SweetSpot: Sergio Santos

Forget-me-nots for the missing men of 2012

December, 27, 2012
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Say you’re a team that has a problem, like losing an everyday player to free agency. Market solutions tend to be expensive, whether in cash spent or prospects dealt. But some teams already have potential solutions for their seeming offseason needs on hand, thanks to the return of players who missed most or all of 2012. As a result, they haven’t had to lift a finger to fix what might have appeared to be a problem.

Consider the Cardinals’ lot with Kyle Lohse headed to parts unknown for whatever the market will bear. Their rotation isn’t simply going to be fine, it could be better because former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter should be firing on all cylinders this season. If the Cardinals decide to hold onto fellow Cy-worthy ace Adam Wainwright, they’ll have that tandem together again for the first time since 2010, a daunting prospect for any NL Central challenger.

So, with a hat-tip to Simple Minds’ song, “Don’t You Forget About Me,” here’s a non-comprehensive list of guys who missed most of 2012 who you shouldn’t forget will be back in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDelmon Young
Harry How/Getty ImagesIn 2013, the Tigers will swap the at-bats of Delmon Young for those of Victor Martinez.
It wasn’t that long ago that Victor Martinez ranked as a premium producer as a catcher, first baseman and DH for the Indians and Red Sox. Certainly, that’s what the Tigers signed him up for when they gave him a four-year, $50 million deal after 2010. But after just one season (and an .850 OPS), Martinez missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL in his knee. Torii Hunter's addition might have commanded the early-winter headlines, but V-Mart may be the biggest (re)addition to the lineup, filling the at-bat gap left by the unlamented departure of Delmon Young while providing an upgrade on offense. If V-Mart and Prince split the playing time across first base and the DH slot, the Tigers would also spare themselves’ Prince’s leaden glovework as an everyday disaster. Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projects Victor Martinez to produce a .770 OPS; not great, but a big improvement on Young’s .707 in 2012.

Carl Crawford is a bit of a gimme for that name outfielder you don’t want to forget about. (As if.) Having injured and reinjured himself in Boston trying to make up for an ugly first season with the Red Sox, he was dealt to the Dodgers after already getting shut down. He’s expecting to be ready in time for Opening Day. Could he yet prove to be worth the $20 million per year so many sabermetricians confidently accepted as his value when he signed his monster deal with the Red Sox? Well, that’s a bit much, especially if he lives up -- or more appropriately down -- to his ZiPS-projected .746 OPS.

Behind the plate, the guy I’m most interested in seeing back in action after a too-long absence is Wilson Ramos of the Nationals. His .779 OPS in 2011 makes a great basis for projecting him to be an All-Star catcher. The Nats are publicly going through the rigmarole of saying Ramos will have to come back from his torn ACL and fight Kurt Suzuki for playing time, but that’s one of those low-threshold challenges -- Ramos should win, and soon thereafter, he’ll be a star.

Top prospects on the mend also deserve some mention here, because their absence in 2012 doesn’t mean their teams forgot about them for 2013. Joe Benson missed most of the season with injuries to his wrist and knee, but he’ll head into spring training with a shot at winning the Twins’ center-field job outright in head-to-head competition with Aaron Hicks. The Rays’ Brandon Guyer missed most of 2012 with a shoulder injury, but the rose-colored view of his power and contact-hitting skills might make you think he could hit upwards towards .300 and slug in the high .400s from an outfield corner or the DH slot, making it that much easier to leave Wil Myers in Durham to keep the service-time clock of the former top Royals prospect acquired for James Shields at zero.

[+] EnlargeIan Stewart, Bryan LaHair
David Banks/US PresswireEven an average season from Ian Stewart, right, would give the Cubs a slash-line bump at third.
Among relievers, Mariano Rivera gets pride of place, but there’s been plenty said about him already; it isn’t like the future Hall of Famer slipped off anyone’s radar after a season spent on the shelf. Instead, I’m thinking we shouldn’t forget Sergio Santos and his importance to the Blue Jays. Santos is expected to be 100 percent by Opening Day in his recovery from surgery on his labrum, and that’s a big part of the reason why the hyperactive Jays have yet to make any major moves to repair their ’pen this winter.

