Adam LaRoche was portrayed as father of the year, the professional athlete who walked away from $13 million because his son was more important than baseball. His son, Drake, became the poster child for home schooling. Their story was shown on most major TV news programs.
Ken Williams, the executive vice president of the White Sox, was saddled with the villain role.
“Sometimes in this position you have to be that,” Williams said. “We have moved past that. I had to do what was best for all parties. I’ve tried to stay above the fray and chose the road less traveled — the high road. We don’t talk about it anymore.”
LaRoche left the team after Williams informed him during spring training that Drake must greatly reduce his time in the clubhouse. LaRoche said that Williams was breaking a promise made when the White Sox signed him to a two-year, $26 million deal prior to last season, that Drake would be welcome in the White Sox clubhouse. And he was, for a year.
Drake would help around the clubhouse, washed players’ cars. He did odd jobs. His dad batted .207 in 2015. Then this spring, Williams gave LaRoche the bad news.
This angered some teammates, most notably Chris Sale, who lambasted Williams publicly and said the players had been lied to about Drake, a favorite of Sale and others. It was an embarrassing situation for the White Sox.
Williams has taken the high road at every turn. Though he has never explained his decision, team sources have indicated that Williams had received complaints from uniformed personnel that Drake’s presence had become a bit much.
Williams took the hit for doing what he thought was right.
But as we enter May, the White Sox have the best record in the American League. Sale enters Sunday’s scheduled start with a 5-0 record. The White Sox can use the $13 million they saved on LaRoche and put it toward a player acquisition at the trading deadline.
The White Sox, who host the Red Sox for three games this week, didn’t shatter like glass as some experts predicted when the LaRoche incident occurred. Williams, owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and GM Rick Hahn met with the players after the initial drama. Williams met with Sale the day after the team’s ace lambasted him.
“We’ve always had a great relationship,” insisted Williams. “We had a conversation and we walked out of the room laughing . . . for different reasons. We’re OK. Being in this business most of my adult life, there are issues that come up almost every day. This one just got a little more public. There are going to be disagreements, but I’ve always had an open-door policy. We discuss it, try to solve it, and move on. And I think this group did a fantastic job moving on once we got it all open and talked about it.”
But never in Williams’s wildest dreams did he think the team would start this well.
“On Monday we’ll have had our first day off since the second day of the season,” said Williams. “The schedule has been a grind if you look at the teams we’ve played. We were hoping to come out of this stretch holding our own, but we’ve come out of it much better than that. It’s a tribute to our guys.
“It’s an exciting club. I love watching them. The energy and enthusiasm is the best we’ve had here in a long time.”
Williams was instrumental in the White Sox beating out the Red Sox for Jose Abreu. Williams watched Abreu in Cuba and the White Sox outbid the Red Sox by about $5 million, leading Boston to sign Rusney Castillo as a consolation prize.
Last offseason, the White Sox did a good job revamping the offense and adding leadership in third baseman Todd Frazier, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and righthander Mat Latos, whose hot start (4-0, 0.74 ERA) has exceeded expectations for a player working on a one-year, $3 million deal.
The White Sox are also in the final year of John Danks’s five-year, $65 million deal, which pays the lefthander $14.25 million this season. The White Sox’ payroll this season is at $114.5 million, and it should shrink next year.
Williams is excited about what’s ahead. As the weather warms, sluggers such as Frazier and Abreu should excel. The White Sox have also been pleased with center fielder Austin Jackson — a late spring addition on a one-year, $5 million deal — a signing that pushed Adam Eaton to right and gives Chicago a very athletic outfield. They’ve been pleased with what the 37-year-old Rollins has shown, and the energy that Brett Lawrie brings.
All in all, the White Sox recovered nicely from the public relations nightmare. LaRoche went off into the sunset and stuck to his principles. Williams endured the backlash but his team is thriving. And in a two-team town, the White Sox are stealing some of the Cubs’ spotlight.
Once-tainted sluggers on rise
Not long ago, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, and Ryan Braun were considered radioactive. There were questions about their character and commitment, and when you mentioned their names you’d get an earful from their detractors.
