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Chicago White Sox series preview with the Cheat

The Cheat over at Southside Sox and I decided to trade some questions in advance of this series, first the questions I asked regarding the White Sox:

1. This one's kind of involved, sorry, so I'll give you a fluffball at the end, but the White Sox are the hottest thing right now in the baseball pages, in the American League, and one of the biggest stories of the season... well, everywhere except Chicago it seems, where for a big market team that's winning at the Sox' clip you would think they would draw more fans than Milwaukee. Why can't management sell their product better when the on-field performance is so good? Is it the stadium? The neighborhood? If so why? The Rox play in what was until Coors Field came a pretty dilapidated neighborhood themselves and yet now ten years on, LoDo remains fairly vibrant despite the Rockies struggles. And here's the real hot potato, do you think there still might be racial fears involved that keep investment and attendance from coming to US Cellular and its surrounding neighborhood and how will these, if they are there, be overcome?

I think management does a fine job of selling the product. That's not the problem. You could write a dissertation on all of the reasons that the Sox don't draw as well as other clubs. You touched on a few reasons. The fact that you, a fan of a national league team in Colorado, did touch on several reasons why probably speaks directly to the problem. The casual fan can point to any number of reasons to avoid USCF, though most of them are probably just media exaggerations more than anything.

The upper deck? It's no different that most other parks, but all you hear is how thin the air is and how steep the climb is. I just saw some pictures from the upper deck of Petco. You're not even in the same area code as the game if you're sitting up there, but I've heard nothing but good things about Petco. Why? I can't answer that.
The neiboorhood? It's definitely a concern for some people. I can't say that I've ever been afraid to walk around the park before or after the game, though.
The reality is, of all of the people that I've brought to the park, not one of them has had a bad experience. Most have had a great time and have returned on their own. They come away feeling that the park has gotten a bad wrap. I'm fairly certain that feeling is reasonably universal for first time visitors.

It's hard to overcome the stigma that's become ingrained in the average fan thanks in large part to the media. It's a process that takes time. They're showing progress though. As of right now, attendence is up 11%, and they have yet to play the Cubs, Red Sox, and Yankees at home. That's 9 sell outs. They also have a bunch of games with the Twins left. I would be willing to bet that the Sox approach the 2.5M mark in attendence for the first time since 1993.

2. Congratulations on your excellent first half, but I don't need to tell you that the White Sox haven't historically had as much trouble at the beginning of the year as they seem to do at the end of it. What makes this year different and if you do make it to the playoffs, how confident are you that a replay of 2000 won't occur where your team meekly got swept by the Mariners?

This team is much better set up for a playoff run should they make it there. We've got much better pitching. (The 2000 team was toast by the time they hit the playoffs. Practically all of the starting staff blew up after that season. Most are out of baseball. Only Cal Eldred and Mark Buehrle, who got his first start on my 21st birthdat that year, are pitching in any meaningful capacity anymore.) We've also got a nice mixture of speed, defense, and slugging. That 2000 team was one dimensional. They could hit the ball really hard.

3. Ooh, that leads me to the next question: what moves do you feel the Sox need to make to seal the deal? For instance last year we saw Boston shore up its defense by acquiring Cabrera and Mientkiewicz and trading away their most popular player in Nomar, the year before Florida got a new manager mid-stream (as well as super talented rookie call-ups in Dontrelle and Miguel Cabrera) and both these drastic moves were credited with aiding their respective teams' World Series runs. Now maybe the White Sox given their start don't need changes as big as those (perhaps it could just be a minor league call-up like K-rod for the Angels) but what tweaks to the machine do you see developing that will give it the juice it needs to make that final push?

On the defensive end, this is the best defense that I can ever remember the Sox putting on the field, so that's not an issue. Right now, we're in a wait and see mode. Things are going well, but there's still obvious flaws with the team. Third base is the most obvious spot for improvement, but I don't really think there is much available in that area. They do need at least one more solid bullpen arm, and there's one who appears capable at the minor league level in Jeff Bajenaru. I don't think he'll provide the shot in the arm that K-Rod did, but we'd be a couple of wins better this season if he was pitching in middle relief.

4. Who are your favorite Sox player and pitcher to watch and what should Rockies fans look for from them in this series?

Usually this would be a good question, but my favorites aren't likely to see any action in Denver. Frank Thomas is obviously my favorite player. He was something special back in the day, and is still one of the best players in baseball when healthy. He's still nursing his ankle, so he can't play the field, so he'll be used exclusively as a pinch hitter. Mark Buehrle is my favorite pitcher, but he pitched yesterday, so you will miss him.