I’m also curious about Nick Masset of the Reds, and if he can return to be a solid set-up man. Worth a win per year out of the pen in 2009 and 2010, Masset started to melt down in 2011 before getting his torn right shoulder capsule repaired after missing all of 2012. If he’s back at full strength, he might be the perfect right-handed foil to Sean Marshall for handing off save opportunities to Jonathan Broxton. It certainly wouldn’t hurt their latest attempt at keeping Aroldis Chapman in the rotation.

As I touched on last year when Theo Epstein signed him, Ian Stewart wasn’t necessarily a great bet to thrive at the plate by moving closer to sea level as an ex-Rockie. That said, Stewart’s wrist surgery ended his season more than three months early, contributing to the Cubs’ woeful .201/.289/.322 cumulative line from their third basemen. Even a dead-cat bounce from Stewart would be better than that. What was good enough to try in 2012 seems worth dialing up a do-over for 2013.

At second base, Brian Roberts of the Orioles might seem the name to know: A premium leadoff hitter with career .356 OBP in the top slot, and someone playing at an up-the-middle position? This sounds exactly like the guy the O’s need considering the .293 OBP they got from the top two slots in 2012. Unfortunately, Roberts hasn’t played a full season since 2009, and between his 2011 concussion and his 2012 surgery to repair the labrum in his hip, he’s going to be tough to count on. So instead, let’s peg Scott Sizemore of the Athletics as the second baseman you shouldn’t forget about. He’s coming back from a torn ACL, once he escaped the Tigers his combination of power and patience produced at .778 OPS for Oakland in 2011, and he’s reportedly moving back to the keystone this spring.

Honorable mentions are legion, especially among pitchers: Japan’s Tsuyoshi Wada might finally make his Orioles debut and win a rotation slot after missing his rookie season with Tommy John surgery; John Lackey will have plenty to prove after an ugly 2011 intro to Red Sox Nation (6.41 ERA), but if more closely resembles the mid-rotation workhorse he was with the Angels, their shot at keeping up in the AL East looks much more realistic. And from among the arms expected back for the second half, Michael Pineda for the Yankees, Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz for the Rangers, Daniel Hudson for the D-backs and the Braves’ Brandon Beachy should all make an impact on the postseason picture.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Resilient Jays can bounce back

May, 27, 2012
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Josh Hamilton flipped the bat back and jogged around the bases with his eyes fixed to the ground. There was no fist-pump, no pointing at the dugout, not even a wave to the fans. That’s not how you react when you expect to win games, and Hamilton and the Texas Rangers certainly expect to do that every time they take the field. Boasting the best run differential in the American League, Texas certainly deserves the respect it's being given this year.

But look just two ticks below them in the run-differential standings, and you’ll see a team that may surprise you: The Toronto Blue Jays, the very team that Hamilton beat with his walk-off home run on Saturday afternoon.

Toronto certainly had some hype coming into the season. With the two-time defending home-run king, Jose Bautista, to build around, things up north were only getting better. Add in a full season of emerging superstar Brett Lawrie, who looked like a legitimate All-Star during his brief time in the majors last year, and there seemed to be no reason why the Blue Jays couldn’t find themselves playing October baseball, especially once Bud Selig announced the addition of a second wild-card team in each league.

Well, two months later Bautista is hitting only .234, Lawrie has a meek .672 OPS, and the man who protected Bautista in the lineup over the past two years, Adam Lind, isn’t even on the major league team. Knowing those three facts alone, one would predict that the season hasn’t exactly gone as general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell imagined. Yet even after Saturday’s heartbreaking 13-inning loss to the Rangers, Toronto sits only 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot with a 24-23 record.

Like almost anything else in baseball, success starts with the starting pitching. Toronto’s top four of Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez all have ERAs of 3.86 or lower, with at least five quality starts apiece. That type of production will keep any team afloat.

Morrow in particular has been brilliant. The ex-Mariner was always plagued with command issues that limited his success as a starter. His 8 percent walk rate this year is a full 3 percent lower than his career mark, and would seem to indicate that he has finally gotten a grip commanding his stuff.

