White Sox season preview: Infielders

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White Sox season preview: Infielders

Every day this week leading up to Friday's Opening Day contest against Texas (1 p.m., Comcast SportsNet), we'll be previewing a different unit of the White Sox. Today, we kick off the home stretch of the preseason with a look at what to expect from the White Sox infield in 2012, specifically looking at the defense. Check back later Monday for a look at what the infield could provide offensively.

While Detroit may gaffe their way to a few losses thanks to extremely suspect infield defense, the White Sox may have a few victories saved by the stellar gloves of Alexei Ramirez, Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham. Those three, plus the sure hands of Paul Konerko, the run-saving abilities of A.J. Pierzynski and the slick fielding of backup Eduardo Escobar could combine to give the Sox their best defensive infield since Joe Crede and Juan Uribe manned the left side.

Ramirez should've won at least one Gold Glove by now; that he hasn't tells you all you need to know about the legitimacy of that award. Over the last three seasons, Ramirez has been a top-three shorstop in baseball, in the same zip code as Brendan Ryan and J.J. Hardy, per UZR. Ramirez is the defensive stalwart of the infield, and he and Beckham combine to give the White Sox outstanding infield defense up the middle.

Beckham started to come into his own defensively at second base last year. His low error total was great, but more importantly, he began to show better range and instincts as he settled in as a second baseman. Expect to see Beckham make more difficult plays as he enters his third year at second base -- his familiarity with the position and Ramirez should pay off in a big way.

The same can be said for Morel, who enters his second year as the team's starting third baseman with a greater knowledge base of opponents -- something that should come in handy in terms of his instincts and positioning. And it can't hurt that he has arguably the best defensive third baseman in franchise history saying he's a great defender.

Sliding across the diamond to first base, Konerko has as sure a pair of hands of any first baseman in the game. He's never had good range, but if you hit a ball in his vicinity, he'll make the play. That's more of a problem for secondthirdshort -- positions where you want to have guys who can go out of their zones to make a play -- but for first base, it's not the biggest problem ever. A good pair of hands is extremely important at first, and Konerko has just that.

Behind the plate will be a little tricky in all this defensive optimism. Pierzynski, defensively, hasn't rated as being a good catcher in quite some time now. His caught stealing percentages -- which have been at or below the league average for the last decade -- are actually not accurate as to how many runners Pierzynski has thrown out (pitcher pickoffs count toward the total). By Baseball-Reference's count, Pierzynski threw out 13 runners last year, the lowest total of any starting catcher in the majors.

But Pierzysnki earns another paragraph because of his aforementioned ability to prevent runs by doing other things right -- namely, his ability to work with the Sox pitching staff. Pierzynski's knowledge of opponents and ability to pick up on tendencies during pitch sequences has been pretty valuable to the White Sox since he joined the team in 2005. And for that, he deserves some praise.

The backups -- Escobar, Flowers and Lillibridge -- range from good to average-at-best on the defensive spectrum. Escobar is a plus defender who can play third base, shortstop and second base, but he's not much of a hitter. Conversely, Lillibridge's infield defense isn't as good, but he has a much better bat and can play first base. Expect Lillibridge to see most of the backup infield playing time, although if Dayan Viciedo needs a day off in left on the same day, say, Beckham needs a day off at second, both he and Escobar will find their way into the lineup.

How Robin Ventura uses Tyler Flowers will be one of the more interesting managerial trends to follow in 2012 -- no full-time catcher has played in more games since 2005 than Pierzynski, who has appeared in 40 more games than Yadier Molina, the next closest backstop on the list.

That meant White Sox backups didn't play a whole lot: Ramon Castro (91 games, 2009-2011), Toby Hall (79, 2007-2008) and Chris Widger (72, 2005-2006) saw the most action. But the Sox haven't ever had a young catcher come through to back up Pierzynski, and given this is the last year of Pierzynski's contract, it'll be interesting to see if Ventura wants to get Flowers in more to determine if the 26-year-old is a viable long-term replacement.

To sum it up

Ground balls should be fun this year, whether they're hit to short, second or third.

