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Wednesday, November 14

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Sox in Five — Career Years?
by Steve Gozdecki

We White Sox fans are easily riled, evoking the fine art of the paranoid style like no one else this side of the national GOP. So when we look back to this past spring, we recall how few if any media commentators gave our team much of a chance this season, and feel even better about our World Series championship.

But in all honesty, those who were skeptical of the Sox's chances were justified in looking at this team and expecting another .500-ish year, and not just because the Sox have been the kings of mediocrity over the past decade. Like Avis, we may try harder, but we were stuck in second place in the American League Central for a long long time, before this year's breakthrough.

And with that, welcome to Sox in Five, the 2005 regular season in review edition. (Note that comments on player's numbers are based on the first 162 games of the year, not the 12 they played in the post-season.)

One: Dude, Why Are You Such a Buzzkill?
Fandom, like patriotism, can become problematic when it instills the thought that your team is the best even when the body of evidence suggests otherwise. In the case of your 2005 Chicago White Sox, the team got hot at the right time, which is usually how baseball's post-season works in the Bud Selig Era, as evidenced by the frequency with which wild card teams end up winning the World Series. So while our hopes and dreams and prayers were answered in the affirmative to make 2005 a season to cherish, a longer view suggests that without some changes, this team could easily revert to its traditional "win one, lose one" ways in '06 and fall behind division rivals the Cleveland Indians and (possibly) the Minnesota Twins. Why? Because so many Sox players outperformed expectations based on their established performance levels.

Two: Who Overachieved?
This team was built on and succeeded through its pitching, so it makes sense to start with the rotation, where Jon Garland and Jose Contreras finally shed the "potential" label to pitch some great ball, winning 18 and 15 games, respectively. While Garland carried the ace tag during the first half of the year, Contreras moved to the front of the rotation during the summer and stayed there in the post-season. But are these two guys, both previously considered enigmas at best, for real? Over the course of the three seasons prior to 2005, Garland took the ball every fifth day and posted an ERA closer to 5 than 4. While his ERA dropped more than a full run to 3.50 this year, his numbers aren't all that much different from previous seasons in other categories, which suggests that a combination of luck on balls hit into play and improved defense (especially with Juan Uribe picking it at short) helped him out. Despite decent heat and a lot of movement on his pitches, Garland isn't a strikeout pitcher, and it's hard to expect him to duplicate this year's number in 2006. The improvements by Contreras, on the other hand, may be real, as this was only his second full season in a major league rotation — he gave up hits and walks at a reduced rate this year and, like his post-season rotation mates, fits in nicely as a number two-type starter. Most of the bullpen crew also did better than their histories suggested, led by Dustin Hermanson (his 2005 numbers are completely out of synch with his performance in the prior eight seasons) and Cliff Politte. With a minimal major league track record, it was hard to know what to expect of Bobby Jenks and Neal Cotts, but what we got out of these two was phenomenal. On the offensive side, right fielder Jermaine Dye was a pleasant surprise in terms of raw production (which likely got a boost from playing half of his games in the Cell instead of the Oakland Coliseum), as was "rookie" second baseman Tadahito Iguchi.

Three: Who Did What We Should've Expected?
The Sox feature three very good (but not quite great) players who did just about what we expected them to do: first baseman Paul Konerko and starting pitchers Mark Buerhle and Freddy Garcia. Guys like these are great to have on a team; there's comfort in being able to expect above-average performances like Konerko's 40 or so homers and Garcia and Buerhle's 15 or so wins and sub-4.00 ERAs (not an easy thing in a hitter's haven like the Cell). Joe Crede again brought a stellar glove and a so-so bat, making him an acceptable third baseman who may still improve and become the star he'd once projected as. Juan Uribe split the difference between his crummy 2003 season with the Rockies and last year's breakout, and like Crede brings enough glove to compensate for his unexceptional bat, also with a chance to get better. A.J. Pierzynski set a career high in home runs despite a noticeable improvement in his slugging percentage, suggesting that balls he'd hit for doubles in San Francisco in 2004 went out of the park at the hitter-friendly Cell this year — disappointingly, it looks like these power gains have come at the expense of his batting average, which dropped for the second consecutive year without an increased walk rate, meaning that he makes an out more than twice as often as he gets on base. Crazy Carl Everett is what he is: a man who swings as hard as possible at every pitch, and drives one out of the park once a week or so. In his limited time this season, Frank Thomas reminded us that while his days as a .300 hitter are past, he can still hit the ball a long, long way when healthy. Finally, left fielder Scott Podsednik rebounded from a crummy sophomore season to get on base at a nice .350 clip, albeit at the expense of any sort of power.