Unfortunately for Toronto, each of these four pitchers has a higher FIP than ERA, indicating that all of them are probably due for some regression as the season continues. Don’t be surprised to see the Jays in on any starters who might become available as the trade deadline gets closer, with Zack Greinke as the ultimate prize.

Although Bautista has been struggling, Edwin Encarnacion has been a revelation for the Jays. He has already jacked 15 home runs, only two fewer than he did all of last year, with a robust .929 OPS. That being said, his power is likely to slide off a bit over the coming weeks. His current HR/FB rate of 18.8 percent is much higher than his 12.4 career mark.

Bautista, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten any breaks this season. His .211 BABIP means his average will bounce back soon enough, and it’s not like he’s experiencing a power outage -- he has 12 homers on the year. On top of that, his fly-ball and ground-ball rates are right around his career averages, reflecting that he hasn’t changed anything fundamental with his swing. Just give him time, and there’s every reason to believe Bautista will return to form.

At the moment, the Blue Jays have two big problems besides Bautista’s struggles. The first is their bullpen, something that was supposed to be a strength coming into the season. When Anthopoulos acquired Sergio Santos from the White Sox over the winter, many believed that the Blue Jays had finally found a consistent closer, a position that had been in flux over the past few years. Instead, Santos blew the first two save opportunities he had before being placed on the disabled list with an injured shoulder. The man Anthopoulos acquired to be Santos’ setup man, Francisco Cordero, took over; he was even worse. Casey Janssen has since assumed the role and has done remarkably, not allowing a run since being named the closer. Still, the Jays’ bullpen has almost no depth, with the ageless Darren Oliver as the only other consistent option. This is another area that Toronto will be looking to fix come the end of July if it wants to contend.

The other main obstacle Toronto faces right now is, of course, the division it plays in. The AL East is easily the best division in baseball, if not all of sports. Having to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees every year is tough enough, but now that Tampa Bay is a legitimate power and Baltimore is looking better and better every day (and in first place), there are five legitimate playoff contenders vying for three spots. Toronto is 7-12 against teams in its division, and 17-11 against everyone else. The fact that the Jays have to play 18 games every year against four teams with so much talent is almost unfair.

With a fourth of the season done, Toronto is still very much in the playoff race. Farrell would surely tell you that this team can do better, and the numbers would back him up. Although the Jays saw a sure victory turn into a mirage in the Texas heat Saturday, their future is still bright.

If Toronto acquires an ace and some bullpen depth at the deadline, it should have more than just playoff aspirations. That sort of reinforced Jays club could have championship aspirations. Blue jays traditionally start heading south when the October winds blow in, but this just might be the year where those traditions begin to change.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Dayan ViciedoDavid Banks/US PresswireSox fans don't interfere, they just let left fielder Dayan Viciedo do his thing.
Alex Convery writes for Fire Brand of the American League, a SweetSpot network affiliate. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Over/under: Wins for Blue Jays

March, 16, 2012
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It's not easy playing in the AL East. Since 2006, the Toronto Blue Jays have won 87, 86 and 85 games in various seasons; if they'd been in the AL Central, maybe they would have won a division title somewhere in there.

SportsNation

Over/under prediction: 81.5 wins for Blue Jays

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,935)

But not in the AL East, which means the Blue Jays are one of the franchises that should be happiest about the addition of a second wild-card team. Suddenly their playoff hopes are drastically improved.

Toronto went 81-81 in 2011, scoring 743 runs while allowing 761.

The one major addition in the offseason was acquiring closer Sergio Santos from the White Sox, but the biggest additions will be full seasons from third baseman Brett Lawrie, center fielder Colby Rasmus and starter Henderson Alvarez. The rotation will also be relying on improvement from Brandon Morrow. He led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings last season but posted a disappointing 4.72 ERA. He needs to pitch better with runners on base and go deeper into games. If he develops into a solid No. 2 behind Ricky Romero, the Jays could be surprise wild-card contenders.

What do you think? Some believe the Jays are a year or two away, as they wait for some of their minor league talent to reach the majors. The oddsmakers aren't predicting much improvement, setting the Jays' over/under at 81.5 wins.

