Friday, May 30, 2014

White Sox All-Star possibilities -- there actually are some for a change

If you've recently been to a White Sox game and paid attention to the left field scoreboard, you know the team always runs an advertisement encouraging fans to vote their favorite "White Sox stars" into the All-Star Game. The advertisement always includes a list of Sox players who appear on this year's ballot.

The list always elicits a bit of a chuckle, as if anyone in their right mind would ever attempt to vote Alejandro De Aza into the All-Star Game. And last year, it would have been embarrassing to say you voted for any of the Sox' position players. None deserved the honor, and none were selected. Pitchers Chris Sale and Jesse Crain represented the club at the 2013 event.

This year is different, though. There actually are three Sox position players worth All-Star consideration. I'd go as far as saying one of them deserves your vote. Here's a list of Sox players who might make the trip to Minneapolis for the July 15 midsummer classic:

1. Alexei Ramirez - He has been the best shortstop in the American League this year. Based on merit, he deserves to start. Too bad he won't. In case you've been in a coma the past few months, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is retiring at the end of the season. The 39-year-old isn't the player he used to be, but there's no doubt the fans will give the future Hall of Famer the starting nod based on sentiment.

But, Ramirez is an easy choice for the next guy in line at shortstop. Entering Friday's play, he's tied for second in the league with a .327 batting average. His OPS is a career-high .843. He's got seven home runs, 36 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. After a poor defensive season last year, he's returned to form this season with just four errors to go along with a host of spectacular plays.

If he you believe in advanced metrics, Ramirez ranks eighth in the AL in offensive WAR, seventh in defensive WAR and fifth in the league in overall WAR. And, oh yeah, he's started all 55 White Sox games at shortstop.

He's the White Sox' MVP this year. He's got my vote.

2. Jose Abreu - The slugging first baseman has been on the disabled list for nearly two weeks, yet he still ranks third in the AL in home runs (15), fourth in RBIs (42), fourth in extra base hits (27) and 10th in total bases (103). The Sox' lineup looks different this year when Abreu is in it. He's a guy that pitchers fear every time he steps in the batters box, and the Sox haven't had that element since Jim Thome left the team.

First base is a crowded position in the American League, though. Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion has had a monster month of May and probably deserves to start, although Detroit's Miguel Cabrera will get the nod based upon his past track record. Albert Pujols (14 home runs) has regained his power stroke this year, and Brandon Moss has had a fine season for Oakland.

There's no shortage of competition among first basemen, so Abreu will need to get back in the lineup soon to have a shot at being selected. Reports indicate he will come off the disabled list the first day he is eligible -- June 2. If Abreu jumps back in and continues hitting like he did the first six or seven weeks of the season, he's got a great chance.

3. Conor Gillaspie - Bet you never thought you'd see Gillaspie's name on a list like this. I'm not going to tell you to vote for Gillaspie to start, because Oakland's Josh Donaldson is the best third baseman in the American League -- both offensively and defensively. In fact, Donaldson is an MVP candidate to this point in the season because he is the best player on a first-place team.

That said, it's hard to ignore Gillaspie's .352/.394/.461 slash line, especially since third base isn't among the stronger positions in the American League. Gillaspie had a two-week stint on the disabled list earlier this year, which means he doesn't have quite enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. But, if he did, he'd be leading the league in hitting right now.

I'm not convinced Gillaspie is going to keep up the pace. Nothing about his track record suggests he will. However, if he stays hot for another couple weeks, he might find himself in Minnesota on July 15.

4. Sale -- The fans don't get to vote for pitchers, and I think Sale is a longshot to be chosen this year because he missed a whole month with an arm injury. But, he's been his usual dominant self when healthy -- 4-0 with a 1.73 ERA in six starts.

If "this one counts," as they say about the All-Star Game now, Sale is one of the pitchers who would give the American League the best opportunity to win. Left-handed hitters are batting .000 against him this season. I could see him being added to the All-Star roster just for the sake of being used as a situational left-hander in the late innings.

That said, I won't be upset if Sale doesn't get chosen this year. Coming off an arm injury, I just assume he not waste any of his bullets in the All-Star Game. As we've said in the past, he's the most important player in the Sox organization, and the team needs him healthy to compete.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Justin Verlander: Are his best days behind him?

To this point in the season, most observers are assuming the Detroit Tigers will win the AL Central Division for the fourth consecutive year.

There are a lot of reasons to believe that assumption is correct. After all, the Tigers have the second-best record in the American League (28-19) entering Tuesday's action, and they possess a five-game lead in the division.

No other AL Central team is above .500. The White Sox (26-27) enter Tuesday in second place, but they are closer to last place than first. Chicago, Kansas City (24-26), Minnesota (23-25) and Cleveland (24-28) are separated in the standings by just 1.5 games.

Is there any reason at all to believe the Tigers can be had this year? Well, you have to look pretty hard, but here's one thing Detroit should be concerned about: Veteran ace Justin Verlander is no longer pitching like a Cy Young award candidate.

The 31-year-old is 5-4 with 4.04 ERA in 11 starts this year. Those numbers are ordinary to say the least, and his peripherals are also not impressive. Verlander's 1.514 WHIP is well above his career mark of 1.203, and above the career-worst 1.403 he posted during his struggling 2008 season.

Moreover, Verlander's K rate has fallen off a cliff. He has fanned just 50 batters in 71.1 IP this year. That's not good for a pitcher who has averaged roughly one strikeout per inning in every season since 2009.

Verlander's month of May has been terrible. He's 2-3 with a 6.03 ERA in his last five starts, and he has surrendered five earned runs or more in each of his last three outings. That's not like Justin Verlander.

