Thursday, June 26, 2014

White Sox designate Scott Downs for assignment; Eric Surkamp called up

The White Sox on Thursday designated left-handed relief pitcher Scott Downs for assignment.

Downs, 38, was 0-2 with a 6.08 ERA in 38 appearances this season. Downs was working on a one-year, $4 million contract, with an option for 2015. The Sox will eat about $2 million as a result of this decision, but this is the right move to make -- especially since the $4.25 million option for next year would have vested had Downs reached 55 appearances.

Apparently, the walk Downs issued to Chris Davis in the middle of Wednesday night's eighth-inning meltdown was the final straw in what has been a string of poor performances by the washed-up lefty.

Whenever a player gets designated, it's never about one single game. Downs has been bad all season, and the Sox letting him go only reinforces the point I made after last night's loss -- why do managers feel the need to bring a left-hander into the game just because a left-handed hitter is at the plate? In particular, why bring a left-hander who has pitched so poorly that he's on the verge of release into a high-leverage situation? How is that fair to the team?

No one should be surprised that Downs failed. He's failed all year, and now he can go fail somewhere else. 

Left-hander Eric Surkamp has been called up to take Downs' place on the 25-man roster. Surkamp, 26, was picked up on waivers from the San Francisco Giants in December. He was once a top prospect in the San Francisco system, before Tommy John surgery stalled his career.

In 14 games (11 starts) at Triple-A Charlotte this season, Surkamp is 3-4 with a 4.54 ERA. Those numbers might not impress, but he's been trending the right way recently. He was named the Triple-A International League Pitcher of the Week for June 16-22. He owns a 2.63 ERA over his last four starts, with 31 Ks in 24 IP.

Surkamp has posted some good peripheral numbers in the minors. He has struck out more than one batter per inning -- 84 Ks in 73.1 IP. He has walked only 17 and given up just eight home runs -- about one every nine innings -- this year. He's been throwing strikes, missing some bats and generally keeping the ball in the park. We'll see if he can make these numbers translate to the big-league level.

The left-hander has a plus curveball, which is the reason for the high strikeout total. His fastball sits in the high 80s, so he's not going to overpower anybody with that pitch. The key for Surkamp will be locating his fastball well enough to keep big-league hitters from hurting him. Then, if he's ahead in the count, he can use his breaking ball as an out pitch.

The standard isn't real high here. All he has to do is be better than Downs, and in a rebuilding season, the Sox have nothing to lose by seeing what Surkamp has to offer. 

Robin Ventura's strict adherence to lefty-righty matchups costs White Sox in Baltimore

Anyone who has ever watched a game with me knows my biggest pet peeve in baseball is walks. I hate pitchers who walk people. I hate giving hitters a free 90 feet. Just throw the damn ball over the plate, will you?

But, a close second on that list of pet peeves is the way modern-day managers adhere strictly to lefty-righty matchups at all times. Robin Ventura's belief in lefty-righty matchups played a significant role in the White Sox' 5-4 extra-inning loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday night. Ventura is hardly the only manager in baseball guilty of this sin -- all of them do it these days -- but the bottom of the eighth inning of Wednesday's game is a good case study in why this lefty-righty stuff drives me absolutely bananas.

The Sox were leading 4-0 going into the fateful eighth inning. Starting pitcher Hector Noesi had been sailing along until that point, but he gave up back-to-back singles to start the frame. With runners on first and second, the middle of the lineup was due for Baltimore. Ventura likely didn't want Noesi to face Steve Pearce, Adam Jones or Chris Davis for a fourth time, so he correctly went to the bullpen and brought in reliever Zach Putnam.

Putnam did a fine job. He retired Pearce and Jones on fly balls to center field, and his stuff looked good. The runners were still planted at first and second with two outs, and Putnam looked poised to work out of the jam and keep the Sox ahead by four runs.

Alas, Davis is a left-handed hitter, and by golly, we can't leave the right-handed Putnam in to face a left-handed hitter, can we? No. That would be dangerous. So, Ventura summoned his washed-up lefty reliever, Scott Downs, who by the way failed to retire Davis when he faced him on Tuesday night.

The Sox are lucky Downs didn't give up a three-run homer to Davis during the course of the at-bat. He hung Davis two breaking balls. Fortunately enough, Davis fouled off both of them. Eventually, Downs walked Davis to load the bases (did I mention I hate walks?), which brought Nelson Cruz to the plate.

Cruz, a strong right-handed hitter, ranks second in the American League in home runs. You can't leave Downs in to face him, so Ventura had no choice but to go to the bullpen once more. He summoned Javy Guerra, which is probably as good a call as he could have made under the circumstances, but I trust Putnam more than Guerra. It would have been nice to have Putnam on the mound in that high-leverage spot, but he had already been relieved of his duties.

