On April 23rd, following a miserable loss to the Cleveland Indians the night before, Chicago sports radio was ready to trade half of the White Sox roster. Dylan Axelrod had had his best outing of the young season, allowing just one earned run in six innings; though his command is often unpredictable, he walked just two batters and struck out four. It should have been a victory for the Sox, but when Matt Thornton blew the save, it was a glaring reminder that the White Sox have perfected a new losing formula: Fantastic starting pitching, weak offense, shaky defense, and an unpredictable bullpen. The White Sox weren't predicted to run away with the division, but they certainly weren't supposed to be in last place -- most assumed that would be the Twins' spot all season. Having watched them crash to the bottom of the standings, the on-air punditry was ready to cut its losses.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. After an 85-77 second-place finish in 2012, the White Sox made a handful of adjustments and were banking on the things that carried them in previous seasons: Healthy and effective starting pitching, good defense, slugging veterans, and a few hustling replacement players to fill in the gaps. It was a gamble given that the Indians, Royals, and Tigers continued to improve their rosters. Thus far the team has been cursed with unfortunate injuries, underperforming stars, and a general ineptitude that has left the team vulnerable in nearly every facet of the game. But the biggest problem for the Sox isn't their 13-18 record, nor is it the fact that they are already 6.5 games out of first place in the AL Central. The real problem is that they have so many weaknesses in their current roster that it's hard to imagine them getting much better.
To start with the good news, Sox starters have a 3.58 ERA, fifth in the American League. Chris Sale and Jake Peavy were given contract extensions this offseason, and both have picked up where they left off, but the key to the rotation's success has been their versatility and depth. John Danks, who had shoulder surgery last year, still hasn't joined the team, but Dylan Axelrod and Jose Quintana have settled so comfortably into the rotation his absence has barely been felt. Gavin Floyd will miss the remainder of the season with an elbow injury, but last night's seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts from Hector Santiago certainly inspires confidence that the rotation will adapt, especially if Danks returns soon. Still, despite the stellar pitching performances the Sox are so anemic in other facets of their game that they just aren't winning often enough.
Since the radio-man's meltdown, the Sox have gone 6-6, but there's little bright side to that .500 record. In that stretch, they've been outscored 41-49, and their 3.36 runs per game is the lowest in the league. Choose your stat -- whether you prefer OPS+, wOBA, or True Average, the offense trails the circuit by a significant margin. They have the fewest walks in the league and are on pace for roughly 360 free passes, which would make them only the 26th team in history to take less than 400 walks in a 162-game season.
The weak offense has been even more apparent this week: On Monday James Shield no-hit them through five innings, and on Tuesday Matt Harvey did the same through 6 2/3 innings. Of course, these are elite pitchers, and with the filthy pitches Harvey was throwing on Tuesday he probably could have shut out the best teams out there, but weak contact and strikeouts have been a theme even against mediocre hurlers. The biggest offense issue for the Sox is that this lineup is theoretically built for power, but they are last in the league in slugging and 11th in isolated power. Only their home run rate stands out as a positive -- their rate of one every 28.5 at-bats ranks fourth in the league.
It's always easy to scapegoat injuries, but the Sox' offense doesn't really have that excuse. Sure, they're missing Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham, both of whom are arguably better than their replacements, but missing two bottom-of-the-lineup hitters shouldn't make or break an offense. Adam Dunn has been out of sync ever since he was given the green light to be more aggressive early in the count, a strategy that has meant more strikeouts and fewer walks. Paul Konerko, who has alternated at first base and designated hitter with Dunn, is hitting .225/.279/.378 with just four home runs, and at 37, it's not unthinkable that he's simply grown old.
The Sox gave Tyler Flowers their vote of confidence as the everyday catcher to replace A.J. Pierzynski, but he's yet to prove that he can hit consistently in the majors. The biggest offensive disappointment thus far has been Jeff Keppinger, who is filling in for Gordon Beckham at second. Keppinger was picked up this offseason to provide a boost in OBP, but he has just 21 hits in 112 plate appearances, 19 of them singles, and zero walks, resulting in rates of .191/.188/.209. Alex Rios and Conor Gillaspie have been carrying the offense this far, but Gillaspie's .351 batting average on balls in play is a red flag, and Rios, despite his current three-game hitting streak, has been cold, going just 10-for-58 in his last 15 games (albeit with two home runs); in any case, their contributions won't be enough unless other hitters start pitching in.
