Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Adam Eaton looks like a solution to two long-standing White Sox problems

The White Sox have sputtered as a team over the past six weeks, but center fielder Adam Eaton has continued to establish himself as a major league player.

Judging by the attendance figures and a relative lack of media coverage, few in Chicago have noticed that Eaton has been one of the best players in the American League since the All-Star break.

In Tuesday's 7-5 Sox win in Kansas City, Eaton went 4 for 5 with a double, a triple, two runs scored and a brilliant diving catch on a sinking liner off the bat of Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. The performance raised Eaton's season batting average to .303.

But, the thing that stands out most about Eaton is his improvement throughout the year. His first-half numbers weren't bad by any means, but he's taken it to a new level since mid-July. Check out these splits:

First half: .270/.340/.372
Second half: .365/.418/.462

His season splits now stand at .303/.367/.403. This is arguably the best performance we've seen from a Sox leadoff hitter in the past 10 years, and it's definitely the best production the Sox have gotten from a leadoff hitter since Scott Podsednik surprised everyone with a resurgent year in 2009.

If you look at the past decade, you'll see the Sox have had their problems in center field.

Here's the revolving door the organization has had at that position since Aaron Rowand was traded for Jim Thome after the 2005 season:

White Sox center fielders:

2005: Rowand
2006: Brian Anderson, Rob Mackowiak
2007: Darin Erstad, Jerry Owens
2008: Nick Swisher, Anderson, Ken Griffey Jr.
2009: Dewayne Wise, Anderson, Alex Rios
2010: Rios
2011: Rios
2012: Alejandro De Aza
2013: De Aza
2014: Eaton

That's 11 players in 10 years. Swisher and Rios were corner outfielders who were asked to play out of position. Erstad and Griffey Jr. were declining players at the end of their careers. De Aza and Mackowiak couldn't handle the position defensively, and were put in center field for the purpose of getting another left-handed bat in the lineup. Anderson, Owens and Wise stunk and didn't belong out there for any reason.

Eaton is none of those negative things. He has proven he can play the position, and he's proving he can hit major league pitching. Sox GM Rick Hahn can rest easier now knowing he has a 25-year-old player who looks like a long-term solution in center field.

If you look at Sox leadoff hitters from the past 10 years, you'll see that Eaton compares favorably:

2005: Podsednik .290/.351/.349
2006: Podsednik .261/.330/.353
2007: Owens .267/.324/.312
2008: Orlando Cabrera .281/.334/.371
2009: Podsednik .304/.353/.412
2010: Juan Pierre .275/.341/.316
2011: Pierre .279/.329/.327
2012: De Aza .281/.349/.410
2013: De Aza .264/.323/.405
2014: Eaton .303/.367/.403

Eaton's .303 average is second only to Podsednik in 2009. His .367 on-base percentage is easily the best in this group. The .403 slugging percentage ranks fourth on the list, and it's a heckuva lot better than anything the Sox ever got out of punch-and-judy Pierre.

Obviously, the free-agent acquisition of Jose Abreu last offseason was a game-changer for the Sox organization. They now have that middle-of-the-order presence to build a lineup around. But almost as importantly, they solved two major holes -- center field and leadoff hitter -- with the acquisition of one player.

Eaton has established himself as a big part of the White Sox core moving forward.

Friday, September 12, 2014

White Sox add to Oakland's misery

When the Oakland Athletics made midseason deals for pitchers Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, I thought they were solidifying themselves for a potential World Series run.

Shows how little I know.

The A's were considered by some to be the best team in baseball as recently as late July, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would describe Oakland in that manner these days. After Thursday's 1-0 loss to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, the A's have lost 11 of their last 14 games and are just 9-21 since Aug. 10.

Once the AL West leader, Oakland is all but eliminated from the division race. They now trail the first-place Los Angeles Angels by 9.5 games. A wild-card berth is far from a guarantee, as the A's now lead Detroit by just one game and Seattle by 1.5 games in that race.

Oakland was the best offensive team in baseball over the first four months, but now it can't hit a lick. The A's have scored more than three runs only 15 times in the 39 games since Yoenis Cespedes was traded to Boston for Lester on July 31.

And, if Oakland does miss the playoffs, it will look back on these past four days in Chicago as a missed opportunity. The White Sox won three of the four games, with all three Chicago victories coming by one run.