Guerra fell behind in the count and eventually served up a game-tying grand slam to Cruz. Baltimore went on to win the game in 12 innings.

I firmly believe that if Putnam had been allowed to face Davis, he would have retired him, and the Sox would have taken a four-run lead into the ninth. More than likely, the outcome of the game would have been different.

Why do managers insist on removing an effective right-handed pitcher from the game just because a left-handed hitter is at the plate? Why do managers feel they need to burn through three or four relievers in the seventh or eighth inning? To me, if you bring in enough relievers, eventually you are going to stumble on a guy who doesn't have his stuff.

Putnam had his stuff. What excuse is there for not sticking with him? There is none.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Home Run Derby: Jose Abreu says no

White Sox rookie first baseman Jose Abreu ranks third in the American League with 22 home runs, and he'll likely be selected for the All-Star Game. So, it stands to reason he's a prime candidate to participate in this year's Home Run Derby.

Abreu, however, says he's not interested.

"Home Run Derby is not something I’m too crazy about," Abreu told the Sun-Times on Tuesday through a translator. "It’s a good thing, but I’m not really interested or looking forward to. I really wouldn’t want to do it. I did it in Cuba several times, and I wasn’t much into it.’’

That probably won't make a lot of fans happy. Most would want to see Abreu's prodigious power on display in the home run contest, but the slugger is worried participating in the event would screw up his approach.

"The first thing it does is affect you mentally," he said. "You go out and try to hit home runs. I'm not a guy who tries to hit home runs. I let them come whenever they come. And sometimes it messes with your mechanics."

I don't blame Abreu for not wanting to do something he isn't comfortable with, especially since this is his first season in the United States and he's still working to establish himself as a big-league hitter.

We could debate whether participating in the Home Run Derby screws up a hitter's swing, but what's the point? I can find examples of guys who declined in the second half after the derby, and I can find examples of guys who were unaffected.

Abreu knows himself better than any fan or anyone in the media, so if he says he's better off not competing in the derby, then he's right to sit this one out.

Sox make rotation change, stick with Belisario as closer

The Sox made one change in roles with their pitching staff on Tuesday, but it wasn't the one people might have expected.

Scott Carroll will replace Andre Rienzo in the starting rotation and pitch Thursday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Rienzo (4-5) has lost his last five starts and has allowed 22 runs in 22.1 innings over that span.

Carroll (2-3) made five starts earlier this season, going 1-3 with a 6.15 ERA. Since moving to the bullpen, he has thrived in a long relief role, posting a 1.83 ERA over six appearances.

More than likely, this move won't make much of an impact. Neither Carroll nor Rienzo is a long-term solution as a starting pitcher. But, Carroll has started throwing a cutter during his time in the bullpen. He now has one more pitch in his arsenal than he did during his previous stint in the rotation. We'll see if that makes any difference in results.

Meanwhile, the team stuck with Ronald Belisario as its closer, and he earned a shaky save in the Sox' 4-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night. The tying runs were on base before Belisario induced a double-play grounder that allowed Chicago to snap its five-game losing streak.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Ronald Belisario's cold streak coincides with his promotion to closer

Remember back on June 12 when the White Sox were only 2.5 games out of the AL Central lead? Some were talking about this team potentially making a surprise run at the division title. Yeah, that was fun while it lasted. Since then, the bottom has fallen out.

The South Siders have now dropped nine out of 11 and have fallen a season-worst seven games (35-42) below .500. They trail the Detroit Tigers by 7.5 games in the division, and they have lost five consecutive games after Monday's 6-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

This latest defeat should not have happened. Ace Chris Sale was in line for the win after allowing just two runs over six innings. He pitched out of a pair of bases-loaded jams to give the Sox a chance at victory. Jose Abreu hit his 22nd home run of the season and drove in three runs, and things were looking good with the Sox up 4-2 in the eighth inning.

Then, the wheels came off. The Orioles got a solo home run from catcher Caleb Joseph off Zach Putnam to tighten the score to 4-3 heading to the ninth. Sox "closer" Ronald Belisario then presided over a spectacular meltdown.

After jumping ahead of Steve Pearce 1-2 in the count, Belisario served up a fat pitch that Pearce hit for a leadoff single. Adam Jones was next hit by a pitch to move the tying run into scoring position and put the winning run on base with nobody out. After Nelson Cruz struck out, Belisario hung a 3-2 slider to Chris Davis, who hit a three-run home run to lift the Orioles to a come-from-behind win.

It's pretty hard to miss the fact that Belisario has been awful since being named closer following an injury to Matt Lindstrom on May 20. Since that date, Belisario has appeared in 13 games, going 7 for 10 in save opportunities. He's allowed 11 earned runs in 11 innings pitched during that stretch. That's easy math: a brutal 9.00 ERA.

