Thursday, April 17, 2014

White Sox add Zach Putnam to roster, designate Donnie Veal for assignment

The White Sox blew out their entire bullpen and were forced to use utility infielder Leury Garcia to pitch the 14th inning in Wednesday's 6-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox.

Moreover, White Sox relief pitchers walked 11 and hit one batter in the loss, handing the Red Sox 12 extra baserunners over the final eight innings of the game. Given such incompetence, it is remarkable it took Boston 14 innings to finish off Chicago.

You had to figure a roster move was coming Thursday after a Little League-quality performance from the bullpen, and sure enough, the Sox have designated left-hander Donnie Veal for assignment.

Veal has faced 32 batters in six innings pitched this season, and 13 of those hitters reached base -- seven on walks. That's not good enough, and that's why Veal has lost his roster spot.

The Sox have purchased the contract of right-hander Zach Putnam from Triple-A Charlotte. Putnam was unscored upon in six innings for the Knights this season. He has struck out 11 batters and walked just one in that span.

Putnam has previous major league experience. He has appeared in 15 games for the Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies and Cubs over the past three seasons, posting an ugly 8.53 ERA. We're not going to pretend Putnam is any sort of answer. He's a journeyman pitcher, but hey, he has only walked one batter in 12.2 career innings at the major league level.

If he comes in and throws the ball over the plate, that's a step up from what some of the other Sox relief pitchers have been doing lately.

Masahiro Tanaka: Some first impressions

I finally got a chance to watch New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on TV for the first time on Wednesday afternoon. The highly regarded Japanese import started the first game of a day-night doubleheader against the Cubs at Yankee Stadium, and I have to say I was impressed.

Tanaka fired eight shutout innings in New York's 3-0 victory. He struck out 10 and walked just one, while surrendering only two hits. And, oh, both those hits were bunts. That was the extent of the Cubs' offense on this day. Tanaka threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 27 batters he faced, and had only two 3-ball counts the entire afternoon. He was simply overpowering.

Some scouts have said Tanaka has the best split-finger fastball they've ever seen. I'm in no position to argue. He had Cubs hitters swinging and missing at that pitch all afternoon. They couldn't hit it, nor could they lay off it. For the most part, Tanaka was starting his splitter at the bottom of the strike zone, enticing the Cubs hitters to swing at it, but it would fall out of sight before it reached home plate.

I also was impressed by Tanaka's ability to change the hitter's eye level. He wasn't afraid to pitch up in the zone with his fastball. A few of the Cubs hitters took belt-high fastballs that were right over the plate. They were probably looking for the splitter and got out-guessed. Tanaka also showed he could grab a first-pitch strike by using his slider. He got ahead in the count against almost everybody, and that made for a long afternoon for the Chicago hitters.

Tanaka reminded me a bit of the late 2005 version of Jose Contreras, when his split-finger was overpowering opposing hitters. Tanaka doesn't have as much heat on his fastball as Contreras did, but his slider is probably better. And the two pitchers are similar in the sense that you could tell a hitter the splitter is coming, and they still wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

Through the first 22 innings of his major league career, Tanaka has struck out 28 and walked just two. He's allowed six runs (five earned) through his first three starts, and all of those runs were scored in either the first inning or the second inning. From the third inning on, he has allowed nothing in each of his three outings.

When it comes to ace pitchers, they always say you better get them early in the count, and you better get them early in the game, otherwise you aren't going to get them. Tanaka has been an example of that thus far. 

All that said, it is worth noting that the Cubs' offense stinks. The North Siders were blanked 2-0 by Michael Pineda and three New York relievers in Wednesday's nightcap. The Cubs, who fell to 4-10 on the season, are not swinging the bats well right now and are hardly the toughest test Tanaka will face.

There are some good hitters in the AL East. Boston and Baltimore, in particular, have strong lineups when all their players are healthy. The more you face an opposing pitcher, the more you know, and it will be interesting to see how the AL East hitters adjust the second, third or fourth time they see Tanaka as the season moves along. That will be the true test to see just how good this guy is.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Remember when the Indians traded CC Sabathia?

Whenever an established veteran is traded for a package of prospects, experts routinely say we won't know how good of a deal a trade is until four, five, six years down the road.

For the most part, I think that's a fair way of looking at things, but we don't always take the time to re-evaulate deals of the past once that future finally arrives.

But with the Cleveland Indians in town to play the White Sox for a four-game series over the weekend, I got to thinking about the trade the Tribe made on July 7, 2008, in which they sent their ace pitcher, CC Sabathia, to the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a blockbuster deal.