You can forgive the A's for losing to Sale on Thursday. The Sox ace had dominating stuff. He allowed just two hits and struck out nine over eight shutout innings. At one point, he retired 17 consecutive hitters. Sale improved to 12-3 on the season and lowered his ERA to a league-leading 1.99. He is trying to become the first Sox pitcher to lead the American League in ERA since Joe Horlen in 1967.

Oakland isn't the first team to be stopped cold by Sale. It won't be the last.

However, the A's had two other losses in the series, and both were unforgivable for a contending team. They had a 4-3 lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning Monday night, only to see Tyler Flowers homer to tie the game. The Sox catcher added a second home run in the 12th inning to lift Chicago to a 5-4 win.

Oakland had a 1-0 lead with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning Wednesday night, but Avisail Garcia delivered a two-run single with the bases loaded to lift the Sox to a 2-1 win.

The A's should have won three out of four in the series. Instead, they lost three out of four to a Chicago team that has been out of contention for more than a month. Two of the three losses were the type that teams that narrowly miss the playoffs look back on and ask, "What if?"

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Royals leave Detroit with a one-game lead in the AL Central

The Kansas City Royals held a slim one-game lead in the AL Central last week when they embarked on a six-game road trip to New York and Detroit. After splitting those six games, the Royals will return to Kansas City for a 10-game homestand with that slim one-game division lead still intact.

That's because Kansas City collected perhaps its most critical win of the season Wednesday night, a 3-0 victory over the second-place Tigers at Comerica Park.

The Royals started their trip by winning two out of three games against the Yankees. That allowed them to take a two-game division lead into the Motor City, which the Tigers promptly erased with wins on Monday afternoon and Tuesday night.

The two clubs were in a virtual tie heading into Wednesday's contest, with the Royals ahead by percentage points because they had one fewer loss than the Tigers. Kansas City had dropped 11 of its first 15 head-to-head meetings against Detroit this year, and the Royals were in danger of being swept out of first place.

But, Kansas City had the right man on the mound: James Shields. The Royals haven't made the playoffs in 29 years. They are a mostly young team, and this is the first time they've been legitimately in the pennant race this late in the season in God knows how long. Shields, however, is a 32-year-old veteran who has played on playoff teams with Tampa Bay in the past, so he wasn't going to be rattled by the importance of the game.

And, oh yeah, Shields is 5-0 in eight lifetime starts at Comerica Park. He was in complete command on Wednesday night, tossing seven innings of two-hit shutout ball. Shields gave up a single to Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler to start the game, then promptly picked him off. The Tigers didn't get another baserunner until the seventh inning. Shields finished with eight strikeouts.

Kelvin Herrera pitched the eighth and Wade Davis worked the ninth for his third save of the season in place of the injured Greg Holland (triceps). With the win, Kansas City improves to 80-64 and now enjoys a two-game lead in the loss column over the Tigers (80-66) with 18 games to play.

The schedule now tilts slightly into the Royals' favor over the next week. Kansas City comes home to play four games against AL East bottom-feeder Boston before the fourth-place White Sox come in for a three-game set. During that same period, Detroit will host three games against third-place Cleveland, which still has faint playoff hopes, then travel to last-place Minnesota for three games.

Both teams will be playing teams below them in the standings in advance of their final meeting of the season, a three-game series beginning Sept. 19 in Kansas City.

Can the underdog Royals hold off the favored Tigers, who have won the division in each of the past three seasons? This might be the most interesting divisional race of them all as we hit the final two and a half weeks of the regular season.

Monday, September 8, 2014

White Sox release 2015 schedule

The White Sox have struggled to a 9-23 record over their past 32 games, so it's clearly time to start thinking about next year. Major League Baseball on Monday released its 2015 schedule, allowing fans of losing clubs like the Sox to put aside the current misery and take a look toward what will hopefully be brighter days ahead.

The first question I always ask myself when the schedule comes out: When is the Sox home opener? The answer is Friday, April 10. For the second straight year, the Sox will host the Minnesota Twins in their first home game. But, it won't be the first game of the year this time. The South Siders will start the season on the road Monday, April 6, in Kansas City against the Royals.

