Looking Back at the Month of Abreu and Beyond

With the month of Abreu — sorry, the month of April — officially in the books, James Fegan, Collin Whitchurch, Nick Schaefer, Matt Adams and Rob Flot sat down and discussed what we've seen out of the White Sox so far. Among the topics we broached were Jose Abreu, the pitching staff, Adam Dunn, Alexei Ramirez, trades and attendance. Feel free to join in on the conversation in the comments below.

Collin: As James touched on in his Thursday article, the main thing I’ve enjoyed about the first month of the season is the fact that the team is just damn watchable right now, and i don’t know if I would’ve been able to say that at any point during the 2013 season.

We’ve written at length about the awesome offense, but even as bad as the pitching staff has been, we’ve still got Chris Sale (when he’s been healthy) and Jose Quintana, and even the young arms in the bullpen — namely Daniel Webb and Jake Petricka, as up-and-down as they’ve been — will continue to be fun to watch develop over the course of the season.

Do I think the White Sox are a playoff contender in 2014? No. But they’re going to continue to be fun to watch. And that’s a huge improvement. Baby steps.

Matt: Watchable is definitely accurate and I think that goes beyond even just White Sox fans. In looking around Twitter and national coverage I find that more people are watching Sox games and doing so without groaning. I think Jose Abreu has a lot to do with the coverage part of that, but overall the team is just more fun than it’s been in awhile even prior to 2013.

Collin: We can continue to swoon over Abreu as much as possible, but am I crazy for not being as pessimistic about the bullpen as others? As a group, they’ve had an awful month. There’s no doubt about that. But in Ronald Belisario and Matt Lindstrom, you have a pair of guys who have a pretty long track record of being at least somewhat adequate relievers. One poor month doesn’t necessarily mean they’re done (Scott Downs might be a different case, IMO). Pair those two with the uncertain but intriguing Webb and Petricka and it might not be a total train wreck going forward.

Look at me being optimistic and stuff! Is there something wrong with me?

Also, this thing apparently happened.

Nick: Well that’s part of the thing with the bullpen — it got off to about as bad of a start as you can have, but it has shown noticeable improvement in the second half of April. When you talk about short stretches for relievers that’s about as small of a sample as you can get, but for example, Scott Downs’ last 5.2 IP he has a 6:2 K:BB ratio and an ERA of 3.18 — which is comforting as during Spring Training and the early going he was looking potentially done. Zach Putnam has arrived from Charlotte to post 10 superb innings — an ERA of 1.80, 8 Ks to only 3 BBs, and a ground ball percentage of 61 (!!!). Petricka has been excellent and Belisario has settled down too, as Collin pointed out.

Another thing to remember is that the pitching staff as a whole has only thrown 260 innings, or a little more than Mark Buehrle would throw in a season in his prime.

Some of the improvement on offense is purely because being as bad as last year would be hard to do. Part of it is luck — Tyler Flowers is not a ~.350 hitter, and although I’ve always thought Alexei had the talent/potential to be better at the plate than he’s shown the past few years, he’s not a .350 hitter either. Still, I think a .750 OPS is quite attainable for Alexei, which would be plus offense from the position, especially given that his glove can actually play there.

The major league average at 2B last year was .257/.316/.376 — right now, Semien is at .225/.285/.367. Semien clearly has power and patience for the position, and I think his glove is fine at either 3B or 2B. I’m concerned about his ability to make contact. His swing is a bit long.

Collin: Putnam has been a pleasant surprise in the bullpen. He was horrid with the Cubs last year, although I think he had a decent amount of bad luck. I think I ever heard Farmer and DJ mention his bad luck in a radio broadcast, although I may have been hallucinating.

I think there’s also something that can be said for the level of competition the White Sox have faced this season. With the exception of the first three series' (Minnesota, Kansas City and Colorado) every team the White Sox have faced was either a playoff team last year (Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, Tampa Bay) or a perennial playoff contender (Texas). Playing competitive baseball against teams that are expected to contend is nice to see, regardless of result. We just have to hope that it translates to more wins than losses against the dregs of the league.

Nick: That’s a fair point, Collin. When teams go on streaks, good or bad, it can often correspond with soft or harsh spots in their schedule.