Now that nearly six years have passed, I think it's fair to take a look back at this trade. For Sabathia, the Indians acquired outfielder Matt LaPorta, pitchers Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson and a player to be named later.

How did the Brewers come out in this deal? Well, Sabathia made 17 starts for them the rest of 2008 and went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. He pitched like an ace down the stretch of that season and helped Milwaukee secure the wild card spot in the National League. Unfortunately for the Brewers, Sabathia got shelled in his lone postseason start, and Milwaukee lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual world champion Philadelphia Phillies.

That offseason, Sabathia left Milwaukee for much greener pastures, signing an 8-year mega-deal with the New York Yankees, for whom he still pitches today.

I doubt the Brewers regretted making the deal. It didn't net them a World Series, but it did help get them in the playoffs, and they probably knew Sabathia was going to walk at season's end at the time they made the trade.

Time has shown the players Milwaukee parted with on that July day didn't amount to much. Bryson was not much of a prospect and never pitched above Triple-A. Jackson appeared in 12 games over two seasons with the Indians, going 2-3 with a 6.11 ERA. He hasn't pitched in the majors since 2009. Left-handed pitchers tend to live forever, so the now-30-year-old Jackson is still kicking it around in the Washington Nationals organization, but he never helped the Tribe.

That brings us to LaPorta, who was considered "the big piece" of the deal. He was the 23rd-best prospect in baseball going into the 2008 season, as ranked by Baseball America. He was holding pretty steady at No. 27 on that list going into 2009, the spring after he had been dealt to the Indians.

Some experts were surprised the Brewers would part with LaPorta in exchange for a half-season of Sabathia, believing LaPorta was destined to be a prolific right-handed power bat. As it turns out, that didn't happen.

LaPorta made it to the majors with Cleveland, but he made little impact. He posted a .238/.301/.393 slash line with 31 home runs in 120 RBIs over 291 games from 2009 to 2012. He never hit more than 12 home runs in any season. The 29-year-old is now playing for Campeche of the Mexican League, where he is a teammate of former Cubs pitcher Sean Gallagher.

So, from all this we can safely conclude the Brewers fleeced the Indians back in 2008, right? Not so fast.

Remember, the trade included a player to be named later. That October, the Brewers completed the deal by sending outfielder Michael Brantley to the Indians. The 27-year-old is now in his fourth full year as a fixture in the Cleveland outfield. While Brantley is not an All-Star, he's a legitimate everyday player, having posted a .284/.332/.396 slash line in 2013, to go along with a career-high 10 home runs and 73 RBIs.

When a team acquires four prospects in exchange for an established veteran, it's a successful trade if even one of those prospects turns into something decent. After all, most prospects are complete busts. In this particular trade, the highly regarded prospect was a bust, while the player to be named later has become a major league starting outfielder.

Funny how it works out sometimes.

White Sox sign relief pitcher Frank Francisco

The White Sox on Monday signed free agent right-hander Frank Francisco to a minor-league deal. The team has assigned the 34-year-old relief pitcher to Triple-A Charlotte.

Francisco has appeared in 387 major league games with three different teams since 2004, going 20-22 with a 3.93 ERA with 73 career saves. He saved 23 games in 48 appearances with the New York Mets in 2012, although his ERA was a less-than-impressive 5.53. An elbow injury limited Francisco to just eight appearances with the Mets last season.

Is Francisco healthy? That's the main question, but you can hardly blame the Sox for seeking out potential bullpen options right now.

The Sox' bullpen ranks last in the American League with a 6.93 ERA. Opponents are batting a league-high .295 against Sox relievers, who have issued a league-high 26 walks. The Sox (7-6) have managed a winning record through the first two weeks of the season in spite of their struggling bullpen.

I don't know if Francisco is any kind of answer, but there's no harm is stashing him in Triple-A for the time being to find out if he's a candidate to help the major league bullpen at some point this season.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Alexei Ramirez is off to the best start of his career

Alexei Ramirez went 2 for 4 with three RBIs on Thursday to help lead the White Sox to a 7-3 win over the Cleveland Indians. Included was Ramirez's second home run of the season, a solo shot in the third inning off Cleveland right-hander Danny Salazar.

We note this only because it took Ramirez until Aug. 9 to hit his second home run last year. We are only 10 games into the season, and there's still plenty of time for Ramirez to fall back into his seemingly annual April slump, but right now the veteran shortstop is easily off to the best start of his career.