Thing is, you can't fault Sox manager Robin Ventura for going to Belisario, because he was the hot hand at the time of Lindstrom's injury. Prior to May 20. Belisario had gone 12 consecutive appearances without surrendering an earned run.

But as soon as he was named closer, Belisario's effectiveness disappeared. Coincidence? I don't believe so. I think Belisario is one of those guys who is just more comfortable pitching the seventh or eighth inning. That's what he's done for most of his career, and he doesn't seem able to handle the responsibility of pitching in the ninth inning.

The closing situation has not gone well for the Sox this year. Lindstrom and Nate Jones, the two top candidates for the job coming into the season, are both on the disabled list. Daniel Webb was mentioned as a potential candidate by pitching coach Don Cooper in the spring, but he has been too wild (25 walks in 35.1 IP) to be trusted in any high-leverage situation - let alone closing.

Belisario is essentially the Sox' fourth option as a closer. It looks like they'll have to find a fifth option, because Belisario is not getting it done.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Weird injury department: Gavin Floyd breaks his elbow

I've heard a few White Sox fans suggest the team made a mistake by parting ways with veteran right-hander Gavin Floyd this past offseason.

Floyd's supporters correctly note the Sox have had a revolving door at the back end of their starting rotation. The Felipe Paulino experiment was a colossal failure. Rookie Erik Johnson couldn't find the plate and had to be sent back to Triple-A. After a two decent starts, Scott Carroll showed himself to be better suited for a long-relief role. Andre Rienzo and waiver pickup Hector Noesi have been hit or miss in their combined 19 starts. There is no question the Sox suffer from a lack of starting pitching depth.

Is Floyd better than the guys the Sox are trotting out there? When Floyd is healthy, sure, he's better, but he had Tommy John surgery last summer. He wasn't going to be ready for the start of this season, and the Sox felt they had better things to spend their money on than signing Floyd to a one-year reclamation deal. I couldn't disagree with that line of thinking.

The Atlanta Braves took a $4 million flier on Floyd, who returned to major leagues on May 6. He was pitching well for the Braves. Coming into Thursday's start against the Washington Nationals, he was 1-2 with a 2.98 ERA in eight starts.

In fact, he picked up his second win of the year Thursday after firing six innings of two-hit ball in the Braves' 3-0 win over Washington. Unfortunately for Floyd, he broke the olecranon -- the bony tip of the ulna that sticks out behind the elbow -- on his first pitch of the seventh inning.


This is a rare injury for pitchers, but it is similar to the one that ended Detroit reliever Joel Zumaya's career in 2010. At minimum, Floyd's season is over. For their $4 million, the Braves got nine pretty good starts. Maybe it was worth it to them, but it wouldn't be worth it to a rebuilding team such as the Sox.

Doctors are saying this injury is unrelated to the Tommy John surgery Floyd underwent, but one of the reasons I didn't want the Sox to re-sign Floyd was my concern that he would get hurt again.

Floyd missed some time late in 2012 with an arm problem, and then the torn elbow ligament limited him to five starts in 2013. This is a pitcher whose career is probably coming toward the end.

While Rienzo and Noesi are no great shakes, at least they are healthy and eating up innings while the Sox rebuild. Innings are something the oft-injured Floyd just can't provide right now, and the Sox do not miss him.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Clayton Kershaw's no-hitter: 15 strikeouts, no walks

Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw fired his first career no-hitter Wednesday night in an 8-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies.

I was able to watch him pitch the last three innings, and you will never see a pitcher with more dominant stuff. He struck out 15 of the 28 batters he faced in this game. His curveball was unhittable.

His performance reminded me of just how difficult it is to throw a perfect game. Kershaw did nothing wrong in this game. He didn't give up any hits. He didn't walk anybody. He didn't hit a batter, but it still wasn't a perfect game. Why? Because you need your teammates to play flawless defense to pitch a perfect game.

Kershaw retired the first 18 batters he saw Wednesday night, but his perfect game was lost when Colorado's Corey Dickerson reached on a two-base error by shortstop Hanley Ramirez leading off the seventh inning. Ramirez fielded Dickerson's slow bouncer but threw wide of first base for the error.

A couple batters later, rookie third baseman Miguel Rojas made a nice play behind the bag and a long throw to first to retire Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki to keep the no-hitter intact. The Dodgers replaced Ramirez at shortstop with rookie Carlos Triunfel to start the eighth inning. Probably a smart move, but Kershaw had no difficulty retiring the side 1-2-3 in either of the last two innings

Kershaw's no-hitter is the second one thrown in the major leagues this season. Teammate Josh Beckett tossed one in a 6-0 win at Philadelphia on May 25

The 2014 Dodgers became the 16th team in major league history to throw more than one no-hitter in a single season. They are only the fifth team to accomplish the feat since 1972, when Burt Hooton and Milt Pappas threw no-hitters in the same season for the Cubs.

