Friday, January 23, 2015

White Sox reunite with Jesse Crain; add Geovany Soto to backup catcher derby

We've been talking a lot this week about former White Sox players returning to the team for a second tour of duty. It's perhaps fitting the Sox agreed Thursday to a minor-league contract with former relief pitcher Jesse Crain, who was on the South Side from 2011-13. More on that in a moment.

The other interesting name on the list of Sox minor-league non-roster invitees is former Cubs catcher Geovany Soto. The 2008 National League Rookie of the Year has never duplicated the success he had his first season in the big leagues with the Cubs, but if healthy, he has a legitimate shot of making the Sox roster as the second catcher.

Soto, 32, was limited to just 24 games last season due to knee and foot injuries. He also was arrested on a marijuana possession charge. Obviously, these are not good things, but it's also true Soto is the most accomplished player among those competing for the right to back up starting catcher Tyler Flowers.

Here are the numbers on the four guys in that mix. We'll include Soto's 2013 season numbers, since last year was pretty much a lost cause for him.

Soto:
2013 with Texas:.245/.328/.466, 9 HRs, 22 RBIs in 54 games
2014 with Texas/Oakland: .250/.302/.363, 1 HR, 11 RBIs in 24 games
Career: .248/.334/..436, 92 HRs

Rob Brantly
2014 with Miami: .211/.263/.265, 1 HR, 18 RBIs in 67 games
Career: .235/.298/.325

George Kottaras
2014 with 3 teams: .240/.355/.600, 3 HRs, 4 RBIs in 14 games
Career: .215/.326/.411

Adrian Nieto
2014 rookie season with Sox: .236/.296/.340, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs in 48 games

If all are healthy, who would you pick of this group? I think I'd take Soto. Nieto was in the backup role for all of 2014 because of his Rule 5 status. Most observers would agree a year at Triple-A would be good for his development.

Brantly bats left-handed, which is nice, but he's never shown he can hit major league pitching at all. Kottaras is the most experienced catcher other than Soto in the group, but he's been bouncing around from organization to organization. He was only in the bigs for 14 games last season. Naturally, he had a two-homer game against the White Sox as a member of the Cleveland Indians, but his career numbers are weaker than Soto's, as well.

If Soto can stay healthy and stop smoking marijuana, he has a chance to come north with the White Sox this year.

That brings us back to the 33-year-old Crain, who was excellent in his previous stint on the South Side. From 2011-13, he appeared in 156 games and compiled a 2.10 ERA and 176 strikeouts in 150 innings pitched.

He was enjoying the finest season of his career in 2013 -- an 0.74 ERA and 46 Ks in 37 innings -- when his shoulder started to bother him. Crain went on the disabled list, and with the Sox languishing in the standings, he was traded midseason to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Crain never threw a pitch for Tampa Bay the rest of the year and signed a free-agent deal with the Houston Astros the following offseason. Alas, he never threw a pitcher for the Astros, either, as shoulder issues continued to plague him.

Now, he's back for another kick at the can with the Sox, the last team he pitched for, on a minor-league deal. Certainly, he cannot be counted upon with his injury issues, but he would be a huge veteran help to the Sox bullpen if he could somehow regain his form.

At the very least, we owe Crain a playing of "Welcome Back Kotter":

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The six worst recent White Sox reunions

You've seen the best, so now here are the worst reunions between the White Sox and their former players:

6. Darrin Jackson
First Tenure: 1994, .312/.362/.444
Second Stay: 1999, .275/.288/.430
Jackson was part of the most infamous "What If" White Sox team of the modern era, the 1994 team that had its chance to win a World Series wiped away by baseball's strike that season. Jackson enjoyed what was probably his finest professional season that summer, hitting well and playing a good right field, just like Ellis Burks -- the team's previous stopgap solution in right -- did the year before.

The Sox looked much different when Jackson returned a few years later after a couple seasons in Japan, and stops in Minnesota and Milwaukee. Gone were all of the players from the previous team who might have made a title run, except for Frank Thomas, around whom the Sox were trying to build a new core of young players.

