The Carlos Question

Chicago White Sox fans have good reason to be feeling optimistic about the upcoming 2011 season.  The pitching staff, which last year was hyped but failed to completely deliver, again looks formidable, despite questions about the fifth starter spot.

The spirits of Sox fans have especially been lifted by the prospects of their offense. While the Sox lineup got off to an absolutely anaemic start in 2010, their hotter-than-hot streak heading into the All-Star break meant that the offense ended the season firmly in the middle of the pack when it came to most statistics. Many fans are of the belief that this sometimes-potent offense will be greatly improved in the coming season.

The biggest signing of the offseason was Adam Dunn, a model of slugging consistency. You can almost bet your life on the big Texan getting a lot of strikeouts, a lot of walks, and a lot of home runs. Factor in the return of captain Paul Konerko, who’s coming off a career year, and the solid five-tool Alex Rios, and you have a pretty good nucleus. There’s good reason to believe that Gordon Beckham will fulfil the potential he showed in his rookie season, by picking up where he left off in the second half of 2010. Alexei Ramirez will continue his ascent towards becoming one of the game’s premier shortstops, and Juan Pierre can be expected to steal another 60 bases. And while AJ Pierzynski has never been a spectacular offensive player, his steadiness behind the plate has been a Sox staple for years. Rookie Brent Morel didn’t show much at the plate in his cameo last season, but his minor league statistics as well as his stellar defense are cause for hope.

But who are we forgetting? Oh, that’s right—2008 MVP candidate Carlos Quentin.

Sox fans will tell you that Quentin is one of the most frustrating players to root for—since the freak wrist injury which halted his 2008 season in which he ranked behind only Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixera in slugging percentage and missed the home run title by a single round-tripper (to  a player who was involved in 30 more games),  Quentin’s story with the Sox has been one of injury and inconsistency. Expectations were especially high upon his return in 2009, where he hit third in the lineup on Opening Day but suffered a plantar fasciitis injury which would plague him for the rest of the season. In 2010, the mostly-healthy Quentin again failed to live up to his potential. What’s the prognosis, then? Will Quentin’s 2008 season (which earned him nicknames like “The Carlos Quentin” and “Q-perman”) be simply an outlier, and take its place amongst other one-season wonders in Sox lore like Dick Allen’s MVP 1972 or Albert Belle’s record-breaking 1998? Not so fast.

When you put aside the lofty expectations raised by his breakout year, Quentin’s 2010 was nothing to scoff at. In fact, in many instances his season directly correlated with that of the White Sox—a poor April and May, followed by an incredibly productive June and July, capped off with a pedestrian August and September. Thanks in no small part to his penchant for getting hit by pitches, Quentin got on base at a rate surpassed only by Andruw Jones and Paul Konerko. Slugging 28 homers and earning 86 RBIs is no mean feat, if not totally fulfilling of the potential he may have.

Much has been made of Quentin as a “crazy” headcase, who has trouble moving on from his mistakes and instead dwells on them and lets them build to the point of distraction, if not destruction. We’ve seen him depicted as a man with an incredibly delicate mental balance, for whom professional sports may not have been the ideal calling. You could imagine that such a character is even more susceptible to pressure than the average player. This is exactly why the White Sox in 2011 might be the closest thing to a perfect environment for Carlos Quentin to thrive in.

Quentin will no longer be called upon as the major cog of the offense. Most likely he’ll be batting behind Rios, Dunn, and Konerko. In fact, MLB.com beat writer Scott Merkin suggests he may bat as low as seventh in the order, under considerably less pressure than 2010 and especially 2009.

The wildcard is obviously Quentin’s health. He was relatively healthy last season, playing in 130 games. If he can play that many games this season, and provide the same offensive output, he’ll at the very least be a valuable contributor in the lineup.

And yet if he responds to the changes in pressure and dynamics of the Sox offense this season, he could find a level closer to his 2008 form. Don’t close the book on Carlos Quentin yet.

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