Springtime Storylines: Can the White Sox slug their way to the AL Central title?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Ozzie Guillen and his always entertaining White Sox.

The Big Question: Can the White Sox slug their way to the AL Central title?

For a brief time the White Sox had it in their heads that they should intentionally remove power from the lineup and try to play small ball, thinking that was somehow the key to consistently beating the Twins.

Last season that involved letting Jim Thome walk as a free agent (and sign with the Twins) while replacing him with a revolving door of designated hitters led by Mark Kotsay. Chicago played plenty of small ball, stealing the second-most bases in the league, but the White Sox also hit their fewest homers since 1999 and finished six games behind the Twins, much of which can be attributed to Thome and his 1.039 OPS switching sides while the DHs replacing him ranked 10th in homers and 13th in RBIs.

General manager Kenny Williams learned his lesson, and while re-signing Thome wasn’t an option he did the next-best thing and signed the other king of lefty hitting power and patience, Adam Dunn, to a $56 million deal. Thome spent three-and-a-half seasons in Chicago, hitting .265 with a .391 on-base percentage and .542 slugging percentage while averaging 38 homers and 103 walks per 150 games. During the past four seasons Dunn has hit .257 with a .382 on-base percentage and .533 slugging percentage while averaging 37 homers and 101 walks per 150 games. It’s a year too late, but they essentially have Thome back in the lineup.

Along with adding Dunn’s big bat the White Sox also re-signed Paul Konerko to a $37.5 million deal and avoided the temptation to trade Carlos Quentin, building another lineup capable of bashing opponents into submission with the help of a power-boosting home ballpark. Juan Pierre and Alex Rios will still do plenty of running, but the White Sox once again look capable of topping 200 homers, which they did every season from 2000-2008 except 2007, when they went 72-90.

Obviously it’ll take more than 200 homers to win the division, but the White Sox’s lineup is very dangerous and features a pair of 40-homer threats (Dunn, Konerko), a pair of 30-homer threats (Quentin, Rios), and a pair of 20-homer threats (Alexei Ramirez, Gordon Beckham) in addition to Pierre’s small-balling ways.

So what else is going on?

  • In addition to restocking the lineup with a homers-and-walks monster the White Sox also rebuilt the bullpen after Bobby Jenks and J.J. Putz departed as free agents. Jesse Crain was lured away from the Twins with a $13 million deal and they promoted elite setup man Matt Thornton to the closer role while opting to keep stud rookie Chris Sale in the bullpen. Toss in Sergio Santos’ successful transition from light-hitting shortstop to flame-throwing setup man and it’s a very strong late-inning quartet.
  • Part of the reason for keeping Sale in the bullpen was the hope that Jake Peavy would be healthy enough to begin the season in the rotation, but now that plan is out the window and journeyman Philip Humber is penciled in as the No. 5 starter. Barring pitching coach Don Cooper pulling a miracle Humber and his 5.26 career ERA will struggle, but the front four of Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Edwin Jackson can carry the load and Peavy is currently hoping to return in late April.
  • Beckham bouncing back from a disappointing sophomore season is a big key for the White Sox and I like his chances. His star potential was likely overstated following a promising rookie year, but Beckham quietly recovered from an awful start to hit .310 with an .877 OPS after the All-Star break and is a good bet to improve his overall OPS from last season by at least 100 points.
  • Position player depth should be a major strength, as Ramon Castro is among the best backup catchers around, Teahen is a much better fit in a part-time role, Lastings Milledge was a strong low-cost pickup in the outfield, and Omar Vizquel has defied the odds by remaining productive into his 40s. Toss in Dayan Viciedo waiting in the wings at Triple-A as a power-hitting replacement should anything happen to one of the corner bats and Chicago has the depth to withstand some injuries.
  • You should follow Ozzie Guillen on Twitter. Just trust me.

So how are they gonna do?

This is going to sound like a broken record to anyone who also read my season previews of the Twins and Tigers, but the AL Central has three teams that look capable of winning 88-92 games and I fully expect the division race to go down to the wire. I’d peg Chicago as the division’s second-strongest team, but realistically it might as well be a three-way tie for co-favorites.

Major League Baseball limits mound visits, puts off pitch clock until 2019

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Major League Baseball just announced its much awaited pace-of-play initiative for 2018. The big news: no pitch clock, with Rob Manfred deciding, in the words of the league’s press release “to defer the implementation of a pitch timer and a between-batter timer in 2018 in order to provide players with an opportunity to speed up the game without the use of those timers.”

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be changes. In rules changes which were reached with the cooperation of the Players’ Union, teams will now be limited to six non-pitching change mound visits per team per game, and one extra visit if the game goes into extra innings. Also, a new rule is being introduced that is designed to reduce the time required for inning breaks and pitching changes.

The mound visit rule is NOT limited to coach or manager mound visits. It also includes position players, including catchers, visiting the mound to confer about signals and the like. It will not count the normal conversations which take place between plays, such as when a pitcher says something to a fielder as they throw the ball around the horn. It likewise does not include things like a first baseman coming to the mound to clean his spikes off with the pitcher’s gear on the back of the mound. Mound visits to check on injuries will not count either.

While six visits may seem like a lot, it really isn’t once you realize that a pitching coach may go out two or three times in a close game and that a catcher, especially in close games, may come out to talk about signs and things seemingly countless times. Heck, they could re-name this the Jorge Posada or Gary Sanchez rule.

There will be one big exception to the rule, which relates to catchers and pitchers truly being crossed up on signals after they have exhausted mound visits. It reads thusly:

3) Cross-Up in Signs. In the event a team has exhausted its allotment of mound visits in a game (or extra inning) and the home plate umpire determines that the catcher and pitcher did not have a shared understanding of the location or type of pitch that had been signaled by the catcher (otherwise referred to as a “cross-up”), the home plate umpire may, upon request of the catcher, allow the catcher to make a brief mound visit. Any mound visit resulting from a cross-up prior to a team exhausting its allotted number of visits shall count against a team’s total number of allotted mound visits.

This makes sense as a matter of safety, if nothing else, as you don’t want a catcher truly not knowing where a pitch is going. It’s also notable as one of the few rules changes in recent years that actually adds in an umpire’s judgment rather than takes a judgment call away from an umpire. It’ll be worth watching, however, to see how easy a touch umpires are about this. Again: if we have a tense September game between Boston and New York and everyone has used up their mound visits, I wonder if the umps will truly enforce the rule.

The big problem here is that there is nothing in the new rule which talks about the penalty for trying to make a seventh mound visit. To that end:

This is gonna lead, at some point, to a pretty big argument. Should be amazing.

As for innings breaks, There will be a timer that counts down from 2:05 for breaks in locally televised regular season games, from 2:25 for breaks in nationally televised regular season games, and from 2:55 for postseason games. The timer shall start on the last out of an inning for an inning break. 

There are set things the players must be doing at certain points on the clock. To wit:

  • When there are 25 seconds left, the umpire will signal to the pitcher to complete his last warm-up pitch;
  • When there are 20 seconds left, the batter will be announced and must leave on-deck circle, his walk-up music shall begin, and the pitcher shall complete last warm-up pitch;
  • When the clock gets to zero, the pitcher must begin his motion for his first pitch of the inning.

There will be “special circumstance” exceptions, such as when other random things are happening on the field that prevents this, such as in-between inning events going too long or something, and an umpire can determine that a pitcher or batter needs more time for safety purposes.

Enforcement of the clock will be handled by umpires directing players to comply. Players who consistently or flagrantly violate the time limits will be subject to progressive discipline by the league. Put differently, no one is issuing automatic balls or strikes here. It’ll be handled by fines.