The defending world champion Chicago White Sox (never thought I'd say that writing previews...) won on the strength of their brilliant pitching... and then they went out and added some pitching this offseason.
- Mark Buehrle: If you don't like Mark Buehrle, you don't really know what you're missing. Buehrle's an ace. He's not the best pitcher in the league, but he's an ace in another way: he's the real definition of an innings eater. In 33 starts last year, he swallowed 236.7 innings (that's 7+ per start). You won't find impressive strikeout rates here, and he does give up his fair share of the longball (The Cell is a part of that). Buehrle's just a master of his craft: he has very good control, fields his position well, holds runners close to the bag, and doesn't top 90 mph. One of the best pitching matchups you'll find in the AL Central is Buerhle v. Santana. The craftsman v. the virtuoso. Either guy is a great choice to build your staff around.
- Can you tell that I like Buerhle? Well, I don't like Freddy Garcia nearly as much, although they have similar games. Garcia's a horse. He's gone 200+ innings in each of the last five seasons. The problem is that Garcia is like Buehrle light. Garcia gives up more homers than Buehrle does; he was struggling with the longball at cavernous SafeCo Field for a couple of seasons. Garcia's never had a season where he's put together his best on all peripherals... his highest strikeout years see lesser control, or more homers allowed. His best control years come with lower strikeouts. Garcia's got a great curveball and a few other good pitches, and he does get his velocity up into the low to mid 90s. He was solid last year, and he did similarly to Buehrle with his innings-eating. He also got some help from his defense (which was one of the best in the league). Garcia's a textbook #2 or #3 starter, but I wouldn't call him an ace.
- Javier Vazquez: A savvy addition for the White Sox, Vazquez's peripherals exceeded his performance last year. The D'Back defense was nothing to write home about, and he managed to put up a K/BB of close to 4. Yet he was troubled by the longball, in a park famous for them, and he's not exactly moving to RFK. I've been in love with Vazquez since his unheralded 2003 season, a year in which he struck out almost 26% of the batters he faced en route to a 3.24 ERA. For whatever reason, things fell apart for him in New York, but I'll allege that a heavy workload in Montreal caught up to him. The problem for Vazquez will be the longball, though, more than a K/BB ratio which will, most undoubtedly, be closer to 3 than 2. Vazquez has very good stuff, including a nice slow curve (about 20 mph slower than his mid-90s fastballs), and a good change-up. Last year was his heaviest groundball year in a while, but his recent tendencies certainly point in the direction of flyballs and homers. The trade of Rowand won't help. PECOTA projects Mr. Vazquez at an ERA of 4, but with fewer strikeouts this year than last. I'd say that makes sense. The best part of this is the 5% collapse rate. All in all? A very, very good third starter, maybe even another #2.
Jose Contreras: Contreras got a lot of help from his defense last year, but, to be fair, he made major strides in the second half last year.
ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 First Half 4.26 6.4 4.3 1.4 Second Half 2.96 7.1 2.4 0.6
The second-half version of JC was a stud, and it was the reason why he was considered an ace on this team. Contreras finally curbed is propensity to give up the longball (this was a guy who gave up 22 homers in <100 innings with the Yanks in 2004), in addition to improving his control. He's not young, so I'm not predicting further improvement. But that second half improvement looks real. He's a risk to be hurt because he's 34 and his workload is about to be consistently higher, but there's no reason why Contreras wouldn't be another very good pitcher on this staff.
Jon Garland: It would be easy for me to extol the virtues of DIPS theory, random fluke performances, and regression to the mean, all as candidates to explain the strange early-season success of one Jon Garland. Instead, I'll just present a table of Garland's 2005.
IP BABIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP April 30.0 .215 3.30 1.50 0.30 1.80 3.40 May 42.7 .312 4.85 1.48 0.63 4.22 3.53 June 35.3 .218 4.84 1.78 1.78 3.31 5.30 July 31.7 .278 3.41 1.99 0.57 2.56 3.93 August 37.7 .328 5.01 2.39 1.43 4.78 4.95 Sept/Oct 43.7 .242 5.97 2.27 1.44 3.71 4.71
There are a hell of a lot of things going on in that table, so we should break it down a little.
Garland's control, all year, was very solid; his walk rate never got above 2.50, and he did a good job keeping runners off base that way. That's an essential tool for success when you don't strike people out, which Garland didn't. His April was successful because he didn't allow any homers (see: FIP), but his real success came from luck and defense, as shown by the .215 BABIP. Garland's worst month should have been June, but luck saved him then, too, as Garland was victimized by the longball but had the low BABIP.
May and August saw his greatest regression, also fueled by BABIP.
If you look at his whole season, you'll see a lot of positives, though. This was the third straight season in which he allowed a BABIP between .270 and .280, which is better than the league norm. He also ate innings, averaging just under 7 innings per start (this is a recurring theme, of sorts, for this group). Yeah, Garland had his fair share of luck, and it would be foolish to expect a repeat performance... but Garland's the 5th starter here. No one's asking him to be an ace. If he falters, enter Brandon McCarthy. And Garland will acquit himself nicely as a 5th starter here.
Yes, Bobby Jenks still qualifies as a rookie. And yes, he had one of the most magical runs in recent history through the playoffs. He throws absolute gas and, if he stays together, is one of the elite bullpen talents in the bigs. Watch the control, though, and if he falters, don't be surprised if Ozzie Guillen doesn't have a quick hook... I saw Neal Cotts get hammered at Yankee Stadium in one of his four career starts. I then looked at his statline from 2004, and I saw a guy who just didn't have anything to be optimistic about. 2004 and 2005 were pretty much the same season. Except that the 2005 Neal Cotts cut down on the homers... by 12. Yes, Cotts gave up 13 in 2004, and 1 in 2005. I can't explain that, and it has nothing to do with G/F. His norm is probably somewhere in the middle of that, but that would still make him a serviceable reliever... I'm going to make a bold suggestion: one of the reasons that Cliff Politte and company were so good in 2005 was because they didn't pitch as many innings. Cotts and Politte, two of the staff's most important relievers, threw less than 130 innings combined. This is because of the amazing ability of the starters to go deep into games, something that is simply unheard of, especially in the AL, where the White Sox had 3 of the top 5 in IP/G. Anyway, Politte's an OK reliever, but that 2.00 ERA is driven by a BABIP of .208. Safe to say, that's NOT repeatable... You know how I like to say that there are many AAA relievers who could have the major league success of many established relievers? I don't think that David Sanders is one of those guys, at least statistically. he gave up 10 homers in AAA in 65.7 innings, and his strikeout rate wasn't very good. I have no information on this guy that's positive, but you're welcome to try and find stuff and/or defend his placement on the MLB.com depth chart... Remember when Dustin Hermanson was the closer here? Better yet, remember when Dustin Hermanson was a highly touted starting pitching prospect? Even better yet, remember when Dustin Hermanson was a highly touted reliever in the minors? He's led an interesting career and he had a good season for the ChiSox last year. He also registered 34 saves and didn't get assaulted by homers. He's an average reliever at this point.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better pitching staff, as a whole, than the one they have in Chicago. Relievers exist to watch the games more than they pitch in them on this team, and that was evident in the ALCS last year. I don't expect a repeat, but if they do, it's on these guys again. I credit Kenny Williams for understanding that they need to improve. What was once the Indians' division for sure in 2006 got a lot tougher to pick. This staff can beat anyone.