Jackson was different, too. Instead of a starting right fielder, he played as a fourth outfielder. What was so disappointing about Jackson's return wasn't so much his play in that role, or the sad reminder of the last talented team that collapsed, but that the Sox had an abundance of young outfielders who needed looks.

Three of those those young outfielders did emerge with firm holds on jobs by the end of the year (Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee and Chris Singleton), and among the others who auditioned (Jeff Liefer, Jeff Abbott, McKay Christensen and Brian Simmons), the most noteworthy thing any of them did after leaving the Sox was when one of them locked himself in the bathroom during a game. So in that sense it didn't cost the franchise any opportunity to let a kid run with a job. And Jackson was so well-liked he remained with the team, first in the TV booth before moving over to radio.

Still, even season ticket holders weren't interested in watching Jackson start half the games in center field, which knowing how then-manager Jerry Manuel liked to run things, might have been a job-share that persisted had Jackson dropped in a few more singles.

5. Sandy Alomar
First Tenure: 2001-2002, .264/.296/.382, then 2003-2004, .254/.289/.365
Third Stay: 2006, .217/.255/.358
Perhaps the biggest laugher in the "Trade for an Alomar!" jokes longtime general manager Ken Williams wrote in the early and middle parts of the previous decade.

The first time the Sox brought in Alomar, they needed a catcher. After trading him to Colorado, they brought him back again as a veteran caddy for a young Miguel Olivo. Then Olivo was traded, and Alomar could not credibly start over Ben Davis. That's OK. Life is rough for catchers near the end of their careers. A.J. Pierzynski fell in the Sox's laps that offseason, and catcher wasn't a huge concern for nearly a decade.

Then when the Sox began spinning their wheels during July of their 2006 title defense, they reached for the old security blanket by bringing Alomar back again, this time in a trade with the Dodgers for some guy you've never heard of.

It's not that Alomar was costly. It's not that he wasn't marginally better than they guy he replaced (Chris Widger). It's not like he even mattered in his 19 games played behind the workhorse Pierzynski. He was a backup catcher, so who cares?

It was just the pointlessness of it. Trading for a guy who was barely better than the incumbent, who probably wasn't at all better than Chris Stewart, who wasn't all that good either, and who wasn't even going to play much, all while there were much bigger issues.

4. Roberto Alomar
First Tenure: 2003, .253/.330/.340
Second Stay: 2004, .180/.203/.449
Again, it's hard to see past the pointlessness of this one. Alomar was a shell of himself when the Sox traded for him to man second base in 2003. When it turns out the contract Alomar and Williams worked out with a handshake, on a bar napkin, or whatever was alleged, Alomar took his steeply declining career to Arizona for even less money.

The decline was so steep that Alomar, Utility Infielder of '04 was even more disappointing than Alomar, Second Baseman '03.

The only happy part of this reunion story is that Williams and the Sox weren't out the money they would have been if Alomar had been cornered without his agent.

3. Esteban Loaiza
First Tenure: 2003-04, 30-14, 3.65 ERA
Second Tenure: 0-0, 6.80 ERA, 3 IP
Loaiza was the first, and maybe remains the most famous of Sox pitching coach Don Cooper's reclamation projects. A journeyman in his 30s when he joined the Sox as a minor league free agent before 2003, Loaiza learned a cutter and finished second in the Cy Young voting that season while going 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA.

His second season in Chicago was a little rougher, and with no contract extension likely to be worked out, he was traded for Jose Contreras.

The Sox must have remembered his success with them fondly, because despite only one solid season after his exodus from the team, they brought him back for a look after he was released by the Dodgers during the 2008 season.

Be it that the end was near all along, or rumors that Loaiza wasn't working out and in game shape between stays in organizations, he never recaptured his stuff.

