The 2012 White Sox outfield is what dreams are made of.
Not blissful childhood dreams of Disney World or the like, but the dreams you have when you doze off on the couch next to your significant other, only to be told later that you were muttering half-coherently in your sleep about “sticking to our grocery list”, “if we split up, we can get out of this Trader Joe’s in half the normal time”, and other minutiae that indicate that even your subconscious is in a bit of a rut.
A more pure dream probably has three outfielders the Sox can plug in every day without worry, but the current arrangement allows for plenty of enjoyable and beneficial tinkering…and purity is a futile pursuit anyway.
I spent a lot of too many words the other day worrying about Fukudome’s defensive utility, while acknowledging that his career platoon split was not unreasonable, but not insignificant. Since Kosuke posted career lows in just about every useful offensive category in 2011–OBP, SLG, the walk rate that’s sustained his career–it’s probably for the best not to challenge him too much by asking him to hit against left-handers to a great extent. He’s barely treading the waters of decline as is.
Fortunately, a cursory glance at the outfield reveals two encouraging things. First, Fukudome should never have to start against a left-handed pitcher, and relatedly second, he should never need to play center field. Since his walk rate drops 4% for his career when he faces lefties (and was an eve more pronounced split last season), and as his defense was discussed yesterday, that’s pretty important to facilitating a productive season for Fukudome.
The White Sox outfield will feature three right-handed options; Alex Rios, Dayan Viciedo, and Brent Lillibridge. Lillibridge, and even Rios, are probably better-suited for center field than Fukudome. Pretty much the only thing Rios was able to do in 2011 was maintain some smidgen of respectability against right-handers – .287/.304/.400. A lot of that could be a result from not having the hideous .212 BABIP that Rios was cursed with against righties, but Alex making solid contact and getting hits is as much under his control as it is for anybody. Your BABIP can really hit the toilet if every single ball is rolled over to short.
Lillibridge did well enough against righties, but it’s his absurd success against lefties that saw him post a nearly .300 ISO (.287/.346/.585) that made his dream season. With his big, home run hack, it’s only appropriate that a longer look at the ball unleashed his power.
Viciedo has barely had the time to let his major league cup of coffee cool, but has already posted a frankly, quite terrifying line of .226/.284/.298 against righties, and .366/.388/.598 versus lefties. This could all be fluky–and hopefully it is for the most part–but the presence of an entire outfield chomping at the bit to get a chance against lefties, along with lefty Alejandro De Aza’s splits being essentially neutral, gives Robin Ventura a litany of reasons to avoid the excess difficulty of Fukudome facing southpaws.
It’s not a bold position. Fukudome has only garnered 409 plate appearances against lefties in 4 years in the MLB. The Cubs apparently weren’t very big on marching him to his doom either.
With Lillibridge’s shaky hold on making enough contact a constant concern, and possibly serving roles elsewhere on the diamond, and Alex Rios being hard-pressed to prove that he deserves significant defensive responsibilities, the onus is on Alejandro De Aza to stake out center field, become a fixture at the top of the lineup against right-handed pitchers, and keeping Kosuke glove on the corners. With any luck, the Sox could skate away mostly free of asking Fukudome to do any of the things he’s very demonstrably bad at.
Well, within reason.
White Sox outfielders combined for 2090 plate appearances last season and 2095 the year before that. With their primary leadoff hitter likely being an outfielder, that total is likely to be in the 2050-2100 range again. While conceding the tendency to get optimistic in playing time estimates, let’s set Viciedo for 550 PA as an outfielder with the acknowledgment that he could DH here and there, especially if Dunn still is useless against lefties. Projecting De Aza much above 500 seems to be blindly ignoring the extensive injury history that brought him to this point in his career, and much more than 500 plate appearances for Rios seems like flaggelation.
That would still leave 550 to be split between Lillibridge’s time as an OF, randoms and September call-ups, and Fukudome. The purpose of this exercise is not to put an exact number, but just show that injuries and struggles of this highly unproven roster could spike Fukudome’s workload beyond where Ventura can still be highly judicious about his usage.
The same could be said about almost any season.
At least for now, until the bones in De Aza’s legs snap like matchsticks while he runs over to catch a pop fly that Alex Rios lost in his malaise, the readily apparent weaknesses of the outfield are at least properly balanced against each other. There’s a good mix of handedness and platoon splits, and there’s three guys who can play center field (two who can do it somewhat well), so there will be no need to rely on a guy who can only man the middle in Kenny Williams’ dozing-on-the-couch dreams.