The movie Rocky premiered on November 21, 1976. However, exactly six months earlier, Lee Francis Biddle was born in Las Vegas. You may remember him by his nickname, Rocky.
The 6’3” 230 lb righthander was drafted by the Padres out of Temple City (CA) High School in the 25th round in 1994, but did not sign. He did sign, however, when the White Sox took him with the 51st overall pick in 1997 out of Long Beach State. The Sox selected Jim Parque five picks before Biddle, who was one of five White Sox compensation picks at the end of the first round; his selection was awarded to the White Sox for failure to sign 12th overall pick Bobby Seay the year prior.
Rocky’s road to the Majors was detoured by Tommy John Surgery on March 2, 1999 which wiped out his entire season. When he returned to the mound in 2000 for Birmingham, he thrived, finishing up at 11-6 with a 3.08 ERA, including a pair of shutouts and a Southern League All-Star nod.
The big righthander got the call to the Majors on August 10 as Manager Jerry Manuel wanted to break up lefties Mike Sirotka & Jim Parque in the rotation. Biddle was the fourth White Sox pitcher to debut in the Majors since July 1, after Jon Garland (July 4), Mark Buehrle (July 16) & Lorenzo Barcelo (July 22), which was unusual for a team with an 8-game lead in their division, but the Sox rolled with their rookies (as well as veteran James Baldwin) all the way to an AL Central title at 95-67.
A demotion for Kip Wells & elbow injury for Cal Eldred opened up a spot for Biddle to stay. Rocky the rookie had a rough start in his debut (8 Hits, 6 Runs in 5.1 innings) but a veteran spoke up in his defense (quote from the Chicago Tribune):
"The guy has major-league stuff," Frank Thomas said. "He handled [Alex] Rodriguez, [Edgar] Martinez and [John] Olerud, three of the best hitters in the game. They were 0 for 9 against him. He looked like a veteran. So, he made some mistakes to [Mike] Cameron and [Joe] Oliver ... so what? Those are two good hitters too. Rocky doesn't deserve that kind of [criticism] after one start. Give the kid a chance. He's going to be a very good pitcher."
After all, not many pitchers can claim to have retired Alex Rodriguez AND Edgar Martinez in their first career Major League inning.
Biddle readied himself for his next start by kicking a hacky sack in front of his locker. When asked for comment, he said:
"No one else plays it here, I guess it's not kosher."
Maybe it worked. He collected his first career win in that second start, August 15 at Baltimore, as the White Sox went on to win big, 14-4.
Biddle did just fine, with six hits and four runs allowed in seven innings before being relieved by Mark Buehrle. There was a piece of White Sox history hidden in the box score of Rocky Biddle’s first big league win: future Hall of Famer Harold Baines hit his final career MLB home run (#384) – a 3-run blast off Jason Johnson in the 4th inning to give the Sox a 9-2 lead.
After the win, Rocky received a cold beer shower and when asked about it he replied ` . . . I think it froze part of my brain.'
Unfortunately, Biddle’s run of success was short-lived. He allowed 15 runs (11 earned) over his next two starts before being sent back down for the remainder of the season. He posted an ERA of 8.34 in his first taste of MLB action.
Biddle competed for the fifth spot in the rotation in spring 2001. A 9.42 ERA in eight spring appearances didn’t help his cause, though he still made the roster as a reliever. A few weeks into the season Biddle was back in the rotation due to Cal Eldred’s continued injury struggles. 2001 was a big letdown for the White Sox, falling to third in the standings, as Jim Parque & new addition David Wells went down with injuries. Even Frank Thomas suffered a season-ending arm injury while diving for a ball in May. Eventually Biddle himself needed shoulder surgery at the end of the season. He started 2002 on the DL and when he was healthy he spent most of his time in the bullpen with an occasional spot start here and there.
On September 19 he had his best start of the season – his lone quality start of 2002 with six innings of two-run ball against the Royals at Comiskey Park. Unfortunately what should have been remembered as a solid pitcher’s duel between Biddle & Paul Byrd was overshadowed by a father and son duo who attacked Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa in the 9th inning. Biddle finished his season with a win in his next start – a five-inning effort against the Red Sox. It was the last time he pitched for the White Sox.
The White Sox dreamt of a rotation with promising arms such as Rocky Biddle, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Kip Wells & Jon Rauch. While Buehrle & Garland went on to huge things, it never quite happened for the other three.
In January 2003, the White Sox sent Rocky Biddle to Montreal along with Orlando Hernández (who had been acquired from the Yankees that day), Jeff Liefer & cash for Bartolo Colón & minor leaguer Jorge Nuñez.
Biddle posted a 4.65 ERA in 73 relief appearances in his first season for the Expos – not the greatest numbers - but he did record 34 saves. It’s the last 30+ save season in Montreal Expos history, as well as the only 30-save season by a pitcher born in Nevada, though Brandon Kintzler (29 in 2017) and Mike MacDougal (27 in 2003) both have come really close.
After one more season Biddle was released by the Expos, who not only moved on from Biddle but moved on from Montreal to become the Washington Nationals for 2005.
In five career Major League seasons, Biddle posted a 20-30 record with a 5.47 ERA and 46 saves in 198 games for the White Sox & Expos. He’s one of four Rockys in White Sox history, along with Rocky Krsnich (1949, 1952-53), Rocky Nelson (1951) & Rocky Colavito (1967).
Rocky Biddle. Remember that guy?
The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.
With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.
We’re moving on to right field.
What happened in 2019
In a word, disappointment. The guys who were supposed to man the position at the big league level barely did.
