Originally written on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 5/11/12

Last season the White Sox were supposed to be great. I was positive that they would run away with the division. Adam Dunn had just been brought in to bolster the offense and the team had a rock solid starting rotation. Setup man extraordinaire Matt Thornton looked poised to make a seamless transition to the closer’s role. But as we now know, everything that could go wrong did for the South Siders. Jake Peavy had a 4.92 ERA in just 18 starts. Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham turned in disappointing years. Thornton blew saves left and right during April. Alex Rios probably would have qualified for the worst player in the league with a triple slash of .227/.265/.348 if not for the historically awful season of one of his teammates. To say that Dunn had a bad first year in Chicago would be an understatement. He hit .159/.292./.277 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI while striking out 117 times in 492 plate appearances. All that led to the White Sox finishing 2011 with a losing record and a truckload of questions coming into 2012.

During the offseason, the White Sox seemed like a team that could not decide if it was going to be a contender or if it wanted to trade away all its valuable pieces and go into full bore rebuilding mode. First, the team let Manager Ozzie Guillen take his talents to South Beach and replaced him with Robin Ventura. Rotation stalwart Mark Buehrle then followed Guillen to Miami. After locking up closer Sergio Santos to a team friendly long-term deal, they shipped him to Toronto for Nestor Molina, who quickly became the White Sox best pitching prospect. Then, the team traded reliever Jason Frasor back to the Blue Jays (they acquired him from Toronto in July for Edwin Jackson). Leftfielder Carlos Quentin was also traded, going to the Padres for pitching prospects to make room for young Cuban slugger Dayan Viciedo in the outfield. The most puzzling part of the White Sox offseason though, was signing John Danks to a 5 year $65 million extension. It’s not that the dollar amount of the deal was crazy, it’s that Danks was one of the most sought after pitchers on the market and the White Sox could have gotten a solid return for him. Considering that Chicago has the worst farm system in the MLB by far, it seemed to be a sure thing that Danks would be wearing a different uniform come opening day.

Spring Training came and went for the Pale Hose, with no major injuries affecting the team. There were no real position battles throughout the spring, as it seemed that Thornton would be given another chance to be the team’s closer. That ended up not being the case however, as rookie Hector Santiago ended up with the job. With roughly the same core of position players, the White Sox seemed doomed to have a repeat of their horrible 2011 season and spend the majority of the summer at the bottom of the standings of the American League Central.

Although the White Sox are just 15-17 and in third place in the Central, their record does not reflect a lot of the positive things that have happened for the team thus far in 2012. To start, Adam Dunn is back. He is hitting .243/.384/.586 with 10 home runs and 25 RBI through his first 138 plate appearances. Dunn has continued his trend of being dreadful against lefties, with just three hits and sixteen strikeouts against them in 39 plate appearances (.097 batting average), but any progress is progress for Dunn. Paul Konerko, the other half of the DH/1B combo has continued to do what he does: defy age and quietly put up great numbers. He is hitting .345.426/.517 with six bombs through 129 plate appearances. While his .363 BABIP means that his .345 average is unsustainable, he should be good for 30 home runs and 100 RBIs as he is every year.

Alex Rios’s Jekyll and Hyde act has continued for the White Sox this year. After a dreadful 2011 in which he posted a major league worst wOBA of .266, Rios has a triple slash of .286/.339/.393 through his first 119 plate appearances. Although he has only hit one home run, those are clearly encouraging signs for the White Sox right fielder. Rios has never been one to walk much, but if he can put up his typical stolen base numbers he will be a valuable player for Chicago this year. Rios moved over to right to accommodate Alejandro De Aza who has been very solid thus far, hitting .285/.369/.455 with three home runs and five steals in 141 plate appearances. If De Aza can continue to put up numbers like those and steal some bases, the White Sox will be more than thrilled.

Jake Peavy has long been one of my favorite players, so watching him the past couple seasons has been incredibly disappointing. Finally healthy in 2012, Peavy has reverted back to his dominant self, going 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA (2.22 FIP) over 52.1 innings in his first seven starts of the year. He has only given up two home runs thus far, (0.34 HR/9), while posting an excellent walk rate (1.20 BB/9) and a solid strikeout rate (7.57 BB/9). Peavy does not throw as hard as he used to – his average fastball this year is 90.9 MPH compared to 93.9 in his CY Young season five years ago. But he has been successful due to an increased use of breaking stuff and simply throwing more strikes. Peavy’s percentage of first pitch strikes this year (65.6%) is higher than his career norms (60.9%) and his ability to get ahead in the count with diminished stuff has proven to be the recipe for success for the soon to be 32 year old in 2012.

