Monday, July 09, 2007

Woe, Oh, We're Half Way There! Woe, Oh . . .

I've returned to the country, we've reached the All-Star Break, and frankly, other than rumors of a horrible on-field melt down last Friday, the White Sox are pretty much as I left them. Hrm. Obviously, this is a bit of a lost season at the big league level, but that makes it extremely important as a season for building a foundation for the short and intermediate term future. Obviously, the biggest step, one way or the other is the new Mark Buehrle contract. We'll get to that, but let's touch on some other things first.

Speaking of the future, he's coming, and his name is Faustino De Los Santos. He's a couple years away still, but in Low-A ball this season he has 96 Ks in 77 innings, and only 42 hits allowed. He's got a devastating fastball/slider combo, and looks like he could someday lead the rotation or bring up the back end of the bullpen.

Another pleasant development on the farm, and one that could make an impact by next season, is the continued potential, and improved production of Gio Gonzalez. There's a reason they like the prodigal prospects best. Gonzalez has a 2.91 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 92 double-A innings. Depending on what happens with Jose Contreras, Gonzalez may be in the rotation by next season.

Speaking of rookie members of the rotation, perhaps the best development at the big league level is John Danks demonstration that he belongs. Danks has a 4.62 ERA and 68 Ks in 89 innings of work. His PRAA (pitching runs above average) is two. In other words, he's been two runs better than an average big league starter so far this season. Being almost exactly league average, if not the tiniest bit better, is really good for a rookie who many believed was pushed into the bigs too soon this spring.

Also showing he belongs in the bigs is third base prospect Josh Fields. His .252 batting average, five home runs and 18 RBIs don't look great. And, he still strikes out at an alarming rate. But Fields has also been almost exactly league average. He's -1 BRAA (batting runs above average) and 1 FRAA (fielding runs above average). I suspect his numbers will improve during the second half as he gets into a real rhythm and comfort zone with the big club. He's raised his batting average and on-base percentage 20 points, and his slugging percentage 40 points, in the first 10 days of July. Fields has always been a little slow to settle in at each new level as he moved through the organization. His emergence gives the team some flexibility, along with Joe Crede, in its approach to third base and left field next season. They could keep both and send Fields to the outfield, or trade Crede to fill a need in the outfield.

Part of the reason the Sox very much need to address the outfield this off-season is the refusal of their top outfield prospects to develop. Brian Anderson is forgotten and Ryan Sweeney may be headed that way. His potential has always been based partly on his physical build, which suggests that a lot of home runs are locked away just out of sight. Well, another season is passing, and those home runs still haven't emerged, at AAA or in the bigs. He hit one home run in 45 at-bats with the Sox and five home runs in 244 at-bats for Charlotte. He is still very young, but he is also still all potential and no production.

And so we come to the Sox biggest move so far: re-signing Mark Buehrle for four years, 56 million dollars. I'm torn about the decision. Buehrle's value will never be higher to someone else, or lower to the Sox. If he could have been turned into Lastings Milledge or Jacoby Ellsbury, then I think that would have meant more long term to the team. With this new deal, and its trade escalator and no-trade clause, that can never happen now. On the other hand, the price on the extension sure seems right given the cost of starting pitching these days. That's a lot less than guys like Barry Zito are getting. And yet, it's still too much. Buehrle is a finesse pitcher. The slightest loss of stuff with a guy like that and pop-ups become home runs, ground balls become line drives. As Buehrle ages and his stuff declines just a little, he figures to go down hill fast. I can't express joy that the team is strapped on for that ride. As Baseball Prospectus pointed out last week, Mark Buehrle's career numbers are almost identical to the downside of Greg Maddux's career, from 2001-2007. What will the downside of Buehrle's career look like?

I know the Sox got Buehrle for 30 million less than the market would have dictated. I still think they paid too much. Yes, better to spend 50-plus million dollars on Mark Buehrle than Ted Lilly or Gil Meche, but I like that Kenny Williams has always refused to succumb to the market pressure to overpay for starting pitching. So, I don't like that he abandoned his usual philosophy here.


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