For all that the team has pleasantly surprised, talk of trying to add at midseason if the team is competitive worries me. I suppose it depends upon the complexion of the deal, obviously, but the concept reminds me of the old process that wind up bleeding talent out of the organization at a tremendous rate. As James pointed out on Thursday, the starting pitching is incredibly thin at the moment, and the offense has been propped up by some luck. The idea of this team being a wild card competitor may just be the illusion of how much better they are than last year. So much would have to happen for them to pass all but 4 of Boston, New York, Tampa, Texas, Oakland, Detroit and the Angels. 

I was also shocked to learn Jared Mitchell and Nestor Molina were on the 40-man. The 40-man and other byzantine functions of roster maneuvering are an area of profound ignorance for me. Seriously, are we holding out hope that they’re ever going to be major leaguers at this point?

My biggest fear at this point, though, is due to the bad pitching, and Ventura doing his thing in that he keeps abusing pitchers and hurting them in the process. After all, this is still the guy who had Addison Reed pitch six straight games in the second half a 99-loss season, had Sale throw 110-130 pitches in every game of that same season in July, and had Sale throw 127 pitches in a game that really didn’t matter.

James: Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, but I interpreted the talk of mid-season adding to be in the same vein as 2012, when Kevin Youkilis and Franciso Liriano were traded for zero functional major leaguers.

Collin: Is it wrong for me to just want them to be better than Kansas City and Cleveland?

Nick: No, I am very invested in Kansas City failing for rational and irrational reasons. James, I’m fine with that in the sense that it’s probably harmless, but I’m definitely more welcome to it on the pitching side, as pitching is an activity that is fundamentally harmful to the person doing it and the more hands you have on deck the less likely you are to shred guys like Petricka and Webb because Ventura REALLY doesn’t want to use Maikel Cleto or whatever.

James: As I’ve grown older I realize I hate every team and want them to fail. It makes the playoffs really fun until the end when that one team doesn’t get eliminated.

Rob: Adam Dunn … Who would have thought that guy had anything left?  And Viciedo?  Waking from the dead after an abysmal 2013. For me its been the most fun to watch some of the former dead weights on the roster actually show they can provide some positive value on the offensive side of the ball.  Clearly we can’t expect Viciedo and Dunn to keep up a 150 wRC+ all season but at least there are two fewer automatic outs in the lineup this year.

Collin: As I wrote Monday, I’m actually quite optimistic that Dunn will continue to produce at or near the level he has thus far. He seems to be seeing the ball better and his walk and strikeout numbers are on par with some of his career bests. If David Ortiz can have a career resurgence at age 34, why can’t Dunn? (Full disclosure: I was irrationally high on Dunn when the White Sox signed him and have always been a fan, for some dumb reason).

Tyler Flowers, on the other hand, is going to crash HARD. I foresee a 1-for-40 stretch or something of the sort in the near future.

James: I offer that a lot of Dunn’s success is not having to hit left-handers anymore. Beyond that, he has a .400 BABIP against righties right now. How much of that is him spraying the ball and beating the shift or just utter nonsense will reveal itself in time. He’ll continue to look good if used correctly. There’s no big component change in his power, strikeouts, walks, etc. More walks I suppose.

When Dunn went nuts at the beginning of 2012, a reason we knew — well, we didn’t know — he was going to come down was he was cranking out a .300+ ISO, and we had 10 years of data saying this probably wasn’t going hold up, and there was nothing else that was significantly improved. Adam Dunn has enough power that he probably would do decently in a wrestle-to-the-death match with Jim Thome, and he can’t hold up a .300 ISO.

That’s what excites me most about Abreu. His ISO is .348 right now. There’s a possibility that’s his true talent. It’s unlikely, but there’s at least a chance that his contact is just that hard. If that’s consistent, there’s really not much reason to worry about his contact — which still seems like it could improve once he gets used to what he’s facing — since he could hit .200 and still slug .550

Collin: Fair point. Dunn has 3 hits in 20 ABs against lefties this season (1 HR).

Rob: Has anybody else noticed how utterly atrocious De Aza has been this year?  He is hitting .185/.255/.359.  His struggles haven’t made headlines due to the hot start by nearly every other starter but you would think that he would start to see his plate appearances decrease if his performance doesn’t improve significantly in May.  