The other thing I always look for are possible road trips to take with the team. Those opportunities will be aplenty in 2015, as the Sox take on NL Central opponents in interleague play next season. They'll be at Milwaukee (May 11-13), Pittsburgh (June 15-16) and St. Louis (June 30-July 1).

I'll probably look into making the trip down to St. Louis. It's a nice ballpark. The Cardinals are always a good team, and it's refreshing to be in a city where baseball in the most important sport.

Naturally, the Chicago media is always quick to mention the crosstown series dates when the schedule comes out. For the record, the Sox will play the Cubs six times next season instead of four, and the series is moving back to weekend dates. The two teams will play at Wrigley Field from July 10-12. The series at U.S. Cellular Field will be from Aug. 14-16.

It's no secret I hate the crosstown series. I haven't attended one of those games since 2008. It's overpriced. It's not fun to go. There are too many drunk people. There are too many fights. The rivalry brings out the worst in both fan bases. If the crosstown series were outlawed, I wouldn't shed one tear. I'll be selling my tickets to those games.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Carlos Rodon not among White Sox's September roster additions

The White Sox added seven players to their roster before Tuesday night's 6-3 win over the Minnesota Twins as part of the annual Sept. 1 roster expansion. However, the players who were not included on that list are more notable than the players who were.

The team's No. 1 draft pick in June, left-hander Carlos Rodon, was conspicuous by his absence. Rodon made a quick rise through the Sox's minor-league system and finished the year at Triple-A Charlotte, where he had 18 strikeouts and a 3.00 ERA in 12 innings pitched. Rodon struck 38 hitters in 24.2 innings over three minor-league stops this season.

But, he also walked 13 batters over those innings, and all reports indicate his fastball command could use some improvement. Perhaps that's the reason the Sox have decided not to bring him up for the last month.

“We are absolutely thrilled with where he is and how quickly he has progressed through the system,” Sox GM Rick Hahn told CSN Chicago. “Fundamentally the decision came down to it just wasn’t the right time in his development to bring him to the big leagues to continue his development here and ask him to get big league hitters out. He has responded to all the challenges we’ve put in front of him. We’re very pleased with how he’s finished up his first several weeks as a pro and we fully expect him to come to big league camp next year and compete for a spot on the 2015 White Sox, that’s how far along he is in his development.”

Matt Davidson is another notable player who did not get a September call-up. The would-be third baseman of the future had a miserable year in Charlotte. He hit 20 home runs, but his .199/.283/.362 slash line is downright ugly, especially considering his 164 strikeouts in 539 plate appearances.

Davidson's poor performance ranks as one of the biggest disappointments for the Sox organization in 2014, and it's for the best that he was sent home to clear his head. There would be little or no benefit in bringing him to the majors for the final month. The Sox will go into the offseason with some decisions to make at third base. Conor Gillaspie hits right-handed pitching exceptionally well, but he struggles against lefties and is a question mark defensively. But at this point, Davidson is not a candidate to take Gillaspie's job.

Here are the seven guys who joined the Sox on Tuesday. Most are familiar names. Six have been in Chicago before:

Chris Bassitt, RHP: Bassitt made his big-league debut in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday against Detroit. He allowed five runs and took the loss in that game, but he pitched better than his line indicated. He had good life on his fastball and at one point struck out Detroit superstar Miguel Cabrera with a knee-buckling curveball. Some bad luck with BABIP doomed Bassitt in his first outing, as the Tigers blooped him to death with well-placed, softly hit singles. After being returned to Charlotte for a couple days, he's back with the Sox and will probably get a couple more starts before the year is over.

Scott Carroll, RHP: The less-than-mediocre right-hander has been in the Sox rotation for much of the year, compiling a 5-9 record with a 5.07 ERA in 22 games. He started a game for Chicago as recently as Friday, but he was sent to the minors briefly in a procedural move that ensured the Sox had enough available arms for the Saturday doubleheader. He has been brought right back with the roster expansion, but may be relegated to long-relief duty for the rest of the year.

Jordan Danks, OF: The 28-year-old veteran remains on the shuttle between Chicago and Charlotte. He played well in his last stint with the Sox while Adam Eaton was on the disabled list. His ceiling is that of a fourth outfielder, but it will be interesting to see if he gets more ABs in September now that Alejandro De Aza is off the roster. Will Danks' strong defense be enough to get him playing time ahead of Dayan Viciedo? We'll see.