Just in case you were wondering, the 2012 Seattle Mariners were the last team to throw two no-hitters in a season. Kevin Millwood combined with five relievers to throw a no-hitter against the Dodgers on June 8 of that year. About two months later, on Aug. 15,  Felix Hernandez tossed a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Report: Cubs renew contract talks with Jeff Samardzija

Turn on the baseball talk shows in Chicago, and you still hear nothing but poetry and praise for the Cubs' front office and its rebuilding plan. Many members of the media gush about the prospects the Cubs have in their system, especially third baseman Kris Bryant, who has been tearing up Double-A.

But here's the thing: Prospects are all fine and dandy, but don't you have to make progress at the major league level eventually? The Cubs have lost 90 or more games for three consecutive years, and they are on pace for another 93 losses this season. That's unacceptable for a big-market team -- at least it should be.

It's past time for the Cubs to open up the wallet and start spending to improve the major league team. The North Siders have only $31 million committed to their roster for the 2015 season (excluding arbitration raises). Given the ticket prices they charge, the Cubs should have plenty of cash on hand. And, there's not much question that money should be spent on pitching.

All these prospects we keep hearing about are position players: Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Arismendy Alcantara, etc. Where are the pitching prospects? There aren't many worth talking about, and that's why I think the Cubs should sign their best pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, to an extension. Reports on Monday indicated the team is trying to do just that.

To this point in the season, it's been assumed Samardzija would be traded to an AL East contender midseason. Previous contract talks have gone nowhere with the right-hander, whose 2.77 ERA ranks ninth in the National League. Despite a 2-6 record, Samardzjia's other numbers are good: 82 strikeouts in 91 innings and a 1.18 WHIP. I don't know that he's an ace on a contending team, but he's probably a No. 2 starter. He's a solid, reliable pitcher who would be an asset to any organization.

Knowing that, why don't the Cubs just keep him? Sure, he's going to command six years at over $100 million. That's a lot of dough, but it's the going rate. If Homer Bailey can get six years and $105 million, then so can Samardzija. And it isn't like any of the other free agent pitching options next offseason (Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, James Shields, Justin Masterson) are going to come any cheaper.

If you're gonna pay for pitching, why not pay the guy who has been with the organization all along? Samardzija will be 30 heading into next season, but his arm doesn't have the wear and tear of many pitchers his age. He was late to the party in terms of becoming a starting pitcher. He's thrown 649 innings in the majors during his career. By way of comparison, San Francisco right-hander Matt Cain (who is three and a half months older than Samardzija) has thrown 1,779.2 innings in the majors. Projecting a pitcher's future is always guesswork, but if I had to take a guess, I'd say Samardzija's got plenty of bullets left.

Let's say the Cubs do ante up and make Samardzija a lucrative offer in the coming weeks. It will be interesting to see if he accepts. I have the sneaking suspicion that Samardzija is tired of this rebuilding plan. By the Cubs' own admission, they are at least two years and maybe three years away from fielding a team that can compete. Samardzija is in the prime of his career right now. Does he want two or three more of his best years to go to waste languishing on a rebuilding club? The way he's pitched, it's absurd he has only two wins this season.

That leads me to my next point: If the Cubs want to attract big-name free agents, they need to start winning more games. Why did Masahiro Tanaka choose the Yankees over the Cubs? It wasn't because the Cubs didn't make a representative offer. It was because Tanaka wants to win, and the Yankees field a competitive team every season.

Sure, the Cubs could flip Samardzija to the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Orioles or Yankees and get three or four prospects, but then their team would become even worse than it already is. If the Cubs trade both Samardzija and pitcher Jason Hammel, they don't have many good options to plug into those two rotation spots. They might be charting a course toward 95 or 100 losses.

Would Max Scherzer or Jon Lester want to come be a part of that? I don't think so. Who is going to take the Cubs' money, if not Samardzija? Members of the media might be swooning about Cubs prospects, but veteran players don't give a damn about Javier Baez's batting average in Triple-A. They want a chance to win, and they want it sooner rather than later.

I believe signing Samardzija for the long haul would bring the Cubs closer to a chance to win than flipping him for a package of ifs and maybes at the trade deadline.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dayan Viciedo, Tyler Flowers dragging down White Sox offense

After getting swept by the Kansas City Royals over the weekend, the White Sox (33-37) have now lost a season-high four games in a row and are a season-worst four games below .500.

