By: Matt Hoeppner
Over the last six years no White Sox player has had more ups and downs than Jose Contreras. He has gone from a meaningless mid-season pickup, to the best pitcher in baseball, to an injury prone old man, to a bum who can’t pitch, to possibly the savior of the 2009 White Sox. If you asked fifty Sox fans what they thought of Contreras, you would probably get fifty different answers. So let’s look at this “Curious Case” for ourselves and see if we can find some answers.
Contreras came to the South Side at the trade deadline in 2004 in exchange for Esteban Loaiza. Contreras was cast aside by the New York Yankees for not living up to expectations. His totals with the Yankees were not nearly as bad as some in
Following the trade in ’04 Contreras went 5-4 with a 5.30 ERA for the White Sox. It seemed like the veteran Cuban pitcher would be just another average starter in the Major Leagues. He started out 2005 the same way, going 4-5 with a 4.26 ERA in the first half of the season. It was only after the midway point of the season when something miraculous happened, and Jose Contreras became the best pitcher in baseball for the next 12 months.
Between the All Star breaks in 2006 and 2007 Jose Contreras went 20-2 with a 3.17 ERA. When this fell into place the White Sox went on to win the World Series in 2005 and start 2006 on pace to once again make the playoffs. To say that Jose dominated would be an understatement. He commanded his pitches like never before, walking just 66 batters in over 212 innings. His forkball was devastating as well helping him rack up 159 strikeouts. His steady presence on the mound carried into the post season where he went 3-1, including one of four consecutive complete games by Sox pitchers in the ALCS.
All good things come to an end, and Contreras’ hot streak was no different. Over the next three seasons including 2009 Jose has lost 28 games, including 17 in 2007. Injuries cut short his season in 2008, the final blow being a blown Achilles tendon in his first start back from the DL. After losing some weight in the off season Contreras was ready to go in the spring of ’09. His fastball had a velocity in the mid 90’s and Jose said that he was the strongest he has ever been. His season started off disastrous, losing his first five starts and being sent down to the minors. It looked like the train might be at the end of the tracks for the “37 year old” Cuban pitcher.
Then suddenly he was back at US Cellular Field making a start against the division leading Tigers in the second game of a double-header. On the keys to the game graphic it said that Contreras had, “figured some things out.” I scoffed at the statement, hoping that he could at least eat up some innings and save the bullpen. He did a lot more than just eat innings; Contreras ate up the Tigers with well located fastballs and a knockout forkball. Eight innings of one-hit ball and a win against the Tigers was followed by 8 more innings of two-hit ball against the Brewers. He is yet to allow a run since returning to the Bigs.
So is Jose Contreras back? Can he stabilize the White Sox rotation and help lead them once again into the playoffs? Is it possible that he really is only 37 years old as he claims? These are no easy questions, except maybe that last one. The Sox have, for know, caught lightning in a bottle. Ozzie Guillen will milk that bottle as far as it can go, he has always been good at that. However it is unlikely that Contreras has rediscovered the form that made him the best pitcher in baseball. His age and susceptibility to injury are not going to change. If he can continue to give the Sox innings and keep them in ballgames, he will be a large part of any chances the Pale Hose have at winning the Central Division. The strength of the Sox in their division is the depth of the starting pitching, and the back end of the bullpen. Getting quality starts and turning it over to the bullpen with the lead will lead to more consistent play and winning series. It also takes the pressure off of the offense, which has been less than good thus far.
As the season goes on I am sure that I will hear 50 more opinions about Jose Contreras, and there is a good chance my opinion will change. Whether he is the savior or a bum in 2009, there will always be a place in Sox fans hearts for the big Cuban right hander who helped us win it all.