2017 White Sox: Why being really bad might finally be good

Juan Pizarro

Juan Pizarro, who had the same name of a 16th-century Spanish conqueror, won 131 games over 18 seasons and was part of two lopsided trades, once coming and once going. Pizarro was 20 when he debuted in the majors in 1957 with the Braves, and pitched in the World Series that year and the next. He made 51 starts and won 17 games over the next four years, but his wildness, both on the field (240 walks in 444.1 innings) and off (“Manager Fred) Haney … wondered so much about J.P.’s whereabouts he had to send out groups of players, or even the police, to scour the bars for the missing rookie,” wrote Ed Kiersh in the book Where Have You Gone Vince Dimaggio. The Braves traded Pizarro and Joey Jay for shortstop Roy McMillan, who hit .237 for the next three-plus seasons and was an able fielder. The Reds kept Jay, who won 21 games each of the next two seasons, and moved Pizarro to the White Sox, where he won 75 over the next six (the Reds got third baseman Gene Freese for Pizarro and pitcher Cal McLish, and Freese hit 26 homers for their 1961 pennant winners). White Sox president Bill Veeck told the Sporting News, “In the case of Pizarro, who supposedly lacks the drive and aggressiveness to win, if anyone can put a fire under him it is (manager Al) Lopez,” according to Pizarro’s bio at sabr.org. And that from the man who had helped integrate the American League in 1947. Pizarro was 24 in his first White Sox season, which might have had just as much to do with his success as Lopez. He won 14 games in 1961, and had his two best seasons in 1963-64: 16-8 with a 2.39 ERA in 1963 and 19-9 with a 2.56 ERA while pitching 239 innings in 1964, a year the Braves were ninth in the NL in ERA (4.12), ahead of only the Mets. Pizarro was limited by injuries the next couple of seasons, but that deter the Pirates from making one of their worst deal to get Pizarro. They traded a journeyman lefty with one major-league win (and 10 losses) to the White Sox. Wilbur Wood mastered the knuckleball and won 163 more for the Sox. Pizarro won just 10 more in two stints with the Pirates. Pizarro pitched with six teams, seven if you count the Pirates twice, over his last eight seasons, winning 33 games. Two of those were against Tom Seaver in a six-week span in 1971: 3-2 on a complete game six-hitter on Aug. 1, and then 1-0 on Sept. 16 on another six-hitter, Pizarro homering for the game’s only run. It was one of eight home runs Pizarro hit in his career; his other victims included Mudcat Grant and Bll Four author Jim Bouton. Career totals: 131-105, 3.43 ERA, 79 complete games, 17 shutouts, 28 saves, 2,034.1 innings, 1,807 hits, 888 walks, 1,522 strikeouts, 104 ERA+, 3.68 FIP, .683 OPS against, twice an All-Star, 19th in 1964 MVP vote with eight votes, 16.3 WAR (14.2 from 1961-64), Puerto Rican Hall of Fame member in its first class, no votes for Cooperstown in 1980, his only year on the ballot.

Up next: Michael Kopech cut his hair last weekend, and the White Sox hope the barbers didn’t take anything off his fastball. Kopech is one of the prime prospects the White Sox got from Boston for Chris Sale, and he’s often been compared to Noah Syndergaard because he’s tall and had lots of hair and heaters. Not so much of the former anymore. Kopech hit 105 mph last season, though there’s not much mention of whether it was a strike. His career thus far has been more like a curveball, and there’ve been a few drops on the way to the majors. In 2015, Kopech was suspended for using a banned substance, and in 2016, he broke his hand in a fight with a teammate. When he pitches, which hasn’t been often, he’s been much the same — wild and fast: a 2.61 ERA, 134.2 innings, 93 hits, 172 strikeouts and 69 walks. In three minor league seasons, Kopech has yet to top 65 innings, so he’ll be in Chicago long before he’s ready to assume Sale’s workload.

What he said: “… there really just wasn’t the opportunity to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish with our young players and get him reasonable playing time here in Chicago.” GM Rick Hahn on releasing infielder Brett Lawrie. What he meant: “We can lose 90 games without paying him $3.5 million.”

Outlook: The White Sox have straddled mediocrity and putridness for nearly half a decade, but they finally took the leap to the latter this year.

The White Sox will lose 90 games, maybe more. It’s not the worst thing to happen to a team that has made the playoffs just once since winning the World Series in 2005 and hasn’t had a winning record since 2012.

The White Sox made personnel moves over the last few years like a commuter not sure which train to catch, moving a step or two to contend and then another step or two in the other direction.

They’re finally, after signing David Robertson and trading for Todd Frazier in the last offseason, moving consistently and confidently in the same direction.

“On balance, I think every single guy that’s here in the organization is prepared to work together and move forward and help each other out and ultimately to obtain the goal of being a polished major league club that can contend,” said White Sox manager Rich Renteria, which sounds great but means nothing.

That might be why they hired him.

The White Sox won’t be contending this year, having traded Sale and outfielder Adam Eaton and released Lawrie, but they probably weren’t anyway. They also changed the name of the stadium from U.S. Cellular Field to Guaranteed Rate Field, but didn’t say what they were guaranteeing.

They could have a guaranteed win night, but it could be costly.

Chicago’s other team rebuilt its farm system with more of a focus on position players, which was a good model, but the White Sox chose a different tack. Or it chose them. Eight of their top 10  prospects, as ranked by minorleagueball.com, are pitchers, and their three best were acquired for Sale and Eaton.

Their top four prospects, and five of their top 11 (Luis Alexander Basabe at No. 11), all came for Sale and Eaton, which tells you what the state of their farm system was.

The White Sox have been in denial despite four straight finishes of fourth-place or worse. Remember when the White Sox traded for Jake Peavy in 2009 and Ken Williams said “We want to be as strong as we possibly can in September,” and the White Sox went 15-15 from Sept. 1 on to finish 79-83. Or when Ken Harrelson said the deal for Avasail Garcia might be the best in White Sox history? We’re more than 1400 plate appearances into Garcia’s tenure as a White Sox and he’s got a .698 OPS.

Better than Bobby Bonilla for Jose DeLeon, perhaps, which Harrelson transacted himself in his lone year as GM, but not much else.

You can only tell customers Garcia is Shoeless Joe for so long before they realize even the Hawk might have a certain bias.

The White Sox’s honest approach for 2017 is overdue, but probably appreciated. The White Sox might start five players with one year of experience or less, if you include second baseman Tyler Saladino, who’s spent half of two summers in Chicago.

Saladino and shortstop Tim Anderson will give the White Sox perhaps MLB’s most impatient middle infield — they’ve walked a combined 38 times in 1,004 plate appearances. That’s one way to speed up the pace of games.

New centerfielder Charlie Tilson had more at-bats in one week of spring training than he has in the regular season (2), Matt Davidson was acquired for closer Addison Reed after the 2013 season but has batted for the Sox just twice since, and Omar Narvaez and Kevan Smith are the catchers most likely to have their names misspelled. They’ve combined for 123 plate appearances, which helps explain why Geovanny Soto, with all the backstops in the world to select from, chose this one.

But aside from replacing Eaton, the new Sox might not be worse than Dioneer Navarro, J.B. Shuck, Alexis Ramirez and Lawrie.

It’s worth repairing the farm system to find out.

Team song: Pretenders: Pack It Up

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