Four: Who Let Us Down?
The surprise of 2004, closer Shingo Takatsu, went from Mr. Zero to just another zero in a hurry, a possibility that Kenny Williams seemed to anticipate when he added eventual closers Hermanson and Jenks last winter. His fellow relievers Luis Vizcaino and Damaso Marte also disappointed, going from potential setup men to middle relievers/mop-up men over the course of the season due to their inability to keep men off base. And while it was crazy to expect Orlando Hernandez to make more than 20 or so starts, no one expected him to put up a 5.12 ERA when he came into the season with a career mark under 4. Of the hitters, the sole bona fide disappointment was center fielder Aaron Rowand, who played more like the fourth outfielder he was once projected to be than the 20-20 guy we saw in '04.

Five: The Final Tally
As you might've noticed, I've ignored the undistinguished bench players, who looked even worse the more we saw them, which was probably too often in the case of Timo Perez and Pablo Ozuna. In the final tally, this year's White Sox featured:
• Eight players who played better than expected (at least half of whom likely posted what will go down as their career years)
• Nine guys who did just about what we'd hoped for (including a trio of consistent near-All Stars)
• Five stinkers

So, what's my point? I guess it's that when you surprise the world by winning your first World Series in 88 years in what was expected to be another so-so year, chances are that some of your players overachieved. It'll be interesting to watch how the White Sox change this winter, both in a reactive way (if Paul Konerko signs elsewhere, some moves will have to be made no matter how much you may love Ross Gload or the thought of Brian Anderson pushing Dye to first base) and on a proactive basis (should Kenny Williams decide to trade some pitching to improve the offense, or take advantage of the inflated market for some of our post-season heroes). Catch you all some time this winter with a hot stove league update.

 

Bears in Five — Halfway to Paradise
by Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon and friends

The Bears didn't really show up to play on Sunday, and played down to their feeble opponents, the New Orleans Saints. That, plus the fact that NO QB Aaron Brooks seemed more lively than previous weeks, allowed the Saints to keep it close. A tenacious NO front four also harassed Bears QB Kyle Orton. Once again, however, our offensive line — the big uglies, if you will — kept our backs running, as Bears backs combined for over 160 yards on the ground. Despite the close score, the Bears dominated after halftime, especially on defense. I imagine Bears D coordinator Ron "Chico" Rivera had quite a talk with his boys, along the lines of, "GAAAAAAAAAHH!!!"

Without further ado:

One: Cody Pickett — Don't Mind If We Do!
Since the 49ers traded Tim Rattay to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco is essentially starting their 4th string quarterback, Cody Pickett. With injuries to Alex Smith and Ken Dorsey, this is what the 49ers are left with — a guy with a background in rodeo. We're not making that up. The real story with the 49ers is injuries overall. The wide receivers are banged up, the offensive line is missing key starters, and the defense is hurt from having to be on the field all the damn time. This team was bad enough before all of the bloodshed. Running back Kevan Barlow seems to be the only consistent performer on the field for them. Then again, the rest of the team has set the "Barlow." See what they did there? Bonus pun-on-a-name: Cody Pickett we will, right out of the sky or his receiver's hands, several times this coming Sunday.

