Paul Konerko

Springtime Storylines: Are the Chicago White Sox rebuilding or contending?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Chicago White Sox.

The Big Question: Are the Chicago White Sox rebuilding or contending?

After eight tumultuous but mostly successful seasons as manager Ozzie Guillen left for Miami and general manager Ken Williams shook things up even further by choosing someone with zero managerial experience to replace him in Robin Ventura. And then Williams made several big moves that seemingly put the White Sox squarely in rebuilding mode.

He traded 23-year-old closer Sergio Santos, setup man Jason Frasor, and starting right fielder Carlos Quentin while watching Mark Buehrle leave as a free agent, but Williams stopped just short of a total overhaul. Rumored trade bait like Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton, and John Danks remain, along with the untradeable contracts of Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, and Adam Dunn, and the team’s best hitter is still 35-year-old Paul Konerko.

Not exactly what full-on rebuilds are made of, and by promoting Chris Sale, Dayan Viciedo, and Addison Reed to bigger roles it’s more like the White Sox are retooling on the fly. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can actually contend in the process. Chicago went 79-83 last season and will need an awful lot of things to go right to climb much further than .500, although the weakness of the division beyond Detroit makes just about any decent team a quasi-contender in the AL Central.

What else is going on?

  • Dunn and Rios were amazingly awful last season, so simply being “really bad” this year would be a massive improvement. And if they each bounce back all the way to their 2010 levels the White Sox’s lineup should top last season’s measly 654 runs with ease. On the other hand, if that doesn’t happen then Konerko is the only real masher in a lineup that could get very ugly if Alejando De Aza fails to provide a spark at the top and Gordon Beckham continues to underwhelm.
  • Santos was dominant more often than not for the White Sox and should be very good as the Blue Jays’ long-term closer, but Chicago has another potentially dominant young right-hander in Addison Reed and along with Thornton and Crain form the makings of a good late-inning trio. That bullpen depth made dealing Santos easier to swallow and allows the White Sox to give formerly excellent setup man Chris Sale an opportunity in the rotation.
  • Sale was a starter in college, but the White Sox shifted him to the bullpen in the minors in an effort to speed up his arrival in the big leagues and it worked so well that they kept him there last season. Sale has a 2.58 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 94 innings as a reliever, so it’s tempting to keep him there, but at age 24 and with two good off-speed pitches to go with a plus fastball it makes sense to see if he can thrive in a 200-inning role before letting him settle into a 65-inning role for good.

How are they gonna do?

It’s hard to imagine the White Sox giving the Tigers serious competition for the division title, but like the other three teams in the AL Central they’re certainly capable of finishing in second place. Las Vegas pegs the over/under for their win total around 76 and after going 79-83 last season that seems about right. Chicago isn’t as bad as the “rebuilding” label might suggest, but it’s still a mediocre team and they figure to be sellers at the trade deadline.

Julio Urias is on his way back to the majors

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 27:  Julio Urias #78 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the New York Mets during their game at Citi Field on May 27, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images
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Dodgers 19-year-old rookie Julio Urias is coming back to the majors and Alex Wood is headed to the 15-day disabled list with left elbow soreness, Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reports. Urias will likely start Saturday against the Braves, which will mark his debut in front of the home crowd.

Urias made his major league debut on Friday against the Mets at Citi Field, but lasted only 2 2/3 innings. He yielded three runs on five hits and four walks with three strikeouts.

Urias came into the season rated as the Dodgers’ #1 prospect and the #2 overall prospect in baseball. Prior to his promotion, he had compiled a 1.10 ERA with 44 strikeouts and eight walks over 41 innings with Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Mookie Betts enjoys a three-homer game against the Orioles

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 31: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox follows his three run homer against the Baltimore Orioles in the second inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 31, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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The Red Sox seem to have hit the jackpot on all of their young players so far this year. Jackie Bradley, Jr. just had a 29-game hitting streak snapped. Xander Bogaerts extended his hitting streak to 24 games on Tuesday night. And Mookie Betts has been quite productive batting leadoff for the Red Sox this year, entering Tuesday with an even .800 OPS.

Betts, 23, hit 18 home runs in his first full season last year. With a three-homer night against the Orioles on Tuesday, he’s already up to 12 in 2016 with four months of season left. The first was of the solo variety, a line drive to center field off of Kevin Gausman in the first inning. Betts followed up in the third with a liner to left field for a three-run dinger off of Gausman. He made it three in the seventh, drilling a Dylan Bundy offering to right field.

Here’s video of homer number two:

Betts finished 3-for-5 as the Red Sox won 6-2 at Camden Yards.

The stats show the Pirates as an outlier in throwing “headhunter” pitches

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 5: Reliever Arquimedes Caminero #37 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh inning at Busch Stadium on September 5, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
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Last week at ESPN Sweetspot’s Inside the Zona, Ryan Morrison looked into the data and found that the Pirates stand out among the rest when it comes to throwing “headhunter” pitches. Those are defined as fastballs 3.2 feet or higher and 1.2 feet towards the batter from the center of the plate.

The research was prompted because Diamondbacks second baseman Jean Segura was hit in the helmet by Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero last Tuesday in the seventh inning. The next inning, Caminero hit shortstop Nick Ahmed in the jaw with a pitch and was instantly ejected.

Morrison illustrated the data in a nice chart, which you should check out. The Pirates have thrown 93 of those pitches, which is way more than any other team. The next closest team is the Reds at 68 pitches. The major league average is approximately 48 pitches.

The Pirates have had an organizational philosophy of pitching inside since at least 2013, as MLB.com’s Tom Singer quoted manager Clint Hurdle as saying, “We’re not trying to hurt people, just staying in with conviction.”

Morrison goes on to suggest that the Diamondbacks should have forfeited last Wednesday and Thursday’s games against the Pirates in protest, out of concern for their players’ safety. As it happened, the D-Backs lost both games anyway, suffering a series sweep. The two clubs don’t meet again this season.

D-Backs manager Chip Hale said after last Tuesday’s game that Caminero “shouldn’t be at this level”. Caminero responded to those comments today, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. “I’m actually glad you asked me about that,” Caminero said. “The only thing I’ve got to say about (Hale) is that he is a perfect manager. And he was a perfect player, too. That’s it. I know what I did wasn’t good, but it happens in baseball. I wasn’t trying to hit anyone.”

I realize I’m late on pointing out Morrison’s terrific article and the whole debacle between the two teams, but I felt it was worth highlighting.

Jose Bautista: “I’d be stupid to leave” Toronto

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 29: Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jayshits a two-run home run in the fifth inning during MLB game action against the Boston Red Sox on May 29, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
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Also included in a recent report on Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated — along with his belief that Rougned Odor was the only bad guy in the May 15 debacle — was the slugger’s desire to remain a Blue Jay. Per Verducci, Bautista said, “I love the city. I’d be stupid to leave” Toronto.

Bautista, 35, is in the final year of a five-year, $65 million extension signed in February 2011. Back in November, the Jays exercised their 2016 club option for $14 million. Bautista isn’t willing to discuss contract details during the season, so the two sides will have to wait until at least October to come to an agreement.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the Yankees, Bautista is hitting .237/.371/.489 with 11 home runs, 37 RBI, and 40 walks, the latter of which leads the American League.