Not many people saw the 2005 White Sox coming. I did, and I'm not ashamed to toot my own horn about it. The 2004 White Sox won 83 games, I predicted the 2005 White Sox would improve to 93, and instead they improved to 99. I initially had them losing three-games-to-two against the Angels in the first round of the playoffs. When they met the Red Sox instead, I correctly called a White Sox sweep. The Sox and Angels did play, though in a best-of-seven series, and I revised my pre-season prediction to Chicago in five. I was off by one game.
For whatever reason, I did not write a World Series preview that year. I do know that I thought the Sox would beat the Astros easily, though I would not have predicted a sweep until perhaps when Roger Clemens injured himself in the Game One White Sox victory.
My predictions do not usually go so well, to say the least. But sometimes, you have a moment of clarity when doing prognostications. It's how Scott must have felt when he predicted the Tigers to make the playoffs in 2006 after they had endured a dozen straight losing seasons. Or how Eric must have felt when he foresaw that Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly, coming off poor 2006 campaigns, would combine for a 4.45 ERA and 29 wins with the 2007 Cubs (they actually combined for a 4.20 ERA and 27 wins). Or how Nostradamus felt when he predicted the London fire of 1666.
The point of all this bragging is that I am having a similar moment of clarity with regards to the 2009 Cincinnati Reds. And with good reason: the 2009 Cincinnati Reds are eerily similar to the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox.
Between 1997 and 2004, no White Sox players started 100 or more games at catcher in a single season, and they often featured three-or-four headed monsters behind the dish. A.J. Pierzynski has been no better than a league-average catcher since he signed with the White Sox in 2005, but he provided stability for a pitching staff that had never before known whom they would be throwing to on a given day.
The Reds had catching stability from 2001-2005 under the leadership of Jason LaRue, who, because of his excellent throwing arm, probably was a little more valuable during that period than A.J. Pierzynski has been from 2005-2008. But over the past three seasons, the Reds have endured the same three-headed monster catcher nonsense as the Sox did in that pre-Pierzynski era; although Dave Ross did start 108 games in 2007, some Reds fans probably wish he hadn't, as he hit just .203 with a .271 OBP while playing good defense.
Newly-acquired Ramon Hernandez was a better catcher in his prime than either Pierzynski or LaRue. Between 2003 and 2006, he never finished with an OPS+ below 107, and as recently as 2006, The Fielding Bible Volume II credited him with saving more runs than any catcher in baseball. While there's no doubt that he has declined significantly on both sides of the ball the past two years, Hernandez is playing for a contract for the first time since 2005, could be battling for a playoff spot for the first time since 2005, and will be playing in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball. The effort and results should improve to at least the point where he becomes the stabilizing force that a declining Pierzynski was for the White Sox over the past four seasons. As food for thought, the Reds were 14-11 when Chad Kreuter-wannabe Ryan Hannigan started last season (60-77 without), giving them a far more capable backup than the Sox had in Chris Widger.
The infield is probably where we see the weakest parallels between the 2005 White Sox and the 2009 Reds, but there are signs and omens there nonetheless. Paul Konerko was the only slugger to be feared on the 2005 White Sox, as only two of their hitters amassed as many as five adjusted batting runs: Jermaine Dye at 12.4 and Konerko at 30.4. The Reds' first baseman, Joey Votto, figures to be in the same boat. He is the only returning Red to have double-digit batting runs last season (17.8) but at 25-years old, he could easily approach Konerko's figure from 2005. The '05 Sox proved that a lineup full of sluggers is not necessary even in a hitter's park when you have good pitching and the ability to manufacture runs.
Of course, the reagent for good pitching is good defense. The 2004 White Sox already had a solid infield defense, then upgraded that further by having shortstop Juan Uribe (who was a super-sub in 2004) and second baseman Tadahito Iguchi replace Jose Valentin and Willie Harris. The result was an upgrade both offensively and defensively, even though neither Uribe nor Iguchi played spectacularly in '05.
The big news of the White Sox offseson between 2004 and 2005 was that they lost outfielders Magglio Ordonez (to free agency) and Carlos Lee (traded to the Brewers for Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino). I was one of the few people who approved of the Lee trade. I'd always thought Lee was overrated as a low-OBP guy who drove in lots of runs with Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez hitting ahead of him, and the Sox hadn't had a productive leadoff man for an entire season since they last won a division title in 2000 (Ray Durham). Vizcaino was a solid part of the bullpen, but Podsednik was the key to the offense, with his .351 OBP and 59 stolen bases that allowed the Sox to score the one or two runs they needed when they faced tough pitching. The Sox went 80-44 in Podsednik's starts and 19-19 otherwise. He was perhaps the biggest difference from the 83-win season of 2003 and the 99-win season of 2005. While the Sox scored 124 fewer runs in '05, they were shut out fewer times (8 to 6) and held to just one run the same number of times (13 both seasons). Podsednik provided them with the consistent offense that you need when you have a good pitching staff that keeps the opposing score low. In fact, Pods only participated in four of those six shutouts.