Two: Alex Brown, a Holding Penalty, and a Double Team Walk Into a Bar...
I don't remember how the joke goes, but it ends, "We keep the pigs in back." Anyway. As hard as the statistics try to hide it, Alex Brown is one of the best defensive ends in football. Your columnists at the Noble Street HQ will be flogging this all year — Alex "Pro Bowl" Brown consumes double teams and puts opposing teams at risk every play because they have to hold him. He may be the most important player on this defense right now. Bears opponents know this, and are designing blocking schemes around him. So refs: help the guy out with a holding call every once in a while. Is that so much to ask?

Three: Get Off Lovie
All over sports radio yesterday, especially on ESPN Radio's drive-time trio Mac, Jurko and Harry (Dan McNeil, John Jurkovic, and Harry Teinowitz), people were riding Lovie Smith for not throwing the challenge flag on a seemingly poorly spotted ball that forced the Bears to punt late in the fourth quarter, with the score tied. I guess people want to see more rage out of Lovie (man, I love writing about sports. Only in sportswriting do you get to say things like "rage out of Lovie"), but we think the non-challenge was good. Lovie doesn't need to be Mike Martz-ing it up, throwing out challenges like crazy. Don't waste the timeout and let your defense handle it. Psychologically, it's probably better for a team to know that their coach is only going to challenge a play if it's a sure thing, so they need to get their bidness done on the field.

Four: Best Team in the NFC?
The Bears could be the best team record-wise in the NFC — two blown coverage assignments and one field goal short, really. The game they lost against the Browns was well in hand and the Bears defense was holding them at bay — but two plays, two blown coverages and the Bears lost it in the fourth quarter. Similarly, against a vastly improved Redskins team, the Bears were just a fieldgoal short.

So the season is half over in terms of number of games played for the Chicago Bears. Their record could easily be 7-1 instead of the still impressive 5-3 it sits at now. At the halfway point the Bears have shown that they know what needs to happen (and, more importantly NOT happen) for them to win games. And their coaching staff has been very impressive, designing game plans around what they have, and being willing to make tough decisions to make sure games are won. This is a Bears team that will likely wrap up the division this side of December, and maybe even make a little bit of noise in the playoffs. With the youngest defense in the league — which has seven starters signed through 2007 — this season could just be that first step towards, dare we say it, a mini-dynasty.

Five: Orton, Orton, (Grossman!), Orton!!
Kyle Orton is getting better each week, but only kinda. Two picks in Sunday's game went a long way in keeping the Saints competitive, and as we go into a rougher second-half schedule against teams like the Steelers, Panthers, and Falcons, Orton has to be flawless — not only no picks, but smart decisions on third down. The real test will be against the Panthers, who will be hurrying him all day with their relentless pass rush. Grossman is practice-ready coming off his injury in the preseason, and may be game ready by Week 13. Will the Bears bench Orton at that point, and go with the "franchise" QB? We at the Noble Street HQ think probably not, especially if they're playoff-bound, although they may start sneaking him into games occasionally if they can. Whatever happens, this is going to be one annoying, speculative off-season.

 

Bulls in Five — Promising or Disappointing?
by Jason Maslanka

With three games on the books, the Chicago Bulls stand at 1-2, one game better than 0-3 at this point last year. Of course, that one win has already made things better than the 0-9 start of 2004-05. In an 82-game season, you can't make too much of three games, but there have been some early lessons. Is the early season encouraging or discouraging? Where are these Bulls headed? This week, I'm taking a look at the first week in total: the games, the competition and the future. Next week, I'll look specifically at player development through six games.

One: A Disappointing Start
Finding your team down 25 points to a second-year team in the Charlotte Bobcats is not a good place to be. The Bobcats, seemingly made up of a roster picked entirely from recent NCAA National Championship teams, dominated the Bulls in every aspect of basketball for three quarters. While it's hard to fault the Bulls for Gerald Wallace's near perfect shooting percentage in the first half, a 25-point deficit is still way too much. It was apparent in the first game that Ben Gordon's offense was important to this team. He struggled through three quarters and contributed little until the fourth.