Over/under: Wins for White Sox

March, 15, 2012
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"I think we're going to be a lot better than some people think -- a lot better," Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said Wednesday to CBSSports' Danny Knobler.

SportsNation

Over/under prediction: 77.5 wins for White Sox

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The White Sox won 79 games a year ago, a pretty remarkable achievement considering Adam Dunn hit .159 (lowest ever for a player with 450 plate appearances), Alex Rios had a .265 OBP (one of the 10 lowest figures ever for an outfielder with 500 PAs), Gordon Beckham hit .230 with a .296 OBP, Brent Morel posted a .287 OBP and Juan Pierre played 157 games.

That, my friends, is a lot of bad hitting.

The bad news is all those guys except Pierre are back. The good news is that they can't do any worse. The White Sox lost longtime starter Mark Buehrle and outfielder Carlos Quentin (second on the team in home runs and RBIs in 2011) via free agency. In their spots will be Chris Sale, moving from the bullpen, and prospect Dayan Viciedo. The rotation will count on better seasons from John Danks (4.37 ERA) and Jake Peavy (4.92 in 18 starts) and a repeat performance from 2011 surprise Philip Humber. Gavin Floyd fills out what could be a solid rotation, although one lacking a No. 1-type ace.

The bullpen is minus closer Sergio Santos, traded to the Blue Jays, but the White Sox believe they have depth with Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, rookie Addison Reed and Will Ohman.

But it's the offense that will decide the fate of the 2012 White Sox. Do you believe in comebacks? If so, maybe you'll take the over on the betting line of 77.5 wins.

Robin Ventura and the trial by fire

March, 4, 2012
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Robin VenturaAP Photo/Jae C. HongThe team GM Kenny Williams, left, hired Robin Ventura to manage certainly has its share of holes.


Robin Ventura succeeds Ozzie Guillen as manager of the White Sox, having never managed (or coached) at any level in pro ball. Just what has he gotten himself into?

Distinguished Playing Career

Although he will be hard-pressed to make as vivid an impression as his predecessor, Ventura should be able to command the respect of his players on the basis of his own career as a player. Though he isn’t a Hall of Famer, he has certainly had a career worthy of a Cooperstown exhibit. He was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State University, where he set the NCAA consecutive game hitting streak record of 58 (he still holds the Division I mark). He was a first-round draft pick (10th overall) of the Chicago White Sox in 1988 and made his big-league debut a year later, after only 129 games in the minors.

While never a top-10 player, with few "black ink" stats on the back of his baseball cards, his career was notable for its consistency. Though he only surpassed 100 RBIs and 30 homers twice in his 16-year career, he was a six-time Gold Glover at third, and from 1991-2003 he compiled a 117 OPS+, with no season lower than 97. Whatever foot speed he had in his youth was erased in a horrific fractured/dislocated ankle injury suffered during a spring training game in 1997. He had compiled a line of .276/.367/.442 prior to 1997, but only .256/.357/.446 from 1997 onward.

Ventura had a knack for making history with the bases loaded. On September 4, 1995, he became only the eighth player to hit two grand slams in the same game. On May 20, 1999, he became the first and only player to hit a grand slam in both games of a doubleheader. During Game Five of the 1999 National League Championship Series, he hit a walkoff slam, which turned into a "Grand Slam Single" when his trip around the bases was interrupted by a celebrating teammate who hoisted Ventura up, preventing him from touching home plate. Another memorable moment came in a game against the Rangers in 1993, when he decided he didn’t like getting hit by Nolan Ryan, and charged the mound, only to be "noogied to death" by the 46-year-old Texan.

Track record of neophyte managers

Of those who will be pacing a dugout in 2012, at least seven went into their first big-league stewardship like Ventura is now, a babe in the managerial woods. But unlike Ventura, they all had prior coaching experience. Let’s examine how those seven did in their first two seasons:

  • Dusty Baker (1993 Giants): Baker inherited a team that won 72 games in 1992. Thanks in large part to the addition of free agent Barry Bonds (who compiled a 1.136 OPS), San Francisco improved to a 103-59 record in 1993, with Baker winning NL Manager of the Year. The '94 squad slumped to a 55-60 mark in the strike-curtailed season.
  • Bob Melvin (2003 Mariners): The 2002 squad went 93-69, only good enough for third place in the highly competitive American League West and six games out of the wild card. Melvin guided the M’s to the exact same record in his first year. This time they nabbed second place in the West, but still missed the wild card by two games. Melvin’s second year saw the Mariners fall from seventh to last in the AL in runs scored, and the team went 63-99. Melvin was fired after the season.
  • Ozzie Guillen (2004 White Sox): After the Sox went 86-76 in 2003, Guillen took over in 2004 and led the team to an 83-79 finish. His second season was when the magic happened: An AL-best 99-63 record and a 11-1 postseason record culminating in the franchise’s first title since 1917.
  • Joe Girardi (2006 Marlins): The 2005 Florida squad went 83-79, and Girardi somehow guided the team with the lowest payroll in the majors in '06 to a very respectable 78-84 record. He was rewarded with the NL Manager-of-the-Year award, but not before getting fired by the Marlins due to some clashes with ownership.
  • Bud Black (2007 Padres): Black’s fortunes were similar to Melvin’s -- he barely changed the team’s record in his first year (going from 88-74 to 89-74, with that 163rd game being a loss in the wild card tiebreaker), then saw the team totally collapse in his second season (63-99).
  • Kirk Gibson (2010 Diamondbacks): The D-backs had suffered through a 70-92 campaign in 2009, and were on the same path in the middle of 2010 at 31-48 when Gibson took over. He guided them to a slightly better 34-49 finish, then surprised most pundits with an NL West Division title in 2011, going 94-68 and earning the league’s Manager-of-the-Year award.
  • John Farrell (2011 Blue Jays): After the Jays finished in fourth place in the AL East 2010 despite an 85-77 record, manager Cito Gaston retired, and Farrell was surprisingly given the reins. The Jays meandered to an 81-81 ledger in 2011, never more than four games over or five games under .500 at any point.
  • Don Mattingly (2011 Dodgers): Donnie Baseball took over for a retiring Joe Torre, who had gone 80-82 in 2010. Despite all the off-field distractions, and very little offense outside of Matt Kemp, Mattingly was able to guide the Dodgers to an 82-79 record in 2011.

Two of the most recent examples of managers being hired despite no prior managing or coaching experience have turned out poorly:

  • Buck Martinez (2001 Blue Jays): The 2000 season saw the Jim Fregosi-led Jays go 83-79. Martinez, who spent most of his post-playing career in the broadcast booth, led the ’01 squad to a similar 80-82 record; after getting off to a 20-33 start in 2002, Martinez was fired.
  • A.J. Hinch (2009 Diamondbacks): The 2008 Diamondbacks went a disappointing 82-80, and when they started out 12-17 in '09, Hinch was given the job, at the tender age of 34. He led the team to a 58-75 finish to that season, and was 31-48 in the 2010 campaign when he was replaced by ... Kirk Gibson.

As you can see, most times there is little change in year one, but major upheaval (both good and bad) in year two.

The team he will manage

Since their splendid 99-63 regular season run to the 2005 World Series title, the record of the ChiSox has been neither wretched nor exemplary. With the exception of 2007 (a 72-win campaign), they’ve won between 79 and 90 games each year. They’ve compiled a .511 winning percentage and just one playoff appearance. They rank 13th in W-L percentage during that time.

[+] EnlargeJohn Danks
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireHow John Danks, right, performs as No. 1 starter and whether Gordon Beckham can get his OPS back on track are key questions awaiting Ventura.
But last year’s club showed some glaring weaknesses. On offense, the 2011 squad had only two regulars compile an OPS greater than .728 (the league OPS was .730) or over a 100 OPS+. There were 22 players with more than 400 plate appearances and a sub-.660 OPS during 2011, and the Sox had five of them. The team finished no higher than seventh in the AL in any offensive category. It were also the third-oldest offense in the league. On defense, committing the second-fewest errors in the AL couldn’t mask the lack of range afield, as White Sox' Defensive Efficiency ranked third from bottom. If you reached first base against the Sox, you ran, as they threw out a league-low 22 percent of stolen-base attempts. The pitching helped keep some of the pressure off of the defense, as their 7.5 K/9 and 2.78 K/BB led the AL. But they still ended up with a league-average 4.10 ERA.