Since that sounded like a cop out, I'll say that Juan Uribe and Orlando Hernandez are my favorite players to watch. Uribe, you've obviously seen before. He's a sparkplug; a little bit different, but always entertaining. El Duque is the same way. There's absolutely nothing he won't throw at a guy trying to get him out.

5. Alright, word association time, just give me the first word that comes to mind when you think of the following: Ozzie Guillen. 1919. 1917. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Southside baseball.

In order... Tony Montana. Shoeless Joe. a long, long time ago. Old news, she's dating me now. Win, now.

**

And here are the Cheat's questions to me:

1. I'm gonna try to word this as delicately as possible. I don't want it to sound like an insult. The Rox haven't finished higher than fourth since 1998. They're starting a host of rookies this season. What's it like as a fan of a team that essentially has no shot even before the season started? Speaking from experience, the Sox made the famous White Flag deal back in 1997, but remained relatively competitive immediately afterwards. That white flag trade, however, severely hurt the fan base here. At what point do Rox fans say enough already?

- Rockies fans have proven remarkably resilient through seven years of futility and unfortunately the ownership of the team has let that fact cloud their judgment in regards to how desperately we want to see a winning team in Denver. I think perhaps early on the fanbase was a little naive in assuming that the Monforts would know how to do what it took to build a winner, and certainly seeing the Bigs throwing a lot of money away in pursuit of that cause shows that they are sincere in their desire for success, even if they're not the brightest lights in MLB's ownership pantheon, so they do have that sincerity thing going for them. I say the point of no return will be if this crop of youngsters we're seeing now fails to improve next year. This offseason is important as well as the owners will have a little more money to spend and they need to make a good faith investment in a player that Rockies fans will appreciate. The position most likely to be open and ready to be filled by such a player will be second base.

2. What are your impressions of Clint Hurdle? Here in Chicago we were lead to believe that he was the main reason that Juan Uribe wasn't sucessful in Colorado. Was that the case? How is he with the rest of the young roster?

- I have been on Clint H for some time now, not as early as some because I believe in giving people an opportunity to learn from their early mistakes, but there does come a point where after the same mistakes are repeated frequently with the same losing results that you wonder if the needed learning will ever occur. Right now dismissing Clint would be heartless given the struggles his family is going through with his two year old daughter's health concerns, however, and the Rockies weren't expected to compete this year anyway, so I can't see us making any moves before the beginning of next year. As far as Juan Uribe goes, his inconsistency at the plate was the team's biggest problem with his game and it looks to me like that hasn't changed since we made the trade. I don't know if I agree with the move still, Uribe's defense was and is very special at short, but offensively I'd rather have Barmes, and say what you will about Aaron Miles' OBP, but it still beats the .273 Uribe's sporting. Well, okay, I'll admit it, I'd still rather have Uribe than Miles, but I can't cry over spilt milk now.

3. How do you win in Colorado? Do you go with a four-man rotation, and a deep pen? Do you load up on sluggers, or maybe speed? Does the front office seem to have a plan?

- Pass. But I'll come back to it soon.

4. Joe Kennedy, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Jeff Francis are the scheduled starters. Can you give us a quick scouting report on these guys, specifically Francis. Does he do something special that would help him put up such an incredible ERA at Coors?

- Joe Kennedy came over from Tampa in a three way trade with the Blue Jays around the same time the Miles for Uribe deal was made. Last year he had some remarkable success with the Rockies, but his DIPS ERA indicated that his success was probably a little lucky and this year that's proving to be the case. After struggling with inconsistency and command issues all year, Kennedy is fighting to keep his spot in the rotation with the imminent return of injured Aaron Cook threatening to push him or Jamey Wright to the bench. Kennedy tends to get flustered easily and loses focus when things go a little badly and then he lets them go a lot badly in a hurry, If he stays mentally there, and the White Sox fail to get to him early, then it could be a long day for them and he'll stay solid. If the Sox get a couple of big hits, if he walks a couple in the early innings or if the Rockies defense is shaky behind him then the opposite will prove to be true and he'll let things get out of hand for us. You're so lucky Kim is starting and not the hamstrung Shawn Chacon, who despite his record showing otherwise, is our best pitcher of the year thus far. Kim is a reclamation project who we traded a high minors left-handed prospect (Chris Narveson, who we got from the Cardinals for Larry Walker) for from Boston because everybody knows that the one place a pitcher can rebuild his confidence is Coors Field....Gack this could be ugly.