Two: A Wild Finish
There's really no way to properly describe the fourth quarter of that Bobcats game. Down in that quarter by as much as 21 and 9 with less than 3 minutes left, the Bulls stormed back on the hot shooting of Eric Piatkowski and triple-double from Chris Duhon. Even more important than his first career triple-double may have been Duhon's floor leadership. With Hinrich out, Duhon picked his spots and found an unlikely three-point hero in Darius Songaila at the end of regulation. The 109-105 win in overtime was big not only because of the 0-9 start last year, but because of the fragile persona of a young, growing team.

Threeeeee: Losing Two
Another reason the Charlotte game was so important was the upcoming Nets and Spurs games. While a professional athlete should never be excited for moral victories, playing these two powerhouses close after such a strange game against Charlotte can only be construed as a good sign. If not for a missed free-throw by Gordon and a strong move by Richard Jefferson of the Nets in the closing seconds, it appears the Bulls would have won their second game. In yesterday's Spurs game, the Bulls hung tough throughout, tied at 91 with just over a minute remaining. The Spurs have a much better frontcourt led by Tim Duncan, and have been picked by most to win another NBA Title. Two losses hurt, but in a long season, these two tough games could be a great sign.

Four: The Next Four
The dreaded "Circus Trip" is coming up, and after two more at home, the Bulls play six at the homes of Western Conference teams. Traditionally a disaster, this year's trip will tell fans a lot about the makeup of this team. Much like last year, however, this team doesn't need a winning record on the trip to have a successful season. More important are the next four games against mid-range opponents: Golden State and Utah at home followed by Golden State and Portland on the road. Certainly no four-game stretch can determine a season, but winning 3 of 4 would go a long way in cementing the Bulls' place as a contending team. Golden State is perpetually mediocre, however improved; Utah is good, but vulnerable; and Portland is a giant mess as per usual.

Five: The Competition
Just as it's too early to determine the Bulls' fate, the same holds true for other Eastern Conference contenders. That doesn't mean I, and every other columnist, won't try, though. Washington has started well, but could fade without Larry Hughes. On the other end of Larry Hughes, the Cavaliers won't miss the playoffs again this year. Detroit, Miami, Indiana and New Jersey are terrific. Milwaukee is improved, but unknown. The entire East is better than in years past, and won't allow the Bulls to coast to a 4-seed in the playoffs. The Bulls need to compete with Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Washington for the 6-8 playoff spots and continue to improve along the way. As many as 10-12 teams could make the Eastern playoffs. Lucky for those of us who dislike Isiah Thomas, Eddy Curry and the Knicks are not one of them.

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About the Author(s)

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistic analysis trumps things like subjective evaluations and team chemistry, he finds himself baffled by the success his team is having in this 2005 season. Each week through the end of the Sox's playoff run — which will hopefully end around Halloween — Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon and friends are not really friends but rather fierce competitors on the fantasy gridiron. They meet weekly to embarass each other with random football trivia at the Noble Street League HQ. This is where they write their column. Craig knows where every professional athlete went to college, and in some cases the names of their roommates. Creepy. Send comments to bears@gapersblock.com.

Jason Maslanka began his fandom of the Chicago Bulls in June of 1991, conveniently coinciding with the franchise's first championship. The years since the championships tested his fandom, but it never faltered. He believes that the NBA is more than dunks and hip hop, and that the NBA dress code is a good thing. He thinks most fans don't really understand basketball, and if they did, they'd love it even more. He knows that there are certain players who do the little things for no praise, and stat-mongers who don't really do anything to help their team win. Every week, he plans to execute a beautifully crafted column containing five points you should be thinking about and discussing as a Bulls and NBA fan. Send comments, questions, and arguments to bulls@gapersblock.com

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