Falling apart after hot start, White Sox shake up scuffling roster
As the White Sox jumped out to an AL-best 23–10 record to start the season, Mat Latos was a big part of their early success, winning his first four decisions and allowing just two runs. Since then, regression has taken both the 28-year-old righty and the Sox as a team down several pegs. On Thursday, the day after James Shields's rough debut with the Pale Hose, Chicago designated Latos for assignment, and on Friday, the Sox did the same with veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins, recalling prospect Tim Anderson to take his place. Things have turned south for the South Siders to such an extent that manager Robin Ventura's job security is even in question.
Latos didn't make it out of the fifth inning on Tuesday against the Nationals, yielding five hits, walking four and allowing six runs. Since posting an 0.74 ERA through his first four turns, he's been lit up for a 7.25 ERA over his last seven, only one of which was a quality start. While his overall 4.62 ERA isn't blindingly awful, his strikeout, walk and homer rates (4.8, 3.7 and 1.5 per nine, respectively) strongly suggest even that isn't sustainable; his 5.51 FIP is the league's fifth-worst among qualified starters. For Latos, a former frontline starter with the Padres and Reds, this is the fifth team he's departed in the last 18 months, starting with his trade out of Cincinnati in December 2014; he’s had short stays with the Marlins (16 starts), Dodgers (six games), Angels (two games) and now White Sox (11 games) since.
Latos's slide is just the White Sox' season writ small. In the month since they reached that 23-10 zenith—giving them a six-game lead in the AL Central—they've gone an MLB-worst 7–20 (.259), worse than even the lowly Braves (10–19, .345) and Reds (8–19, .296). Even Chicago's .359 Pythagorean winning percentage is bringing up the rear in that span. Thursday's win over the Nationals brought the Sox back to .500 at 30–30, but at 3 1/2 games out of first place, they’ve endured a 9 1/2-game swing in the past month.
Latos is the second member of the Sox' season-opening rotation to hit the pavement; John Danks was designated for assignment and then released after four starts and a 7.25 ERA, with the team eating the remainder of his $15.75 million salary. Outside of Chris Sale and Jose Quintana (2.54 and 2.58 ERAs, respectively, with nine out of 12 quality starts apiece), the rest of the rotation has been cuffed for a 5.07 ERA and 1.7 homers per nine, with a 36% quality start rate. Miguel Gonzalez (3.57 ERA in seven starts) is the only other starter preventing runs at a better-than-average clip, and Carlos Rodon (4.41 ERA, 89 ERA+) continues to scuffle. Shields—acquired for pitcher Erik Johnson and infielder Fernando Tatis Jr. last Saturday—lasted just two innings on Wednesday, serving up three homers and seven runs in his debut against the Nationals. That game that got so out of hand that outfielder J.B. Shuck pitched an inning in relief; he reached 91 mph on the radar gun and even got Bryce Harper to ground out. Maybe he should start!
Thanks to the strong work of Sale and Quintana, the Sox are nonetheless allowing a league-low 4.02 runs per game, but they're also scoring at the same level, which is tied for 12th, and they're just 6–6 in Quintana's starts because they're supporting him with a meager 2.9 runs per game. Aside from Todd Frazier (121 OPS+ via a lopsided .213/.311/.493 with 19 homers), Melky Cabrera (116 OPS+) and Adam Eaton (111 OPS+), nobody else in the lineup is providing league-average production. Brett Lawrie (99 OPS+) and Jose Abreu (97 OPS+) are within hailing distance, though much more was expected of both. Abreu, who hit a combined .303/.364/.540 for a 153 OPS+ and 66 homers in 2014–15, is batting a meager .252/.310/.397 with seven homers, though at least he has shown signs of breaking out of a prolonged slump via a 9-for-20 five-game stretch this week.