Daniel Palka went from a 27-homer rookie season to 0-for-his-first-32 and then to Triple-A Charlotte after picking up his first hit of the season. He briefly returned for an 0-for-10 stint in the middle of the summer and then went 8-for-his-last-39 as a September call-up. Even if his defense in the outfield was a huge question mark heading into the season, his bat wasn’t supposed to be. But after his breakout rookie year, he fizzled and ended up being a non-factor in 2019.
The same status befell Jon Jay, one of the team’s veteran offseason additions who was, at the very least, supposed to bring a strong presence to the clubhouse and better on-base skills to the lineup. But an injury suffered in spring training kept him from even entering a major league game until late June. He played in 47 games, with an underwhelming .267/.311/.315 slash line, before hitting the injured list again at the end of August, undergoing season-ending surgery on his hip.
All that led to a rotating cast of right fielders, few of whom produced in any significant way at the plate. Ryan Cordell and his .221/.290/.355 slash line played by far the most games out there, 72. Leury Garcia’s trip around the outfield included 45 games in right. Jay played 33 out there, Charlie Tilson played 30 and Palka played 23.
And so at season’s end, it was unsurprising to see some horrific numbers from the position: a .220/.277/.288 slash line, numbers that ranked 23rd, 29th and 30th, respectively, among baseball’s 30 teams.
As bad as that was, though, the even more concerning developments for the long-term fortunes of the team took place at the minor league level. The White Sox future in right field was always less certain than elsewhere on the field, but until this season that was because of the sheer volume of possibilities to emerge from a promising second tier of prospects.
Nearly all those outfield prospects — save Luis Robert, of course, who’s ticketed for center field — fell victim to an organization-wide rash of injuries and under-performance, leaving few promising options left standing:
— Luis Basabe broke his hamate bone in spring training and slashed .246/.324/.336 at Double-A Birmingham.
— Blake Rutherford slashed .265/.319/.365 at Birmingham, big dips in all three averages from his strong 2018 campaign at Class A Winston-Salem.
— Micker Adolfo had Tommy John surgery in 2018, only to have another season-ending surgery in 2019, this one arthroscopic surgery on his elbow.
— Luis Gonzalez went from a batting average north of .300, an on-base percentage north of .360 and a slugging percentage around .500 in 2018 to a .247/.316/.359 line at Birmingham in 2019.
The only one to emerge relatively unscathed was Steele Walker, who slashed .284/.361/.451 with 36 doubles in 120 games split between Class A squads in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. But success in A-ball won’t put Walker on a track to help the big league team anytime soon, leaving the cupboard relatively bare in right field for the time being.
What will happen this offseason
So it’s no shock that Rick Hahn has right field as one of the biggest items on his lengthy offseason to-do list.
The White Sox will almost certainly have an outside addition starting in right field when the 2020 season begins. The question now is just who it will be.
As that sampling of the fortunes of the second-tier prospects in the organization illustrates, it might be difficult for the White Sox to pull off a trade for a truly impact player at any position this winter, right field included. That leaves free agency as a more realistic option, and there are definitely some interesting names set to be a part of that market.
Nicholas Castellanos, Yasiel Puig and Marcell Ozuna make up kind of a “big three” in that department. All three would be big-time adds to the middle of the White Sox lineup. Castellanos was obviously excellent with the Cubs in the second half of the season after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers, with whom he made a habit of crushing White Sox pitching. Puig’s numbers were also good following his intra-state trade to the Cleveland Indians, slashing .297/.377/.423 in 49 games there. Ozuna had a down year by his standards, but his excellent performance in the NLDS is part of the reason the St. Louis Cardinals are still playing October baseball.
All three of those players have another thing in common besides their pending free agency, and that’s their right-handedness. The White Sox lineup of the present and future is almost exclusively right-handed, meaning Hahn might take the opportunity this winter to balance that out a bit by adding a left-handed bat. He talked about it at his end-of-season press conference, expressing a desire to do so while also saying getting good players regardless of where they stand at home plate is a bigger priority.
“Ideally, you'd like to balance that out and that would require adding some left-handed power,” Hahn said. “We don't want to get too hung up strictly on handedness in the end and sign an inferior, say, left-handed hitter when a better right-handed hitter is available and fits. But it's a consideration, and in an ideal world we would balance it out.”
If Hahn sees the hole in right field as his best opportunity to add that left-handed hitting, the best free-agent options available who fit such a description are Kole Calhoun, who hit 33 home runs for the Los Angeles Angels this season, and Corey Dickerson, who slugged .565 splitting time between the two Pennsylvania teams. Neither player really revs the engines like Castellanos, Puig or Ozuna would, but that shouldn’t override their potential usefulness. Either would probably look like a pretty solid addition if Hahn were to fill the hole at designated hitter with a star like J.D. Martinez.
And then there’s the trade market, which could also bear fruit if Hahn’s able to cobble together an attractive package. That list of candidates is a mile long, and we went through a number of possibilities on the latest White Sox Talk Podcast.
The bottom line is that this offseason will almost surely feature the White Sox acquiring a brand-new everyday right fielder.
What to expect for 2020 and beyond
It’s hard to figure out what to expect next season before we know who the White Sox right fielder will be. You’d have to expect significant offensive improvement at the position as a whole simply because there’s nowhere to go but up.
If Hahn makes a splash in right by adding someone on the Castellanos/Puig/Ozuna level, even if it’s not one of those three guys, that would figure to be a longer-term solution. But a shorter-term fix is possible, too, with an eye kept on the minors to see who among that list of prospects could have an entirely plausible bounce-back campaign that thrusts their name back into those long-term projections.
In other words, the future in right field remains the mystery it’s been all along.