The Starting Nine

This is going to be a little segment that I do at various points during the season. Basically, it will be a list of nine topics; 3 good, 3 bad and 3 somewhere in an area roughly the same color of U.S. Cellular Field's concrete.

This column features the six games against Kansas City and Detroit, March 31-April 6.

The Good
 THE QUESTION MARKS: At the start of the season, I figured several places in the lineup merited genuine concern. Roughly, they were D'Angelo Jimenez, Jose Valentin, Frank Thomas, Joe Crede, and whoever was catching. So far, Jose, Frank, and Joe have been the few players actually hitting consistently: Valentin is batting .412 with a team-leading 3 homers; Thomas is batting .267, but has drawn 6 walks and leads the team with a .522 OBP; and Crede is hitting .368. While Miguel Olivo may be struggling at the plate with a .143 BA, he (and his unbelievable arm) seems to be right at home behind it. Jimenez is currently the only disappointment thus far, batting .188 and boasting a .278 OBP.

 THE STARTING ROTATION: Yes, the Sox are only 3-3, but you can't blame the starters for that. Mark Buehrle is 1-1 on the year, but pitched well enough to win the Opener had the mighty Sox O been able to produce more than 2 runs against Runlevys Hernandez. Regardless, Buehrle has been firmly on his game, with a 1.20 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and holding the opposition to a .161 BA in 15 innings of work. Elsewhere, Bartolo Colon could have won his first start of the year against Kansas City … Jon Garland's 11.25 ERA is misleading because he was partially the victim of bad defense … Esteban Loaiza was nothing short of brilliant in the Home Opener … and Josh Stewart was also impressive in his MLB debut.

 THE PARK: While I have not yet made my first visit to U.S. Cellular Field, everything I have seen makes me more and more antsy to go. The state-of-the-art new Jumbotron, LED ribbon boards, color scheme, Fan Deck, and brickwork all make the park even better suited for baseball. While the look and feel of Comiskey were always secondary to the fact that there was a baseball game being played there, "The Cell's" newfound coziness is just another reason to come on out to the old ballpark.

The Gray
 THE BULLPEN: Not a week into the season, and already I'm having nightmares about this bunch. Billy Koch's 95 MPH fastball does amaze me, it really does. However, his inability to sit anyone down in Thursday's loss to Kansas City (while, lest we forget, giving up 4 runs) was not particularly amazing … in fact, it was rather disturbing. Keith Foulke could have done that, and we'd still have our best catcher. Koch has, however, looked impressive since collecting 5 strike outs in 2 innings of work. As for the rest of the ‘pen, it's been a string of good performances and bad, pretty much what I thought we all could have expected. While they haven't been bad, the bullpen is going to have to step it up for the Sox to realistically contend.

 THE OFFENSE: Our much-ballyhooed strong spot, supposedly. Right now, the O just has not been clicking: with a smattering of cold and hot hitters, the Sox have been very inconsistent in both scoring runs and clutch hitting. Here's hoping this year the team can avoid the same weakness that killed them last year - the inability to hit pitchers they've never seen before. This falls squarely on the shoulders of manager Jerry Manuel and hitting coach Gary Ward to ensure their lineup knows the pitcher and his stuff. After being decimated by Kansas City's staff of no-names, but then pounding Detroit's equally anonymous rotation, it's hard to say which way the bat will fall this year, so to speak.

 THE DIVISION: After a week, the American League Central is looking pretty conquerable, but not completely so. At the top, the Royals have been a major surprise, and as of Sunday were the last American League team left without a loss. They've shown impressive poise in the sheer fundamentals of the game. That being said, they could pose a problem. However, there seem to be a lot of similarities between them and the 2001 Twins. Based on this week, I expect Kansas City to continue to play pretty well for the first half of the season … but a second half fizzle is probably in order. Watch out for them, though, for the next few years. Minnesota thus far has combined impressive with bad. It's still too early to get a read on them. Cleveland and Detroit both, for lack of better wording, stink. I think that's a reasonable estimation. A combined 180 losses for those two is probably guaranteed… let's see if we can make it a perfect 200! Overall, this division can be won - we just have to go out and get it done.

The Bad
 THE DEFENSE: Horrific. Tightened up a bit once they got home, but during that three game set at Kansas City, everything that could have gone wrong certainly did. Manos let one through the wickets, Paul didn't make an ordinary scoop, and Crede put up a big 2-spot in the E column in one day. Defense definitely remains the team's Achilles heel, which is very disappointing considering all the hype surrounding they'd cut their spring errors in half from last year's stat.

 THE MANAGER: While this could probably be extended to the entire coaching staff, it's still far too early in the year to see whether the new coaches have made any difference. The Sox lost three games to Kansas City. They did not just get beat, which - while upsetting - isn't that bad. Sometimes teams just get hot and life just isn't fair. But the Sox shot themselves in the foot every game … and then for good measure, shot themselves again. Pitiful defense, putrid offense, head-scratching substitutions (or lack thereof), and just poor all-around strategy made the three game set in Kansas City extremely difficult to watch. Sure, everything can't be blamed on Jerry … but the majority absolutely can be, and that's why there's a strong case being made to let him go.

 THE SWEEP: I don't think I can be ranting about the first six games and not mention the goose egg the team laid in western Missouri. Pitiful from start to finish. On offense, the Royals put on a clinic of working the count, making contact, staying alive, and eventually getting on base. The Sox illustrated the finer points of chasing balls in the dirt, hacking, and overall terrible plate discipline. On defense, the Royals made several sensational plays (Brandon Berger leaping into the wall to rob Maggs of a double in the season's first inning), while the Sox had trouble executing routine plays (Jose Valentin letting one split his legs). On the mound, the Royals completely shut down the mighty Sox O, holding them to 10 runs over the three game stand. On the flip side, while the Sox starters looked pretty good, the bullpen proved to be nothing short of horrendous, probably costing wins in the both the 2nd and 3rd games of the year.

So there you have it, Sox fans: three good, three bad and three somewhere in the middle. In the grand scheme of things, it would have been nice to take one or two from Kansas City. This is a long season, though, so there'll be plenty of chances to take games from teams who should have beaten us. But, after a week, we're 3-3. Tuesday, then, is Opening Day of a brand new 156-game schedule. Remember the old cliché, everyone wins 50 and loses 50, it's what you do with the remaining 62 that count.

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