Airing Of The Grievances

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White Sox fan showing support for general manager Rick Hahn. (Kevin Powell/WGN Radio)

My first four posts on this new iteration of The Baines Herald have made clear that I can be a pretty staunch optimist. But just because I have no problem seeing the silver lining doesn’t mean I can’t be critical. In fact, I can get worked up with the best of ’em, especially about my ChiSox.

I used to love to ride Albert “Joey” Belle for taking our money and then crapping the bed for months before putting up empty numbers as soon as all hope of contention had passed. My buddy Kaiser and I would go nuts at the emotionless under-achieving squads Jerry Manuel put out there from 2001-2003. My wife still loves to do her (awful) impression of me calling out the washed-up Robbie Alomar at her first ever baseball game.

But where I really get heated is over poor front office and managerial moves. Before the big sell-off, Hahn frustrated me in his over-reliance on unproven and unheralded youngsters and washed-up vets in depth roles, all while free agency was ripe with cheap, productive mid-level types that could fill the support spots.

Even if everyone stays healthy and delivers as expected (and they never do!), you can’t win unless you have a lineup that challenges 1-9 and a 5- to 6-man bullpen that can clamp things down when you’re winning or losing. Hahn never seemed to fully embrace the value of those types of free agents, and we wasted an incredibly talented, cost-controlled core in the process.

And yet, here again Hahn is making a similar mistake and getting me all riled up. Yes, the Sox aren’t competing for anything right now and rightfully want to keep free opportunities to see what we have in all of these youngsters. But that’s still no excuse for his passing on the chance to improve the bullpen.

There’s just so much upside to having a deep, effective relief corps, and the Sox had plenty of money to spend, plenty of relief innings to fill. Everything right now is about the longterm, but even in the longterm, shortterm bullpen investments can offer a nice return.

First off, you can always trade effective bullpen pieces. Kahnle and Robertson netted a Top 100 prospect. Swarzak, Jennings, and Clippard all brought something back last season. And don’t discount those lightly regarded prospects, as winning teams are filled with these types making the big jump to contributing piece.

There’s also not a ton of risk to bullpen investments. You can get capable to really good relievers on shortterm deals for non-impactful dollar amounts. A handful of 1- or 2-year contracts for less than $7M-a-year would have made zero difference to the Sox longterm financials, even if they all ended up busts.

There’s also little opportunity cost – the Sox don’t have much for young, high-end RPs in need of key innings right now. And what middling prospects and second-chance acquisitions they do have around will still get their chances. That’s the thing about bullpens – you’re going to need a ton of relief arms to cover a 162-game season. Injuries, ineffectiveness, poor starting pitching, mid-season trades… the Sox were never going to be hurting for relief innings to give to anyone they believed was crucial to their future, no matter how many legit free agent vets they brought on.

I’d even argue the shortterm upside of a more effective pen helps you in the longterm. Those young relief arms you think could have a future – wouldn’t you rather they work low-pressure situations to cut their teeth? Wouldn’t you rather protect their inning counts?

How about those young starters? Don’t you want to see them rewarded for good outings with a W? Or your hitters – don’t you want them feeling confident that the lead they built will be protected, or that the pen will keep them in the game so their bats can eventually tie it back up?

Even your fans deserve some thought here. We all now know this team will lose a lot. That doesn’t mean we enjoy it, and it doesn’t mean it’s still not frustrating as hell to see good games ruined by over-matched relievers. Or to watch close games get turned into embarrassments because a ragtag bullpen just can’t get it done again.

So yeah, I’m a little pissed that Hahn stopped making anything more than lottery ticket acquisitions after he grabbed Soria and Avilan. Look at this list of guys who signed for 1 or 2 years at $7M per or less (most far less) this off-season, all of whom have been plus relievers in the last year or two:

MAlbers ($2.5 million for 2 years), MBelisle ($1.5-1), JBenoit ($1-1), SCishek ($6.5-2), TClippard ($1.5-1), BDuensing ($3.5-2), ZDuke ($2.15-1), LGregorson ($5.5-2), BLogan ($2.5-1), BNorris ($3-1), SOh ($2-1), FRodney ($4.5-1), HRondon ($4.25-2), FSalas ($1.5-1), CStammen ($2.25-2), ASwarzak ($7-2), and TWatson ($3.5-2).

I’m not saying any of those guys are Mariano Rivera or that you won’t find quite a few busts on this list. For sure. If they suck, you just cut them loose or give them mop-up innings. But if they’re good, now you’ve better helped your guys develop and upgraded the trade pieces on-hand.

The Sox 2020 contention hopes aren’t exactly hanging in the balance of having a few more proven veteran arms in the pen right now. But it bothers me that with money to spend and guys to spend it on, Hahn didn’t put more emphasis on having a larger core of reliable veteran options.