Maybe this is a just a slump, but Verlander was coming off a "down" 2013 by his standards, in which he went 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA. In fact, if you look at the last five years you can see that Verlander is on a decline since his 2011 peak:

201018-9, 3.37 ERA 219 Ks in 224.1 IP1.163 WHIP
201124-5, 2.40 ERA251Ks in 251 IP 0.920 WHIP
201217-8, 2.64 ERA239 Ks in 238.1 IP1.057 WHIP
201313-12, 3.46 ERA217 Ks in 218.1 IP1.315 WHIP
20145-4, 4.04 ERA50 Ks in 71.1 IP1.514 WHIP

From these numbers, we can't say Verlander is bad now.  However,  he's starting to profile more as a No. 3 starter than the ace he has been in the past. There's really not much question Max Scherzer has overtaken him as the Tigers' best pitcher.

Starting pitching is the edge Detroit enjoys over the rest of the division, but that advantage becomes a little less if Verlander's day to pitch becomes more of a coin toss than a likely Detroit victory. That's where things stand now. It remains to be seen whether Verlander can regain his ace form. The Tigers need him to if they want to make it back to the World Series and win it.

But, even if Verlander is no longer an ace, it remains a open question whether the other teams in the AL Central, all of which have significant warts, will play well enough to take advantage anyway.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Chris Sale dominates Yankees in return from disabled list

Under normal circumstances, you get excited when a pitcher from your hometown team is throwing a perfect game or a no-hitter.

That wasn't the case for me Thursday night as I watched Chris Sale retire the first 17 men he faced, including nine strikeouts, in his return from the disabled list against the New York Yankees.

Sale was on a strict pitch count, although Sox manager Robin Ventura refused to say what it was. But you knew Sale was approaching that predetermined figure when Sox reliever Zach Putnam was warming up in the bullpen with the Yankees batting in the top of the sixth inning and nobody on base.

I knew if Sale made it through six innings without allowing a baserunner, Ventura would remove him from the game and then we'd have the meatheads lighting up the phone lines and rioting in the streets, screaming about a missed opportunity at a perfect game. The meatheads wouldn't understand that Sale hadn't pitched a game in over a month, and it's incumbent on the Sox to be careful with their ace -- who is still without question the most valuable player the team has in its organization. No way you're going to leave a pitcher who is just back from the DL out there for 100-plus pitches in pursuit of a no-hitter. No way.

I wanted to avoid listening to that moronic debate, so I was actually relieved when New York left fielder Zoilo Almonte singled sharply to center field with two outs in the sixth inning, ending Sale's run at perfection. The Sox lefty finished off the inning with a strikeout of Jacoby Ellsbury, and that cleared the way for Ventura to go to the bullpen without any controversy about pulling a pitcher who had a perfect game going.

Putnam, Daniel Webb and Ronald Belisario combined to cover the final nine outs. The Sox beat the Yankees, 3-2, and Sale improved his season record to 4-0.

Sale's final line: Six innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, no runs, one hit, no walks, 86 pitches, 54 of them for strikes. Sale threw first-pitch strike to 13 of the 19 men he faced. He had command of all of his pitches, and New York had little chance to score while he was on the mound. Aside from Almonte's single, there was maybe one other ball hit hard against Sale the whole night.

Best of all, Sale left the mound healthy and feeling good, which is the most important thing for the Sox moving forward.

Would the White Sox be able to part with Paul Konerko?

Baseball players rarely make farewell tours. For every Mariano Rivera -- who was still great in his last season -- there are tons guys who want to keep playing, but are told they can't cut it so pack it up.

White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko is adding more and more evidence to the case that he can't cut it. Since Jose Abreu has been out of the lineup, he's gone 2-for-15. Yes, both hits drove in runs, and yes, one of them was a two-run homer crushed to center at Kaufmann Stadium. That still leaves Konerko with a .133/.133/.333 batting line. That's after his .208/.259/.333 start as a part-time DH/pinch hitter.

Maybe it's hard to come off the bench and perform in sporadic duty. And maybe Konerko needs some time to settle back into a starting rhythm again. I think to believe those excuses you really have to ignore the fact that Paulie has been terrible since June of 2012.

If Konerko can't hold up to the rigors of everyday play anymore, and he can't be effective as a part-timer, he's got no value to the team outside of his role of ambassador, clubhouse leader, historical treasure, mascot, or whatever it is he was brought back for.

When this season looked for sure like it would be a lost one for the Sox, that might have been acceptable. But besides the fact that even at two games under .500, the Sox are still nominally in the playoff picture, the team just has better uses for Konerko's at-bats and roster spot than letting him take an extended bow before the fans.

They might want to use those at-bats to give Alejandro De Aza a better chance of righting his ship so he can be traded for something useful. Or the Sox might want to keep Marcus Semien's bat from atrophying on the bench.

If third base prospect Matt Davidson turns his season around at Triple-A Charlotte, he could begin his seasoning at the big league level later this year, and current third baseman Conor Gillaspie certainly doesn't deserve to be pulled from the lineup. 

It's possible the Sox lose 10 in a row, or 15 of 20, or 20 of 25 and put an end to any idea of contending. And maybe that opens the door for trades of De Aza, Adam Dunn, Gordon Beckham and even Dayan Viciedo.

By that point, more younger players might have pushed themselves into the picture, like Micah Johnson. And despite their earlier MLB failures, it would probably be prudent of the Sox to give Jordan Danks and Josh Phegley more chances to try adjusting to a higher level with both not having much left to prove at Triple-A.

