After the sting of yet another failed postseason here in Chicago, it's timer to take a look at the 2008 editions of both the Cubs and the White Sox and a look ahead to what may lie in the future of the two franchises. First up in the cross hairs are the White Sox.
Before the season, unless your name was Kenny Williams, you would have picked the White Sox to finish 3rd, at best in the AL Central. All the experts were picking the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers as the eventual champs, especially after the Tigers swung a deal during the offseason to pickup 3B Miquel Cabrera and P Dontrelle Willis. Cleveland was coming off a division title and an almost World Series berth in 2007. But the Tigers started slow and really never got it into gear to try and make it back into the picture, while the only two people who showed up to play in 2008 for the Indians was CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, who was banished to AAA during his awful 2007 season. But Sabathia was traded in July and Lee never got support from anyone else on the pitching staff and the Indians were never in it. Meanwhile, the White Sox out homered every team in baseball on their way to winning their 2nd division title in 4 years and while it wasn't the runaway success that 2005 was, it was still a season for them to be proud of. Most of them.
One of the things that Williams is known for around baseball is not sitting on his hands. Williams is not afraid to tinker with his team and move pieces that were once thought to be too valuable to too indispensable to move. Before the 2005 season, the White Sox moved slugger Carlos Lee, one of their top hitters on the team to the Milwaukee Brewers for Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino. And this was during the same offseason where Williams blasted Scott Boras and his client, the White Sox best hitter at the time, Magglio Ordonez, for going to Sweden or Denmark or wherever to get an experimental knee surgery that the White Sox never approved of. They got Jermaine Dye, who was coming off 3 very bland years in Oakland, to replace Ordonez and the White Sox were on their way to winning the 2005 World Series.
After 2007, Williams showed he wasn't afraid to trade away a key piece of the puzzle to upgrade a position that was seriously in need of one. Williams sent starter Jon Garland to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Orlando Cabrera and helping move Juan Uribe, who he had resigned just a few days earlier, to the bench where he deserved. The White Sox also picked up Carlos Quentin from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who was coming off a shoulder injury and Nick Swisher from the Oakland A's, who has always been a high on-base guy, but never the hitter Billy Beane envisioned when he was drafted. Together, with the holdovers from 2007, allowed Kenny Williams to comment, when asked about the moves for Cabrera and Willis by the Tigers, "All this has done is put the Tigers in a better position to contend with us." He was laughed at amongst the baseball world for his brashness at the time. He ended up being wrong, but not the way the rest of the baseball world thought, since the Tigers were never able to contend with the White Sox.
But for the White Sox, the first round was as far as they would make it in the 2008 playoffs, losing 3 games to 1 to the young, running and possibly World Series bound Tamp Bay Rays. The White Sox showed that while hitting homers during the regular season is great, when you go into the playoffs without your team MVP, you better get shutdown pitching to lead you down the stretch. Unfortunately for the White Sox, they came up well short in that area. As we look to 2009, pitching along with a couple of other places are where the White Sox clearly need to improve to make another run at the playoffs for 2009 and further.