It's trickier to evaluate how the Sox are doing on defense, because the eye-test and the defensive metrics seem to tell a completely different story. Their Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) is 1.65, good for third in the American League, but they've grown considerably weaker up the middle without Beckham, and Keppinger has made costly errors as his replacement. The outfield is limited by Alejandro De Aza's lack of range, an aging DeWayne Wise in center (in Viciedo's absence, De Aza has moved to left with Wise replacing him), and Alex Rios, who has run some truly baffling routes reminiscent of Carlos Quentin's days in right field. The team currently has 21 errors, second-most in the league, and it's only a matter of time before the stats reflect their true level of ability.
Because of their struggles, the Sox have played several close, low-scoring games, and Robin Ventura reacted with meddlesome in-game decisions that largely haven't panned out. In July of last season, Ventura's name was often mentioned as a potential candidate for Manager of the Year. His team had exceeded expectations, and the rookie manager was applauded for his use of pitchers in high-leverage situations. September changed everything. As the team collapsed, Ventura became rigid in his pitcher usage, relying mostly on the conventional lefty-righty matchups. Some said he was just using the expanded roster to full advantage, but he's continued to make questionable relief pitcher choices this season, trying to affect change in ways that his lineup cannot. In fairness to the manager, hindsight always makes it easier to judge when he should have used Matt Thornton instead of Jesse Crain, but it's easy to first-guess a manager who opts for struggling left-hander Donnie Veal just because the matchup seemed to make sense, or insists nightly that Nate Jones can pitch his way out of a funk.
It's not just Ventura's bullpen management that has cost the Sox games. Last weekend in Kansas City, Ventura made a baffling decision when he asked fringe relief pitcher Brian Omogrosso to intentionally walk Chris Getz with the winning run on second in the tenth inning. Omogrosso then walked George Kottaras to load the bases, and Alex Gordon, the best hitter of the three, hit a ball over Alex Rios' head in right field to end the game. It was a truly bizarre move, one that Ventura didn't even have a good defense for in his postgame interview. He handed that game to the Royals, not because he doesn't understand strategy, but because his underperforming roster is giving him little to work with and he's trying to do whatever he can to win games. Ventura is smart enough that he probably won't make the same mistakes twice, and his effort is admirable, but those high-risk, high-reward decisions will continue to haunt the team's record (and they seem to be only memorable when they backfire, of course).
The radio-man and other reactionaries would have you believe the season is over and the White Sox should start rebuilding immediately. They'd trade Alex Rios and Jake Peavy at the deadline. They'd ditch Gordon Beckham in the offseason if he had any value -- they'd even shop Chris Sale. They'd use these swaps and the savings associated with them to get those cheap-but-good players that exist in abundance only in these sorts of hypotheticals, and focus on rebuilding the Sox' arid farm system. But no matter how bleak it seems to those watching, planning to dismantle a ball club just 31 games into the season isn't the right strategy.
Given the nature of their struggles, it will be hard for the Sox to dig their way out of the hole they've created, but there's still time before any decisions about the future need to be made. It's early enough that Beckham, Danks, and Viciedo can recover from their injuries and provide a boost. There's hope that Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko hit home runs, that Jeff Keppinger starts hitting the singles he's famous for. Maybe Tyler Flowers won't always look lost at the plate, and perhaps with games against the Mets, Angels, Marlins, and Cubs in the near term they can squeak out more wins than losses. If the starting pitchers can continue to perform as well as they have in the first month of the season, they are bound to win a few games.
It seems unlikely that the Sox will be buyers at the deadline, but the number of wins in the next two months will determine the future of the ball club. If they can climb out of the basement, there will be an argument for keeping the roster intact for next season. If not, maybe they'll be the assumed heir to last place in next season's projections.