As unlikely as it might be that Danks or Phegley can stick, there's a chance they might, while one way or another, this is going to be the end for Konerko.

It'd be nice if it didn't come down to another situation like the one the Sox were in 21 years ago when they unceremoniously released Carlton Fisk. Fisk believed up until the end that he could still play, though I don't think many other people believed it. Fisk had played well as recently as Konerko has.

Perhaps Konerko could pick his own spot. As a long-time team fixture, he deserves to do that more than John Kruk did during his season with the Sox.

Maybe the decision is going to be for everyone to not make a decision. To wait for an injury, or just play out the string. And maybe the Sox just want to give Konerko that luxury more than they want to move on.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Don't wanna get picked off here in this situation: Jarrod Dyson edition

As we've noted in blogs past, the first base coach's main job is to tell baserunners that they "don't wanna get picked off here in this situation."

It seems like a ridiculous statement on its face. Nobody wants to get picked off in any situation, and you wouldn't think major league players would need to be reminded of that. Nevertheless, you still occasionally see pickoffs happen at inexplicable times.

Take Jarrod Dyson, for example. The Kansas City outfielder's baserunning gaffe in the ninth inning on Monday took the Royals right out of a potential rally and allowed the White Sox to escape Kauffman Stadium with a 7-6 victory.

In that ninth inning, the Royals had runners at first and second base with one out. Dyson was at second base representing the tying run. Noted Sox killer Billy Butler, who was 3 for 4 to that point in the game and possesses 84 RBIs in 120 career games against Chicago, was at the plate. The on-deck hitter was Alex Gordon, who was coming off a four-hit game on Sunday. Rookie reliever Jake Petricka, who previously had no career saves (and only one career save in the minor leagues), was on the mound in place of the injured Matt Lindstrom for the Sox.

The whole situation was set up nicely for the Royals to at least tie the game, if not win it. Instead, Dyson strayed too far off second base. Petricka whirled around and caught Dyson in a rundown, where he was tagged for the second out of the inning.

The trail runner, Alcides Escobar, did reach second base on the play, so Butler still had a chance for a game-tying RBI. But I'll bet the rookie Petricka felt a little more comfortable with two outs, knowing he was just one pitch away from recording the third out and earning the save. He retired Butler on a routine grounder to second baseman Gordon Beckham, and the Sox escaped with the win.

What Dyson was thinking I'll never know. Stealing third in that situation isn't necessarily a bad play with one out. If Dyson had stolen, with his speed he could have scored the tying run on a fly ball of medium depth. However, when representing the tying run in the last inning you better make sure the pitcher is delivering to the plate before straying too far off base.

A dumb play like that is the exact reason base coaches make seemingly asinine comments reminding runners of the situation. The White Sox and their fans are greatful for Dyson's stupidity.

Hey, Dyson, you don't wanna get picked off there in that situation. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Best-laid plans (and platoons) going awry for Sox

One of the big ways the White Sox were hoping to improve their offense this season was by taking a group of guys that were each a net-negative when playing full time, and partnering them with someone who could perhaps compliment the other's weaknesses.

Thus Adam Dunn, who has struggled to hit left-handers, would be joined with Paul Konerko as a two-headed designated hitter. Alejandro De Aza's defense would look better in left field than in center, and with his own slight deficiency against lefties, could maybe be combined with the poor-fielding-but-southpaw-mashing Dayan Viciedo.

Things started out well. Dunn is hitting a respectable .246/.388/.458, even with a recent power outage. Konerko has flailed in his new role (.192/.241/.309), but that was somewhat made up for by Viciedo, for now excelling (.291/.352/.447) while being pressed into a bigger role when right fielder Avisail Garcia was lost for the season.

Unfortunately that's left De Aza to struggle miserably (.190/.248/.306). First he was needed in left field, but even with Moises Sierra (.303/.351/.424) added, De Aza was still the best choice to fill in when center fielder Adam Eaton missed time on the disabled list.

Eaton is back, and De Aza with his track record probably remains the best option to play as a fourth outfielder on this team, at least as long as the Sox are on the fringes of contention. He's otherwise having a season that would have him designated for assignment (which might yet happen).

Now a new crisis has emerged. First baseman Jose Abreu -- the team's best and most exciting hitter -- is headed to the DL. In the meantime, it looks like Dunn and Konerko will be pushed back into the full-time roles in which they struggled to produce value a year ago. And if Viciedo and Sierra both cool off along with that surprising catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Adrian Nieto?

Things could get ugly fast with Abreu gone.

That's not to say it was the wrong idea for the Sox to try cobbling together something from what they had on hand instead of overpaying for a free agent who might not do any better than a healthy platoon pair. They've been one of the highest-scoring teams in the American League by effectively playing a shell game around injuries and the limitations of the guys populating their roster.

There might just be so many injuries now that the Sox are looking at turning over a series of empty shells.

It goes without saying the Sox hope Abreu is back soon, and that Eaton stays healthy, because the chewing gum that's holding together the rest of the offense is getting stretched too thin.

Edwin Jackson pretty much is what he's always been

Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson has quietly strung together a few solid starts to kick off May, and after a not-so-hot April has brought his overall numbers (3.98 ERA, 3-3 record) back to general standards of respectability. That's pretty much what the Cubs paid for when they gave him a four-year, $52 million contract two winters ago.

An optimist would look at his 1.80 ERA so far this month, the improved 8.1 K/9IP rate (vs. 6.9/K9 last year), and the fact that Jackson has only given up two home runs this year (for a 0.3/9IP rate) and think the veteran right-hander is finally turning it on. After all, his fielding-independent ERA -- what we'd expect his ERA would be given average defense and luck -- is almost a full run below his actual ERA (3.03).