In 2012, the club will face some major hurdles if it wishes to improve on last season's performance or even just to keep pace with it. The starting rotation must replacing staff ace/workhorse Mark Buehrle’s 200-plus innings. Buehrle’s 2,425 frames since 2001 are 60 more than anyone else. John Danks, who pitched better than his 4.33 ERA might suggest, assumes the No. 1 starter position, with 22-year-old Chris Sale stepping into the rotation. Philip Humber pitched more than 21 2/3 innings in the majors for the first time in 2011, by 141 innings; his BABIP was a low .276, and something may have to give in 2012. In the bullpen, Matt Thornton has been the ChiSox primary set-up man for six years, and had a shot to close last year but lost it; with the departure of Sergio Santos via trade, can the 35-year-old Thornton step up, despite a sharp drop in his K/9 rate last year (12.0 to 9.5)?

On offense, there is a growing concern over second baseman Gordon Beckham. The former first-round draft pick has seen his OPS slide from .807 to .695 to .633, though his defense has improved at second base. Third baseman Brent Morel may not be the answer at the hot corner, as his profile (a .250 doubles hitter with few walks and below-average range) is lacking for the position. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is 35 and closing in on 1,500 games behind the plate. His 120 games at catcher last year were his lowest since 2004, and he threw out only 20 percent of runners attempting to steal, below his career mark of 24 percent. There have been only 30 player-seasons in the past 50 years where a 35-or-older catcher has managed at least a .728 OPS (as Pierzynski did last year).

Then we come to the two biggest enigmas, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. Everyone is well aware of Dunn’s legendary collapse in 2011, including his .064 batting average versus lefties. With three years and $44 million to go, can new hitting coach Jeff Manto get "The Big Donkey" standing upright again? Also, while Rios will never truly be worth the $21 million he is drawing each year through 2014, the Sox hope for something closer to the .284/.334/.457 line of 2010, rather than the .227/.265/.328 slash of 2011. They’re moving him to left field this season, where he has played one game his entire career.

Will Ventura exceed expectations?

So, Robin Ventura will certainly have his hands full (and tied) with a team that is, at best, in transition and, at worst, about to fall off a cliff. If he can move the White Sox in the right direction, it will be yet another extraordinary performance, as impressive as any of his grand slams. Given his history as a player, and the opportunity to establish a new atmosphere in the clubhouse, I think there is at least a chance he can pull it off.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate, and you can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram

Podcast: Andre Ethier is on fire

April, 27, 2011
4/27/11
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Top five reasons why Wednesday's Baseball Today podcast with myself and master chef Keith Law really is a must-listen:

1. Ozzie Guillen must be a genius to insert Brent Lillibridge into right field for defense! He saved the game! Ozzie for Prez! As for "closer" Sergio Santos, on the other hand ... what's the fascination managers have with naming closers?

2. Miguel Olivo "homered" Tuesday night with a rather large assist from Ryan Raburn. Simply put, Olivo couldn't have done it without Raburn. So why is it scored a home run? And how would the defensive metrics deal with it?

3. Is Jered Weaver simply on a path like last season's Ubaldo Jimenez?

4. Terminator Andre Ethier can't be stopped, unless his lofty batting average on balls in play evens out, of course. But can we compare Ethier to others who had excellent April hitting streaks? I say ... well, download and hear it for yourself!

5. Law doesn't like the potential new playoff format or the All-Star Game, as currently constructed? OK, you expected that, but his reasons on each might surprise.

Plus: Excellent emails about Kent Tekulve, a comprehensive look at Oakland Athletics right-hander Tyson Ross, who is scheduled to pitch on ESPN tonight and why didn’t the Blue Jays hit lefties last season but then Adam Lind and pals obliterated Matt Harrison on Tuesday? All this and more on Wednesday's Baseball Today.

Windy City wipeout: K-Rod for closer?

