Even without Avisail, White Sox showing firepower
Loss of right fielder hurts, but this year's improved lineup can compensate
CHICAGO -- When the White Sox got the news on Avisail Garcia, it wasn't good. In fact, it was downright horrible.
The 22-year-old right fielder -- the guy that the Tigers honored by calling "Little Miggy" before his trade to Chicago at last year's Trade Deadline -- needs surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, ending his season just as it was beginning.
"It's a lousy day," said Rick Hahn, the second-year White Sox general manager. "It's something that happened. A guy made a play to try to save a ballgame for us, and paid the price."
But for baseball teams, there are worse things than lousy days. There are lousy years, and the South Siders experienced one of those in 2013.
They were well on their way to 99 losses when they traded Jake Peavy to Boston in a three-team deal that sent shortstop Jose Iglesias to Detroit and brought Garcia to Chicago. It was the start of an overhaul of the Sox lineup, which had developed varicose veins and a receding hairline in recent years, and last season it was the least productive in the Major Leagues.
It would have been great to see what a full season of Garcia would have meant alongside Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, who on Thursday night delivered his second two-homer game of the week. Put the two of them alongside in-your-face center fielder Adam Eaton and quick-study second baseman Marcus Semien, who has been filling in for the disabled Gordon Beckham, and it was fun to watch while it lasted.
But with or without Garcia, these aren't last year's White Sox. This is a much improved lineup, no longer dependent on Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, and showed it in overcoming Danny Salazar's 10 strikeouts to beat the Indians 7-3 as they started a homestand in which they'll be tested by teams walking tall after playoff seasons. With Terry Francona's Tribe in town, the White Sox were faced with the memory of winning only two of 19 games in the season series last year -- an edge Cleveland rode to an American League Wild Card spot in the postseason.
"We were actually trying last year," manager Robin Ventura said when asked if a chance at revenge would serve as motivation. "You continue to focus on what we're doing right now, things that are good, rather than last year. I think a lot of it is the feeling is different so far, offensively for us, that we didn't have last year. There's definitely a different vibe -- being able to score, being able to come back if you get down -- that wasn't necessarily there last year."
White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers hit .195 with 10 home runs and 94 strikeouts in 256 at-bats last year. He's been a new man in 2014, but he says the good feeling he gets walking into the clubhouse has to do with a lot more than his numbers.
"Obviously there's a whole new core, a group of guys who joined the organization," said Flowers, who is hitting .444 with one homer and five RBIs in eight games. "For one, it starts with some new faces in here. Two, the energy level, the camaraderie, we started building that in Spring Training. I can tell you it's been a whole lot more fun. Our record's not where we want it to be at this point. But even the games we're losing, we're having fun, we're competing. We're having quality at-bats, putting 'em together."
During their freefall in 2013, the White Sox averaged an AL-low 3.7 runs per game with a .302 on-base percentage, also last in the league. The smart guys will tell you it's too early to draw any conclusions, but Ventura is justified in being very encouraged about his new lineup.
A 15-3 win in Colorado on Tuesday -- a game that featured two-homer games for Abreu and Garcia -- helped the White Sox be No. 1 in the AL at 6.0 runs per game through Wednesday, as well as third in the AL with a .347 on-base percentage.
No one's happier than first-year hitting coach Todd Steverson, although he wants you to know he's not satisfied.
"The approach, to this point, I've been pretty pleased," Steverson said. "I'm not a very complacent type person. There's always room for improvement."
No one is making a bigger difference for the White Sox than Abreu, whom Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said is "as advertised." He's a disciplined hitter with power to all fields and hit the ball so hard on Opening Day that Gardenhire intentionally walked him twice in the second game, once to get to Dunn, who had already hit a home run in the game.
Francona saw for himself as Abreu hit a 411-foot bomb to left-center off Salazar and a crushed liner over the left-field wall off reliever Josh Outman. He also scored Eaton from third base with a soft roller to second baseman Jason Kipnis, showing an ability to hit to the situation.
Ventura also loves what he's seeing from some of his veterans, especially Flowers and shortstop Alexei Ramirez (.421, two home runs, nine RBIs in 10 games). The latter had a solo homer and double off Salazar, while Flowers got a night off.
Flowers credits Steverson for helping him find a comfortable stance and a clear head.
"[He] has been great with me personally," the catcher said. "Did he come in and reinvent the wheel for me, or anybody for that matter? No. He just seems to take what you have, what you do naturally, promote that and maybe tweak a little something here, tweak little something there. It's all about you being comfortable. I think that's something I've kind of missed in the past."
Ventura had been platooning Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo in left field, with Garcia in right. The injury means that they'll both become everyday guys, with Jordan Danks promoted from Triple-A to become the fourth outfielder. It's a chance for him to prove himself, too.
Unlike in recent years, the White Sox look to have a supply of reinforcements in their farm system. But Hahn says they won't rush power-hitting third baseman Matt Davidson (acquired from Arizona for Addison Reed) or speedster Micah Johnson to the Major Leagues to compensate for the loss of Garcia or anyone else.
"One thing that's extremely important is not rushing anyone's development, not altering anyone's long-term viability, simply for a short-term, knee-jerk reaction of trying to fix something in Chicago," Hahn said. "What happens with Avi Garcia has nothing to do with what happens with Matt Davidson, Micah Johnson or anyone else. The guys who are going to be here will arrive here when they force the time frame, not the other way."
The White Sox are moving in the right direction, even if they have to wait to see how much better they can get with Garcia in the mix for the long haul.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.