2. Bartolo Colon
First Tenure: 2003, 15-13, 3.87
Second Stay: 2009, 3-6, 4.19 ERA, 13 unearned runs, 13 HR allowed in 62 1/3 IP
Colon couldn't quite put the White Sox over the top and into the playoffs during his first stay, but rode a gaudy win total to a Cy Young Award a couple seasons later in Anaheim. Always an innings eater, and probably an eater of many other delicious things, his massive workload that year probably set the stage for the health problems that plagued him since, and only ended once he found a unique medical treatment.

It wasn't just the results that were a letdown from Colon, though that was less than expected, too. It's that while battling injuries, he also went missing for a time, leading to some amusing speculation that it had something to do with the King of Pop's demise.

Despite a drug suspension stemming from his treatments, Colon has been back. A couple solid seasons in Oakland even helped him sign another albatross contract the Mets would be happy to unload right now. Don't look for them to unload it on the Sox now.

1. Harold Baines
First Tenure: 1980-89, 1996-97, .288/.346/.463, 220 HR
Third Stay: .166/.240/.225, 1 HR
The first reunion was great, despite the circumstances surrounding it. The third and final reunion cut deeply into Baines' playing time as he was added via trade to be a bench bat for an ill-fated playoff run in 2000. 

At the time the Sox picked him up from Baltimore, Baines was batting .266/.349/.437 with 10 home runs. This was coming off a .312/.395/.533 year with 25 home runs split between Baltimore and Cleveland. With 2,842 hits in his career, Baines looked to be one and a half healthy seasons away from reaching the 3,000 milestone that might have bolstered his Hall of Fame case.

Hindsight tells us 3,000 probably wasn't in the cards for Baines. If he declined between 1999 and 2000, then he absolutely fell off a cliff after the trade back to the White Sox. He hit only one more home run in his career, on Aug. 15, 2000, appropriately against Baltimore. With a double that night he also had his last multi-hit game.

Baines came back with the Sox in 2001, presumably in the same bench role he occupied down the stretch the previous season. Even when a season-ending injury to Frank Thomas opened the door for playing time to rebound from a .105/.150/.105 start and start marching up the career hit list, Baines couldn't answer the bell. He finished May with a barely improved line of .117/.187/.130. Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, he played three more games, collected two more hits, and came to the plate a final time on Sept. 27 as a pinch hitter, striking out to close his career.

What was most disappointing about this reunion was that if everything had worked out as planned, the Sox would storm to another division title like they had with a young team the year before, Baines would add a few more marks on his record sheet, but probably come up short of making things tough for Hall of Fame voters.

When Thomas got hurt and contention fell through, the would-be consolation prize -- watching an old hero get a legitimate run at 3,000 hits -- also evaporated.

Even if Baines had no real shot at matching the hopes of wishful White Sox fans, in a way it was still like watching the present burn and the past fade at the same time. Or like with Jackson, for Sox fans it was facing an uncertain future while holding on to a past we couldn't make more glorious.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The six best recent White Sox reunions

If the theme to "Welcome Back Kotter" wasn't enough to get you stoked for the return of former first-round White Sox draft pick Brian Anderson, maybe a listing of other favorite sons returned home to U.S Cellular Field will.

Two things the Sox have been noted for over the years are loyalty and a love of all things familiar. So they haven't been shy about giving players an extra spin in their uniform, and that extends beyond former prospects like Anderson and Kip Wells, who missed both comeback lists.

Let's start with the best, going back only through the New Comiskey Park Era:

6. Scott Podsednik
First tenure: 2005-2007, .270/.333/.354 batting line, 111 stolen bases
Second stay: 2009, .304/.353/.410, 30 SB
In need of an extra outfielder as the team was still trying to make something of Anderson's first stint, and with an injury-prone Carlos Quentin in left field, the Sox turned to one of their former World Series heroes.

To me, Podsednik was a better hitter late in his career than when he was the electrifying leadoff man earlier in his career. By then he had found more balance to his hitting approach, not trying to pull the ball as much as his forgettable final season in Milwaukee, but willing to turn on balls enough to keep pitchers honest, which he didn't always do with his slappy approach when first joining the Sox.