We've already seen the pessimist's version of this story with Jackson before. Like back in 2009 in Detroit, when he tore through the first half of the season with a 2.52 ERA, before his K rate dropped, his hit rate soared and he was pummeled for an ERA of 5.07 the second half of the season.

Cubs fans watched it unfold last year when Jackson finished June with a 5.75 ERA, forcing laments of early buyer's remorse. Then he dominated July with a 1.83 ERA ... before being battered with a 5.74 ERA the rest of the year.

To say Jackson is streaky is an understatement, but he's also been remarkably consistent in what we can expect from his overall body of work.

Before long we can expect Jackson to give up a few more hits, including more that leave the ballpark. His strikeouts will dip a little bit, and depending on his luck, will probably finish with around 190 innings of work with an ERA between 3.75 and 4.50. Maybe a little lower if he adds another long hot streak. Maybe a little higher if he goes cold like he did the last two months of last year, or gets hung out to dry in a start or two.

And again, this is exactly what the Cubs paid for. If Jackson were likely to keep the high K rate, stop walking guys and get more groundball outs -- like, say, Cliff Lee -- he probably would have gotten $100 million as a free agent instead of what the Cubs paid.

Jackson's ability is always going to frustrate people who expect more, maybe tantalized by the dominant stretches.

Enjoy this stretch for what it is, while it lasts.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Checking in with former White Sox pitchers ... are any of them missed?

We know the White Sox had a respectable pitching staff in 2013, despite a miserable 63-99 record. The team numbers (3.98 ERA, 1.329 WHIP, 4.13 FIP), while not championship-caliber, were not terrible either.

We also know those numbers are down across the board here in 2014, even though the Sox (20-22) are still hanging around .500 going into this weekend's series against the Houston Astros. So far this season, Sox pitchers have posted a 4.74 ERA. The WHIP sits at 1.476, with a 4.44 FIP.

The Sox have dealt with a couple of key pitching injuries this year. Ace Chris Sale has been limited to four starts, and reliever Nate Jones has appeared in just two games. Both pitchers remain on the disabled list. Other pitchers have underperformed severely. Rookie Erik Johnson couldn't find the strike zone and earned himself a demotion back to Charlotte. Free-agent signee Felipe Paulino was a disaster in the rotation and eventually ended up on the disabled list.

In addition, several pieces of the 2013 pitching staff are no longer here for various reasons. Some were traded as salary dumps. Some were traded for young position players to get the rebuilding process started. Another left via free agency.

The Sox pitching staff is weaker this year because of a combination of factors, one of which is the fact that some guys who helped the team in the past are now elsewhere. But as I look at the list of pitchers who were here last year but are gone now, I can't say I miss any of them all that much.

Here's a closer look at those six pitchers and how they're doing now. All statistics are entering Friday's games:

Jake Peavy (Boston)

South Side departure: The veteran was traded last July in a three-team deal that netted the Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia.

Current numbers: 1-1, 3.94 ERA, 1.458 WHIP in eight starts

Is he missed?: People have noted Peavy is the only player still healthy who was involved in last July's deal. Garcia is on the DL for the Sox, and Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias also is on the shelf. But, while Peavy's ERA is decent, I expect it to go up if he continues pitching the way he has. He's walked 27 men in 48 innings this year. His WHIP is well above his career norm of 1.184. The soon-to-be 33-year-old is on the back side of his career. I think the Sox traded him at the right time. Even with Garcia sidelined with a serious shoulder injury, he's far more likely to help the Sox over the next five or six years than an aging pitcher like Peavy.

Gavin Floyd (Atlanta)

South Side departure: An elbow injury limited the veteran to just five starts in 2013. He signed a free-agent deal with the Braves over the offseason.

Current numbers: 0-1, 2.70 ERA in two starts

Is he missed?: Floyd has made it back from Tommy John surgery and recently joined the Atlanta rotation. I've heard some people argue the Sox should have brought Floyd back on an incentive-laden deal, and that he would look good at the back of the rotation right now. That's probably true, but can you imagine what people would have said if the Sox had re-signed Floyd in December or January? The fans would have been howling about the team wasting resources on an injured player.

Hector Santiago (L.A. Angels)

South Side departure: The left-hander was traded over the offseason as part of a three-team deal that netted the Sox center fielder Adam Eaton.

Current numbers: 0-6, 5.09 ERA in eight appearances (seven starts)

Is he missed?: The Sox did a good job of selling high on Santiago, who made 23 starts and posted a respectable 3.56 ERA in 2013. But, Santiago is nothing more than a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, and he lacks the command to be a consistent pitcher. The Sox recognized he was unlikely to duplicate his success and flipped him for Eaton, who is the center fielder and leadoff hitter of the present and future. While there are injury concerns with Eaton, I don't think anyone would argue his upside is far greater than Santiago's. That's especially true since Santiago was recently removed from the Angels' rotation for ineffectiveness.

Addison Reed (Arizona)

South Side departure: The closer was dealt to the Diamonbacks straight up for third base prospect Matt Davidson.

Current numbers: 1-3, 5.03 ERA, 1.271 WHIP, 11 for 13 in save opportunities

Is he missed?:  As long as Davidson continues to struggle in Triple-A, people are going to continue to criticize the decision to trade Reed. That's especially true because Matt Lindstrom has been hit-or-miss as a closer for the Sox this season. However, it's fair to say Reed has had Arizona fans reaching for the antacid as well this year. Look at that high ERA and WHIP. It's not what you want from a closer. I like Reed, and I'm not going to try to convince anyone that he's not a decent bullpen guy. He is. However, he was never dominant and shouldn't have been considered an untouchable by any means. It is way too early to give up on the 22-year-old Davidson, and it's still way too early to judge that trade.