Hahn’s not alone as a target for my current (admittedly muted) wrath. Renteria has largely impressed, as in an era of walks, home runs, and conservatism on the basepaths, Ricky has stressed bunts, taking the extra base, and giving his guys the green light to steal. And I dig that. Put the pressure on the pitcher and defense. Take the game into your own hands, get runs where you can, and keep your players active and hungry.

Renteria is proving ready to zig when everyone else is zagging, to buck the trends, to challenge the conventional wisdom. And given that we’re a rebuilding team full of youngsters willing to do whatever it takes to establish themselves in the bigs, he should be doing just that.

But there are two places I’d like to see Ricky do more, starting with immediately ending this Delmonico in the clean-up spot experiment. I loved the kid last year, he was hitting for average, getting on base, and showing real pop. Sure he came out of nowhere, but again, that happens all the time in baseball. Development curves are very hard to predict.

But this year Delmonico has turned back into a pumpkin, with a woeful sub .250 average and worse, absolutely zero power of any kind. I’m glad he’s still getting his walks, but when you’re that unproductive, you barely belong in the lineup, let alone in the heart of it.

Not that Renteria has a lot of options – Abreu is your only proven elite bat. But the guy who should be protecting him is Davidson, who’s kept his Ks just enough in check to have a respectable batting average to go along with insane power and now plus walk rates. Or WCastillo, a proven professional hitter, a guy who has averaged 17 HRs over the past three seasons in under 400 ABs per. That’s someone pitchers have to respect, someone pitchers would prefer not to face with men on base, even if he’s not exactly an MVP candidate.

To line those three up, Renteria has to eschew the righty-lefty thinking that dominates lineup creation. Ricky needs to see that whatever advantage there is to turning pitchers around is more than lost by having a toothless hitter in the middle of your biggest threats.

Get Delmonico out of there and let Abreu, Davidson, and WCastillo be the middle of the order. Who cares if they’re all righties – better to have three straight legit bats from the right than forcing in a lefty that pitchers know won’t be much of a challenge to get out.

Renteria’s decision here isn’t changing the Sox rebuild trajectory, but I’d like to see him not fall victim to nonsense like blindly following righty-lefty dogma when it’s costing the team and putting a struggling youngster in a tough spot.

But even more aggravating, it gets me every time I see a team shift against the ChiSox and the hitter just tries to bash his way through it. I wanna see Renteria push the Sox to become one of the most extreme teams in how they bat against the shift. It’s simple: the shift only works if you show yourself unwilling or incapable of hitting or even bunting against it. By not making the strategic choice to try to go to the open side, you’re allowing the other team to have an advantage over you.

So take that advantage away from your opponents! You don’t have to spend your whole career bunting or hitting to the opposite side. As soon as you prove you’re capable of repeatedly getting on base against the shift, they’re going to stop (or at least really reduce) shifting on you.

I’ll never get why baseball people don’t get that logical progression: 1) prove you can beat the shift, 2) stop seeing the shift, 3) hit more successfully because you no longer have to hit into a shift.

So hopefully Ricky will take advantage of this impressionable young group, of the lack of pressure to win, and turn the ChiSox into the first team that challenges the fundamental logic and strategy behind the shift.

Remember, beating the shift isn’t the only valuable skill that’s being taught here. You’re also getting players to learn to hit to the opposite field and to lay down bunts. If you can do those things, no matter what kind of hitter profile you have, you’re only going to improve as a batter.

You’re also going to make yourself a more valuable teammate, capable making the right kind of contact to the correct side of the field at the right time. Plus, you’re establishing a mindset in these guys – one of looking for any way to beat the opponent, not just the straightforward one. One of finding any way to help the team, even if it means sacrificing personal glory.

It won’t be easy. These guys didn’t come up going the other way or executing bunts with consistency. But it can be taught – every year new NL pitchers figure out how to bunt. And it’s a rare hitter who is so talented, so reliable at the plate that they can’t benefit from having more options to find success up there.

Unlike upgrading this year’s pen and fixing who’s hitting clean-up right now, sending the franchise in the right direction now can truly have a lasting impact. I’ve been more impressed than not by Renteria’s approach to the game. But you can never do enough to give yourself an advantage, especially in these early rebuild stages when you’ve got a small window to establish organization-wide approaches. I’d hate to see them pass up one such advantage, cause no matter how well we develop our talent, titles will be won and lost on the slimmest of margins.

Brian Pollina is a second generation White Sox fan proudly raising a third generation on the North Side.  When not busy trying to get a Sox Mt. Rushmore of Big Frank, Harold, Uribe, and Don Cooper commissioned, he works in the radio industry.

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