Talking to the Man in the Mirror

My father suggested an interesting topic for a post last night, and now that the White Sox have completed their World Series sweep I wanted to explore it a little. Without trying to overplay the similarities between the 2004 Red Sox and the 2005 White Sox – both teams that erased decades-old championship droughts with a stunning sweep of baseball’s crowning series – several do spring immediately to mind; in many ways the teams were mirror images of one another, though they produced similar end results. While the 2004 Red Sox excelled in offense with a top-heavy but adequate pitching staff and downright lousy team defense, the White Sox excelled in pitching with an adequate offense and sterling team defense. Each team rode its strength into the postseason, but had to rely on all facets of the game to defeat the NL Champions; both teams featured first year managers, both teams made headlines with their loose attitude and care-free nature, both gained acclaim for their vastly different offensive strategies and both face(d) a few major offseason questions – questions that if answered incorrectly would reduce them to a one-dimensional though still powerful club. This is not meant as an in-depth study, but more as a fun glance over those issues, seeing which match up and what parallels we can draw from them.
Droughts, Curses, and Expectations
In the moments after Keith Foulke flipped the ball to Doug Mientkiewicz and turned around to receive Jason Varitek, the Red Sox and their fans saw an 86 year era close, but they also saw a much shorter period reach its culmination. Between 1998 and 2004 – the years of Nomar and Pedro, the years of constant contention and war with the Yankees, the years when the Red Sox shed a lovable loser image and became a contending media darling of a team – We came to expect victory as much as we expected defeat. As much as 2003 destroyed us, we knew that it was not ourselves but the stars; the 2003 team was good enough to win it all, and should have done so but for a single horrible mistake. In 2004 we corrected that mistake, and though the eventual victory was stunning and world-changing, it was not unexpected. We all knew that team was good enough to win a championship. The only question was whether they would make good on the promise. Most commentators predicted the Sox to do exceedingly well in 2004, with many predicting a division title and/or championship. Once it arrived, and despite the massive changes that were soon to come, most once again predicted such lofty heights for the Old Town Team.
In Chicago, 2005 was a bolt from the blue. Unlike the Red Sox of 2004, no one expected the White Sox to do much of anything; most predicted them to finish no higher than third in their weak AL Central division, while a few even pegged them as a fourth place club. Their rotation featured one bona-fide stud in Buehrle, two young arms that had not lived up to their promise in Garland and Garcia, and two old Cuban retreads, one past his days of glory and the other seemingly never destined to reach them. Their offense, one of the very strongest in the majors in 2004, was turned over in favor of a sleeker, cheaper, and far less powerful one in 2005. Their offense lived up to its negligible promise; mediocre at best, but good enough to win because the pitching was a revelation. At the start of the year, however, no one had any reason to believe that would be the case. The White Sox, though dealing with their own drought, simply did not enter 2005 with the same expectations of the 2004 Red Sox.
Now, however, the question becomes ‘can they repeat?’ Can this team that no one though would go anywhere rise to the top of the baseball world two years in a row? With a few key departures slated for the coming offseason, can they return the championship team to the filed or will they have to reload through trades and a paltry FA market?
Free Agents and Career Years
The Red Sox entered the 2004 offseason with a slate of free agent priorities. Topping the list were Catcher and team leader Jason Varitek and Ace SP Pedro Martinez; behind them were SP Derek Lowe and SS Orlando Cabrera, along with several role-players. Of course, now famously, the Red Sox chose to resign only one of the 4; Jason Varitek was inked to a 4 year, $40 million deal while Pedro, Lowe and Cabrera all departed to, respectively, Queens, Los Angeles, and LA/Anaheim. At the time – and now – the front office took a great deal of heat for failing to resign Pedro, and to a lesser extent Cabrera; certainly the Sox staff could have used Pedro Martinez this season, especially after injury sidelined Curt Schilling for most of the year.
The White Sox also face the loss of one of their key pieces: cleanup hitter and 1st baseman Paul Konerko, easily the best offensive player the club fielded this season. Behind him in importance are DH Carl Everett (on whom the team holds a $5 million option) and RP Cliff Politte, a key member of the White Sox’ excellent bullpen.
But players departing for free agency are not the only source of talent loss for teams. Players under contract suffer decline; nowhere was this more evident than in the 2005 performances of Curt Schilling, Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Millar, and Keith Foulke. Several White Sox players had career years and could be predicted to see decline in 2006; among them are Jon Garland, Jose Contreras, and Scott Podsednik. Still, where the 2004 Red Sox were an older team more prone to injury and decline, the White Sox are overwhelmingly young; 6 of their 9 starting position players were under the age of 30 in 2005, as compared with only 3 (or arguably 4, counting Kapler who played RF for a large portion of the year) for the Red Sox. Still, two question marks in the rotation should be concerning; a White Sox team that could lose its top offensive producer, and especially one that relies so heavily on its pitching already, could ill-afford decline in its starting staff. Unfortunately, one almost has to predict that decline to come; the White Sox staff was simply too good this year, with too many contributions above established career levels.
Rookies
Though the 2005 Red Sox team did see some contributions from younger players such as Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, and Craig Hansen, none were projected to be in a position to help the club at the start of the year. Boston was a team built on established veterans, and though there were some exciting players in the system at the start of the season, few were seen as knocking on the door in any immediate sense. Boston had to rely for the most part on its veterans at key positions and positions of weakness; only when other options were exhausted did they turn to the minors.
The White Sox, however, have several key players ready to contribute in the high minors or already in the majors. Their team includes homegrown though now established players like Aaron Rowand, Joe Crede, Neal Cotts and Juan Uribe; add to those names Bobby Jenks and Brandon McCarthy, both of whom became known late in the season. Each figures to play a major role on the 2006 club. Also watch for OF Brian Anderson, who hit well enough in AAA Charlotte to earn a September call-up. The White Sox system isn’t brimming with prospects, but they certainly have shown a willingness to rely on them more; Jenks in particular was a rare find this postseason. A good and constantly productive farm system is a key to long-term competition, and the White Sox in 2005 seem to be in better shape in this regard than the Sox were in 2004.
Conclusions?
Not many, really. Predicting stuff like this is a fool’s errand. In going through all of this data, I found myself struck by the surface differences that gave way to deeper similarities; for one, the parallel between the Red Sox offense and the White Sox pitching staff stands out. Each were the motors of a championship season, with other facets of the team acting more as supports; certainly the Red Sox in 2004 relied more on their pitching than the 2005 White Sox did on their hitting, but it would be foolish to suggest that the Red Sox got where they did due more to their ability in the defensive half of the inning. Also similarly, both teams stand/stood to lose two key contributors to their weaker sides; the Red Sox said goodbye to Pedro and D-Lowe, while the White Sox could see both Konerko and Everett – the teams biggest power producers – make an exit. The White Sox hold more control in that area than did the Sox; their payroll flexibility, coupled with Konerko’s projectability, should allow them to resign him, while the team holds an option on Everett giving them ultimate control over his whereabouts. Still, the questions are similar, and the results would be equally damaging; while the Red Sox were able to compete with lousy pitching and great hitting, they could not do so at the same level they competed at in 2004. The White Sox pitching could be stellar, though I do feel it will decline some; still, should they lose Konerko and Everett without replacing their production, their offense would become a legitimate achilles heel.