April, 14, 2011
4/14/11
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Matt ThorntonRon Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWhite Sox closer Matt Thornton has already racked up four blown saves in the young season.
The White Sox lost another squeaker Wednesday with their second extra-inning loss to the A's. It marked their fifth blown save in the bottom of the eighth inning or later, and the fourth blown save on the season for Matt Thornton, this time coming in relief of rookie Chris Sale. Sale failed to record an out after being handed a three-run lead in the ninth, so while the blown save gets put on Thornton, it was another bad day at the office for both of the Sox's should-be stoppers. After the game, manager Ozzie Guillen was every bit as combustible as his closers, exploding with an announcement of the obvious: "I don't have any closer."

Now, as much as you'll get an argument from those on the inside that pitching the ninth is different from any other, it's also true that closers can be conjured up from the least likely of sources. From last year's saves leaderboard, for example, Kevin Gregg (37 saves) was a former utility pitcher for the Angels, while the Mariners' David Aardsma (31 saves) was no stranger to the waiver wire. It isn't about the ability to generate saves -- give a lot of guys 30-40 opportunities in the ninth, and you'll get a save 75-80 percent of the time.

It isn't going to be Ozzie's job to pull a rabbit out of his hat, not by himself at any rate. In Sale and Thornton, he has two good lefties who can and will pitch effectively, but their rough starts mean it's going to take some time for trust in them to be rebuilt. Turning to Thornton early in the season and trusting that perhaps Sale would wind up earning the job in-season was a nice plan in the abstract, but in the big picture a pair of southpaws in the Cell doesn't exactly make for the best combination, not in a world full of right-handed hitters, and definitely not in a ballpark as righty pull-power-friendly as the Sox's home -- per Baseball Info Solutions' park factors, U.S. Cellular's 145 park factor for right-handed hitters' home runs is the single highest home-run factor in either league for every kind of hitter in any ballpark over 2008-10. In this kind of environment, there's a real need for a quality right-hander.

And simply put, Ozzie doesn't have that guy. Converted position player Sergio Santos has mid-90s heat and might be worth a peek, but like many conversion projects, the four-seamer could probably profit from more movement and less speed-gun heroics, and given his limited experience on the mound, his off-speed stuff understandably needs work: righties can kill his changeup when they aren't sitting dead-red, but his slider has promise. If that sort of sushi is a little too exciting for Ozzie, Jesse Crain might make for an adequate temporary solution, but he wasn't especially effective in high-leverage situations in 2008 or 2009, and his strikeout rate isn't all that much higher than average for relief help.

Enter Kenny Williams, who is as active a shopper as any GM in the game today. From Williams on down, the Sox believe in their ability to regild the lily, taking other teams' former top struggling prospects and getting them turned around. The rotation's stocked with them (John Danks and Gavin Floyd, for example), and it was their gamble on Bobby Jenks as a too-wild Rule 5 pick out of the Angels organization that helped propel the Sox to their 2005 title. The answer has to come from outside the organization, and it'll be Williams' crew who can find him. If it's a matter of taking a chance on a pitcher struggling with staying healthy, here again, the Sox can afford a bit of risk where other teams might shrink from it, because they have the benefit of Herm Schneider's matchless training staff.

The question is whether Williams can acquire someone this early in the season, when salary dumps generally aren't the order of the day, so it's likely to cost talent -- something Chicago's system isn't rich in. Making the call this early comes across as desperate, because it is. Even so, perhaps the best fit will involve the Sox living up to their season motto -- "All In" -- and making a deal for a short-time veteran who could use the change of scenery.

So the time is now for Williams to call Sandy Alderson, start talking about Francisco Rodriguez, and see how much money the Sox can get the Mets to eat while making it happen. K-Rod may not appear to be the same pitcher he was in his Angels' heyday, but his strikeout rate last season (28.4 percent) was his best since 2007. As much as "closer mystique" is overrated, the Sox probably can't afford to keep experimenting on into May; K-Rod's formerly famous enough to end the club's closer controversy, pushing Thornton back into his set-up job and letting the Sox re-evaluate what they want to do with Sale in the near term. Admittedly, the Sox would be risking K-Rod's 2012 option for $17.5 million vesting -- he needs to finish 55 games to get there, plus a clean bill of health -- but either you're all in, or you're not.

Christina Kahrl helped co-found Baseball Prospectus in 1996, is a member of the BBWAA, and covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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