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

It might be figuratively held together with chicken wire and duct tape at this point, and it hasn’t been entirely effective recently. But the White Sox bullpen can’t be criticized for a lack of effort. 

Over the last four days, White Sox relievers have had to throw 19 1/3 innings. To recap: Starter Jacob Turner only lasted 3 1/3 innings Friday against the Detroit Tigers, then Chris Sale was scratched from his start Saturday after blowing up over the team’s uniforms and earning a five-game suspension. The White Sox bullpen shouldered Johnny Wholestaff duties and threw eight innings on Saturday — right-hander Matt Albers started and pitched two of those innings despite throwing an inning in the team’s last two games — in lieu of the team’s All-Star ace. 

David Robertson, who pitched a third of an inning in relief Saturday, pitched twice on Sunday (he allowed three solo home runs to the Tigers to blow the save in his second game). Nate Jones appeared in the first three games of the Tigers series, too, totaling 2 1/3 innings. 

On Monday, both Jones and Robertson were given a much-needed rest day. So Zach Duke, Albers and Dan Jennings were called upon by manager Robin Ventura to cover seven outs against the powerful Cubs lineup. Albers blew the save, but Jennings’ strikeout of Jason Heyward with the go-ahead run on second set up Tyler Saladino’s walk-off single to net the White Sox a 5-4 win. 

“We’ve picked up a lot of innings lately,” Robertson said. “Everybody’s just giving it everything they got right now. It’s obviously, we would’ve loved to have nothing but zeros go up, but that’s not the way baseball works. We’re facing a lot of good lineups. And we’ve just hung tough and tried to at least give us a chance to win. Thankfully, we’ve been very fortunate to walk off these last three games.” 

It’s not just the volume of innings that’s taxing the bullpen, though. With three consecutive walk-off wins — the first time the White Sox have done that since Aug. 4-6, 1962 — have come plenty of high-stress pitches. Over the last week, the White Sox bullpen has the highest average leverage index in baseball, and that’s with this group shouldering the generally low-leverage early innings of Saturday’s game in place of Sale. 

“The more we work, the more proud we are of what we do,” Jennings said. 

Still, this group could probably use a breather. Without an off day until Aug. 1, though, the only way to get one is to be ruled out for a game, as Robertson and Jones were on Monday. 

“Hopefully we can rotate, I know there’s some other guys that I know might need a day so maybe hopefully Nate and Robertson are really fresh tomorrow and we can build off that,” Jennings said. “(Or) maybe we can get that eight, nine, 10-run win where we can kind of sit back and relax a little bit, hopefully.”

Manager Robin Ventura said he went with seniority in choosing who to cover Jones and Robertson’s innings Monday, which helps explain why he didn’t use 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer against the Cubs. Fulmer’s recent control issues — he only threw 12 of 30 pitches for strikes in blowing a lead against the Tigers on Friday — could’ve played a factor, too. 

“You’re trusting the guys who have been here,” Ventura said. “You’ve got some new faces that are out there, it would’ve been asking a lot to bring them in and put them in that.”

White Sox relievers have squandered leads in each of the team’s last four games, though: Fulmer on Friday, Jones on Saturday, Robertson on Sunday and Albers/Jennings on Monday. In addition to a short outing from Turner and no outing from Sale, the White Sox are missing right-handers Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam from a group that looked to be fairly deep earlier in the season. 

The White Sox relief corps could certainly use a day off or at the least, as Jennings said, a blowout win where some of those young arms — Fulmer, Michael Ynoa and Tommy Kahnle — could polish off some low-pressure innings. But those easy wins have been few and far between this season: The White Sox only have three wins by more than three runs since May 14. 

So if that trend continues, this group is going to have to continue to cover plenty of high-stress innings without a break, at least for the next week. 

“Obviously the bullpen the last few days had to pick up the team, and we take pride in that,” Albers said. “Especially Nate and D-Rob were down today, shoot, they’ve been pitching every day too. Everybody else started to try to pick them up. That’s what we’re here for.” 

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

The human GIF made quite an impact on the White Sox on Monday night.