Matt Thornton (N.Y. Yankees)

South Side departure: His salary was dumped last July in a trade with Boston. The Sox acquired outfielder Brandon Jacobs from the Red Sox. Jacobs was later sent to the Diamondbacks as a throw-in as part of the Eaton/Santiago trade. Thornton signed with the Yankees over the offseason.

Current numbers: 0-1, 5.40 ERA, 16 games, 6.2 IP, 1.800 WHIP

Is he missed?: Thornton is nothing more than a situational left-hander these days. His K rate is about half of what it was during his White Sox heyday from 2008-2010. He's 37 years old. He's got a lot of mileage on his arm. By this time next year, he'll probably be out of baseball. He's had a nice career as a relief pitcher, but it's all but over now.

Jesse Crain (Houston)

South Side departure: He was traded (while on the disabled list) last July as part of a conditional deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. He never threw a pitch with Tampa Bay and signed with Houston as a free agent over the offseason.

Current numbers: None. He hasn't thrown a pitch since June 29, 2013, when he was still with the White Sox.

Is he missed?: Crain had an 0.74 ERA in 38 appearances at the time the Sox put him on the disabled list last year. He was always good when healthy, but you can't say you miss a guy who hasn't been on a big-league mound in nearly a year.

As a Sox fan, are there any of these guys you would take back if you could? Reed would help, but I think I'd rather have Davidson in the organization, all things considered. Even though the pitching is generally weaker this year, the Sox have made more good moves than bad over the past 12 months.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

White Sox designate Jeff Keppinger for assignment

In a move that surprised many observers, the White Sox on Wednesday designated infielder Jeff Keppinger for assignment.

Keppinger, 34, hit a career-best .325 two years ago with the Tampa Bay Rays, but he slumped to a .253/.283/.317 slash line for the 2013 White Sox. He was limited by a right shoulder problem, which ultimately cut his season short and required surgery. He was slow to recover from the injury over the offseason and appeared in just six spring training games before being placed on the disabled list on March 30.

Keppinger has been on a rehab assignment since May 2 at Double-A Birmingham, where he hit .256 in 11 games. With the rehab period set to expire, the Sox decided they'd rather cut Keppinger loose than put him on the major league roster.

The decision is surprising because Keppinger is in just the second year of a three-year, $12 million deal he signed with the Sox prior to the start of the 2013 season. With the move, the Sox are opting to eat approximately $7.5 million dollars, which is a departure from business as usual on the South Side.

Typically in situations such as this, you would expect the Sox to trot Keppinger out to third base every day for the next two months, hoping he would play well enough to entice a contending team to take his salary off their hands.

Not this time. Instead, they recognized there is no place for Keppinger on the roster.

Conor Gillaspie has played well at third base for the Sox this season, and the team has hopes that prospect Matt Davidson will reverse his struggles at the plate and eventually become the long-term answer at the position. There's no room at second base for Keppinger, either, with younger players Gordon Beckham, Marcus Semien and Leury Garcia all ahead of him on the organization's depth chart.

Not to mention, the Sox recently promoted second baseman Micah Johnson, one of their better prospects, to Triple-A Charlotte. With Davidson and middle infield prospect Carlos Sanchez also toiling in Charlotte, there isn't even any room for Keppinger in the Triple-A infield. There is no point in giving Keppinger at-bats over any of these younger infielders, at any level, so it is the right baseball decision to send him packing.

In the past, the Sox have at times let economics get in the way of making the right baseball decision. In this case, I applaud GM Rick Hahn and the Sox front office for doing the right thing. At one point in time, signing Keppinger looked like a good move. It just didn't work out, but at least the Sox aren't compounding the mistake by keeping a useless player around because of money.

Keppinger is out of the organization, and the Sox rebuilding plan is better off for it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Anthony Rizzo's interesting rebound season (so far)

Cubs first baseman and franchise cornerstone Anthony Rizzo is enjoying a resurgent season, and it's interesting how he's doing it.

Last year, Rizzo disappointed with a .233/.323/.419 batting line. Not what you want from your first baseman, even if it does come with a good defensive reputation. The two main culprits for the diminished output seemed to be at paltry .258 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and an even more anemic .189/.282/.342 result against left-handers.

It always seemed like the BABIP would come back up a little since Rizzo has hit for good averages in the minors. While he isn't difficult to strike out, he also doesn't have severe issues making contact. And sure enough, Rizzo's BABIP is .299 to start the week, helping lift him to a .283/.399/.488 line so far this season.

The more interesting thing to me is that this year, Rizzo is batting .317/.408/.561 against left-handers, better than the .267/.394/.453 he's posting against right-handed pitchers -- basically the reverse of the results from the rest of his career. His BABIP is .357 against southpaws, while it's only .275 against righties.

Rizzo is only 153 plate appearances into the season, so instead of instructing us that he's figured out how to hit left-handers, the better assumption is that batting-average driven numbers are more likely to regress to something closer to what he's done in the past.

If Rizzo ultimately settles in with an overall BABIP around .290 this will still end up being a pretty solid comeback season for him, even if he doesn't finish it with an OPS around .900 that he's been dancing around most of the year so far.

To do that, he's going to have to keep up his power output, which faded on him when the weather got warmer last year, and show that his better contact against left-handers is for real.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Jordan Danks down because Moises Sierra might be a better hitter

There was probably some amount of rejoicing among White Sox fans when Jordan Danks and his .098/.229/.195 batting line were demoted to Triple-A Charlotte earlier this week.

