White Sox Season Preview - Infield

White Sox Season Preview - Infield
Konerko, pictured here with dark-horse 25th man candidate Joe McEwing // Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune

Well, the preview for catchers was 1200 words and was only about two players, so perhaps an emphasis on verbal economy would be good to have.  Oh boy, we're already failing.

This will be stated again, possibly during every other position group preview, but the White Sox infield has a lot of uncertainty to it.  There's a fair amount of contributors that you could look at the 2011 statline of and conclude "Wow, well that guy's terrible", but that somewhat belies the amount of potential buried in here.

Will it get realized?  Probably not, but it's what aspirations for division titles are justified on.  Let's go through the positions clockwise.

Third Base

Brent Morel hit .244/.287/.366 in 444 plate appearances last season, and enters this year as the unquestioned starting 3rd basemen.  Ew.  Eeww.  

While Morel's fielding is considered plus, with sure hands and a strong arm; most advanced metrics think him slightly above-average.

All of that can be expected to improve, because he was a rookie after all.  It's easy to see how his defense will progress--increased familiarity and comfort, more relaxed with his standing on the team, and what have you.  How he'll go from here hitting-wise was thrown into a flux by that goofy end to his season.  In September, he reversed the high-contact, gap-power approach that defined his MiLB career with a .224/.340/.553 line.  That's low-average, hiiiiigh-power, in case it wasn't readily apparent

That would be easy enough to write off as one fluke month, but as Jim Margalus examined, it came as a result of aggressive attempts to pull the ball that actually started in August.  So there's some understandable confusion over whether this is a solid defender who will creep toward being league average at the plate, or an asset who can provide 20-25 HR...or be the next next Jose Bautista.

Brent Lillibridge might back him up--he's played there this Spring--or Eduardo Escobar, or Ozzie Martinez, or even Dan Johnson for some reason.

Shortstop

Alexei Ramirez doesn't raise the same questions.  He provides Gold Glove caliber defense, and a roughly league average bat from a premium position.  Having a shortstop who can field competently is valuable, having one who can hit like he belongs above the bottom third of the batting order is an asset.

If Alexei could rake, he'd be a superstar.  He's 30 now, so that's probably not happening, but he's too athletic to imagine a collapse any time soon.

Buttttttttt, the specter of his now four year-old rookie season remains.  When Alexei first broke in, he flashed very big power from his small frame (21 HR, .185 ISO in only 509 PAs), with the knock on him being a free-swinging approach.  Since Alexei's forced patience and more walks upon himself (on some pitches he's so blatantly taking all the way you wonder if he's giving himself up too soon), the power has depreciated a bit.  Last season's mid-summer slump busted the myth of Ramirez just needing to overcome cold starts in cold weather, but he remains a tempting player to dream on.

An Alexei Ramirez who walks at league average rate while hitting 20-25 HRs would be a monster, just don't ask him to bunt.

Brent Lillibridge might back him up--he's played there this Spring--or Eduardo Escobar, or Ozzie Martinez, or even Dan Johnson for some reason.

Second Base

Gordon Beckham was drafted as a shortstop, and was regarded by scouts as having sufficient athleticism to stick at the position.  As such, it's only natural that Beckham would become a laudable 2nd-sacker once he properly adjusted.

Well, sure enough he has.  Total Zone, UZR, DRS, all were remarkably in agreement in having Beckham about 5 runs above average, and he was remarkable in his avoidance of errors, recording just 8 all year.  He's really really useful in the field.

Now for the awful stuff.  Everything about Beckham's hitting has been going to hell for two years.  Power, contact, patience, pitch selection, not hitting pop-ups all the damn time.  Name some element of successful hitting, and it's been on the decline for him.  Since he bursted onto the scene as an above-average hitter and been mostly healthy, his decline has been attributed to matters "in his head", and thus retrievable.

That rings true, but becomes less likely with every year, and his declining returns against fastballs suggest mechanical issues with his load-up that will be a lot more limiting to the heights he can reach than his reaction to pressure and league adjustments.

As is, he's not a black hole of production thanks to his defense, but is the type of player who will be ditched as he gets later into his more expensive arbitration years...provided a better option emerges.

Brent Lillibridge might back him up--he's played there this Spring--or Eduardo Escobar, or Ozzie Martinez, or even Dan Johnson for some reason.

First Base/Designated Hitter

The dream rotation of Paul Konerko/Adam Dunn returns, with Konerko still performing as strong as could be hoped, and Dunn having completely savaged his professional reputation like nothing that's ever been seen.

Konerko can't run.  He really can't run.  He's 36, never really could run and won't start now, and it harms him during the moments of playing 1st base when he's required to run, or move quickly.

Everything else Paulie does is peachy-keen.  He's got big power, and makes enough contact to hit for great average, and his walk rate has sparked back up to 11-12% the past two seasons.  His 2011 hitting line of .300/.388/.517 is impressive enough considering that the three-year deal he inked after 2010 carried the anxiety that the White Sox were paying a costly price for past performance.

Instead, the only drastic difference from his career season the year before was a noticeable dip in power, a lot of which can be written off as complications from a knee injury caused by being nailed in the knee by an Andrew Miller fastball at the end of July.  Whether it was losing doubles, or decreased leg drive, his power simply cratered in the immediate wake of the injury (.163 ISO in August).

At his age, it's farcical to simply think that Konerko will be healthy from here on out and produce regularly (he's already smarting this Spring from a foul off of his knee), but it's nice to have a concrete issue to point to for why he's not on a steady downward path.

Speaking of precipitous declines, Adam Dunn returns after 496 plate appearances of misery last year.  His strikeout percentage spiked drastically for the second-straight season, and his power--once extraordinary--disappeared despite his only health issue being a laparoscopic appendectomy.   He was pretty terrible in the field, too.

Dunn still took walks at around his career-rate, and those few times he got into one, yeah, it seemed like he still has plenty of brute strength.  Other than that, there's nothing that can be drawn from the 2011 that portends anything but further misery.  Dunn was useless against fastballs--even when blatantly challenged--throughout the season, and at his age and build that is indicative of little besides the dreaded loss of bat speed.  Bat speed is a bad thing to lose fo a guy who already existed on the margins with his lack of contact.

So maybe it was a fluke.  A combination of bad mojo, bad luck, a horrible clubhouse, a rough adjustment to the DH slot, too much pressure, bad conditioning, and just a little bit of physical decline combining into one ferocious all-time fireball of doom.

That or he stinks for three more years and we're dead.

Brent Lillibridge might back him up--he's played there this Spring--or Eduar--alright enough of this joke.

Utility

Brent Lillibridge projects to be used all over the infield diamond, which is a risky usage of a guy who only really showed the capability to harness his clearly impressive athleticism at the major league level in the outfield, and not until last season.  It's risky, but understandable.  Ozzie Martinez and Eduardo Escobar are the other reserve middle infield candidates, and neither one is really a player worthy of major league at-bats at this stage.

For a team that figures to be starved for runs, one can see why the Sox might not want to make such a concession, or would rather have Dan Johnson around in case disaster strikes the DH slot, or would rather have Lillibridge ready to play 2nd if Beckham's cliff fall continues.

These aren't enviable backup options, but this isn't an enviable position.  The White Sox are invested hard into the success of Beckham and Dunn, and even Morel, and the barren farm system and bad contracts are what--probably rightly--will be pointed to if they fail with no safety net.

Of course, every starter here is capable of being an above-average regular.  So there's always hope.

 

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