A staple of The Melky Cabrera experience the past year and a half has been the outfielder’s personal celebrations that come with every big play. Monday night’s edition included three rounds of festivities critical to the White Sox pulling out a 5-4 victory over the Cubs at U.S. Cellular Field.

Cabrera got the party started almost instantly, robbing Kris Bryant of a first-inning solo home run before he patted himself on the back in only the way he does.

“I think every celebration is a motivation to try to give us a boost to our confidence and for the fans, too,” Cabrera said through an interpreter. “Every time you can make a good play, it’s good for your team and for your fans to try to invigorate the confidence.”

Cabrera not only leads the team with a .303 batting average -- he’s the biggest self-congratulator of the bunch. It’s as if the GIF function was created for the sole purpose of recording Cabrera’s awkward claps or fist pumps after every big play.

On Monday, he opted to clap for himself after he robbed Bryant of what would have been his 26th homer. Cabrera said he watched the ball the entire way off Bryant’s bat and drifted back to the warning track before leaping and snagging the ball just above the yellow line on the left-field fence.

[MORE: White Sox win in walk-off fashion over Cubs]

On his way down, Cabrera landed hard on the warning track before righting himself against the wall, where he sat with each appendage sprawled in a different direction. At that point, Cabrera held up the ball to show the world he had it in his possession before he stood up and clapped for himself with both hands over his head.

“I thought after that play, things were going to be pretty good today,” said pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, the recipient of the play.

It was only the beginning.

Cabrera’s relay throw home in the third inning led to a rundown that netted an out at the plate when Javy Baez made an ill-advised decision to go home. Then in the ninth, Cabrera recorded the first out, which slowed a game-tying rally, when he fired a perfect strike to second base to throw out Bryant stretching a single into a double.

Each time, Cabrera cheered for himself without shame.

“He’s probably his own best (cheering section), but we try to keep up with him,” said reliever Zach Duke, who often views Cabrera’s celebrations from the bullpen. “It’s great. His celebrations, they’re just truly heartfelt, truly spontaneous and he has such a good time playing the game we can’t help but join in and enjoy the moment.”

White Sox: Chris Sale discusses jersey-cutting incident, suspension

White Sox: Chris Sale discusses jersey-cutting incident, suspension

One day after being handed a five-game suspension, White Sox ace Chris Sale spoke exclusively to MLB.com's Scott Merkin about the incident that led to the suspension, his desire to win with the White Sox and his future with the team.

Below are Sale's quotes from Merkin's story, which can be found here:

-- "I want to win a championship in Chicago. That's been my goal from Day 1. It has never changed. I only get more passionate about it because I know that it's not easy winning a championship. There's a lot that goes into it.

"Our main focus should be winning. I know that every single player comes in ready to win every day. I can't speak on anybody else. ... I don't think I would be traded. I don't know for sure. I don't know what they are thinking now or what's going on."

-- "Nothing else matters really. People don't talk about the guys who get paid the most. They talk about the guys with the rings and teams that won the rings. Our guys in this clubhouse deserve, in every single game, the best opportunity to go achieve that goal of winning a championship. That's why we are all here. Nothing else matters."

-- "When I saw that there was something in the way of that 100 percent winning mentality, I had an issue," Sale said. "I tried to bring it up and say, 'Hey listen, these are my thoughts and concerns,' and they got pushed away because of the business deal that was set in place. I'll never understand why we need to do something on the business side on the field that might impede us winning a game.

"[The '76 uniforms] are uncomfortable and unorthodox. I didn't want to go out there and not be at the top of my game in every aspect that I need to be in. Not only that, but I didn't want anything to alter my mechanics. ... There's a lot of different things that went into it. Looking bad had absolutely zero to do with it. Nothing."

-- "I get you have to have the business side, and if you want us to take pictures with these things, whatever. If it's going to affect the style of play or the outcome of the game, I just thought that would be a no-brainer."

And below is a list of CSN's coverage of the Sale incident:

Chris Sale's suspension 'does not move the needle' regarding his value to White Sox

Chris Sale suspended five days by White Sox

Chris Sale will start Thursday against Cubs