Like those Sox, the rest of the Reds' outfield isn't going to blow you away. Jay Bruce figures to put up similar numbers to what Dye did in 2005, unless the 22-year old phenom develops even more quickly than we anticipate. Chris Dickerson is Aaron Rowand; a key for the Reds is for Dusty Baker to recognize that Dickerson should play center while Taveras, being the good little Podsednik that he is, belongs in left. Rowand had played as often in the corners as in center before Ozzie Guillen took the helm, and he became one of the best defensive centerfielders in the league upon his permanent installation there. Norris Hopper, Jacque Jones, Daryle Ward, and Jonny Gomes are all outfielders who have had success in the past, but not in 2008. Whoever comes out of that mix can't play much worse than the '05 Sox reserve outfielders - Timo Perez, Carl Everett, and Brian Anderson - did.
Like the 2005 Sox, the Reds will score just enough runs for their starting pitching to do its thing. The 2004 White Sox saw Jason Grilli, Dan Wright, Arnie Munoz, Josh Stewart, Jon Rauch, an Neal Cotts combine for 25 starts in which they allowed 117 earned runs in 116 innings for a combined ERA of 9.08. Scott Schoeneweis added 19 starts of a 5.56 ERA. Together, this Sensational Seven started 44 games and compiled a 7.35 ERA over 227.2 innings.
It was pretty clear that if the Sox could replace those starts and those innings with mere competence, they could form an elite starting pitching staff. They had already acquired Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras midseason in 2004 towards this end. Kenny Williams then added formerly-overrated-then-suddenly-underrated veteran Orlando Hernandez to eat some back-of the-rotation innings and had a promising 21-year old in Brandon McCarthy ready to mount a 4.17 ERA over ten starts.
The result of this modest overhaul was a drop in team ERA from 4.91 in 2004 to 3.61 in 2005.
The 2008 Reds had four solid-to-good workhorse starters in their rotation in Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, and Bronson Arroyo. Josh Fogg, Homer Bailey, Matt Belisle, Daryl Thompson, and Adam PettyJohn, however, collaborated for 32 outings in the fifth starter's role. They allowed a combined 132 earned runs in 144.2 innings, which amounts to an ERA of 8.21.
(8.21 is the exact middle point of 9.08 and 7.35, for those of you keeping score at home).
Who will take over as fifth starter in 2009? The Reds acquired Micah Owings, he of the 17-3 minor league record and 3.19 ERA, as the major piece of the Adam Dunn deal. He also went 14-10 with a 4.14 ERA, 161 strikeouts, and 70 walks in his first 215.1 major league innings (37 starts) before an injury derailed his effectiveness last season. If you think that injury was lingering from a month earlier, try 12-8, 4.03, 129/56 over his first 178.1 innings (31 starts). There is no team in baseball that wouldn't love that kind of production from their fifth starter, particularly when that fifth starter is also the second-best hitter on the team.
Still, Owings was indeed injured last year, so he cannot be counted on as a sure thing. Homer Bailey and Daryl Thompson were both rushed to the major leagues. A glance at their minor league numbers reveals that either one of these 23-year olds might be ready to perform at least solidly at the major league level. If push comes to shove, Nick Masset would still represent a significant upgrade over last year's mess.
Chicago's 2005 bullpen featured career years from journeymen Cliff Pollitte and Dustin Hermanson and the homegrown Neal Cotts. They also got a big boost in the second half from rookie Bobby Jenks. I certainly don't think that the Reds will use three different closers the way that the 2005 White Sox did, but the Reds do have the breakout candidates to give them as deep a bullpen as the Sox had in '05 and allow them to replace Cordero should he go 2006 on them. Rookies Josh Roenicke (160 K in 131.2 minor league IP) or Carlos Fisher (3.04 ERA since converting to relief) could break in as thinner versions of Jenks this year.
Finally, we look at the managers of these two clubs. Ozzie Guillen entered his second season managing the White Sox in 2005 while John B. "Dusty" Baker enters his second managing the Reds this year. Both managers are inflammatory and controversial: you may love them or you may hate them, but odds are good that if you're a baseball fan, you have a strong opinion on these two managers one way or the other. Back in that 2005 preview, I mentioned that Ozzie Guillen would be a key to the 2005 team based on his personnel decisions and use of the stolen base sign. This year, Baker will be a key to the Reds based on his personnel decisions and whether or not he abuses his young starting pitching.
If these Cincinnati Reds make the same 16-win improvement that the 2005 White Sox enjoyed, that will put them at 90 wins, which I'm convinced would win the NL Central this year. Does a lot have to go right for that improvement to take place? Most certainly. But a lot had to go right for the Sox to make that jump in 2005. A lot had to go right for the Tigers to make their 24-game jump in 2006 and a lot had to go right for the Rays to make their 31-win jump last season. The Reds have enough players entering their prime seasons and enough stable veterans peppered in to certainly make what, in comparison to Tampa Bay last year, would be a modest jump to claim an NL Central division that has taken a big step backwards.
Then all they have to do is go 10-1 in the postseason, and they'll really be doppelgangers of the 2005 White Sox.
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