When the White Sox got Albert Belle and lost Alex Fernandez over the winter, my response to people who asked what I thought of the team's chances became, "You draw a lot of fans winning games 13-12." The question now, however, is how many fans will the Sox draw losing games 15-12?
Even without Robin Ventura (whom we'll return to in a moment, so those easily made queasy are advised not to eat in the meantime), the Sox have an awesome lineup this year. General manager Ron Schueler did well to retain the services of Tony Phillips, who even at age 38 remains one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. For the moment, the Sox seem to be going with centerfielder Dave Martinez in the second slot, though 25-year-old second baseman Ray Durham figures to move up into that spot against lefties before eventually replacing Phillips at the top of the order. Then comes the meat: Frank Thomas, the "Big Hurt," the best hitter in the game--it should now be acknowledged--since Ted Williams, hitting third; and the fearsome Belle batting cleanup. The forever young Harold Baines protects Belle in the fifth spot. The lineup drops off without Ventura, but the loss could be slight if players perform up to their potential. Depending on whether the pitcher is a righty or a lefty, manager Terry Bevington figures to fill out the card with either Durham or Martinez's right-hand-hitting replacement, Darren Lewis; with Ventura's replacement, Chris Snopek, highly regarded by scouts and Sabrmaticians (i.e., stats hounds, as SABR stands for the Society for American Baseball Research); catcher Ron Karkovice (off to a hot start); and shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who as someone disinclined to accept a base on balls does the least damage hitting last. That's a strong lineup, and in the current rabbit-ball era it should put up runs in bunches.
Yet as good as the Sox' hitting is, that's how bad the pitching is, and the first week of the season offered little sign that it will improve any time soon. Schueler signed Jaime Navarro away from the Cubs to replace Fernandez as the staff ace, but he is no more an ace with the Sox than he was with the Cubs. The ever erratic Wilson Alvarez follows Navarro, followed in turn by the promising but unpredictable James Baldwin. From there it gets ugly. Schueler signed Doug Drabek during the off-season, even though he is seven years removed from his 1990 National League Cy Young campaign and seemed washed up the last two years with the Houston Astros (who bought out his contract to make him a free agent). The even older Danny Darwin is slated to follow Drabek in the fifth spot as needed, though at 41 he would figure to be better used out of the bull pen. (Darwin endeared himself to pitching coach Mike Pazik during spring training by giving up a homer so long it smashed the windshield of Pazik's car in the parking lot well beyond the outfield fence.) Speaking of that bull pen--the Sox' most glaring weakness a year ago, when it cost them a shot at the playoffs--Schueler did little to improve it, despite the higher profile middle relief has taken with the juiced ball and dearth of solid starting pitchers. The Sox enter the season with very much the same arson squad as last year's. I like the left-handed veteran Tony Castillo, and I think Bill Simas has the stuff to be consistently good if he can develop confidence, but right now I wouldn't trust either to stop up a bathroom sink with a barrel of oatmeal. In any case, if things keep going as they are with the starters, both their arms could fall off from overuse by late June.
If no lead is safe from the Sox' hitters, likewise no lead is safe for their pitchers, and the Sox went about proving that last week. Opening in Toronto against the Blue Jays, they notched two runs in the first frame on a Phillips single, a Thomas single, a Belle double that scored Phillips, and a Baines single that scored Thomas. But the Jays bled Navarro for a run in the second, two in the third to take the lead, another in the fourth, and yet another in the sixth. Things looked dire, and after the WGN-TV cameras showed Bevington pacing in the dugout I imagined a message soon scrolling across the bottom of the screen: "URGENT WEATHER BULLETIN: The White Sox have fired Terry Bevington as manager. Stayed tuned for more stormy details as they become available." But the Sox went about saving his job--for now, anyway. Thomas singled and Belle followed with a line-drive homer in the eighth to bring Chicago within one. Pinch hitter Norberto Martin tied the game with a homer in the ninth, and the Sox took the lead in the tenth on a fantastic play by Durham, who scored from first with two out on an infield single that squirted out of the glove of Toronto shortstop Alex Gonzalez into short left field. Roberto Hernandez, the one White Sox reliever who doesn't provoke sheer terror in a Sox fan, came in to close the game for a 6-5 victory.
Hey, if this was how the season was going to go, not having enough pitching didn't look so bad.
Yet Roger Clemens shut down the Sox' vaunted hitting the following night while Alvarez gave up five runs in six-plus innings (not a quality start, not even in T-ball). Clemens, the former Boston Red Sox fireballer, was making his Toronto debut after signing as a free agent, and many many Sox fans (as well as Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti, the most persistent nemesis of Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf) were left thinking, my, he would've looked good wearing a Chicago uniform.
