[from The Sports Cartel / March 29, 2008]
It’s fitting that the final roster decision for Opening Day 2008 came down to choosing between unorthodox reliever Ehren Wassermann and Nick Masset, another of the supposed “live arms” left over from the stockpile of bust prospects acquired to no avail between October 2006 and July 2007. Fitting superficially because the Sox actually need as much help in the bullpen as they can get, but also fitting symbolically because for all intents and purposes these Sox are right back where they started in 2006, minus the triumphant homecoming, massive yet justified expectations and whispers of “best starting rotation ever.”
For the offseason in a nutshell, look no further than shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who almost perfectly fits the mold of what Ozzie Guillen is always talking about in an ideal player: speedy, plays excellent defense, and gets on base at a decent clip. It’s very reassuring in that light, as though Guillen and GM Kenny Williams are getting back to the fundamental style of baseball that built. . . well, you know which team. But then you realize Cabrera was acquired in exchange for a solid mid-rotation pitcher after the Sox re-signed the same Juan Uribe they didn’t want before they offered him the new deal and couldn’t get rid of once they’d acquired his replacement.
Meanwhile, the outfield prospect with all the upside in the world is only slightly less hurt than he was when the Good Guys traded for him. The guy who was supposed to at least partially solve the leadoff problem is also out, as is the second baseman of the future. The one-time Silver Slugger third baseman has lost a few steps, and enters the season staving off an ankle injury to complement the back surgery he’s not quite recovered from, but his status as possible trade bait keeps his outstanding successor in the minors for the time being.
Still, there’s the outside chance that one of the few legitimate prospects the Sox have left comes up and shines at the major league level, but that help better come in the form of either Lance Broadway or Heath Phillips, as the much-hyped Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Sweeney are both long gone in favor of (drum roll please) Nick Swisher.
Oh yes, Nick Swisher.
Ask Sox fans what they think of Swisher and after a while you too may believe that he will become the first outfielder in major league history to hit three home runs and throw a perfect game in the same World Series clincher. To many, Swisher represents the logical extension of all the greatness Ditka and Michael only hinted at in their respective lordings over Chicago sports.
Of course he’ll hit .350. Of course he’ll hit 50 home runs. Of course he’ll play Gold Glove defense. Hell, he may even lead the Bears to the Super Bowl this winter after the Swisher vs. Japan exhibition series is over.
The problem here is that Swisher, for all the good that comes with him, has never proven to be anything more than an okay ballplayer. His strongest defensive position is first base. At the plate, he’s a .260 hitter capable of a lot of home runs, a solid on-base percentage and a huge number of strikeouts to go with it. In a vacuum this is not so bad; where this model of the Sox is concerned, this is awful considering they already have two players of this exact mold in Paul Konerko and Jim Thome (three if you count DH-in-waiting Josh Fields). It’s true that Swisher hit .500 as a visitor at Sox Park last year but in all fairness, so did everyone else.
The temptation here is to say the Sox at least have a chance, as this formula helped the 2003 and 2004 teams pound weak-pitching teams into submission until injuries brought them back from the brink of contention. However, that line of thinking erroneously assumes that the 2003 team was good (it wasn’t) and that the 2008 team has at least three good starting pitchers like the 2004 team eventually had (which it doesn’t).
And that’s where things get a little dicey. While the offense should improve substantially, it’s quite possible the starting pitching takes a huge step back. Mark Buehrle, reliable ace that he is, can probably be counted on for another 13-17 win, mid- to upper-3’s ERA, 100-120 K season, but then what? History suggests the team’s performance will have a total inverse relationship to that of Javier Vazquez. John Danks may improve with another season under his belt, but Gavin Floyd is still a 1.64 WHIP pitcher. And what of elder statespitcher Jose Contreras, he of the 17 losses and bell curve career arc? Can he regain his stellar 2005 form? Or even his so-so 2004 form? Every fan wants to see redemption for team icons, and as one of only five White Sox pitchers to start a World Series for the Good Guys, it’d be a shame to see Contreras go out on life support rather than down in flames.
And here we return to that twelfth bullpen slot. Because we all remember Ryan Bukvich, Bret Prinz, Dewon Day, and the rest of the Souper Six-Pack. Because there was that one nationally televised game in Boston. Because the sixth inning was usually the end of the game, and never in a good way. Because five runs was never enough of a lead. So after the perpetual heart attack of last year’s relief corps, Williams brought in help in the form of Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink. Sort of.
On one hand, Octavio Dotel was once a great reliever (including contributing to the Astros’ fantastic no-hitter by committee against the Yankees) and Scott Linebrink was a giant even among the top-flight relief arms of the NL West. On the other, Dotel has been hurt the past few years and Linebrink started on a very rapidly-escalating downward spiral last year in Milwaukee. These two, upon which so much of this team’s fate may hinge, might not be the pitchers they once were or that we hope them to be.
Then again, they can’t possibly be any worse than last year. . . which may be about all we as fans have left to hold on to. All but one of the fast guys are either hurt or can’t play their way into a starting job. The guys who actually can hit are all essentially clones of one another. The DH used to be a great third baseman. The next generation of third baseman is stuck behind the awkward contract/injury situation of his predecessor. The left fielder should be playing center; the guy in center should be playing first; the first baseman should be the DH. Their best fielder could have prevented a lot of this from happening had he hit not also been their worst hitter for most of 2006. Hurt, slow, and just slightly off-kilter; nothing’s ever easy with this team, is it?
I hate to say it, but everyone out there bracing for another ride to the top is going to be sorely disappointed. Hats off to Kenny Williams for at least doing something about the sorry state of the team, but the sad truth is that the pieces just aren’t there and the Indians and Tigers are still light-years ahead of the Sox coming out of the gate. And yet, in light of the horror of last year, it’s entirely possible that rooting for a third place team will never feel as good as it will this year.