One of the reasons sports is so appealing is that it gets closer to being a pure meritocracy than most other areas of life. More or less, the cream rises to the top and is rewarded, and incompetence–while still popping up from new sources all the time–is eventually rode out on a rail, or at least traded for organizational filler.
That’s why it’s so jarring to see Adam Dunn and Alex Rios returning with Opening Day starting slots after two of the worst full seasons ever. Ever. After a year spent being the worst at their jobs, they return in Spring with their jobs. Thanks to Viciedo being promoted and given and outfield gig, Dunn probably has even more job security than before.
It’s jarring, even though the reasons for it are obvious. The White Sox have three more seasons of paying the pair top-dollar to start, and can’t budget out funds for legit replacements given the enormity of their commitments. Really, that’s what made 2011 so bad. It wasn’t just one year’s pennant bid biting the dust, if Rios and Dunn aren’t functional contributors, baseball might be kinda lame till 2015.
On the flip side, criticism of Ozzie Guillen’s managing in 2011 didn’t need to go beyond the amount of playing time Dunn and Rios received despite their troubles*. Back then, Viciedo and De Aza weren’t entrenched starters, they were viable replacements milling about in AAA, waiting to be “saviors”.
*This is a line I’ve read Jim Margalus write in some form countless time, so a hat-tip for inspiration.
New manager Robin Ventura certainly realized the ire surrounding this inaction when he introduced himself to the public, as he fashioned himself a wellspring of tough talk when it came to managing playing time.
Fan: How do you deal with struggling high salary players? Robin: Invite him to the bench.
— ESPN Chicago (@ESPNChiSox) January 28, 2012
That sounds as soothing as a cold glass of lemonade to anyone who sat through the 2011 season, but might make actually make less sense now, in the wake of that disaster. The White Sox–even more than last season–lack the depth to sustain a playoff run without strong performances from Dunn and Rios.
If Rios and Dunn are the same players from 2011 (cannot emphasize enough how real of a possibility this is), having Fukudome and Lillibridge (or Dan Johnson) tread water in their stead may be inevitable, but there’s no rush to declare them to be sunk costs before it’s absolutely necessary.
This is a macro view, and glosses over the possibility of both players devolving into effective platoon contributors, or seeing temporary dips in playing time when for the 2nd straight year the White Sox are inexplicably hanging around in late-July and just need some replacement-level work. But in general, the approach has shifted from winning at all costs to desperately needing to turn the ship around. Recovering Kenny Williams’ most expensive follies would be a big step in that regard.
Baseball Prospectus’ Daniel Rathman discussed how the Jake Peavy trade–while ultimately unsuccessful in fueling a playoff run–still offers the White Sox an opportunity to revive a very capable starter, and give a boost to their rebuilding efforts in a deadline deal. While Rathman was clearly offering an optimistic view on Peavy’s 2012 performance, and correspondingly a more modest view of the team as a whole, a similar situation for Rios and Dunn–where they could actually be shipped out for talent, is an absolute dream at the moment, but one worth pursuing.
With no kids to play, if the White Sox albatrosses can’t drag the team to the promised land, they may still need to get every opportunity to work their way out of town.
This is the true struggle of the situation that Robin Ventura is inheriting. Brought on to establish a new order, a new attitude, a new enthusiasm and all the other intangible things managers are paid tangible piles of money to bring, he may need to commit the most to one of his less popular lines.
“[Dunn]‘s had success in the past, and that’s what I’m counting on. I’ve seen him play. I’ve seen him do well. And I want him to come in and be prepared to do that. He has a clean slate.”
Ventura has to draw the most from a formula that’s already failed. The reinforcements aren’t coming.