Age and injuries took their toll, and Podsednik didn't have much career left after leaving the Sox again. But he was a pretty nice lift for a flawed Sox team that needed one.

5. Freddy Garcia 
First tenure: 2004-2006, 42-21, 4.26 ERA
Second stay: 2009-2010, 15-10, 4.56 ERA
Garcia was part of the vaunted World Series-winning rotation, and friend and family member of manager Ozzie Guillen. Injuries limited his time on the mound between Sox stays (only 73 IP between 2007-08, and 56 his first comeback season in Chicago), but Garcia capably filled a hole in the back of the rotation through 2010, even though he wasn't the workhorse he was earlier in his career.

4. Jim Abbott 
First tenure: 1995, 6-4, 3.36 ERA, 112 1/3 IP 
Second stay: 1998, 5-0, 4.55 ERA, 31 1/3 IP 
Abbott was famous for becoming a big league pitcher with only one hand. After a few down seasons with the Yankees, Abbott signed as a free agent with the Sox. He held up his end of the bargain in 1995, but with the Sox going nowhere, he was traded to the Angels, where he began his career, for a bundle of prospects that included Bill Simas, John Snyder and McKay Christensen.

The revival didn't last in Anaheim, where Abbott was OK down the stretch, but bottomed out the next year with a 7.48 ERA and a 2-18 record in which he led the league in losses. (Abbott also had two losses in AAA that year, even if the magical 20 didn't all happen in the big leagues.)

In need of another comeback, Abbott came back to the Sox in 1998, and after a brief minor-league audition, rolled through September with a perfect record thanks to some average-ish pitching and some huge run support.

Abbott's career ran out of steam for good the next year in Milwaukee, but his last run on the South Side helped make a second-half surge from the Sox a little more entertaining.

3. Carl Everett 
First tenure: 2003, .301/.377/.473, 10 HR 
Second tenure: 2004-05, .255/.314/.428, 28 HR
Everett was a midseason pickup in 2003, hitting like a monster out of center field, even if his glove left plenty to be desired. He probably would have been back with the Sox if his big salary ($9.15 million in the last year of his contract) wouldn't have made any Chicago offer look like a massive pay cut.

Instead the Expos signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract, and almost immediately regretted it. No longer able to handle center field, and also unable to hit for both average and power like he did in his prime, Everett was shipped back to the Sox in 2004 after Frank Thomas was lost for the year because of injury.

Still under contract, Everett started 2005 as the regular designated hitter while Thomas was still on the mend. When the Big Hurt's return was short-lived, Everett again took up most of the DH at-bats.

While his overall body of work during his return to the Sox was unimpressive, call this a results-oriented ranking. Everett did spend most of the year providing the team with a competent bat at a position that requires a minimum of that. He also batted .300/.333/.300 in 43 postseason plate appearances to help the Sox to a World Series title they maybe don't win if Timo Perez is the regular DH.

2. Harold Baines 
First tenure: 1980-1989, .288/.341/.462, 176 HR 
Second stay: 1996-97, .309/.394/.490, 36 HR 
The first overall pick of the 1977 draft, Baines was so beloved that his number was retired when he was traded to the Rangers during the 1989 season. After knee injuries early in his career forced him into a DH role, Baines was arguably just hitting his stride as a professional hitter, batting .321/.423/.505 for the Sox at the time of the deal.

Even adjusting for a higher offensive era, Baines was a better hitter from age 31 and onward (.290/.372/.468) than he was through the first 10 seasons of his career. When the Sox needed to add a designated hitter before the 1996 season, Baines was a natural fit.

After helping power a potent offense on a team that should have won the AL Wild Card, he was back again in 1997, out-hitting mega-free agent Albert Belle before the disappointing Sox shipped Baines out to another stay in Baltimore ahead of the infamous White Flag trade. When the team said the trade was about helping Baines get a chance to win a title, not about giving up on the season, Robin Ventura famously quipped, "Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing here?"

