At the end of the season, the White Sox dragged their feet (and their fans through burning coals) before clinching the AL Central title in what turned out to be a surprisingly mediocre division.
Sure, they bounced back from an atrocious 2007 season, but more often than not, their age, lack of speed, reliance on the long ball, and inability to hold leads exposed serious flaws to a team that eventually was bounced from the playoffs after a weak series against the World-Series-bound Tampa Bay Rays.
At the start of the 2008 season, Kenny Williams had built his White Sox into a favorable predicament: abundance of talent. Where once he was the odd man out in acquiring outfield help, he was able to make a move to bring in a center fielder (acquiring Nick Swisher and Carlos Quentin), and signed Alexei Ramirez, the young Cuban defector who could seemingly play anywhere on the diamond.
Though the center fielder question remains open now that Swisher is no longer with the team, it’s not hanging over the team’s head as it did for the past two years. The White Sox do need to decide what to do about center field, but this time around, they have to address other, more immediate concerns.
Williams had acquired Orlando Cabrera and had signed Swisher in hopes of bolstering the team’s presence on the base paths, and though the White Sox posted a .332 team OBP in 2008 (good for ninth), it wasn’t a huge improvement over 2007′s .318 effort (which was good for dead last in the AL).
In addition to OBP, speed and run production are of essence. The Rays ran over the ChiSox in the ALDS, and there wasn’t a better indicator of how much the White Sox relied on home runs than their last three elimination games before the playoffs. For the record, the Pale hose scored 678 runs, good for a below-the-median eighth place.
There’s been speculation that Williams will target speedy, leadoff types like Willy Taveras, Chone Figgins, Orlando Hudson, or Juan Pierre, but as an astute fan pointed out to White Sox beat writer Scott Merkin, all they have to do is give perennial-rookie Jerry Owens a fair shot in 2009.
With Owens, Williams would kill three birds with one stone: center field, speed at the top of the lineup, and affordability. If anything, I would argue that Owens’ low price tag is reason enough to give him a shot and not splurge on free agents that may or may not give you the same kind of production as in-house talent would. The downside to Owens is the fact that he did get significant playing time in 2007 (356 ABs) and posted a very vanilla .324 OBP with 32 stolen bases in 40 attempts.
Now, Ken Rosenthal has suggested that the Swisher deal might be a prelude to bigger things, and with Williams’ track record, it wouldn’t surprise me if he did make another big trade or went after a coveted free agent.
As far as the infield goes, shortstop Orlando Cabrera won’t return, and Joe Crede’s back has demonstrated that it will not cooperate, and won’t allow the All-Star corner infielder to play one full season without flaring up. Williams acquired Wilson Betemit in the Swisher trade, and the young infielder will compete for the second base job. The White Sox also have the “inside track” on signing another Cuban talent, Dayan Viciedo, a 19-year-old third baseman that’s been generating a lot of buzz – something that may actually hurt the Sox chances if a bidding war erupts. What’s more, the kid is too young and inexperienced to make the parent club in ’09.
With Crede (most probably) leaving via free agency, it looks like it’ll be Josh Fields’ job to lose at the hot corner, and in that scenario, the White Sox would be looking at an infield of Fields-Ramirez-Betemit-Paul Konerko. Somehow, it just doesn’t look like an infield of Williams’ design without another veteran in the mix, so Rosenthal might prove a little prophetic here.
And then there are the starters. Javier Vazquez has finally proven (was this ever a question?) that he can’t pitch in big-game situations, so the Sox may trade him (to the Mets, maybe?); Jose Contreras is coming off Achilles heel surgery, and given his (presumed) age of 37, it’ll be tough for the big right-hander to pitch effectively all year. The White Sox did get a very average starting prospect in Jeff Marquez in the Swisher deal, but again, I highly doubt Williams’ confidence in pitching coach Don Cooper is such that he’ll hold off adding more arms to the rotation.
Though Williams said he’d be stingy this offseason, we’ve already seen a big trade, and like Rosenthal suggests, it just doesn’t sit right without another move further down the road, which makes me think the age factor is still in play. Williams was open to trading Jermaine Dye before the Swisher deal, and considering that along with Dye, two of the four major run producers for the Sox will be over 34 in ’09 (Jim Thome’s 38), it may still be an option to move one of them. With the free agency departures and the Swisher deal, the White Sox are definitely getting faster and younger –almost too young.