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Note: I’ll be posting the eulogies for Jose Contreras and Jermaine Dye (once he finds a team) on the site. The rest of the non-returning players are covered in the book.
Over his entire White Sox career, Jose Contreras’ stat line looks like that of an average pitcher. He finished with a 55-56 record and a 4.66 ERA, which is almost the definition of “break-even” when compared to the rest of the American League.
Funny thing is, that’s a description that rarely fit Contreras, who spent more time being historically great or god-awful than anything in between. And over the last three years of his contract — an extension that was ill-advised in hindsight — his starts were difficult to endure, most of the time.
With Contreras, it had to be assumed that other forces were always at play, starting with his age. He came to the Sox in 2004 listed at 32, and when Kenny Williams traded him at the very end of August of 2009, Ozzie Guillen guessed he was 49.
He seemed to be a sensitive soul with excuses at hand, dating back to his time in New York, when he was separated from his wife and kids, who remained in Cuba during Contreras’ early years. Family issues came back to bite him with the Sox, as he was served with divorce papers and a subpoena for a smuggling investigation before his disastrous Opening Day start in 2007.
Those issues are understandable in isolation. Others were harder to grasp, such as in July of 2008, when Contreras sulked through his start following Pablo Ozuna’s DFA, prompting Guillen to respond with, “[Bleep] Jose Contreras.”
But while Contreras often showed his sad-sack side, he could never be questioned for his work ethic. Don Cooper made a habit of praising Contreras’ conditioning, and that became clear after he ruptured his Achilles in August of 2008. Originally slated to return somewhere around the All-Star break if everything went well, Contreras arrived at spring training 30 pounds lighter and ready to throw, and started the season in the rotation. He wasn’t quite ready for prime time, especially lacking feel for his forkball, but Ozzie Guillen accepted the blame for that part.
When both mind and body were sound, Contreras was hard to beat. And there’s no finer example of his occasional invincibility than the second half of 2005.
Contreras had been middling around .500 when he took the mound on Aug. 21 against his former team. He held the Yankees to two runs (one earned) over eight innings in a 6-2 victory. That day, however, more attention was paid to his counterpart, Randy Johnson, who served up four homers in the fourth inning.
Slowly but surely, Contreras would become the story. Contreras rattled off eight wins in eight starts, all of them crucial as the Sox held off the hard-charging Cleveland Indians over the final month of the season. Over that stretch, he posted a 2.09 ERA, and he worked into the eighth inning on an average night. Little did we know he was just getting started.
Contreras started Game 1 in each of the postseason series that year. All four of his starts were quality, and when he took the hard-luck loss in the opener of the ALCS against the Los Angeles Angels, he dusted himself off by throwing the fourth consecutive complete game, inducing the grounder to first that would send the Sox to their first World Series in 46 years.
He capped off his terrific 2005 by outdueling Roger Clemens in the first game of the World Series. He allowed three runs over seven innings in the 5-3 victory, and the Sox were well on their way to achieving the unimaginable.
In 2006, Contreras continued to amaze. He went undefeated over his first 16 starts, going 9-0 over that stretch to extend his streak to 17 consecutive wins, a franchise record.
All good things come to an end, and it hit Contreras particularly hard. After dropping his first decision in nearly a year to the Yankees – a 6-5 loss on July 20 – he finished the year 4-9 with a 5.40 ERA. That basically represented the “new” Contreras, unfortunately. From the end of the winning streak to his trade to Colorado, Contreras went 26-45 with a 5.26 ERA. Occasionally, he would rediscover the dancing forkball and pull off a great month reminiscent of his 2005, but somehow, consistency always managed to escape his considerable grasp.
As it turned out, three years of mediocre pitching was the trade-off for one year of magic. If that’s the case, it’s hard to argue that Contreras or Sox fans got a raw deal. Contreras may have underperformed his three-year, $30 million extension by a large margin, but the historical accomplishments will outlive the disappointments.