The White Sox recently added Moises Sierra to their roster.
Danks has a glove that can carry him as a fifth outfielder on the roster of a good team. He's also made enough slow, steady progress through the minors offensively that he's earned an extended big-league look under the right circumstances. Those circumstances include a wave of injuries to the Sox outfield, and frankly a lack of better options.

Two things mucked up Danks' big opportunity. First there was his awful showing at the plate, which would have been too much to stomach even if the Sox were 10 games or so under .500 and more squarely in "playing for next year" mode. The second thing is the pickup of Moises Sierra off waivers from the Blue Jays.

Sierra didn't end up on waivers because he's much of a prospect. He ended up there because he spent his time in Toronto this year making Danks look like Mike Trout with his .059/.086/.059 "hitting" performance. And Sierra can't play center field.

In Danks and Sierra we're still talking about two guys who have combined for 629 sporadic big-league at-bats, so we should probably look at what they've done in the minors to get a better idea of who might hit better.


Their overall work makes Danks look like a better player, but that's not really fair to Sierra, who began playing ball as a 17-year-old free agent out of the Dominican Republic. Danks was drafted out of college and began as 21-year-old.

So here's what they've done in Triple-A:


Now three things jump out at you. The first is that Danks has played A LOT more games at Triple-A than Sierra. Which makes sense because Danks is 27 years old and has seen his career stalled. The second is that Danks has a lot of problems making contact with his low average and high strikeouts despite spending four seasons in Charlotte. The third thing is that Sierra has more power. Power that's developed as he's gotten older, and might develop even more as he's only 25 years old.

Speaking strictly about offensive potential, to me it looks like Sierra has more of it.

Everything else isn't equal, though. Danks might be the better overall player. In fact, because Danks' glove gives him a higher floor as a player, I'd bet on him being the more likely of the two to be with the Sox two years from now. Not as a starter, but as that fifth outfielder.

At the same time, Adam Eaton will be back, and the job in center is his. With Avisail Garcia out for the season, the Sox have more time to devote to player development. Particularly in the corner outfield spots, where Danks' glove has less value and where teams want more offense. And while nobody loves Alejandro De Aza's defense, he's good enough to be the primary backup in center, where Leury Garcia can also presumably play. These are probably the best back-of-the-roster choices the Sox can make with Paul Konerko taking up a mostly ceremonial spot.

Sending Sierra away means throwing him back on the waiver wire, which the Sox are understandably reluctant to do given their organizational lack of depth in the outfield. So for now Sierra gets his turn to audition, and Danks will go back to Charlotte where he'll probably have to hit better than Sierra does in Chicago to merit a callback without a trade or another injury opening that door for him.

Unless something better comes along than either Sierra or Danks.

Friday, May 9, 2014

It's time for the Cubs to get rid of Darwin Barney

Outside of shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs have gone with a musical chairs approach to their infield. Between second and third base they've rotated Luis Valbuena (20 starts), Emilio Bonifacio (12), Mike Olt (16) and Darwin Barney (16).

Bonifacio has also gotten time in the outfield, but this is a pretty even job-sharing arrangement. That makes some sense in that the Cubs have a lot of guys they're trying to sort out, even if not for their direct benefit, then to give scouts from other teams a look-see at players so they can be peddled for something interesting in a trade.

Olt is a former top prospect not far from the form that made him one, so getting his career back on track would be huge. Valbuena and Bonifacio are playing like credible stopgaps or bench options should a better team come calling for one of them. Maybe the Cubs will like Bonifacio enough to hammer out an affordable contract extension.

Barney is hitting like one of the worst hitters in all of baseball. Which he is outside of pitchers and backup catchers. That's not just his meager 63 plate appearances this year (.127/.226/.181, so emphasis on meager). That's been his career in the majors (.242/.241/.331). That's really what his body of work in the minors would have suggested (.288/.337/.378).

There's his glove, which is excellent at second base and would probably play well at short or third. But as good as it is, it won't carry him as a starter at any position, and you'd really rather he never have to hit, making him a second-best utility infield option on a decent bench. That means he's not likely to bring the Cubs back much value in trade.

After making $2.3 million this season, I think it's also safe to say that if he's not sent to another team, the Cubs won't be tendering him a contract and taking him to arbitration for next season.

Barney simply has no value to the Cubs right now, and keeping him around is eating into something the team has right now that's very valuable, and that's playing time for those other guys who might play their way into the long-term picture, or at least boost their short-term value.

Even as a "rebuilding" team, the Cubs have other, better options. They should go with them.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Paul Konerko gets a parting gift, then gives a parting shot

We don't often say nice things about North Siders on this blog, but give the Cubs credit for a classy gesture before Tuesday night's crosstown game at Wrigley Field.

White Sox captain Paul Konerko, playing his last game on the North Side, was presented with a green No. 14 placard from the Wrigley Field scoreboard by Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Fans from both teams applauded, and it was nice moment recognizing Konerko's long and successful career with the Sox.

I'll bet the Cubs are glad Konerko is finally retiring at the end of the season. The veteran first baseman has tormented the Cubs with big hit after big hit for years. In 75 career games against the Cubs, Konerko has posted a .300/.361/.592 slash line with 20 home runs and 59 RBIs. That's a pretty good track record.

On Wednesday night, the crosstown series shifted to U.S. Cellular Field, and Konerko received what will probably be his last starting nod in a game against the Cubs. He responded with two doubles, including perhaps the biggest hit of the night in the White Sox's 8-3 victory.

