things don't work out, he can always augment that sensitivity training with anger management.