It is often said teams cannot “buy” a bullpen and be successful. Despite possessing two of the most expensive setup men in the game in Thornton and Jesse Crain, the White Sox have plucked a few arms out of their barren farm system to form a very solid relief corps. Despite being demoted from the closer’s role, Santiago has shown flashes of dominance in his 11 innings this season, but he needs to be less hittable, as opposing batters are hitting .340 off him. Addison Reed, who was the White Sox top prospect coming into 2012, has saved two games and allowed just eight base runners in his 10 innings without allowing a run. It would not be surprising if he ended the season as the team’s closer. Nate Jones, who along with his 100MPH fastball seemingly came out of nowhere, has also been very solid, posting a 1.59 ERA in 12 innings over nine games. Chris Sale is the White Sox closer for now, but we’ll get to him and his confusing situation in just a bit.

Since this post is supposed to be bullish, I won’t spend too much time dwelling on the negatives thus far for the White Sox, but they should be mentioned. First, aside from the men playing first base, the rest of the White Sox infield has been absolutely dreadful. Alexei Ramirez is hitting just .209/.227/.271 with one home run and just three walks in 135 plate appearances. While he’s a solid bet to pick up the pace, it’s still mildly concerning to see him off to this horrible of a start. Third baseman Brent Morel has done nothing to show that he can improve on his offensively inept rookie season, during which he had a wOBA of .286. He is hitting just .172/.206/.194 with zero home runs over his first 102 plate appearances this season. The White Sox might need to find a new long-term plan at third base. Gordon Beckham has continued to be a disappointment for the White Sox and is hitting .211/.237/.323. It seems as if the former top prospect is running out of chances to prove himself as an everyday major league player and it will be interesting to see how patient the White Sox are with him in 2012.

Dayan Viciedo, or “the tank” according to Hawk Harrelson, has also gotten off to a disappointing start. He is hitting just .211/.276/.326 and has walked just three times (3.1 BB%) in his first 97 plate appearances. Viciedo has impressive power, but will continue to be exploited at the major league level if he swings at everything in sight. He is just 23 years old, so there is still plenty of time for improvement, but it has nonetheless been a bad start for the Cuban defector.

On the pitching side, there haven’t been many people who have truly disappointed for the White Sox thus far. The $65 million man John Danks is the only guy that really stands out. Despite pitching well in his most recent start, Danks has just a 5.89 ERA (5.11 FIP) in 44.1 innings over seven starts. Not to mention he is striking out batters at a career low clip (5.28 K/9), while walking them at a career high pace (3.86 BB/9). It’s still early, so he has plenty of time to turn it around and most likely will. Phil Humber was good in his first start, threw the 21st perfect game in major league history in his second start and then proceeded to give up 20 earned runs in 13.1 innings over his next three starts. His season ERA now sits at 6.83. While he also has plenty of time to turn it around, he will need to prove that his breakout 2011 was not a fluke.

I don’t really know if you can call Hector Santiago a disappointment, but he lost his job as closer so I guess that qualifies. However, despite the fact that I think the whole “ninth inning mentality” thing is overrated, it would have been a bit ridiculous to expect a man with just 5.1 innings of experience in the major leagues to immediately flourish as the White Sox closer. He is young, left-handed and throws hard, so I see no reason that Santiago cannot go on and have a productive career as a reliever.

The last disappointing thing I want to discuss is how Chicago has handled Chris Sale. Count me among those who did not believe that Sale could be a successful starter. I just didn’t see him being able to get righties out on a consistent basis due to his arm slot. But, I was very much wrong and Sale pitched well in all of his five starts. Then, due to “elbow soreness” and wanting to protect him, the White Sox announced that Sale would continue on as the team’s closer. The news was pretty much out of left field and since the move was made, there have been several puzzling occurrences. First, the team bypassed Sale in a couple save opportunities. Then Sale got a save chance and blew the game. Next, Sale said that he intends to return as a member of the rotation this season and then most recently, Sale’s agent made a statement expressing his unhappiness with the way that the White Sox had handled his client. This statement happened after the team finally decided to send Sale for an MRI. I don’t get all of this and I don’t know what will come of it, but I do know that good starting pitchers are much more valuable than good relievers. If Sale shows an ability to turn a major league lineup over three times, than he should be starting games. Period.

While a lot of things have gone right for the White Sox thus far, the bottom line is that they will need to continue to go right in order for the team to have a chance at making the playoffs. Dunn, Rios and Peavy will need to continue their comeback years, while the bullpen needs to continue to put up strong performances. Since the Tigers have not begun to fire on all cylinders, the White Sox need to continue to keep pace and prevent Detroit from running away with the division. In order for that to happen, the team’s infielders will need to start swinging the bats better and the White Sox pitching staff will need to put up good numbers. While it is incredibly unlikely that the White Sox make the playoffs this season they still have a fighting chance. A lot will need to go right though, since the Detroit Tigers are an incredibly dangerous team and could begin to pull away in the standings at any minute.

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