Smile Politely

The AL Central Report #2

After last week’s column went up, I realized that I had done White Sox fans a huge disservice. Even though Chicago is definitely one of the blandest teams around, I totally disregarded the fact that they traded for outfielder Nick Swisher, one of the most colorful players in the game, over the winter. So, to let you Sox fans know just what you’re getting, here’s some fast facts on Swish:

1. He seems to be totally unable to appear in a photograph where he does not look completely goofy. His official photo on last year is a classic, and he had the misfortune to get this picture taken during what I hope was a rookie hazing stunt.

2. The White Sox sent three decent prospects to the A’s in order to acquire Swisher – pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Faustino de los Santos, as well as outfielder Ryan Sweeney.

3. Oakland selected Swisher in the first round of the 2002 draft out of Ohio State. That draft was heavily featured in Moneyball, a book by Michael Lewis which focused on A’s general manager Billy Beane. He signed quickly, spent 2-1/2 years in the minors, got a cup of coffee in 2004, and broke into the majors for good in 2005.

4. Since the A’s have had such major injury problems up and down their lineup the past couple of seasons, Swisher has played all three outfield positions as well as first base. It looks like Ozzie Guillen is planning on using Swisher in center field and batting him leadoff.

5. So far this spring, Swisher is hitting .355 with 2 home runs and 9 RBI in 31 at bats. He has a .412 on-base percentage and is slugging .839.

Last year, center field was an offensive black hole for the White Sox. Guillen gave up on former prospect Brian Anderson after a putrid 2006 campaign, and went with a combination of speedster Jerry Owens and the decomposing Darin Erstad in center. Owens hit .267 with 32 steals, but showed no power (.312 SLG) and little on-base skills (.324 OBP). Erstad, while I’m sure he was scrappy and played the game the right way with a great approach, wasn’t much better at the plate, with a .248 batting average with no secondary skills to speak of.

Swisher is virtually guaranteed to vastly improve on the performance of those two, which allows Owens to slip into a super-sub role (Erstad signed a one-year deal with the Astros). In his three years in the big leagues, Swisher has an unimpressive .251 batting average, but he does everything else well: he draws a lot of walks (100 in 2007), hits for power (20+ home runs every season, including 35 in 2006), plays decent defense, and provides great leadership, for what that’s worth. ESPN’s fantasy projector him down for a .273 average, 32 homers and 97 RBI in 2008. As Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye continue their late-career declines, Swisher’s addition should make up for some of their lost production.

Another interesting thing about Swisher’s abilities is that he’s one of the stronger performers in the area of the Three True Outcomes (here’s an intro). Usually, these are low-batting average players who strike out and walk at a high rate, and also hit a lot of homers. Last year, Swisher did one of those three things in almost 40 percent of his plate appearances. Adam Dunn is today’s best example of a Three True Outcome hero, while Rob Deer and Pete Incaviglia are some historic examples. These players usually are castigated by the mainstream media for “not getting it done in the clutch,” but they are more valuable to their teams than people give them credit for.

Swisher should fit right into the White Sox lineup and become a fan favorite, as well.

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