Elsewhere in the lineup, sinkholes abound. Designated hitter Avisail Garcia (91 OPS+), centerfielder Austin Jackson (86 OPS+) and catchers Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila (65 and 72 OPS+, respectively) are all doing more harm than good at the plate. But for the moment, the remedy is the replacement of the 37-year-old Rollins, who has now lost two starting jobs in four months worth of baseball; with the Dodgers, he yielded to phenom Corey Seager late last season. The former MVP has hit .221/.295/.329 for a 75 OPS+ in 166 plate appearances and has been right at replacement level for three of the past four seasons. Via Defensive Runs Saved, he’s been 21 runs below average in the field over that span. All of that is to say that he appears to be done, at least as a regular.
Hence Chicago's move to recall Anderson, a 2013 first-round pick out of a Mississippi community college who turns 23 on June 23. Anderson came into the year ranked 19th on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 Prospects list and in the 45–50 range for Baseball America, ESPN and MLB.com. Last season at Double A Birmingham, he hit .312/.350/.429 with 12 triples and 49 steals in 62 attempts. This year at Triple A Charlotte, he's overcome a slow start to hit .304/.325/.409 with four homers and 11 steals.
Scouting-wise, while Anderson has plus-plus speed and a plus hit tool, he's got gap power at best, but the bigger concern coming into this season was his aggressive approach, and his 58/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 256 plate appearances has done little to allay those concerns. Particularly vulnerable to breaking balls on the outer half of the plate, he needs to improve if he's going to take full advantage of that speed as a leadoff hitter instead of bottom-of-the-lineup one. Defensively, he has the athleticism and arm strength for the position, though his hands and footwork have drawn concerns.
The Sox have obviously concluded that the positives outweigh those concerns, with general manager Rick Hahn telling reporters on Tuesday, "So far (Anderson) has done his part to force up that time frame. Ultimately, when Tim arrives in Chicago it will be because we feel he’s ready to help make us better, not because of anything that is going on in this clubhouse…. A month ago, I was asked about by national reporter if there was concern about Tim Anderson. And now rightfully so people are asking if he’s ready. Shows how quickly things can turn and when guys can push the time frame it comes quickly."
Anderson isn’t the only new addition. On Thursday, Chicago signed Justin Morneau to a $1 million deal, though the 35-year-old former All-Star is working his way back from December surgery on his left elbow, the latest in a long litany of injuries that have eroded the play of the 2006 AL MVP. He may not be ready until after the All-Star break, but at that price, he's worth the flyer. Morneau won the NL batting title in 2014, when he hit .319/.364/.496 for the Rockies, and he hit .310/.363/.458 for a 107 OPS+ in 49 games last year. The plan is for him to serve as the DH against righties, against whom he hit .331/.382/.516 with 17 homers in 553 plate appearances in his two seasons in Colorado. While U.S. Cellular Field is not Coors Field, it is a hitters’ haven that's friendly to lefty power.
As for Ventura, general manager Rick Hahn was noncommittal about the manager, who hasn't finished above .500 since 2012, his first year on the job, when the Sox went 85–77. They're 62 games below .500 since, though the team's winning percentage has improved in each of the past three seasons. Hahn told reporters on Thursday, "I don't think you've ever seen me telegraph any move or comment on any individual … in uniform. When things are going tough, the best thing you can do is rally around the guys you have, do everything in your power to put them in the best position to win, and that's all you're going to hear from me in terms of anyone in uniform."
Whatever happens to Ventura, it isn't likely to be an immediate reaction to tough times, however. Just over a week ago, when the slide reached 15 losses in 19 games, Hahn said, "When things aren’t going well … that’s when you have to guard yourself against doing something strictly emotional or reactionary that’s going to cause perhaps more long-term damage than any short-term benefit."
With four teams clustered within 3 1/2 games, the AL Central is still anybody’s race, and with the Shields, Latos and Rollins/Anderson moves, Hahn has addressed some of the team’s biggest concerns. We’ll see if it’s enough to right the ship.