Josh Phegley, C: The 38th overall pick in the 2009 draft is being rewarded for a strong season in Charlotte that saw him hit .274/.331/.530 with 23 home runs and 75 RBIs. Questions remain about Phegley's defense. Coaches and pitchers alike were not fond of his work as a receiver during his 2013 stint with the Sox. Phegley's pitch-calling received pointed criticism from Sox bench coach Mark Parent, a former catcher, and you wonder if Phegley's defense will ever progress enough to satisfy the Sox.

Marcus Semien, INF: The versatile, athletic Semien came on strong in August, hitting .345 over that span at Charlotte. In 83 games with the Knights, he posted a .267/.380/.502 slash line with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs. You can't help but wonder if Semien would be more useful than Leury Garcia as an all-purpose player, but the University of California product needs to cut down his strikeouts. He's fanned 58 times in the 170 plate appearances he's had with the Sox this season.

Eric Surkamp, LHP: The relief pitcher has joined Danks on the shuttle between Chicago and Charlotte over the past few months. He has a 6.46 ERA in 24 appearances with the Sox this year and will likely continue to receive situational work against left-handed batters late in games.

Michael Taylor, OF: The 28-year-old was once a top-100 prospect in the Oakland organization, but has failed to distinguish himself in the previous limited big-league opportunities he's received. The Sox acquired him from Oakland in June for some guy named Jake Sanchez, and Taylor hit .306 with six home runs and 38 RBIs in 64 games at Charlotte. Like Danks and Moises Sierra, he's likely competing for a spot as the Sox's fourth outfielder in 2015.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

White Sox trade Adam Dunn to A's; deal Alejandro De Aza to Orioles

When the Oakland Athletics visit U.S. Cellular Field for a four-game series starting Sept. 8, White Sox fans will get their first opportunity to boo Adam Dunn as a member of the visiting team.

That's because the Sox traded Dunn and cash considerations to Oakland on Sunday morning for minor-league pitcher Nolan Sanburn.

Dunn, who was hitting .220 with 20 home runs and 54 RBIs at the time of the deal, finishes his White Sox career with a .201/.321/.410 slash line. Dunn hit 106 home runs during his nearly four-year tenure on the South Side, but he leaves town as a symbol of the franchise's failings over the past four seasons.

Dunn fell out of favor with the fans after an historically bad 2011 campaign, and while he rebounded somewhat the past three years, he never performed to his previous career norms while wearing a Sox uniform.

So why would Oakland want him, you ask? The A's are leading the majors in runs scored, but that's a bit deceiving. The A's traded their cleanup hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, to the Boston Red Sox for ace left-hander Jon Lester on July 31. While Lester has performed well (2.66 ERA in 6 starts), Oakland's offense has slumped. The A's rank 20th in baseball in runs scored during August, and no doubt they are hoping Dunn can give them a boost.

The Sox, meanwhile, save themselves about $1.25 million and acquire some organizational pitching depth with Sanburn, who has been working in relief at Class-A Stockton this year. He has a 3.28 ERA in 71.1 IP with 73 strikeouts and 25 walks.

The Dunn deal comes on the heels of another move the Sox made Saturday night, in which they traded left fielder Alejandro De Aza to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for minor-league pitchers Mark Blackmar and Miguel Chalas.

De Aza figures to be a fourth outfielder with Baltimore. He was hitting .243 overall at the time of the trade, but as we've noted before on this blog, De Aza is a left-handed hitter who can produce against right-handed pitchers. He owns a .279/.347/.410 slash line against righties, and he will be a useful offensive player for Baltimore if spotted correctly in matchups that are favorable for him.

Of course, baserunning blunders, defensive gaffes and lollipop throws from left field also are part of the package with De Aza. To put it mildly, the Sox will not miss those things.

Blackmar owns a 10-1 record with a 3.18 ERA in 26 games (18 starts) with Class-A Frederick this season. Chalas (2-3, 4.80 ERA) has been working in relief at Frederick for most of the year. He was recently promoted to Triple-A Norfolk.

