Improved White Sox appear ready to give Tigers a fight
Majors' most productive lineup set to face Verlander, Scherzer
CHICAGO -- This could be fun.
Thanks to a rainout on Sunday in Minnesota, the Tigers are set to start Justin Verlander on Tuesday and Max Scherzer on Wednesday against the White Sox, who have had the most productive lineup in the Majors in April.
This might have been no contest a year ago, when the Tigers used Miguel Cabrera and the front of their rotation to sail to their third straight American League Central title while the White Sox lost 99 games, seemingly turning old and ineffective in one season. But the South Siders have been a blast to watch this season, thanks in part to Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, who has been their version of Cabrera.
"They're a different ballclub with their guy in the middle,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said on Monday. "It really presents differently [with Abreu in the lineup]. … There's a grittiness about them now. They're not mailing anything in, not saying they did last year. Their at-bats are really sound right now.
How significant of a move was it when the White Sox won a bidding war to sign Abreu? Maddon compares it to "when Detroit acquires Miguel Cabrera, or Mike Trout surfaces in Anaheim.'' Some guys change the dynamics, and Abreu is one of them.
"There are always these kind of prodigy type players out there, where when they show up, it's a combination of great work ethic and calm, the ability to go out there and perform,'' Maddon said. "That's what I've seen from him. …He's extremely calm. Coming from where he came from, what he's seen before he got here, 30,000 people yelling isn't going to bother him. Plus, he probably doesn't understand them anyway. Plus, he's really talented. He's really talented.''
Abreu, arguably the best story in baseball in April, setting rookie records for the first month with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs through Sunday, is only part of the story for the White Sox. Thanks to the production from Adam Eaton, Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, Marcus Semien and Tyler Flowers -- along with solid starts by Adam Dunn and the currently disabled Conor Gillaspie -- they've got the deepest batting order in the Majors.
Hard to believe this is the same team that put up a .302 on-base percentage and averaged 3.7 runs per game a season ago.
Those totals were at .332 and 5.5 through Sunday, and it's worth noting that the weather has generally been miserable in the Midwest. The ball flies at U.S. Cellular Field in the summer, but so far the stadium thermometer has hit 70 degrees only once. Three games started with temperatures in the 30s, and three more with it in the 40s.
White Sox hitters aren't looking like they're in any hurry to get back to the dugout heater. They are making pitchers work for outs, chasing few waste pitches and fouling off more tough pitches to stay in an at-bat.
That's what general manager Rick Hahn was hoping for when he hired Todd Steverson as hitting coach and traded left-hander Hector Santiago and Minor League outfielder Brandon Jacobs to the D-backs to get Eaton, who had batted .348 with a .450 on-base percentage in four Minor League seasons.
Steverson, a longtime Minor League coach in the Oakland system, joined manager Robin Ventura and assistant hitting coach Harold Baines in trying to increase the discipline of White Sox hitters.
Alejandro De Aza was the only White Sox regular who averaged four pitches per plate appearance last season. The Sox currently have five of those guys -- Dunn (44), Semien (4.3), Avisail Garcia (4.2), Eaton (4.0) and Gillaspie (4.0).
Hahn couldn't be happier.
"One thing, from top to bottom, we are really pleased with is the approach guys are taking at the plate,'' he said. "They've embraced what Robin and Todd Steverson and Harold have been preaching since going back into the offseason, in terms of improving and battling in each at-bat -- lay off pitches out of the zone and do damage on pitches you can do damage on. It's an approach that has benefited us both in scoring runs and in constantly putting pressure on the opposing team and not being out of any game. ... You've seen us battle for all nine innings. That is what we envisioned.''
For Hahn, the lone disappointment was losing Garcia to season-ending surgery on his left surgery after he dove for a ball in the outfield at U.S. Cellular Field. It was his acquisition from Detroit in the three-team Jake Peavy deal last July that started the rebuilding of the White Sox, and, at 22, he's already hit .289 in 95 Major League games.
But it was that injury that opened the door for the 25-year-old Viciedo, who is hitting the ball as hard as any White Sox hitter except Abreu. He entered Monday night's game against the Rays leading the AL with a .367 batting average that is part of a .965 OPS. He's always been a hacker at the plate, but through his first 24 games had only four fewer walks than strikeouts.
Ventura says that "you never know when it's going to really click for a guy,'' and how hard White Sox coaches have worked with Viciedo since he came from Cuba in 2009. But he believes Abreu is a factor in Viciedo's development, as with everything that's going right.
Ventura said Viciedo has been watching Abreu and has learned how he works pitchers and drives outside pitches to right field. He's seen how Abreu isn't afraid to get behind in the count waiting on the pitch he wants.
Maddon credits Eaton for giving the White Sox a disruptive force at the top of the order, referring to the 25-year-old's "eagerness.'' He also singled out Flowers for praise. The White Sox catcher hit .195 before his 2013 season ended early so he could have surgery on his right shoulder and is hitting .366 in his first 23 games.
"Flowers to me is a different player,'' Maddon said. "Looks like he's lost some weight, he's in better shape, he's got a better approach at the plate. He's a different player.''
Top to bottom, it's a different lineup. Even the guys who are the same look different.
Can't wait to see how they handle Verlander and Scherzer, who they'll be seeing for the second time in a week. Those Tigers both won in Detroit, demonstrating that it's too early to call Tigers-White Sox a fair fight, but it's trending that way. And this White Sox lineup is going to be around a long time.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.