Crazy season comes to an end

Words to describe the 2008 Chicago White Sox season: Frustrating, slow, dramatic and yet, very successful.

One of the most tumultuous seasons in recent Sox memory is finally over and it couldn’t have ended in more fitting fashion: the Sox lost to the Tampa Bay Rays 6-2 with two solo home runs and about 75 pop ups.

No one can fault these guys for what they did this season. After an extremely dissappointing 70-92 season they somehow managed to survive enough games to win an awful AL Central Division title. It doesn’t really make sense, actually.

Was it the off-season additions that did the trick? Kind of. Nick Swisher was huge bust, batting only .219 on the year while eventually being demoted to a late-inning backup to a guy that only hit .240 (Paul Konerko). Orlando Cabrera had a down year while also becoming the clubhouse outcast after calling the press box early in the season to have his errors changed to hits and calling out his slumping teammates late in the season when they were running out of gas. But two aquisitions carried the White Sox for most of the season: Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez. Quentin had the A.L. MVP all but won when he injured himself in frustration in early September, and Ramirez would have been the AL Rookie of the Year any other season than this one (Evan Longoria is going to be one of the all time greats… Alexei could be too).

Was it the pitching? Kind of. The bullpen was outstanding for the first four months of the season and young starters John Danks and Gavin Floyd did everything that was asked of them and a lot more. But the pitching still wasn’t worthy of a division title. Veterans Mark Buerhle, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras all looked like Cy Young at times, but they also looked like Todd Ritchie for just as long. Only Buerhle became a reliable stopgap, while Little Game Javy went hiding when it mattered most and Contreras suffered a season-ending foot injury in the midst of the worst stretches of his career.

Was it the hitting? Again, kind of. The White Sox hit a team-record 235 home runs, the biggest reason why they managed to win 89 games. But the long ball only came at key times in homer-friendly U.S. Cellular field, never on the road–a big reason why Chicago only won 35 road games. The White Sox only got consistency out of three of the nine spots in the order: Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye and Alexei Ramirez. Cabrera was a solid temporary solution at the top of the order, but flied out too much to be a true leadoff hitter. Pierzynski had a pretty good year, but his average took a divebomb in September (finished .281 after hovering around .300 for most of the year). The struggles of Jim Thome and Paul Konerko were well documented all year. The combo of Swisher and Ken Griffey Jr. in the lineup produced nothing but home runs, walks and outs (mostly outs). And Joe Crede and Juan Uribe did their usual decent, but inconsistent jobs at the bottom of the order. Both hit a decent amount of home runs, but neither got on base enough to justify their abundant strikeouts.

But all-in-all, it added up to their third division title of the decade. No doubt the surprising weakness of the division helped, but the Sox truely grinded out enough wins to overcome an many shortcomings. At first glance, it might appear that the White Sox are doomed. This team was old and slow, while the minor league system is among baseball’s worse. But in reality, this team took a tremendous step forward and with a few tweaks, the Sox could be back in the playoffs next season.

The Future
As Jim Thome grounded out into the shift to leadoff the last inning of the ’08 season, thousands of White Sox were screaming the same thing, “WE NEED BASERUNNERS. THEY ARE GIVING YOU THE ENTIRE LEFT SIDE OF THE FIELD!!” It really is simple math. Why hit the ball to where four infielders are playing when you could hit the ball to where zero infielders are playing? But Thome would tell you what he has always said: “My job is to drive in runs.” Well, when you are leading off the inning that means you are only trying to hit a home run–and with the scoreboard reading “Rays 6, Sox 2” a solo home run doesn’t do much. But this was the identity of the ’08 White Sox. It was clear in July that it was never going to change–and it never did.

But now it must change, and GM Ken Williams has already made it clear that he will balance out the lineup. Cabrera must go and a true leadoff hitter must replace him. This should be a second baseman, not a centerfielder like many are suggesting. Brian Anderson has made great strides since he prematurely inherited the starting centerfielder job in 2006. Defensively, he is among the league’s job outfielders. He also has speed. So what if he only hits .250 or .260. How many players from this year’s division winning team struggled to hit .250? Put Anderson in center and find a solid second baseman who can lead off. Hmm, Brian Roberts ring a bell? Just a thought. Griffey is out and between Dye, Thome, Konerko and Swisher, one probably has to go too. You will get the most for Dye, but has there been a more consistent player for the Sox for the last four seasons? Thome might not be the same player anymore, but as far as designated hitters go, he might only be second to David Ortiz. So Konerko or Swisher? Swish is younger and has more range at first, but a healthy Konerko will likely drive in more runs and hit more home runs. But average-wise, Konerko is in a steady career decline and he will likely yield more of a return in a trade for that key leadoff guy the Sox need.

And what happens at third base? Crede is likely gone, but Uribe wasn’t that bad in his place. I have a feeling Uribe will be back, but he might be playing second. Williams has always coveted Angels’ 3B Chone Figgins. He could nab Figgins to lead off and play third, while putting Uribe back at second base. This seems more likely than getting Roberts from the Orioles. If you are saying, “What about Josh Fields?” The Sox clearly aren’t high on him anymore and quite frankly he is just another slow, strikeout prone home run bopper who lacks defensive skills.

If all this happens, the Sox will have a much faster team with a better outfield and a solid defensive infield. With Figgins/Roberts leading off, Ramirez could bat second and you still have the run production in the middle with Quentin, Dye, Thome and Swisher. Pierzynski would bat seventh and the bottom of the order is then considerably faster with Anderson and Uribe. You will always have four left handed hitters against right-handed pitchers and with Dewayne Wise back on the bench you can put him in center for Anderson to add another lefty bat. Use Jerry Owens and Chris Getz off the bench and you have two solid late-inning pinch run options that can also play defense.

But of course this new, balanced lineup doesn’t mean much without pitching. Williams will likely once again revamp a bullpen that fell apart late in the season, but don’t be surprised if he stands pat with his rotation. Floyd and Danks both have bright futures ahead of them and Buerhle is one of those guys who could pitch into his forties. Contreras and Vazquez are both expendable because Clayton Richard show tremendous signs of being a capable fifth starter next season.

This will be a very interesting offseason, but I can’t see the White Sox being worse next season. The problem is that they HAVE to improve. The Twins will be scary and the Indians were probably the best team in the AL during the second half. They will be healthy again. The Royals are on the rise and Detroit still has talent. The awful 2008 Central will be much better in 2009. Can the White Sox win it? Stay tuned.

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