The unlikely winning White Sox
CHICAGO -- We are now down to weeks, not months, down to a relatively small span of critical series during which a misstep here or an injury there could make the difference between the White Sox winning or losing the American League Central division.
Who would've figured that? Who could have figured it? The White Sox were supposedly old and full of holes and, at best, pulling up in third behind the Indians and the Tigers in the American League Central. The Sox lost 90 games last year. They're known more for their manager, the garrulous Ozzie Guillen, than for the guys on their roster.
Yet here they sit, in the middle of August, in first place.
Easy to figure out in this town: The appeal of deep-dish pizza. The lake is east. O'Hare is west. The Cubs are north. The White Sox are south.
Hard to explain: Local politics. Tomatoes on hot dogs. Which stop to get off on when you're riding around The Loop. And the White Sox.
I mean, really, the Sox? The Sox are good enough to be in first place -- evidently -- but nothing about this team screams "division winner," let alone "World Series." Their lineup is painfully one-dimensional, tailored to their hitting-friendly home park, U.S. Cellular Field. Their rotation has a 4.07 ERA, right in the middle of the AL pack, with a bit more power pitching than most and a little more control than others. Their bullpen is pretty good (3.49 ERA), but it's not great.
They're tough to beat in The Cell (42-19) but awful away from it (26-33). They hit a lot of homers -- 172 of them, the most in baseball, including four straight Thursday afternoon against the Royals -- but when they don't hit them, they stink. They have little speed. They're not particularly good defensively.
This is a team that, halfway through August, is still struggling to find its footing. And it probably shouldn't surprise anybody that their general manager, the ever-tinkering Kenny Williams, isn't content with his first-place ballclub, either.
"Not very," Williams says, leaning into a bench in the home dugout. "It's not about throwing as much talent against the wall as you can. That's not going to carry the day. What's going to carry the day is the fit of the talent and the balance of the talent."
There are those around this team that insist that the Sox have the most talent in the division, or at least the most among those that have a chance at winning the division. With guys like Jim Thome and recently acquired Ken Griffey Jr., with 2005 World Series MVP Jermaine Dye -- who is having a fantastic year -- and newcomer Carlos Quentin (who is challenging for the home run title this year), the talent is easy to pick out. Add in largely underrated starters like Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and 23-year-old John Danks, and closer Bobby Jenks, and it becomes evident that the Sox have a lot of pieces.
Yet the Sox, despite the quadruple shots on Thursday, aren't clicking like Williams would like them to click. They aren't clicking, in fact, like the probably less-talented but seemingly just-as-good Twins are. And, pretty soon, Williams won't be able to make another trade to try to better this team. Pretty soon, we're going to have to accept the Sox for what they are.
And then they're going to have to show us exactly what that is.
"Deep down in my heart, I know we have what it takes. It's just a matter of us going out there and proving to ourselves, the rest of the city, and the rest of the country that we are a team to be dealt with," says Nick Swisher, acquired in an offseason trade with the A's. "It's been kind of a roller coaster. At least for myself, it's been a big one.
"But I'll tell you. It's funny to have all those names in one locker room and no one gives you a shot in hell. And then we add Ken Griffey Jr. I mean, you want to check the back of some baseball cards right now? We got some guys on this baseball team."
Williams has never been afraid to turn over his roster to get it to work. After the Sox won the 2005 World Series -- that was a stunner to many, too -- the GM shuffled his rotation and beefed up his lineup, bringing in righty Javier Vazquez and DH Thome. In the winter of '06, Williams swapped a couple other pitchers. He traded away pitcher Jon Garland last winter for shortstop Orlando Cabrera, and in January traded for Swisher, who started off slowly but who has a .263 average, a .382 on-base percentage, 12 homers and 39 RBIs in 58 games since June 7.
Right before the trade deadline, Williams made another bold move, trading for Griffey. Critics wondered why Williams would put the 38-year-old Griffey in centerfield, a position he hadn't played in years, and pointed to his lack of production at the plate.
But Williams responds by saying the team's regular centerfielder, the multi-positioned Swisher, is not exactly a prototypical centerfielder, so there's probably not much dropoff defensively there. And Williams says that he never intended for Griffey to be anything but a fill-in (when he feels healthy enough to play) and a sometimes-designated hitter, anyway.
The Griffey trade demonstrates, in a lot of ways, how Williams is trying to make this team work. Griffey has, as the critics suggested he might, struggled at the plate in his short time on the South Side (seven singles in 32 at-bats). But he's driven in a few runs and contributed defensively. He's also enabled Guillen to rest Dye (.303, 28 homers, 29 doubles) on occasion, move Swisher to first base once in a while to take over for the ineffective Paul Konerko and sit down a sore Thome when he needs it. Williams also talks about the "threat" of Griffey in the lineup.
The lineup is the team's backbone. Of the possible playoff-bound teams (forget Texas or Detroit), only Boston scores more runs a game (5.18) than the White Sox (5.02). Still, there are warning signs even there.
The Sox run out a lineup that relies almost solely on swinging for the fences. When they hit a home run, they are 61-28. When they don't, they are 7-24. In the postseason, it's imperative to have other ways to score when the home runs dry up. But the Sox's reliance on power has come at the cost of speed on the basepaths. Gone are the days of Scott Podsednik swiping 40 or 50 bases. The Tigers are the only team in the AL that has stolen fewer bases than the Sox.
The pitching hasn't been nearly as effective as the lineup -- the staff allows 4.35 runs a game, sixth in the league -- but it has been better than anyone else in the division. And it's been good enough to keep the Sox from going on any long losing streaks. They haven't lost more than three in a row since early May.
"I know we exhaust ourselves, every day, trying to get the best product on the field," Williams says. "I think a lot of our success is due to the fact that this whole offseason, a lot of people said we were a third-place team. I think these guys went into the season with a chip on their shoulders."
Is a chip on the shoulder, a so-so pitching staff and a big-swinging lineup enough to win the division? Is it enough to do more?
The Sox are in first place. They have been for nearly 100 days this season.
That, you have to figure, should tell you something.