With the Sox leading 4-3 in the fifth inning, Konerko stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and ripped a three-run double into the left-field corner off Cubs starter Travis Wood. Later in the inning, Konerko scored on an RBI single by Marcus Semien to cap a four-run rally, and the Sox coasted from there to their fourth straight win overall and third consecutive win over the Cubs.

For what it's worth, the Sox have clinched the 2014 Crosstown Cup with this victory. The fourth and final game of the series will be Thursday night at the Cell. The Cubs will be starting a right-handed pitcher, Jake Arrieta, so that means Konerko probably will not be in the starting lineup.

No matter. He delivered his parting shot to the Sox's crosstown rival with that laser-beam double on Wednesday night. It was a fitting end to a career spent beating up on Cubs pitching.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

When Conor Gillaspie returns from the DL, who will the White Sox send down?

White Sox third baseman Conor Gillaspie is on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Charlotte and could come off the disabled list as soon as Wednesday.

Before suffering a bruised hand, Gillaspie was hitting .302 with 12 RBIs in 16 games. Upon his return, he's going to take over for Marcus Semien as the Sox's regular third baseman. And unlike earlier in the year, there isn't much playing time available for Semien at second base, now that Gordon Beckham is back off the disabled list.

So, what do the Sox do with Semien? Is he the guy they send back to the minors when Gillaspie is activated? Or will outfielder Jordan Danks or all-purpose player Leury Garcia be optioned? It's not an easy call, and there is more than likely some internal debate going on among White Sox brass.

If the fans had their way, Beckham would probably be the guy shown the door -- even with his 4-for-5 performance and go-ahead home run in Tuesday's 5-1 victory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The disappointing second baseman has become a bit of a whipping boy for fans on Internet message boards, but let's be realistic: The Sox aren't going to cut Beckham loose now or look to trade him when he's just coming off an injury and his value is at its lowest.

For better or for worse, Beckham is the regular second baseman until at least July. Defensively, he's still the Sox's best option at the position. If he rebuilds his value by midseason, he could be shipped off at the trade deadline to clear a starting spot for either Semien or Micah Johnson. But that's a question for another time.

When Gillaspie returns, one of Semien, Danks or Garcia is going to be gone. Of the three, Danks is perhaps the weakest player, but he needs to remain on the roster for as long as Adam Eaton is on the disabled list. With Eaton on the shelf, Danks is the only good defensive outfielder the Sox have. Without him, you're looking at a starting outfield of Moises Sierra, Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo -- with Garcia, an infielder by trade, and Adam Dunn, a designated hitter by trade, filling backup roles. Not acceptable. If I'm making the decision, Danks stays despite his ugly .098/.229/.195 slash line.

That leaves Semien and Garcia. A lot of Sox fans would disagree with me here, but I think Semien goes to Charlotte for more playing time. Garcia stays as the backup infielder.

It's tough because Semien has shown a flair for the dramatic this season. He's had some big hits for the Sox -- 15 of his 16 RBIs have come in the sixth inning or later. That said, I can't ignore his.213/.267/.346 slash line, nor can I ignore his league-leading 45 strikeouts.

I like Semien and think he could be an everyday player in the majors at some point in the future. I just don't think that day is today. I don't think he would benefit much from sitting on the major league bench, so I support sending him to Triple-A and having him work on closing some of the holes in that swing. Garcia, to me, will never be more than a utility infielder anyway, so I'm fine with leaving him right where he is.

For me, Semien's development is a greater priority than Garcia's development. He's the better of the two players. Semien's the one who needs the everyday at-bats in my book, so the Sox should put him in a place where he can get them. That place, right now, is Charlotte.

We'll probably find out sometime in the next 48 hours whether the Sox agree with me.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Wins coming easy for Daniel Webb, not so much for Jeff Samardzija

Quick, name the pitcher who leads the White Sox staff in wins ...

It's a tie between relief pitcher Daniel Webb and disabled ace Chris Sale, who hasn't pitched since April 17. Both pitchers are 3-0.

Webb picked up his third win of the season Monday in the Sox's 3-1 victory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. I make note of this only because I've rarely seen a pitcher do so little work in earning three wins. Webb has recorded a combined total of five outs in those three games. On two occasions, he's picked up a victory after pitching to and retiring just one hitter.

A summary of Webb's three wins:

April 15 vs. Boston -- Webb enters in the top of the ninth inning with the score tied, 1-1, runners on first and second and two outs. He throws one pitch and retires Boston's Mike Carp on a tapper back to the mound. The Sox score an unearned run in the bottom of the ninth and prevail, 2-1. For Webb, one pitch, one win.

May 4 at Cleveland -- Webb comes on with the Sox trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth. He gets two outs quickly, then walks a guy and gives up a single before getting out of the inning with no runs allowed. The Sox score three in the ninth on a home run by Dayan Viciedo. The Sox win, 4-3, and Webb is 2-0.

May 5 at Cubs -- Webb enters in the bottom of the 11th inning with the score tied, 1-1. There are runners on first and second with two outs. He falls behind in the count, 3-0, to Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro before rallying to strike out the free swinging Castro on a high-and-tight fastball. The Sox score two in the 12th, and Webb is rewarded with yet another win for recording a grand total of one out.

Contrast this with Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who started Monday's game and went nine innings while allowing just an unearned run in the first inning. Samardzija has been one of the best pitchers in the National League through the first month of the season, and he was masterful against the Sox.

What does he have to show for it? An 0-3 record, despite a 1.62 ERA and despite giving up three runs or less in each of his first seven starts.

Quite a few members of the Chicago media are wondering when poor Samardzija is finally going to be rewarded with a few wins for his fine pitching. My guess is Samardzija will start winning once the Cubs trade him to a contender this July.

