White Sox to be aggressive on bases
New third-base coach Cox to teach intangibles of baserunning
CHICAGO -- Judging pure speed often can be figured out in very clear-cut, defined measurements.
For someone sitting behind the wheel of a car, driving 80 mph on a highway with a 55 mph limit could lead an officer to rule that particular individual is traveling too fast. For an elite runner competing in the 100-meter dash, finishing the race in 9.73 seconds would translate into a new World Record.
And for a baseball standout such as Rickey Henderson, speed helped him pick up 1,406 stolen bases along with an almost certain place in the Hall of Fame. When evaluating the White Sox team speed for 2008, though, the results won't be quite as tangible as a ticket from the highway patrol or outdistancing the rest of the competition in a race.
Look at the White Sox on paper, and Jerry Owens emerges as the only bona fide basestealing threat on the team -- the same Owens who will have to fight his way into the starting lineup on an everyday basis. Yet, the White Sox have become a quicker, more aggressive team, if not exactly featuring players with lightning-fast moves on the basepaths.
"More is made of speed and has been made of speed from one comment that [manager] Ozzie [Guillen] made years ago desiring more speed," said White Sox general manager Ken Williams of the speed factor. "No. 1, I challenge you to look around the league and find a whole team full of fast guys.
"It's equally challenging to find a middle of the order on a good team that has a bunch of fast guys. Our middle is no different, in that we have some big boys who can slug the ball. Ideally, you would like to have some flexibility, using some speed guys who can take the extra base."
Williams' offseason revamping program of the White Sox appears to have built in such flexibility. Nick Swisher has only four stolen bases over three full seasons and has been caught stealing five times, while Carlos Quentin has a slightly better career success rate with three stolen bases in five attempts.
Nonetheless, these two newcomers on display at SoxFest this weekend at the Palmer House Hilton know how to run the bases. They have the ability to go from first to third on a single or score from first on a double, examples of somewhat expected moves that weren't frequently pulled off by a White Sox team seemingly performing with a plodding nature during 2007's dismal showing.
These basic moves also place consistent extra pressure on the opposing defenses, putting the onus on the fielders to make the play, instead of relying on the offense to always come up with a big hit or two.
"You don't always need blazing speed to impact the game on the bases," Quentin said. "You have to be a smart baserunner.
"People who know the game realize there is speed -- speed, like Jerry stealing 30 bases -- and that creates a lot of different problems for opposing teams. But there's also athletic speed to get quick jumps and be able to move well in the outfield. I've always considered myself a player that has been able to move well and play the game hard."
Jeff Cox, a guarantee to finish without a stolen base in 2008 and beyond, stands as one of the most important factors in this return to aggressiveness on the basepaths. Guillen hired Cox as his new third-base coach during the offseason, but Cox also will be in charge of working on baserunning.
During Spring Training, Cox will have a separate practice field to work on fundamentals of the game such as fielding drills for pitchers and bunting for position players. He also will emphasize the intangible skills needed for the White Sox to improve the quickness part of their overall approach.
"Baserunning is a very important aspect in the game of baseball, but it's the most neglected fundamentally," Cox said. "Don't think because you can't run or you are not as fast as another player means you can't go from first to third on a base hit."
Cox added in-game situations will dictate some moments of caution. If a right-hander is on the mound and Jim Thome is on deck with two outs in an inning, Cox might put up the stop sign for a baserunner at second instead of risking a halt to this possible rally by getting nailed at third.
Raw stolen-base potential does exist for the 2008 White Sox beyond Owens, who swiped 32 in 2007, leading all Major League rookies. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera, acquired in a trade with the Angels, has 165 career stolen bases and picked up 20 last season. Pablo Ozuna should be running at full speed after missing the final four months of 2007 with a fractured right fibula.
Even Josh Fields produced 26 stolen bases for Triple-A Charlotte in 2006 but didn't run much last year as he adjusted to Major League life and battled a few nagging leg injuries. It's a group aimed at helping the White Sox return to "Ozzie Ball," a style the team now famously played during its 2005 World Series title run.
To think "Ozzie Ball" means pure basestealing threats would be a misnomer. In fact, much like Owens in 2008, Scott Podsednik stood out as the only true stolen-base possibility among the 2005 lineup.
An increase in speed that can't always be measured in numbers could make the difference in the White Sox attack. It also comes with an increased expectation that will extend to everyone in the lineup.
"Basically, we have a number of players with workable baseball speed," Williams said.
"A team like the Angels comes to mind, a group with better overall team speed," Cox added. "It's always better if you have speed, and obviously, we don't have the speed of some other teams. But we are going to look to take that extra base and be more assertive when the situation dictates."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.