The Sox have scored a total of six runs combined in those four losses. In the three-game sweep at the hands of Kansas City, the South Siders went 3 for 32 with runners in scoring position. They stranded 13 runners alone in Sunday afternoon's 6-3 loss to the Royals.

Indeed, the Sox are struggling to knock in a big run right now. No single player is to blame for that. It's a team-wide problem. Overall, the Sox have been trending the wrong way offensively for about a month. They were the league's best offensive team in April, but they've since fallen to fifth in the league in runs scored (304) and seventh in runs per game (4.34).

Those are still respectable totals, especially coming off a 2013 season when the Sox scored the fewest runs in the American League. But, there's no question the offense was clicking early in the season much better than it is now.

Looking at some longer-term trends, there are two Sox hitters in particular who were good early in the season, but have fallen off a cliff over the past month or six weeks: outfielder Dayan Viciedo and catcher Tyler Flowers.

Let's look at the slash line splits for each of these two players.

April: .348/.410/.528
May: .229/.276/.385
June: .083/.120/.104
Last 28 days: .154/.189/.220
Last 14 days: .100/.143/.125

April: .354/.398/.415
May: .208/.288/.333
June: .067/.152/.267
Last 28 days: .136/.203/.305
Last 14 days: .042/.148/.167

Let's be fair: It was unrealistic to expect either Viciedo or Flowers to continue their April pace. Neither of them has enough talent to hit .300 over a 162-game season, let alone .350. A regression to the mean was expected. However, there's a difference between regressing to the mean and becoming a sinkhole.

Right now, Viciedo and Flowers are both sinkholes. When you have two guys who are hitting .100 or less over a two-week span, or .150 or less over a four-week span, that's like having to send your pitcher up to bat two times every time through the lineup. It's hard to win in the American League when you've got two players who just can't hit at all. Sometimes, you can cover up for one black hole at the bottom of your lineup, but certainly not two.

In Viciedo's case, he's missing a golden opportunity to make himself part of the Sox' future plans. The team was ready to move on from him as an everyday player at the start of the year. Viciedo was scheduled to platoon with Alejandro De Aza in left field when camp broke.

But then everything changed with right fielder Avisail Garcia went down with a season-ending shoulder injury the second week of April. Suddenly, opportunity presented itself for Viciedo. He's getting a chance to play every day and earn his way back into the Sox' good graces. For about two or three weeks in late April and early May, he was capitalizing on that chance. But the last four or five weeks, he's blowing it again -- one big swing-and-a-miss at a time.

Next year, Garcia is going to be back and there's isn't going to be a spot in the outfielder for the defensively challenged Viciedo. There is, however, an opening at designated hitter for the Sox in 2015. By then, Paul Konerko will be enjoying retirement, and presumably, Adam Dunn will be wearing a different uniform. Viciedo could fill that spot, but he has to hit to justify his presence on the roster. He can't field at all, so if he's not hitting, he's not helping. Right now, he's not helping.

In the case of Flowers, I can't say I'm surprised or disappointed he's stopped hitting. His approach at the plate has always been terrible. He had a month of flukish results in April, and now he's back to being the lousy hitter he's always been.

Apparently, the Sox' coaching staff believes Flowers does a good job of handling the pitching staff. At least there's that, if you're looking for a justification to keep him in the lineup. Unlike Viciedo, he might have some defensive value, although I've never been particularly impressed with Flowers' catch-and-throw ability.

The Sox have managed to hang around in the AL Central race to this point. Even now, they are only 5.5 games back entering Monday's play. People ask whether the Sox can contend this year, and I just don't see it.

This is team that has only three legitimate big-league starting pitchers. Their catcher is terrible, and they get little or no production from their corner outfield spots. I expect nothing offensively from Flowers. He's bad with the lumber in his hands. It is what it is.

Viciedo, on the other hand, really shouldn't be this terrible. If the light bulb suddenly goes on for him, the Sox will win more games than we might expect. But with each passing 0 for 4, it's hard to believe Viciedo is going to be anything other than a platoon player, or a weak starting player on a bad club.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Max Scherzer outduels Chris Sale in marquee pitching matchup

There aren't many hitters in the American League who routinely get the best of White Sox ace Chris Sale. Detroit Tigers 1B/DH Victor Martinez can count himself among the few.

Martinez hit a solo home run off Sale in the top of the fifth inning Thursday night at U.S. Cellular Field, and that proved to be the game-winning hit as the Tigers avoided a sweep with a 4-0 win over Chicago.

Martinez is now 13 for 25 (.520) with two home runs in his career against Sale.

The much-anticipated pitching matchup between Sale and reigning Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer did not disappoint.