If you're Samardzija, there isn't much you can do when you've got a struggling team behind you, other than just keep pitching and hope for a change in luck. It's just humorous that a guy like Webb can have three wins for doing so little, while Samardzija can't catch a break despite being far and away the Cubs' best player to this point in the season.

Friday, May 2, 2014

White Sox can't be disappointed with their April performance

I know a 14-15 record isn't the stuff that championship dreams are made of, but if you're a realistic White Sox fan, you have to be pleased with the way the team has hung in there through the first month of the season.

The Sox spent most of April playing against playoff teams from last season (Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Tampa Bay), plus a couple other teams that contended in the American League in 2013 (Kansas City, Texas). They endured injuries to key players such as Chris Sale, Avisail Garcia and Nate Jones, yet they stayed afloat against that difficult schedule.

Surprisingly, the South Siders enter May leading the American League in runs scored (154) and hits (275). They are second in the league in batting average (.269), slugging percentage (.431) and OPS (.764). They rank third in doubles (58), triples (6) and  home runs (32). And perhaps the greatest surprise of them all is the Sox managed to get all 16 of their scheduled April home games in without a single postponement.

As the calendar turns to May, here's a look back at the month that was:

The Great News

1. Jose Abreu looks like the real deal: a .270/.336/.617 slash line with 10 home runs, 8 doubles and 32 RBIs. As we've mentioned before, he won't produce like that every month, but there is plenty of reason to believe Abreu is a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter.

2. Adam Eaton has played like the center fielder and leadoff hitter the Sox have been seeking for several years. Eaton has posted a .364 OBP with 20 runs scored in his first 24 games, and he's saved his pitchers some headaches with some outstanding plays in the outfield.

3. Tyler Flowers, for a change, isn't playing like a stiff. No way he hits .354 all year, but I'd be happy with .254. Flowers has changed his approach. In the past, most of the few hits he had went for extra bases. This year, not so. He's got 29 hits, 26 of which are singles. Last year, Flowers did not collect his 26th single of the season until July 25. Flowers looks to content to just try to get on base and turn the lineup over. Works for me.

The Good News

1. Alexei Ramirez is a different player than he was in 2013. We've talked previously about his hitting (.351/.375/.535). This was by far the best offensive April of his career. But perhaps more importantly, Ramirez has started playing good defense again. He committed only one error in April, after piling up 22 errors last year.

2. Dayan Viciedo has stepped up offensively to fill the void left by Garcia's absence. His slash is .348/.410/.528 with a team-best 11 doubles. Can you remember the last time Viciedo drew 10 walks in a month? That's probably never happened. A more patient approach at the plate has paid dividends. We stop short of putting Viciedo's performance in the "great" category because he's been a butcher in right field. It's fortunate the Sox have Eaton to patrol center field, because the corner outfield spots are weak points for the Sox defensively.

3. Adam Dunn is playing well enough that the Sox might be able to get out from underneath his contract with a midseason trade. Dunn is slashing .269/.402/.513 with five home runs and four doubles. Keep that up for another couple months and some team might want Dunn's bat for the stretch drive.

The Bad News

1.Sale is on the disabled list. The ace went 3-0 with a 2.30 ERA in four starts before being sidelined with a flexor strain in his pitching arm. I'm still not happy with the Sox for allowing Sale to throw 127 pitches on a cold night April 17 against Boston. He hasn't been on the mound since. It goes without saying the Sox can't hang in the race if Sale isn't healthy.

2. Garcia has lost a full year of development due to the torn labrum in his left shoulder. Garcia is a big part of the Sox's rebuilding plan. This was to be the 22-year-old's first full year in the big leagues, but now he faces a lengthy rehab process. It's uncertain what kind of player he will be when he returns. This is the sort of injury that can rob a hitter of some power. It's a concern, no question.

3. The bullpen remains unsettled a month into the season. Matt Lindstrom has been up and down as a closer, and I wouldn't expect him to remain in that role the whole season. The Sox would probably like a younger pitcher, such as Daniel Webb, to step up and grab that role, but it hasn't happened yet. Jones' DL stint isn't helping matters. Left-handed relief has been a weakness, as Donnie Veal was designated for assignment and veteran Scott Downs has struggled. After a rough start, Ronald Belisario has settled down and allowed only one unearned run over his last five outings covering eight innings.

The Ugly News

1. The Sox gambled that Felipe Paulino was healthy enough to be a serviceable veteran arm in their rotation. The gamble is looking like a fail right now as Paulino got lit up for 23 earned runs on 35 hits in 18.1 innings over four starts. Paulino is now on the disabled list with a swollen 11.29 ERA.

2. Walks. The Sox have issued 130 of them, more than any other team in the American League. I hate walks. They are my biggest pet peeve in baseball. There is no defense for the walk. Sure, if you throw the ball over the plate, the batter might hit it hard, but at least you give the defense a chance to make a play. Walks are just a free 90 feet, and they breathe life into the opposition's offense. The Sox have to throw more strikes and get ahead of more hitters.

3. Alejandro De Aza. He hit three home runs the first three games of the season, but that's about the lone bright spot. The .185/.255/.359 slash represents one of the worst months the left fielder has had since joining the Sox. With any luck, he'll heat up with the weather. His bat has been a sore spot.

So, what will May hold? Well, the Sox have 10 games in the next 16 days against the Cubs (9-17), the Diamondbacks (9-22) and the Astros (9-19). Those are three of the four worst teams in baseball entering Friday's play. If the Sox can win six or seven of those 10 games, they can stay in the AL Central race at least until June. If the Sox lose to those teams, well, that obviously would be a disappointment.