Three Strikes: Aggressive White Sox are offseason's biggest surprise
The Chicago White Sox have no natural rival. They play in the last ballpark that missed out on the retro-style construction boom. Their colors are black and white. Their old school nickname is “the Pale Hose.” (That’s right: colorless hosiery.) They are baseball’s wallpaper: always there, but hardly noticed, often in their own town.
The White Sox brand is about … what, exactly? A 73-year-old announcer, Hawk Harrelson? A 54-year-old exploding scoreboard? Dig a little deeper, and this helps sum up the elusiveness of the brand, especially recently:
• They alternated winning and losing season for seven straight years – until they put together a second straight losing season in 2014.
• They lost 188 games in 2013-14, the most in any two-year span for the franchise since 1970-71.
• Their attendance has dropped nine consecutive years, falling to its lowest level since 1999. (Curiously, their regional TV viewership went up.)
• In 114 seasons they never have made the playoffs in back-to-back years.
• Since 1970 they have played 7,176 games, including the postseason, and have almost exactly broken even (3,586-3,590).
• Their outfield turns over so often with mostly anonymous players that their all-time leader in games played in centerfield is Fielder Jones, who last played for the White Sox in 1908.
Last year’s version of the Sox was typically forgettable. They lost 89 games, finished eighth in runs scored, 13th in runs allowed and 13th in attendance. So while the crosstown Cubs made the biggest signing of the winter meetings, reeling in ace lefty Jon Lester with a six-year, $155 million contract, the Dodgers stole headlines by making one major move after another and the A's proved tougher to read than Pynchon, it seems out of character that one of the most surprising, attention-getting teams of the early portion of the off-season are your Chicago White Sox. Well, somebody’s Chicago White Sox, anyway.
The White Sox had four major needs heading into the offseason: find lefthanded power, a lefthanded reliever, a closer and a frontline starting pitcher. General manager Rick Hahn has checked all four boxes already, getting free agents Adam LaRoche (DH), Zach Duke (lefthanded relief) and David Robertson (closer) and trading for righthander Jeff Samardzija (number two starter behind Chris Sale). Moreover, prospect Carlos Rodon, the number three pick of last year's draft, could be ready to step in behind Sale, Samardzija, Jose Quintana and John Danks in what has the makings of a good rotation.
Does it add up to a playoff team? No, not quite yet. The White Sox need to improve by 15 games to get into wild card territory – 88 wins. But the American League Central looks like even more of a toss-up than it’s been for the past three years. Yes, Detroit is still the team to beat and has won four division titles in a row, but in each of the past two years Detroit, Kansas City and Cleveland have finished within seven games of one another. The White Sox at least have the potential to crash that company.
Chicago still has questions at catcher, where powerful Tyler Flowers is capable of improvement; at second base, where rookies Michah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez will compete; in rightfield, where Avisail Garcia needs to stay healthy enough to have his first big league season with 250 at-bats; and in leftfield, where Dayan Viciedo, despite showing occasional thump, is below average at bat and in the field. The good news for the Sox is that all of those players are still in their 20s and yet to reach their ceilings. Even if the White Sox aren’t a sure playoff team just yet, this early in the winter Hahn and president Ken Williams have succeeded in at least making them interesting.
2. Record revenues latest sign of baseball's success
The noise generated by the White Sox and Cubs this winter may signal even better days ahead for a sport that is flourishing by most metrics. Commissioner Bud Selig is retiring from the job next month with an impressive report card on revenues to show the owners. Based on an MLB report issued this week, he is leaving a business with $9 billion in revenues. Revenues were $1.4 billion back in 1995, the first year after the last work stoppage caused by labor strife.
Twenty seasons of labor peace is the foundation that has allowed growth through league expansion and realignment, playoff expansion, the World Baseball Classic, interleague play, instant replay, the explosion in local and national television values and the growth of advanced media and the sport’s own cable network. MLB issued about 900 media credentials for the winter meetings, a record. Mostly all signs point upward, except for the pace of game and an aging demographic fan base – issues important to commissioner-elect Rob Manfred as he builds on Selig’s foundation of modernizing the game.
Baseball’s greatest strength is its regional appeal – the bond between community and team – more so than its standing as a national spectacle. But keep this in mind when you look for room for growth: The recent boom in the game has had little to do with the six teams in the biggest cities, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Angels, White Sox and Cubs combined have won only two playoff series in the past four years.
What if the White Sox and Cubs – who haven’t seen the postseason since 2008 – are contenders? What if the Mets, with one playoff appearance in the past 14 years, turn New York into a National League town the way it was in the 1980s? What if the Dodgers, who had an extremely busy Wednesday in which they, in part, re-made their middle infield by acquiring Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick while keeping their top prospects, can bring the World Series to Dodger Stadium for the first time since 1988? Stay tuned. The real measure of the sport's cachet comes in September and October, not November and December.
3. Gone in a flash
Early-season narratives are powerful. Take the story of Dee Gordon. The second baseman was regarded as an early season “breakout” player last season for the Dodgers after finally getting his chance at age 26 to be a true everyday player. By July 6, Gordon was hitting .302/.356/.416, stealing 42 bases at an 82 percent success rate and taking one walk for every two strikeouts. He was named to the All-Star Game.
So it might seem odd that Los Angeles would send Gordon to the Marlins (and – surprise! -- after the words barely came out of the mouth of rookie Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi that “He’s a cost-controlled, All-Star second baseman. We are not dangling him.”) But what L.A. knew was that another narrative quietly replaced the early-season one: the more Gordon played, the worse he played.
After July 6 Gordon hit .273/.287/.331, stealing 22 bags at only a 69 percent clip and taking one walk for every 13 strikeouts. He had four walks in his last 63 games.
Gordon proved he can play in the big leagues. He proved he is one of the best baserunners in baseball. What he still has to prove is that he can hold up as an everyday player for six months, not just three. Gordon played 148 games last year, the most in any of his seven years as a professional, following seasons of 60, 131, 133, 129, 95 and 130. That’s not to say Gordon can’t play at an All-Star level for six months. It’s simply the next challenge in front of him, a challenge he now will face with the Marlins.