As we've noted, Justin Verlander is no longer the Detroit ace. Scherzer is, and he delivered the first complete-game shutout of his career (179 starts) on Thursday. The right-hander limited the Sox to just three hits, while striking out eight and walking three. Only twice did Chicago have two baserunners in the same inning. The Sox' best scoring chance came in the fourth when they had runners at second and third with two outs after Conor Gillaspie reached on an error and Alexei Ramirez doubled. However, Scherzer (8-2) retired Dayan Viciedo on a flyout to avoid any damage.

Sale (5-1) once again pitched extremely well. He simply got outpitched in suffering his first loss of the season. He allowed only one run on five hits over seven innings. He struck out 10 hitters (all swinging) and walked none.

Unfortunately for the Sox, Sale had thrown 116 pitches through seven innings and had to be removed from the game. The Tigers scored two runs in the eighth off reliever Jake Petricka and another run in the ninth off Daniel Webb.

But on this night, all Scherzer needed was one run, and the Sox missed a chance to get out the brooms against Detroit for the first time since 2008.

Yes, you read that right. The last time the Sox swept a three-game series against Detroit: April 4-6, 2008. Six years is a long time to go without a sweep against a team you play 18 times every year.

Suffice to say it will be easier for the Sox to beat Detroit once Martinez and his .327 lifetime average against Chicago retire. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Justin Verlander takes a beating from White Sox

As a White Sox fan, I used to dread games when the team would have to face Detroit right-hander and former Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander.

I don't have those pangs of fear anymore.

We discussed it on this blog a couple weeks ago: It looks like Verlander's best days are behind him. And, if that's the case, then Detroit can be had in the AL Central Division race.

When I looked at Wednesday night's matchup between Verlander and Chicago left-hander John Danks, my initial instinct was not "Oh crap," as it might have been two or three years ago. Instead it was, "Hey, the Sox could win this one."

Win it they did, 8-2. The victory means the Sox (33-33) have as many wins as the first-place Tigers (33-28) and are just 2.5 games back in the division race.

However, the main story I took out of this game was Verlander's continuing vulnerability. The Sox touched him up for seven runs on eight hits over 5.2 innings. The erstwhile Detroit ace has now given up five runs or more in five of his past six starts. His ERA over that stretch is 8.72. His season ERA has swelled to 4.61. That's Hector Noesi territory right there.

And, anyone who watched this game knows the Sox should have scored more runs than they did. The South Siders loaded the bases with just one out in the third inning, but neither Conor Gillaspie nor Jose Abreu could knock in a run.

The Sox also got a one-out triple from Adam Eaton in the fifth inning, but failed to score after the Sox center fielder was thrown out at the plate on grounder off the bat of Gordon Beckham.

Verlander found himself in bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the sixth, and this time he did not get off the hook. With the score tied 1-1, Dayan Viciedo grounded into a double play that gave the Sox a one-run lead. The twin killing gave Verlander a great chance to minimize damage and keep his team in the game. Instead, he imploded.

Alejandro De Aza singled in a run. Verlander then walked light-hitting catcher Adrian Nieto and Eaton back-to-back to reload the bases. Beckham ended Verlander's night with a two-run single that put the Sox ahead 5-1.

Detroit summoned Naperville product Ian Krol from the bullpen, and the lefty provided little relief. Gillaspie's two-run double increased the Sox' advantage to 7-1. After an intentional walk to Abreu, Adam Dunn singled to make it 8-1. Chicago cruised to victory from there.

How often do you get a seven-run inning in a game started by Justin Verlander? The answer used to be never. Now, it can be done. The Sox proved it Wednesday night.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

When Adam Eaton gets on base, the Sox offense clicks

White Sox leadoff hitter Adam Eaton went 2 for 5 with a triple, a single, a run scored and an RBI on Monday as the South Siders defeated the Detroit Tigers, 6-5.

It was a good offensive game for Eaton, and not coincidentally, a good offensive game for the Sox. First baseman Jose Abreu rightfully continues to get headlines -- he hit his 18th home run of the season on Monday -- but you can make a strong case that Eaton is just as important to the Chicago offense.

Eaton has been in the starting lineup in 46 of the Sox' first 65 games. He has 14 multiple hit games. In those 14 contests, the Sox have posted a 9-5 record and have scored 103 runs. That will pencil out to an average of 7.4 runs per game.

By way of comparison, Eaton has gone hitless in 15 of his 46 starts. In those games, the Sox have gone 5-10 and scored just 43 runs. That's an average of 2.9 runs per game.

Think it's important to have your leadoff hitter getting on base consistently? You better believe it is.

Eaton has been starting to swing the bat a little bit better of late. He's 7 for 21 (.333) on his current five-game hitting streak. In the nine games prior to the streak, Eaton was in a 3-for-35 funk. That's an .086 batting average.

