By Jacob Kelly,
If the White Sox are in a rebuild mode, don’t expect it to last much longer.
After nearly losing 100 games last season (63-99), the big league club already sports a better record than last year at 64-79. Chris Sale has emerged as one of the top 2 left handed pitchers in the game (I mean when you can do this, you're at least better than Ryan Rowland-Smith), Jose Abreu is an absolute monster of a first basemen after never even having seen an MLB pitch before this season, and the ballclub is getting very solid overall production from their guys all the way up the middle.
General Manager Rick Hahn is in a very enviable position compared to other GMs tasked with rebuilding. Having taken over the position in late October of 2012, Hahn already has a lot of young, solid Major League talent with which to augment. Couple that with just $46M committed to 2015’s payroll before arbitration, and it’s no wonder that many are pointing towards the Southsiders as major players in the AL Central and Wildcard spots. And as Scott Merkin of MLB.com writes, Hahn is preparing himself for a very busy offseason in the coming weeks.
I won’t break down the team’s strengths and weaknesses, as Jonah Keri of Grantland already did a good job covering where the team will look for improvements. Instead, I’m going to take a look at some intangibles for a mostly young and playoff inexperienced ball club, and how the Pale Hose have already started to create a winning culture and cohesive unit.
Past and Current Leaders
|Konerko's influence could spread beyond 2014|
As evidenced by yesterday’s gesture from pitchers John Danks and Chris Sale, Adam Dunn was a very popular teammate. As Rick Hahn said: “for all the ups and downs he had over the four years, Dunner was obviously outstanding in the clubhouse… and an important piece in sort of creating the right environment and what we wanted here.” For many White Sox fans, Dunn clearly did not live up to expectations offensively; despite sporting a good amount of power over his Chicago years, he posted some of the highest strikeout totals in MLB history, whiffing 222 times in 2012, one shy of the all-time record. But those abysmal strikeout rates clearly didn’t keep him from contributing off the field.
But no one better embodies the White Sox culture than team captain Paul Konerko, who by all accounts is one of the best teammates a guy can have. He’s such a good teammate, that he recommended the '05 ALCS MVP he won be split four ways between the White Sox starting pitchers that threw complete games in the series. Paul Konerko is a proven winner in both the regular and post seasons, and a leader both on the field and in the clubhouse. Former GM and current Executive Vice President Kenny Williams even once considered Konerko to act as a player-manager when Williams was searching for someone to fill the hole of Chicago’s skipper.
Both Major League veterans have helped to create and shape the culture that Hahn will look to augment going into 2015, and filling the vacancies on the 25 man won’t be as easy as plopping good players into them; they’ll need to fit in with the club’s identity.
With a relatively inexperienced postseason club as it stands going into next year, Chicago may look for some veteran help in the free agent market this offseason. Of the players currently on their roster that could be around next year, only shortstop Alexei Ramirez, starting pitcher John Danks, extreme part time outfielder Avisail Garcia, and relief pitcher Ronald Belisario have ever played baseball in October. Of the four, only Ramirez and Danks are seemingly locks to be around next season.
This doesn’t preclude a younger, more inexperienced player stepping up into a leadership role between now and the stretch drive of 2015, and nor does it mean that Chicago is incapable of reaching October baseball with a team of postseason virgins; but it does present the White Sox with an interesting factor to consider when looking at this offseason’s free agency class.
|James Shields could fit the role of both pitching staff leader and front of the rotation arm.|
By all accounts, “Big Game” James Shields has been a leader for both young ballclubs that he’s pitched for. When the Rays were trying to punch their first ticket to the playoffs, it was Shields that came up big for the team every fifth day he took the ball. And now, with a very young and exciting Kansas City team, he’s doing it again. Not only is he pitching excelentlly in a pennant race for a team not used to doing so, he’s having a mentoring effect on the rest of the staff. As Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star writes in his article on the intangibles of the Shields trade with Tampa Bay: “Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy are each having promising seasons, and Royals officials believe there is at least an indirect cause-and-effect with Shields’ presence. Duffy, in particular, says he’s learned from Shields the value of embracing his natural emotion on the mound instead of fighting it. That’s a lesson he tries to use every time he pitches.”
Of course, Shields would take a major financial commitment to land in free agency; Kansas City is not thought to be able to retain his services due to payroll constraints, and will likely extend him a qualifying offer at the end of the year. The White Sox may be in a strong position to make a play for him if their record hovers around where it currently stands; going into today’s game (September 9th), the southsiders hold the 8th worst record in the Majors, and would not need to surrender a top draft pick if they were successful in signing Shields. “Big Game James” would also give the team a much needed right hander to insert between lefties Sale and Jose Quintana. Ultimately, Chicago would need to be comfortable with shelling out a 4 or 5 year contract to a 33 year old pitcher. But for a hurler that doesn’t rely on a power fastball to get hitters out, he could be a lower-risk guy than someone of Max Scherzer’s ilk.
Of course, Shields isn’t a fix all to a club that will likely finish in the bottom third of the MLB standings, but he could be a big first step. With a few other cheaper, good signings like the ones Jonha Keri lists in his article, and some stronger corner outfield defense that could help out the entire pitching staff, the AL side of Chicago baseball could be incredibly fun to watch in 2015.
Photo credit: Keith Allison
Photo credit: Keith Allison