Pleskoff: White Sox looking to rebound
Walking out of Camelback Ranch last week, I encountered a number of Chicago White Sox fans proudly sporting their black and white jackets and fitted caps. It brought back tremendous memories of days spent at the old Comiskey Park on the South Side of Chicago.
A ride on the "Ol' Iron Horse" (elevated train) would get fans to the ballpark every home game. On some rare days when both Chicago teams were playing at home, the same train would deposit fans at Wrigley Field along the way. Of course, the rivalry was fierce. Still is. Few are both White Sox and Cubs fans. Some are just baseball fans and root quietly in the bleachers of both shrines. For years, Sox fans had the late Andy The Clown as their primary cheerleader. Nancy Faust, now retired, created great emotion as a fantastic organist.
White Sox fans aren't alone in wondering what went wrong with a number of players last season. The issues and questions have been very well chronicled. The answers are far more difficult to discover.
It is not easy to hit a baseball. In fact, it happens to be one of the most difficult tasks in sports. Pitchers are paid to send a hitter back to the bench with nothing to show but an "out" on the scorecard. Last year only 30 players with 300 or more at-bats hit .300 or better. That's a staggering figure. Star quality success does not come easily. Expectations are high.
The White Sox are hoping some of those counted on last season will rebound. A well-conditioned Adam Dunn is working hard to return to what had been his norm. He is more patient at the plate this spring, seeing more pitches and being less prone to a long, loopy swing. Perhaps he was trying so hard last year that his fundamentals and mental preparation escaped him. Playing first base and left field in addition to serving as a designated hitter may help his focus.
Performances that don't always meet expectations are not uncommon in baseball. It happens every year. That's why teams prepare by creating organizational depth. There are some newer players on the cusp of providing help for a potential resurgence.
Addison Reed is a well-conditioned 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher the White Sox selected in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. He has the mechanics, arm strength and mound demeanor to be an impactful pitcher in either the rotation or in relief, depending upon the needs of the club. For now, he is slated to pitch at the back end of the bullpen. With the departure of Sergio Santos, Reed may even be in the discussion as a potential closer. Some believe the presence of Reed made Santos available to trade.
Reed brings a nice variety of pitches to his repertoire. He can throw an above average fastball that varies in velocity from 90 to 96 or 97 miles per hour. That speed variation is helpful in keeping hitters off balance, as Reed has the ability to locate his pitches, throw strikes and miss bats. He isn't afraid to jam right-handed hitters and claim the inside corner as his own. Late movement is key to Reed's fastball. He also mixes in a sharp slider and an effective change up that reduce the speed of his offerings from one pitch to another. Simply put, Addison Reed is accomplished at locating pitches from his entire repertoire at any point in the count. His mature command and control make him an excellent option for economical, well-pitched innings. Reed pitched at five levels last season, from Low A to the Major Leagues. He had an eye-popping 11.8 strikeouts per nine-inning average in the Minors. Couple the strikeouts with a low walk rate, and Addison Reed could become a very special pitcher.
One of the exciting players on the roster is switch-hitting middle infielder Eduardo Escobar. Escobar is a Venezuelan infielder with extremely good range. His quick first step takes him to balls many infielders can't reach. With average to above average arm strength, he can play shortstop and second base with the skill to make all the plays. He makes difficult plays look easy. His soft hands and his quickness to the ball are qualities that separate him from an average player. He has wonderful baseball instincts and solid athletic ability that project to success as a top- notch defender.
Offensively, Escobar has proven to be a relatively effective hitter. At this early stage of his career, it appears Escobar lacks patience and plate discipline. That's not unusual for young hitters trying to impress. In time, he will see more pitches and gain selectivity at the plate. If he accepts more bases on balls, Escobar will improve the pitches he sees and ultimately his statistics will improve. To date, he has hit better as a left-handed hitter. That may change with more exposure to left-handers in the future.
In addition to seeing him in Spring Training this season, I had the opportunity to watch Escobar play in the 2010 Arizona Fall League. He has shown surprising pop in his bat for his 5-foot-10 frame. While he won't be a home run threat, Escobar can drive the ball to the gaps if he gets his pitch. He should hit for average and while he isn't particularly fast, he is capable of stealing some bases. Escobar provides excellent depth and a very credible option at both middle infield positions.
White Sox fans are learning to know and appreciate catcher Tyler Flowers. When a transition at the catching position is required, he may be the heir apparent to the very capable A.J. Pierzynski. In fact, there are only two catchers on the roster.
Flowers has had a brief opportunity at the Major League level, but to be successful he has to have sustained at-bats and extensive work behind the plate. Those opportunities may arrive this coming season.
Flowers was acquired by the White Sox in a trade for pitcher Javier Vazquez in 2008. He has been auditioning to be the full-time catcher since the trade. Flowers is big and strong at 6-4 and 245 pounds. He has extensive raw power that should lead to home runs and gap doubles in the hitter friendly US Cellular Field. Like many power hitters, Flowers doesn't always make contact. He does, however, know the strike zone well and he has patience enough to swing at pitches he can drive. If he can reduce his strikeouts, Flowers has the potential to be among the elite offensive catchers.
Defensively, Flowers needs time to learn the nuances of handling a Major League pitching staff. It will be as important for him to learn to shepherd his pitcher through a game as it is for him to be able to throw runners out or block a ball in the dirt. He is capable and ready to assume those responsibilities.
The White Sox enter the season with little pressure and lower expectations than in the past. However, if several of their players rebound, the team may very well surprise. That would have made Andy the Clown happy.
Bernie Pleskoff is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.