That dialogue seems to be changing.
The one commonality that remains unattractive is their contracts. Kemp has $80 million left on his, Ramirez $66 million, and Braun is in the first year of a five-year, $105 million extension. But all three players now project a much more positive image.
Where it was once considered impossible to move their contracts, and it’s still a long shot, each player has helped his trade value this season.
We’ve seen firsthand here in Boston the change in Ramirez; he now hustles on the base paths, he’s enthusiastic in the field, and he has become the consummate team player. He has proven he can play first base. The only thing he hasn’t done consistently is hit, but there are signs he’s about to break out.
Kemp is off to a strong start for the Padres with six homers, 15 RBIs, and an .835 OPS through Thursday. Kemp has become an appealing righthanded power bat for a contender. Granted, he’s still not a great defender in left field, but teams would put up with that if Kemp’s bat remains powerful.
Braun has rebounded nicely after his PED suspension in 2013. The left fielder, now 32, was hitting .352 with five homers, 17 RBIs, and a 1.045 OPS through Thursday. Last season, Braun hit .285 with 25 homers, 84 RBIs, and 24 steals. OK, he’s not the 30-40-homer, 100-RBI guy he used to be, but he’s a strong righthanded bat.
Would anyone deal for these guys? We asked a National League GM for his opinion.
“The money is exorbitant with all of them so you’d have to first of all believe that they’re for real and can be for real for the lengths of their contract,” he said. “And then you’d have to put a value on how much you think they’re worth. Are they all $20 million-plus players? I’d say not. You’d have to be able to get them for $10 million-$15 million. There are different ways to reach that number through negotiation and the caliber of players you’d have to give up.”
Braun is the most intriguing player of the three.
With Milwaukee rebuilding (and some think tanking), Braun remains the one big draw for Brewers fans. He can still win a game with one swing.
It would appear Kemp is the most available. The Padres would like to keep rebuilding with younger options. Kemp is 31. The fact that he’s still productive could create a trade market.
The Padres would like to keep restocking their farm system by dealing Kemp and James Shields at the deadline. The Padres would love to engage the Red Sox in Kemp talks, but the Sox seem content with Brock Holt in left field. If Chris Young doesn’t work out, the Sox could take a look at Kemp.
Apropos of nothing
1. Yankees manager Joe Girardi merely said what many baseball people say off the record. He hates the shift. Girardi watched Nathan Eovaldi get robbed of a no-hitter because a ball that normally would have been fielded by the shortstop trickled through the shift. Girardi said if he were commissioner he would outlaw shifts. Bravo. The game has become distorted with positions left unoccupied. You can’t do that at pitcher, catcher or batting, so why should you be able to do it at other positions? Hopefully, over time, batters take their free hits to the unoccupied side of the shift and shifts die a natural death. When the Astros shift on Mookie Betts and then pitch him away, you wonder what the heck is going on out there. Let’s play baseball.
2. The Red Sox and Giants have successfully replaced Pablo Sandoval with younger players. The Giants tried re-signing Sandoval after the 2014 season, but they eventually went with rookie Matt Duffy at third base after a failed experiment with veteran Casey McGehee. “We really thought Duffy was going to be our superutility guy,” said Giants executive vice president Brian Sabean. “But when the McGehee thing didn’t work out, we put him over there and he just took off. He was definitely ahead of schedule.” The Red Sox this spring replaced Sandoval with Travis Shaw, who has been among the league’s top hitters. Monday’s examination with Dr. James Andrews is huge for both Sandoval and the Red Sox. Surgery would end any chance the Sox have of dealing him. If Sandoval is found to be dealing with inflammation, a team such as the Padres could still have interest.
3. Guess who entered Friday with the fewest runs in the majors? Same old problem for Tampa Bay.
4. Two players who recently tested positive for PEDs — Chris Colabello and Dee Gordon — said they didn’t know how the substances got into their system. Is this a missive from the Players’ Association to play dumb? The union denies it. But it’s a pattern.