During Eaton's nine-game slump, the Sox scored just 27 runs, an average of 3.0 per game. In the past five games, the Sox have scored 19 runs. That's still not real good (3.8 per game), but 11 of those 19 runs came in the two games where Eaton had two hits.

There is a direct correlation between Eaton's production and the success of the White Sox offense. When he hits, the Sox score runs. When he doesn't hit, the Sox scuffle.

Friday, June 6, 2014

White Sox select LHP Carlos Rodon with No. 3 overall pick

There are few rewards that come with suffering through a 99-loss season -- other than getting a high pick in the following June's MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Accordingly, the White Sox had the No. 3 overall pick as a result a disastrous 2013 campaign, and on Thursday they used it to select pitcher Carlos Rodon, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound left-hander out of North Carolina State.

Rodon came into the spring as the consensus top prospect in the draft. An inconsistent college season caused his stock to slip slightly, but the Sox were obviously unmoved. Rodon was widely considered the best college pitcher in the draft, and quite possibly, the most major league ready pitcher in the draft.

The left-hander has a fastball that sits in the mid- to low-90s consistently and can occasionally touch 96 or 97 mph. But it is his slider that might get him to the big leagues quickly.

"When they can bury a slider on the back foot of a right-handed hitter and get it in under his hands, then you know a guy has a really good one," White Sox scouting director Doug Laumann told "It's a dominant pitch. That's not to take away anything from his fastball and changeup, which are also plus pitches."

Rodon was overpowering during his 2013 sophomore campaign at N.C. State, going 10-3 with a 2.99 ERA and racking up 184 strikeouts against just 45 walks in 132.1 innings. This spring, his junior season was considered not quite as strong, but the numbers still look good despite a mediocre 6-7 won-loss record. Rodon posted a 2.01 ERA and fanned 117 against 31 walks in 98.2 innings.

As with all prospects, it's impossible to know for certain how Rodon will do once he signs a contract and joins the White Sox organization, but the team was smart to draft pitching in the first round. The Sox have a couple holes in their big-league rotation now, and aside from the struggling Erik Johnson, they don't have a lot of starting pitchers on the farm who are close to big-league ready.

Some say Rodon might be in the majors before this year is over, possibly in a situational relief role. Thinking optimistically, perhaps he could challenge for a rotation spot sometime in 2015.

If he does crack the rotation sometime before 2016, that would give the Sox four left-handed starting pitchers -- with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and John Danks already in place.

For some reason, the idea of having four left-handed starters is a source of much consternation among Chicago media. I fail to see why that's a big deal. When the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, four of their five starting pitchers were right-handed. In fact, quite a few teams have four right-handers in their rotation. If a team has four lefties, so what? How is that different and what's the big deal?

Just find me five guys who can pitch. I don't care if they are left-handed or right-handed.

Speaking of right-handed pitchers, the Sox used their second-round selection on Spencer Adams from White County High School in Georgia.

Adams was ranked the 27th-best prospect by MLB and 21st-best prospect by Baseball America, so the Sox probably felt fortunate to see him available at No. 44 overall.

The right-hander has mid-90s fastball. The slider is his second-best pitch. He also features a curveball and a changeup.

The First-Year Player Draft continues Friday with Rounds 3 through 10. The event concludes Saturday with Rounds 10 through 40. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Mike Schmidt chimes in on rising K rates

It's no secret strikeouts are at an all-time high in baseball. After an explosion of offense in the steroid-infested 1990s, the pendulum has swung back in the direction of the pitchers in recent seasons. One of every five at-bats now ends in a strikeout, leading some to say the game of baseball is more boring than in the past because the ball is being put in play with less frequency.

What are the reasons for the increased K rate? And are there any solutions? It's always interesting to get the perspective of former players, so I found the article written by Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt to be a worthwhile read.

Schmidt had nearly 1,900 strikeouts in his career, so he seems like the last guy who should be criticizing today's players for striking out too much. But keep in mind, he was a three-time MVP who hit 548 home runs in the major leagues. He might have been striking out once every five at-bats -- as today's players do -- but he was producing 30 home runs and 100 RBIs every year. Many of today's hitters fall well short of those benchmarks, while still striking out at ridiculous rates.

Here are some of Schmidt's theories on the increase in strikeouts:

1. Pitchers throw harder now. In the 1980s, there were a handful of guys who could reach 95 mph on the radar gun. Most fastballs topped out in the high 80s. Nowadays, pitchers who can't consistently top 90 mph are considered marginal pitchers. It's not unusual to have a staff full of guys who throw 95 consistently. More velocity from pitchers means more strikeouts for hitters.