Nick: The offense was never going to be a Top 5 offense, let alone No. 1 in the majors like it was for a big chunk of the start of the season. However, I do think they can stay out of the bottom third in that they actually look like they have a middle of the order bat again in Abreu, and as Collin said — they can avoid the utter “last in the majors” type black holes they’ve featured so often. If Flowers and Semien, for example, can be Not The Worst, then they’ve already upgraded. If Dunn can hang in there with an ~.800 OPS, and Viciedo can get closer to .800 than .700 on the year, it’s progress as a whole.

You’re right, Rob — de Aza’s been off to a bad start average-wise, but those peripherals look roughly in line with his career as far as K:BB and IsoD. In fact his IsoP is pretty huge right now for him.

Collin: The problem with de Aza’s start is, who the hell gets his ABs if he goes to the bench? Jordan Danks? Leury Garcia? No thanks.

Nick: de Aza can just be so infuriating. His base running is breathtaking and not in a good way.

James: Consider me mildly bullish on De Aza. Nothing is wrong with him except BABIP ... and I don’t know ... head trauma or whatever is up with him. It’s occasionally breathtaking in a good way, he’s actually really fast! But because of his history, when he gets full speed I start getting worried he’s going to trip and fall.

Nick: Isn’t it also plausible that the team falls out of contention and they should be looking to deal guys like de Aza and Beckham? I mean, we’re really pumped about April because it was fun to watch baseball again instead of one of my favorite interests turning into a non-stop source of rage and frustration, but they’re a tick below .500, which is about what we expected from them.

Collin: And Ramirez? 

Nick: I think you could sell high on Ramirez, but SS is just so bad across the majors. You could get a good return for him, but it just doesn’t feel like a move the White Sox ever do as an organization.

James: At the risk of sounding meatball, when really I just hate all teams, that seems like a Cubs move — kicking the competitive window 2-3 years down the road and celebrating raw value gained. 

Nick: I see what you mean about people wanting value for value’s sake, and maybe Alexei Ramirez isn’t the best piece to do it with, but the White Sox were so the opposite of getting value for about 5-7 years. Yeah, the Cubs do that kick the can down the road (and then blow value on guys who look incredibly pedestrian like Castro and Rizzo, but I digress) but the Rays hoard value and it keeps them in good shape. Ditto Oakland.

James: I thought you meant Simon Castro for a bit and then got sad. Why is he gone? Not that he should be here, but why was he worse than Nestor Molina, who is still on the damn 40-man.

I suppose the return for Ramirez could provide immediate pitching while Semien plays short and Micah — who is shutting me up and hitting the CRAP out of Double-A pitching — but I think the White Sox want to win next year, and their reaction to Ramirez would be to think, “Hey cool, we’ve got a decent shortstop for the 2015 team.”

With Abreu being a 27-year-old, rather large dude, and Sale and Quintana being in their primes, a 2-3 year rebuild isn’t really a great idea. I could make a comparison to Detroit’s core of Miggy, Verlander and Scherzer and how until this year, I admired how they sold out to capitalize on it, but I don’t know who I’d piss off more with that comparison. Everyone?

Nick: I don’t really see a great fit for a trade partner re: Alexei off the top of my head. Teams like the Yankees and Tigers could use him, but their minors are pretty thin. Other competing teams don’t have a need at shortstop at present.

Collin: There’s certainly a fine line between getting good value for players who clearly aren’t part of your future and just continuously trading good players and pushing your competitive window back further and further. People (maybe not US, but some people) praised Kenny Williams for years because he always wanted to “win now.” But that mentality is largely to blame for the shape the organization is in today and the reason Rick Hahn has had to do the cleaning up he’s done over the past 6+ months.

I’m all for trading away guys like Ramirez, de Aza, etc., even if you’re not going to get a world-beater in return. If I had to choose between two evils, I’d rather they do that then trade Royce Ring for Roberto Alomar. (There are better examples — Ring didn’t amount to anything — but that always comes to mind first for some reason).

James: I made some lazy joke the other day about KW’s management being inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray and I’m slowing growing more and more proud of it.

Are we on the fourth page? This is like a podcast without “um’s” and without 20 minutes of waiting for someone to show up.