5. Blake Snell (No. 4) became the 11th major league pitcher to wear a single-digit number. The others: Rob Bell (6), Kyle Drabek (4), Carl Edwards (6), Wayne Gomes (2), Mike Leake (8), Ron Mahay (3), Adam Ottavino (0), Marcus Stroman (6), Josh Towers (7), and David Wells (3).
Updates on nine
1. Rich Hill, LHP, Athletics — The Milton native has found his stuff after a slow start and says he’s now back to what he was with the Red Sox last September. Hill is 3-2 with a 2.42 ERA and has been Oakland’s best starter. Yes, even better than Sonny Gray. Hill said it took him a while to regain his form, but he kept making adjustments and finally found the release point that enabled him to snap off that tremendous curveball. If Hill keeps this up, he will be a pitcher in demand at the trade deadline.
2. Trevor Story, SS, Rockies — Story, who set a National League rookie record with nine homers in April, could have had more. He was denied three homers because the right-field fence in front of the bullpens at Coors Field was raised 8 feet 8 inches from last year.
3. Prince Fielder, 1B/DH, Rangers — Fielder’s weight isn’t being blamed for his sluggish start (.190 average, 2 homers, .291 slugging entering Friday). “I’m not worried,’’ Fielder said. “Worrying is not going to help anything. Come every day and see what happens. That’s all you can do.’’ Last season, Fielder did a good job beating shifts by hitting balls to left-center, but he hasn’t done that this season.
4. Jason Varitek, special assignment instructor, Red Sox — Varitek said he learned a lot from interviewing for the Mariners’ managerial job last offseason. He feels when he’s ready to manage, he’ll at least have a better understanding of what’s required at interviews. Varitek, who lives in suburban Atlanta, said he’s very happy with his workload at the moment. He spends most of his time in the Red Sox system evaluating catchers and pitchers and doesn’t appear to be ready for a bigger role just yet as he enjoys time with his family.
5. Grady Sizemore, OF, free agent — Sizemore has not retired, according to his agent, Joe Urban. Sizemore can’t replicate his prime seasons anymore but he could still help as a fourth or fifth outfielder.
6. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Giants — Cueto pitched a 1-0 gem last week, but what stood out for manager Bruce Bochy is the attention he paid to his hitting. “He might be the only pitcher I’ve ever seen, during the game, looking at his video hitting,” Bochy said. “I’ve never seen that. He actually snuck back there because he wanted to watch one at-bat. He’s into it. He’ll battle. Sometimes he doesn’t look pretty, but he gets the bunt down. He’ll put it in play.” Bochy added, “He’s a better hitter than I thought. He’s a good hitter when he battles up there.”
7. Jeanmar Gomez, RHP, Phillies — Gomez is 7 for 7 in save opportunities, with a 1.93 ERA and 0.929 WHIP. Phillies GM Matt Klentak has to love the decision he made in trading Ken Giles. Giles lost the closer job in Houston and may soon lose the eighth-inning job. He’s been horrible even though he’s throwing 98 m.p.h. consistently.
8. Taylor Jungmann, RHP, Brewers — The Brewers had such high hopes for Jungmann, but he has really struggled and his roster spot is in question. Jungmann is 0-4 with a 9.14 ERA in five starts. He has failed to pitch more than four innings three times. He is 0-7 with a 9.35 ERA over his last 10 starts dating to last season, with 56 hits and 26 walks allowed in 43⅓ innings.
9. Shane Victorino, OF, Cubs — Victorino, working on a minor league deal, continues to rehab his hamstring injury in Arizona and hopes to start playing at Triple A soon. The Cubs like the potential boost he could give a young team in a pennant race.
Last week we mentioned Bryce Harper’s homer-to-strikeout ratio (now 9 to 12). Entering Friday, Colorado’s Nolan Arenado had nine homers and only seven strikeouts . . . Happy birthday this weekend to Kelly Shoppach (36), Wes Gardner (55), Steve Crawford (58), Rick Burleson (65), Tom House (69), and Luis Aparacio (82).
With April in the books, what have we learned about the 2016 season? The Cubs and Nationals look for real. Jake Arrieta is pretty good. So is Bryce Harper. However, as in investing, past performance isn’t a guarantee of future results. Here are some notably good, bad, and plain old mystifying showings.