1. Ozzie Guillen 
First tenure: 1985-1997, .265/.287/.339, Rookie of the Year (1985), 3x All-Star (1988, 1990, 1991), Gold Glove winner (1990)
Second stay: 2004-2011, 678-617 (.524 win percentage), 2005 World Series Champion, 2005 Manager of the Year
Players rarely return to former teams as managers and find much success, but Guillen did.

As a slappy-bat shortstop, Guillen only flirted occasionally with being an OK hitter. He became a lineup stalwart because of a glove that, depending on whom you ask, was either overrated or underrated. Nobody says he wasn't a good defender.

Guillen spent a few years as a utility infielder after leaving the Sox, and went from playing for the Devil Rays in 2000 to coaching with the Expos the next season. He was part of the Florida Marlins staff that won a World Series in 2003 before replacing Jerry Manuel as White Sox manager the next season.

When the Sox won a title in 2005, Guillen basked in the glow of the first baseball championship for Chicago in 88 years, taking home a Manager of the Year award. You could argue it never got better than that for Guillen and the Sox, who won 90 games the next year but came up short, and made only one other playoff appearance together -- a 2008 first-round exit against Tampa Bay.

Guillen certainly left hard feelings behind by demanding a contract extension or a trade to the Miami Marlins during his last month with the Sox. It was an ignominious ending to a reunion that began with triumphant glory.

Time will heal all wounds though, at least until the Sox win another title. If current skipper and all-time Sox great Robin Ventura is the manager lead them to one, he should easily displace Guillen at the top of this list. If he does that, he'll have engineered a surprising near-playoff run (2012), a rebuilding project (2013-?) and then a championship.

If those dreams come true, it would be another good reason getting back together isn't always a bad idea.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Max Scherzer agrees to $210 million deal with Washington Nationals

Most White Sox fans will be happy to see Max Scherzer pitching somewhere other than the AL Central this season, after the former Detroit ace agreed to a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals.

More on the AL Central implications of this signing in a moment, but first, let's take a look at what this move means for the Nationals, who had the best record in the National League last year and will likely enter the 2015 season as a favorite to go to the World Series.

First off, the contract isn't as outrageous as it sounds, at least in terms of annual salary. Sources indicate half of that $210 million is deferred, and that Scherzer will be making $15 million a year for each of the next 14 years.

There had been previous speculation that Washington would have to trade either pitcher Jordan Zimmermann or shortstop Ian Desmond in order to add Scherzer and still make its bottom line work. If Scherzer was making $30 million annually, that probably would be the case. But since he's making "just" $15 million a year, maybe the Nationals will be able to hold on to other key players and make an "all-in" push this season.

Zimmermann will be a free agent after the season, and it's unlikely the Nationals will be able to retain him when he hits the open market. But if I'm Washington, I'm not concerned with that right now. I've got Scherzer, Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg at the top of my rotation. I've got Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark as options for the final two spots in my rotation. What other team in the National League can match that kind of depth in starting pitching?

I don't see another team in the NL that strong 1 to 6. The Nationals should forget about Zimmermann's impending free agency, keep him and go for it this year. That acquisition of Scherzer is a "go for it now" move. You have to believe that's their mindset.

As for Detroit, this is a big loss for the Tigers, no matter what public spin they try to put on it. Scherzer went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA last year, after going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and winning the Cy Young award in 2013. Scherzer has more wins (39) and more strikeouts (492) than any other pitcher in the majors over the past two years. Even if Detroit goes out and signs James Shields to fill Scherzer's rotation spot, that's hard production to replace.

Here is how Detroit's rotation looked at the end of last season: Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello.

Here is Detroit's projected rotation for 2015 today: Price, Verlander, Sanchez, Alfredo Simon, Shane Greene.

Will that rotation be good enough for the Tigers to win the Central again this year? Maybe. That top three is still formidable, but don't you think that first list with Scherzer and Porcello is more impressive than this second list with Simon and Greene? I certainly do.

Scherzer's departure provides hope to all other teams in the AL Central, including the White Sox. In his career, Scherzer is 12-6 with a 2.54 ERA in 23 starts against Chicago. He's tough on everybody, but he's been better against the Sox than he's been against the league overall.