Yes! Thank you for letting me talk about Francis. What makes him successful in Coors and certain other places is a deceptive delivery release point that can be brutal for batters to pick up regardless of the elevation, as it has nothing to do with the motion of the ball. After dominating the Padres in one of his starts at Petco last year, they decided to darken the hitting backdrop of the stadium so it wouldn't happen again. That's how tricky this release is. For some reason the Rockies haven't decided to adjust the batter's eye at Coors were Francis has similar success. I wonder why that is, hmm... oh wait, maybe it's because he's pitching for our team! You guys are are in trouble for this game, I have to admit. Francis stays in the strikezone so hitters can't just wait for a walk like they'll be able to against Kim, the contact they make is usually weak so you won't see him give up a lot of home-runs, and he's got enough talent to fool even the best hitters at times.

5. Is Clint Barmes for real? His splits say his impressive numbers are simply a product of Coors Field.

- Okay, I'll go back to question three also for this one since the two are closely related. There is no such thing as a simple product of Coors Field. Not every hitter that goes to Coors Field has the same degree of success as certain types of players for some reason. So what you see as a Coors Field product, I see as a Coors Field specialist. Matt Holliday is another example. These are players who know how to use the field to the most extreme advantage possible, last week I introduced on my site a Coors/Road Alternative Profile (CRAP) test which typifies how certain players respond to altitude ball this year, Barmes registers as an OCO/FCS/.649, meaning that he's an opportunist (+.100 or more OBP) when it comes to getting on base at Coors and his slugging is about as full (+.200 or more) of CRAP as you can get and the last number indicates his pedestrian road OPS. Is this a bad thing? Look at Desi Relaford's home/road splits or Brad Hawpe's, do you really think it's good that after twenty games plus both a mile up at home and at sea level away that players can't hit better at Coors Field than they do on the road? Now, certain players have such a dismal road OPS that regardless of how high they boost their home OPS, they still register as bad players, uhm, okay so Aaron Miles (OCO/OCS/.510) has that dismal road OPS that indicates he shouldn't be playing anywhere. Clint Barmes' and Garrett Atkins' have less experience so maybe they can grow into a road routine that makes them valuable to the run production of the club. They certainly should be moved down in the order away though to minimize their at bats in favor of those with better road stats. Their home stats are such that you want them in every game at Coors, while Hawpe, Relaford, and Luis Gonzalez would probably do very well as road subs.

Obviously it would get very expensive to build a team with two sets of players, but using the players that you have wisely, and being willing to alter your lineup approach while away I think are important ingredients for success for the Rockies. Speed is a bad idea as these players won't keep up with other teams' slugging at home, and they won't be able to steal first on the road. I like the idea of having one or two more sluggers who can keep us close while away (Vinny Castilla's seventeen road home-runs last year were both cheap and effective, despite the pundits' views) Second, as far as pitchers go, I think the key is to have several pitchers available throughout the year by keeping the upper minors full of reasonable endurance oriented alternates (keep the five man rotation, or maybe even go to six) as you build around a core group of two to three of your best starters and three to four dominant relievers. The bullpen will be cheaper to build, but also harder to maintain as pitchers will constantly bolt from Coors during free agency, so I don't know if I've seen a satisfactory solution that takes into account all of the finances involved. Albeit, I still feel that merely an effective staff is all that's needed if the offense is built and used wisely as the home-field advantage in that scenario will keep us in contention.

The front office has a better plan afoot then they have in the past with several sluggers at multiple positions rising and the on-base gurus to set the table mostly breaking in this year, but the results of this plan are still a couple of years away and already there are cracks showing in the pitching development pipeline that need to be addressed through the draft and, I feel, trades. Free agent pitchers are not a good idea unless they are cheap and willing and perhaps used to taking hits.

Finally, give us your prediction for the series.

A: With Coors Field I look first at our own pitchers and then at the opponents and I think I have to agree with your assessment and say your best shot at a win is with Byung Hyun Kim starting for the Rockies with the Wednesday game. A little behind is when Kennedy pitches. I'll say we upset your team a little in the Kennedy matchup and win the Francis one as well, unfortunately I see Tuesday's BHK/Contreras duel as close to a gimme for the Sox as you will find.

The Cheat's prediction for the series:

The most winnable game for the Sox is obviously Saturday. Contreras throws fastball & splitter they should remain relatively uneffected by the altitude. Plus BHK pitches that day, so I like our chances. The other two days, Garcia and Hernandez pitch. They both throw lots of breaking stuff, and are flyball pitchers. They could easily get roughed up in the thin air. Also with Frank Thomas and Carl Everett on the bench, the Sox don't have a lot of power in the line up. If this series was in Chicago, I'd be tempted to predict a sweep. In Denver, however, with two All-stars on the pine, the advantage is Colorado's. Sox lose series 1-2.