Nick: I don’t know how far down the Kenny Williams rabbit hole we want to go in this article, but the problem wasn’t necessarily his trading for major league talent. Dave Dombrowski has more or less made that work in a lot of ways. The problem was how he went about doing it, and having nothing coming in via the draft OR Latin America at any point. 

There were moves he could have avoided that would have been better for Winning Now by just standing pat. Keeping Thome instead of Kotsay, for example, not extending Mark Teahen before he played a game for you, keeping Nick Swisher even if Ozzie was whining about it, etc. etc.

As far as this April, it kind of fits what I said at the beginning for how I saw the season as a whole: There’s a ton of chaos and individual variance, with some upside, and some untapped potential, and some injuries mucking things up and not a ton of depth. And at the end of the day they’re somewhere around .500. 

It’s very entertaining if you don’t consider the playoffs anything other than a 5-10 percent probability Best Case Scenario and don’t need the playoffs to be happy with this season.

James: Think of how much of a panic we’d actually be in if this was supposed to be a playoff contender. They’re the damn 2012 Angels. Three of their starters are out of the rotation and it’s April!

Nick: Who do you think wins the war of adjustments: League-wide Pitching v. Jose Abreu?

James: Well, Abreu has a bat, so...

Collin: The fact that Abreu has done some of his damage against above-average to great pitchers (Verlander, Price, Archer) certainly has me optimistic that he’ll be just fine after the adjustments.

James: Both Abreu and Avisail have homered off Danny Salazar fastballs in life. That’s cool. Not so much for Salazar, though.

Abreu has also yet to face Jason Vargas.

Nick: Sale getting hurt, particularly as I perceive it to have been caused or exacerbated by a dumb manager, puts a huge damper on things until we see how he recovers. The story of April has to be Abreu being super awesome, though.

Collin: On what date do we get some sort of comment from management about how low attendance hinders the team’s ability to acquire top talent at the trade deadline?

Nick: Well, we know the front office won’t hesitate to blame fans for not coming out and watching a terrible team that should be making most of its money from corporate sponsorship, luxury boxes, season tickets and television instead of whining about the average joe coming out and spending $40-60 at the park, so ... it’s always an excuse in their quiver.

James: At what point does sports media just take up the mantle to parrot the attendance shaming from management in order to play up the importance of their access? At what point does the argument that attendance didn’t enormously spike mid-season for an 85-win team that didn’t make the playoffs in an awful division is proof the Sox can NEVER draw?

At what point does the Sox being consistently bleh but rarely awful get trumpeted as an underappreciated feat? They’ve had two 90-loss seasons since their last 90-win season, by the way.

Nick: They lost 90 games in 2007 and had the 5th best attendance in the AL, so I don’t really buy the “fans won’t come” argument. We learned from the White Sox’s VP of marketing last offseason that the ticket pricing was way off — some areas were way too expensive compared to other options around the majors and that those were corrected. Part of the problem with the fans not coming out for the “competing” teams in 2010 and 2012 is that they were a boring bunch of super old guys who had a really low ceiling and they would alternate good years with awful years, and there can often be a lag effect from year-to-year in terms of success v. attendance.

So any good will inspired by an up year (even though I think 2010, a year where they had to rally to finish 6 games back in the division, is a pretty lame “up” year, for example) would be trashed immediately by 2011 or 2013. And besides, 2012 ended REALLY badly — not exactly a fun way to market in the offseason.

Collin: I feel like I saw a stat some time ago that they have the best record in the AL since like, 1990 or 1995 or something. Or maybe second to the Yankees. Or maybe I made that completely up. A good fact checker, I am.

Nick: Collin, one stat I know is that they were the 5th winningest team in the 90s!

Collin: Yeah, that.

James: They packed in 2007 because there was residual benefits from the World Series and a solid 2006. Because it takes a while, rather than hordes of people crashing the gates because they’re eight games over .500 in July.

Collin: I even bought a partial season-ticket plan in 2006 and I lived almost two hours away. So Sox management can’t yell at me!

Nick: Exactly, James — which is why bad attendance after an 85-win season that ended in disaster isn’t exactly going to flood the ticket sales window on the heels of 2011. Also: offense is fun and their offense has been abysmal for a long time.

Collin: We should probably wrap this up, eh? Kudos to the people who stuck around for the thousands of words of rambling.

Nick: Get well soon, Sale.


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