First thing up for the White Sox is to solve their revolving door in center.Over the course of the season, the White Sox used Jerry Owens, Dewayne Wise, Brian Anderson, Nick Swisher and Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey will most likely not be back for the 2009 season unless he takes a discount(his contract calls for a 16 million option in 2009, with a 4 million buyout) to come back and play with the White Sox or Williams is out of his gourd. Griffey is too old to be playing a meaningful CF these days, not to mention the poor hitting his experienced while playing his home games in August and September in a hitters park. In 74 ABs in US Cellular field, he hit 1 homer. Thats the same number he hit in 20 ABs in Petco Park, an extreme pitcher's park. So Griffey should not be back unless he's playing DH, occasionally. But, therein lies the problem for the White Sox. They are a team full of 1B/DH and only should be playing 2 at a time. Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, Swisher and Griffey are all players that should only be seeing playing time there. Thome exclusively to DH and Griffey probably as well. But you can't keep 4 guys on the roster for just those two spots, can you? Konerko, Thome and Swish are all coming off down years. Thome will be a free agent after 2009 as his option was picked up automatically towards the end of the season for reaching 1,100 PA over 2007 and 2008 combined. So, you might be able to move him if you were to eat a significant portion of the money that is owed, but who is going want a 38 year-old DH? Konerko became a 10 and 5 guy (10 years in baseball, 5 with the same club) early this season, which gives him an automatic no-trade clause. On top of that, he's owed 24 million over the next 2 years and makes it highly unlikely anyone would want him, even if they could get him to waive his no-trade clause. That leaves Swisher as trade bait unless they want him to play CF again next year. Swisher is on the cheap for the next 3 years and has an option on his contract for 2012. But Swish still has not been able to hit for average and while he gets on-base at a high rate, there are plenty of GMs in baseball that will see that Billy Beane traded him away, despite the high OBP and take that as a sign of bad things. Solving CF needs to be high on the priority list for 2009 and the option cannot come internally. What's out there? FA wise, not much. Rocco Baldelli from the Rays is a FA, but his days might best be served as a DH or on the DL, like has been the past few years. Other than that, no one really sticks out. On the trade market Reed Johnson from the Cubs is arbitration eligible, but might the Cubs opening day CF next season, the Pirates may be looking to move Nate McLouth but would be wanting pitching, something the White Sox don't have an abundance of. Coco Crisp of the Boston Red Sox always seems to be available and will probably be again this offseason. He might be the best bet for the White Sox, but can Williams and Theo Epstein matchup on other pieces?
The White Sox finished up 2008 with Uribe playing 3B which says a lot about the White Sox faith in Josh Fields. Fields was part of the blockbuster trade that almost happened with the Florida Marlins a year ago for Miquel Cabrera, but for whatever reason, didn't work out. Was it Williams' lack of interest including Fields that doomed it? If it was, I bet Williams would like to take a time machine back and get that deal done now. Fields has shown an ability to strike out a lot, while hitting a few homers, but not being able to draw walks. And his ability at 3B is far below incumbent Joe Crede. But Crede will not be back with the White Sox for 2009 and hopefully neither will Juan Uribe. Will the White Sox hand over the job to Fields and hope he learns how many balls it takes to walk to first? A very lackluster 3B FA class leaves the White Sox with either taking Fields or looking to make a deal.
When the White Sox acquired Orlando Cabrera from the Angels, they probably envisioned him re-signing with the club and being the stable SS the White Sox have been looking for since Ozzie Guillen was there everyday. But after numerous run-ins with Ozzie, the broadcast booth and everyone else near the Cell, O-Cab punched his ticket out of town long before throwing his teammates under the bus in Minnesota during the last week of the season. The White Sox could be ok for next season with moving Alexi Ramirez to SS, but then that leaves a hole at 2B. Not a permanent hole, as they hope that #1 draft pick Gordon Beckham will be there shortly. But with no current answer in the system, could the White Sox be looking at making a trade for someone who only has a couple of years left on their deal? Or might they reach out to former 2B Ray Durham for a 2-year deal till Beckham is ready?
Most of the pieces from the bullpen are in place for next season, barring them trading Bobby Jenks for a different need. Would they move Jenks to help get a CF and then use Octavio Dotel or Scott Linebrink to close instead? The bullpen was good last year and maybe a little tinkering here and there would shore it up that much more. Will the White Sox revisit trade talks with the Oakland A's for closer Houston Street?
After trading Garland, most people were wondering exactly who was going to step up and take over the 4th and 5th spot this season for the White Sox. Both Gavin Floyd and John Danks had lackluster seasons in 2007 but stepped up in 2008 and provided stability to the staff. But what about 2009? Jose Contreras is coming off an Achilles injury, one that might keep him sidelined until the middle of 2009. 2009 is the last season of his contract, but its $10 million and will be impossible to move. Javier Vasquez has shown, again that he can't pitch in big games and this time, admitted that he doesn't care that he doesn't. But he's owed 23 million over the next 2 seasons. which will make it hard to move him.
I think the obvious places for the White Sox to improve is center field and second base. Moving Ramirez is probably a smart move with his arm and with Beckham in the minors. Picking up someone like Durham for a couple of seasons will keep second warm, waiting for his arrival and not committing too much in payroll. In CF, making a move for Crisp probably makes the most sense, especially if you can get rid of Swisher in the deal also. It would be an even payroll swap for the most part and give you a true CF playing out there. And whatever you do, do not pick up Griffey's option.