Nobody can say for certain whether any of these three pitchers will one day contribute to the White Sox. If nothing else, these are moves that help replenish organizational depth. If one of the three pans out and becomes a major-league pitcher, that would be great news for the South Siders.

The best part of these trades for the Sox? Neither Dunn nor De Aza was going to be back with the team for the 2015 season, and these moves open up playing time for younger players. It's evaluation time for the organization.

We know Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia are part of the White Sox outfield plans, both now and in the future. One spot remains open. Now, instead of wasting their time with De Aza, the Sox can take a longer look at Jordan Danks, Moises Sierra or even Jared Mitchell, if they wish.

With the subtraction of Dunn, the door opens for 1B/DH Andy Wilkins, who was recalled from Triple-A Charlotte and is making his big-league debut Sunday for the Sox. Wilkins is a left-handed bat who hit .293 with 30 home runs, 38 doubles and 85 RBIs for the Knights this year. Can he help the Sox in the middle of the order? I don't know, but now is the time to let Wilkins play and gather more information about him.

Of the 25 roster spots available on the 2015 White Sox, you have to figure at least half of them are still open. Some younger players are about to receive an opportunity to put themselves in the picture for a job on next year's club.

Friday, August 29, 2014

White Sox will send seven prospects to Arizona Fall League

Some members of the Chicago media would have you believe the White Sox farm system is in a hopeless state of disrepair. Maybe they think that because for many years, it was.

But not anymore.

There is hope on the horizon, and the organization will be sending an interesting group of seven players to the Arizona Fall League this year. Let's take a look at them, in alphabetical order:

1. Tim Anderson, SS -- The former No. 1 draft pick missed some time with a broken wrist this season, but he recently came off the disabled list. His return coincided with a promotion to Double-A Birmingham, where he has gone 12 for 27 with a home run in his first six games. Unfortunately, he's also committed three errors in his first six games. This is the top position prospect in the Sox organization. He has hit everywhere he has been, but the glove remains a question mark. Is shortstop his long-term position? The Sox hope so, but they don't know so.

2. Chris Bassitt, RHP -- Bassitt was out with a broken hand until mid-July, but he's overmatched Double-A hitters since his return. He's 3-1 with a 1.56 ERA and 36 strikeouts over 34.2 IP in six starts at Birmingham. The 25-year-old is a former 16th-round draft pick, but he's on the verge of pitching himself into the organization's plans -- so much so that he'll be called up to start the second game of Saturday's doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers.

3. Francellis Montas, RHP -- Montas fanned 56 men in 62 IP at Class-A Winston-Salem and was chosen to participate in the MLB Futures Game before he was sidelined with a torn meniscus in his knee. Montas, who was acquired from Boston in the Jake Peavy deal in 2013, is currently rehabbing in the Arizona Rookie League. He's one of the better pitching prospects the Sox have.

4. Jefferson Olacio, LHP -- Olacio is interesting because he is a large man -- 6-foot-7, 270 pounds -- and he throws the ball with his left hand. His numbers aren't going to get your attention. He went 0-5 with a 4.69 ERA with 58 Ks in 55.2 IP at Winston-Salem. He has a 6.75 ERA in eight games since a promotion to Birmingham. However, he's only 20 years old. He's a project, for sure, but it's worth watching to see how he responds against the good hitting prospects in the AFL.

5. Rangel Ravelo, 1B -- Ravelo has had a breakout year at Double-A Birmingham. The 22-year-old has posted a .307/.386/.432 slash line with 37 doubles and 11 home runs. Of course, there is no opening at first base in Chicago, but good prospects also can be used as trade bait. It's not a bad thing if Ravelo continues to develop, even though he does not play a position of need for the White Sox.

6. Kevan Smith, C -- The good news about Smith: He gets better every year, and he plays a position of need: catcher. The bad news: He's already 26 years old, so maybe that lessens the excitement about a .292/.374/.432 slash line at Double-A. But, this is a player who has had a very nice season in Birmingham.

7. Scott Snodgress, LHP -- This is a pitcher who has moved down on a lot of the prospect lists after a disappointing season as a starter in Birmingham, where he went 6-7 with a 3.89 ERA in 21 games. The Sox have promoted him to Charlotte with the idea that he can be a relief pitcher. The major league team is looking for a left-hander in the bullpen, so the door is open if Snodgress can show well this fall.