As a Sox fan, I'll take my chances against Simon and Greene. I'd also take my chances against Shields over Scherzer, if the Tigers do indeed decide they need to make another big acquisition for their rotation. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jeff Samardzija, Tyler Flowers agree to one-year deals; White Sox have all arbitration-eligible players signed

The White Sox have agreed to contracts with their final two arbitration-eligible players, signing pitcher Jeff Samardzija and catcher Tyler Flowers to one-year deals.

Samardzija, 29, went a combined 7-13 with a 2.99 ERA last season with the Cubs and Oakland Athletics. He was acquired in December to be the No. 2 pitcher in the White Sox rotation behind Chris Sale. Samardzija, who is eligible for free agency next winter, will make $9.8 million in 2015.

Flowers, 28, agreed on a $2.675 million deal. The Sox starting catcher hit .241 with 15 home runs and 50 RBIs last season. He figures to be the guy behind the plate again, unless GM Rick Hahn comes up with another move in the 79 days between now and Opening Day.

The Sox previously agreed to contracts with four other arbitration-eligible players. The salaries all came in right around where MLB Trade Rumors expected them to:

Samardzija:
Projected salary: $9.5 million
Actual salary: $9.8 million

Flowers:
Projected salary: $2.1 million
Actual salary: $2.675 million

Hector Noesi:
Projected salary: $1.9 million
Actual salary: $1.95 million

Dayan Viciedo:
Projected salary: $4.4 million
Actual salary: $4.4 million

Javy Guerra:
Projected salary: $1.3 million
Actual salary: $937, 500

Nate Jones:
Projected salary: $600,000
Actual salary: $660,000

Total projected salary for these six players: $19.8 million
Actual salary for these six players: $20.4225 million

Friday, January 16, 2015

White Sox avoid arbitration with Javy Guerra, Hector Noesi, Nate Jones

The White Sox avoided arbitration with three right-handed pitchers, agreeing on one-year contracts with Javy Guerra, Hector Noesi and Nate Jones.

Guerra, 29, will make $937,500. He went 2-4 with a 2.91 ERA in 42 relief appearances last season. He figures to work in middle relief again this year.

Noesi, 27, joined the Sox as a waiver claim last May and made 27 starts, going 8-12 with a 4.75 ERA. He agreed on a $1.95 million contract and will enter spring training as the odds-on favorite to claim the fifth starting spot in South Siders' rotation.

Jones, 28, appeared in only two games last season and is coming off back and Tommy John surgery. He will make $660,000 in 2015. The best-case scenario for Jones will be a midseason return.

The White Sox have two remaining arbitration-eligible players, pitcher Jeff Samardzija and catcher Tyler Flowers.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

White Sox will retire Paul Konerko's No. 14 on May 23

There's a conspicuously empty space on the facade where the retired numbers hang at U.S. Cellular Field, a gap between the No. 11 once worn by Luis Aparicio and the No. 16 once worn by Ted Lyons.

You knew the space was left their intentionally, because one day No. 14 would be honored in that spot.

The White Sox will make that official May 23 when they retire the No. 14 jersey of former first baseman Paul Konerko. It's a 3:10 game on a Saturday afternoon against the Minnesota Twins. The first 20,000 fans through the gate will receive a Konerko statue replica.

Fortunately for me, this game is part of my 27-game season-ticket plan. I'll be there early to see Konerko become the 10th former White Sox player to have his number retired.

Konerko, a six-time All-Star, is the franchise leader in total bases (4,010) and ranks second in White Sox history in home runs (432), 16 behind Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas (448). Konerko also ranks third in franchise history in hits (2,292) and doubles (406). He is best remembered for his grand slam in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series

I've said before Konerko isn't quite good enough to make baseball's Hall of Fame, but he is clearly among the best players in White Sox history. It's fitting and proper that he's being shown this kind of respect by the White Sox organization.

Consider May 23 circled on my calendar.