In short, Belle is a tremendous player, and I love to see him take batting practice with Thomas, but the trade of him for Fernandez--which is what the Sox' free-agent dealings amounted to last winter--didn't move the Sox any closer to a World Series. It may have moved them farther away. The team also received a physical and emotional blow in Ventura's broken ankle, a gruesome compound fracture caught on video during a spring-training game. Ventura was trying to score, but when he slid at home the spikes of his right shoe caught on the corner of the plate. The foot stopped but Ventura didn't, and when he rolled over, freeing the leg, his foot was twisted around and stuck out at an odd angle. The most telling piece of video was the reaction shot of home plate umpire John Hirschbeck, who took one look and turned away with a sickened expression.
Yet the dark karmic clouds hanging over the Sox quite literally cleared for last Friday's home opener. It was a glorious day, the most beautiful I can remember for opening day. The Sox were playing the Detroit Tigers, perhaps the worst team in the majors a year ago (and certainly with the worst pitching staff), who were fresh for the picking after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Twins. Baldwin looked good, but he surrendered a run in the fourth on a triple and a groundout, and another in the fifth on a single, a wild pickoff throw to first, and a sacrifice fly. Karkovice signaled the start of the Sox comeback with a homer in the bottom of the fifth that sent the fans (38,560, albeit with the skyboxes filled and the upper deck one-third empty) into hysterics.
Faced with the choice between going to the bull pen or overtaxing his starter (the Scylla and Charybdis of the 1997 season), Bevington let Baldwin labor into the eighth inning, when he quite suddenly lost it. Castillo came in, allowed his inherited runner to score, then threw two more runs on the fire for good measure. By the time the Sox were hitting in the bottom of the eighth they were down 7-1. Yet they tied the game with six runs, and when both teams--by some freak happenstance--failed to score in the ninth, the game entered extra innings. Youngsters Al Levine and Mike Bertotti--brought up from the minors as middle-relief help--allowed a double apiece in the tenth to send the Tigers ahead, and though the Sox threatened in the bottom half they couldn't score.
That loss, however, was a festival of fun compared with the following day. Drabek allowed four runs in the first, four more in the fourth, and yet another in the fifth--with a Detroit homer coming in each frame. The amazing thing was that by not finishing the fifth inning he deprived himself of a chance to "earn" the victory. The Sox responded to the Tigers' opening salvo with three runs of their own in the second, then set off a seven-run bomb in the bottom of the fourth. When Drabek left the game the Sox led 10-9. Castillo, opening the seventh with that same lead, gave up five runs (all by himself), then another in the eighth before Bevington (booed almost as viciously as the pitcher he was removing) finally yanked him. The final was 15-12; ten pitchers, five from each team, gave up a total of 31 hits and 27 runs. The Sox committed four errors on top of that, though only one led to a run. The game lasted four hours and 20 minutes, one minute short of the record for a nine-inning contest, and was almost as punishing at home on TV as it must have been in the stands, where spitting rain and howling winds sent hot dog wrappers swirling into the corners. The Sox looked like garbage, and they played in a tempest of trash.
Even the ever optimistic TV announcers Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek showed signs of strain. Toward the end of Friday's game they were saying, "The Sox are playing some exciting baseball this season." By Saturday they'd descended a notch to, "The Sox are playing some interesting baseball this season." The only place to go from there would have been, "The Sox are playing some frustrating baseball this season."
The Sox pulled up shy of that point Sunday with a face-saving 5-3 victory on a fine performance by Navarro, with all the Detroit runs coming off the bull pen. Yet in only one week of a long season, the team's pitching weakness had been made abundantly clear. Allowing my natural optimism to rule, I still like the Sox to make the playoffs as a wild-card team, but it will not be the cakewalk some expected when the team signed Belle. The Sox are going to have to fight to tighten their defense--which can easily go to pot when pitchers start giving up runs in bushel baskets--and they're going to need pitching help in both the bull pen and the rotation. Bevington is a convenient scapegoat for Schueler's winter shortcomings (one of which, appropriately enough, was not firing him in the first place), and odds are that neither Bevington nor top minor-league prospect Mike Cameron will last the season with the Sox. Cameron will be gone for pitching help; Bevington will simply be gone.
As for the Cubs, it wouldn't be fair to draw conclusions from their first two weeks, because they were scheduled to play their first 11 games against the two best teams in the majors: the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins. Before the season began I figured they could easily start out 0-11, and as of Sunday they were on their way at 0-6. Even so, I like the way they're doing things--off the field, that is--building from within with youth (here's a bold prediction made in a humble aside: minor-league pitcher Curt Lyons, obtained from the Cincinnati Reds for Ozzie Timmons just before the season opened, will pitch for the Cubs in a World Series on a staff that will include Kerry Wood, Jeremi Gonzalez, and Terry Adams).
The Cubs will turn out to be no less competitive than the Sox in the fight for first place--the National League Central is that bad--but they won't make the playoffs. The Marlins will beat out the Braves for first place in the NL East, but the Braves will win it all, beating the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Other division winners: the Seattle Mariners, the Cleveland Indians, the Houston Astros (perhaps baseball's first sub-.500 playoff team), and the Los Angeles Dodgers.