Ramirez, a lifetime .279 hitter, on average hits 33 points below that in April. It is far and away his worst month. Here are the April numbers for his career:

2008: .121/.147/.182, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs
2009: .214/.273/.286, 1 HR, 9 RBIs
2010: .221/.231/.312, 1 HR, 8 RBIs
2011: .265/.318/.382, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs
2012: .207/.233/.264, 1 HR, 6 RBIs
2013: .281/.316/.382, 1 HR, 4 RBIs
2014: .421/.463/.684, 2 HR, 9 RBIs
Career: .246/.284/.347, 9 HR, 48 RBIs

Obviously, there is no chance Ramirez will continue to hit over .400 for the remainder of April. But with three weeks worth of games to go in the month, he only needs one more home run and one more RBI to equal the most productive April of his career. I like his odds of bettering that this year.

A good start from Ramirez has been one of the pleasant surprises so far for the Sox.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia out for the season

White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia has a torn labrum in his left shoulder that will require season-ending surgery.

We're not going to sugarcoat it: This is a bad day for the 22-year-old outfielder, the White Sox organization and its fans. I was looking forward to seeing what Garcia could do in a full season as the everyday right fielder, and now that will have to wait until next year.

Garcia hurt the shoulder attempting to make a diving catch during Wednesday's 10-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies.

The Sox have recalled outfielder Jordan Danks from Triple-A Charlotte to take Garcia's place on the 25-man roster.

I won't speculate too much on what this means for Garcia's future, but if there is any blessing, it is that the injury is to his non-throwing shoulder.

We have talked throughout the spring about the possibility of the Sox trading one of either Alejandro De Aza or Dayan Viciedo. It turns out it's a good thing the team held on to both those players. The Sox need them. The duo won't be platooning in left field anymore. I would imagine Viciedo will take over as the full-time right fielder for the remainder of the season, while De Aza will get the majority of starts in left field.

Now is the time for Viciedo to step up. This is his third full season in the big leagues, and if he's going to solidify himself as part of the Sox' future, it's now or never.

This also is an opportunity for Danks, who hit five home runs during spring training and probably deserved to make the team. He's been riding the shuttle between Triple-A and the majors for over two years. Now is his chance to prove he can fill a role on a big-league team.

We already knew the Sox were going to struggle this season, even with a healthy Garcia. News of this injury isn't going to rob the team of a chance to contend or anything like that. However, it is a major setback for Garcia, who is going to miss out on the 500 at-bats against major league pitching he would have received this season. That's the most disappointing part.

Myth-busting: Single-team career stars are *not* becoming more rare

You know who played 3,308 career games all with the Boston Red Sox?

YAZ!

Indeed, Ken "Hawk" Harrelson's oft-mentioned former teammate, Carl Yastrzemski, tops a list of 36 players in major league history who have played at least 2,000 career games all with the same team.

If you've watched ESPN or MLB Network at any point during the last two months, you are no doubt aware that longtime New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is retiring at the end of the season. Jeter is among those 36 players, having played each of his 2,610 career games (entering Thursday) in a Yankee uniform.

On a recent MLB Network broadcast, I heard one of the commentators note that Jeter has spent his entire career in New York. They added that in this era of free agency, "you just don't see that too often anymore." That's conventional wisdom. Heck, I think I've probably said things like that myself.

But every now and then I like to research the facts behind the conventional wisdom, just to see if they are accurate. In this case, they are not.

Of the 36 players on that list, 23 are players who have played in my lifetime. For the record, I was born in 1976.

So, that means between the years of 1901 and 1976, a span of 75 years, there were only 13 players who played 2,000 games or more all with the same team. In the 38 years since 1976, 23 players have played 2,000 or more games all with the same team

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's actually more common nowadays for a player to have a long career with the same team.

I won't bore you by listing all the players on the list, but among the 36 are some star players I recall watching during my 1980s childhood: Tony Gwynn, George Brett, Robin Yount, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken.

Others, like Jeter, are names familiar to fans who have followed baseball over the last 10 or 15 years: Barry Larkin, Craig Biggio, Edgar Martinez, Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, Todd Helton.

Don't get me wrong: Given the sheer volume of players who make it to the major leagues, it is still uncommon for a guy to spend a career that spans more than a decade in the same city. At some point, most guys get traded, or leave their original franchise via free agency. But the conventional wisdom that says single-team career stars like Jeter are becoming more and more rare is just plain wrong.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if this list continues to grow over the next decade. You can find examples of players who are candidates to join the list. Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia has played 1,025 career games (entering Thursday). He is under contract with the Red Sox until 2021, when he will be 38 years old. How about Evan Longoria? He's played 807 career games (entering Thursday) and is under contract with the Tampa Bay Rays through 2023. There's two possibilities right there. I'm sure there are others.

You see, this old-school lament that "players just don't stay in the same place anymore" is not quite right. They didn't stay in the same place all that often back in the old days either. If I ever try to tell you otherwise, remind me I'm wrong.