2. Hitting coaches don't have enough clout to demand a two-strike approach. If you can bat .250 with 80 RBIs, you will become a rich man in baseball - even if you strike out 150 times. Hitters are of the mindset to swing for the fences no matter the count or the situation. Run production means dollars. Schmidt notes the modern hitter doesn't realize the importance of making contact in close games. He says good RBI men can pick up 20 to 30 extra RBIs a year with a simple groundout. That's the difference between 80 RBIs and 100 RBIs.

3. Pitch counts. The offensive philosophy of the modern game is to take pitches, work counts, get the starter out of there and get into the bullpen as quickly as possible. Therefore, hitters are taking more hittable pitches early in the count, leading to more two-strike counts. More two-strike counts is always going to lead to more strikeouts.

For me, the third point is the one that really cuts to the heart of the matter. I'm amazed at how many hitters will take first-pitch fastball strike right down the middle, especially in RBI situations. Or, worse yet, pitchers know hitters want to "work counts," so they'll throw a sloppy get-me-over curve on first pitch. Typically, that's a pitch that should be hit hard, but you see guys taking that for strike one.

Oftentimes, that pitch early in the sequence is the best one a hitter gets in an at-bat. Later, once the hitter has "worked the count" and has two strikes, the pitcher comes up with something nasty and gets the strikeout.

Schmidt says, "What I did was learn to hit the fastball, in play, hard, early in the count, more often." I think that would be my philosophy, especially in RBI situations. There are times where it is prudent to try to work counts, but the better pitcher, the less likely that is to work.

If you try to "work counts" against an elite pitcher, chances are you're gonna be behind 0-2 or 1-2 in the count, and then it's an uphill fight. Heck, it's an uphill fight if you're behind 0-2 or 1-2 against a mediocre pitcher.

As that long as that philosophy prevails, I think we'll continue to see high strikeout rates.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Little League-style inning costs White Sox

Maybe it's a good thing the White Sox were playing on the West Coast on Monday night. That means most fans had probably already retired for the evening when the Sox played their worst inning of the season to date.

What's really unfortunate about the whole mess is the Sox seemed to be in prime position to beat reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sox first baseman Jose Abreu had hit a two-run homer in his return from the disabled list to give the South Siders a 2-0 lead, an advantage they enjoyed into the sixth inning.

Jose Quintana was cruising on the mound for Chicago. He had a two-hitter going, and he had thrown only 65 pitches. He was outpitching Kershaw, hitting his spots and looking like he'd be able to blank the Dodgers at least through seven innings -- if not eight innings.

But then the White Sox infield turned in a pathetic, amateurish inning of defense in the sixth inning. Two errors cost Quintana five unearned runs, and the Dodgers went on to claim a 5-2 victory.

Kershaw got a base hit to start the inning, but that didn't seem like too big a deal the way Quintana was pitching. He struck out Chone Figgins for the first out and induced Matt Kemp to hit into what should have been an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Too bad Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham forgot to catch the ball.

Instead of being out of the inning, the Dodgers had runners at first and second with one out, with Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez due to hit. That's when it was time for Quintana to toughen up.

Toughen up he did.

He fanned Puig for the second out, and got Ramirez to hit a routine chopper to third baseman Conor Gillaspie, who fielded the ball about eight steps behind the bag. Keep in mind, Kershaw was the runner at second base, so all Gillaspie needed to do was jog to the third-base bag and tag it for the third out. But, no, he for some reason decided to throw across the diamond. A good throw still would have gotten Ramirez by two strides, but he threw it in the dirt and Abreu failed to make a pick that most first baseman probably make.

It should have been inning over for a second time, but instead a run scored and the inning continued. The meltdown was on. Adrian Gonzalez hit an infield single that produced the tying run. Justin Turner hit a two-run bloop single just over the outstretched glove of Beckham that barely dented the outfield grass. Light-hitting Drew Butera hit a 35-hopper with eyes into right field for an RBI single.

All of a sudden, it was 5-2 Dodgers. With Kershaw on the mound, that's ballgame.

Quintana ended up needing six outs to get out of that nightmare, an inning in which he had to throw 40 pitches. After that, his night was done and the Sox were forced to go to the bullpen.

Had Beckham fielded the grounder on the routine double play, Quintana would have thrown just 15 pitches in that inning. Had Gillaspie made his play, Quintana would have gotten out of the inning with a still manageable pitch total of 23. Had either play been made, perhaps the Sox go on to win 2-0. We'll never know.

But those plays were not made, and that's why it's hard to believe the Sox are anything but a pretender this year, despite their hanging around in the muddled American League race.

The Sox are better than they were in 2013, but they still are not contenders. They make too many mistakes and beat themselves too often to be considered a potential playoff team. They've avoided long losing streaks to this point, but I won't be surprised if we see a hope-killing stretch of bad ball sometime in the near future.

A team can only outhit its mistakes for so long.