Can the Southside Sluggers knock off the Twins?
Four American League teams had four hitters with at least 70 RBIs last season. Three of those teams made the playoffs. The White Sox were the team left out. This season, the Sox hope for even more pop from their lineup, with the addition of Adam Dunn, the improvement of Gordon Beckham and the arrival of rookie Brent Morel. Combine that with a solid rotation built around John Danks, Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and Jake Peavy, and Chicago believes it has the formula to improve on last season’s 88-win team. The Sox will battle the Twins and Tigers for control of a division they should have won more than twice in the last 10 seasons, given their spending trends over the last decade.
The White Sox were startled to see their starters compile a 4.26 ERA in 2010, which ranked eighth in the American League. Adding Peavy to the cast that included Buehrle, Danks and Floyd was expected to make the Sox the team to beat, but Peavy disappointed before being lost for the second half of the season with a detached lat muscle below his shoulder. Edwin Jackson arrived from Arizona in a trade for promising rookie Daniel Hudson. He pitched well but didn’t impact the division race. Danks has passed his mentor, Buehrle, to put himself in position for his first Opening Day start. The fifth spot in the rotation could be up for grabs until Peavy returns, likely around Memorial Day. This is a huge year for the staff; Jackson and Buehrle will be eligible for free agency after this season, and Danks can be after 2012.
Chris Sale was an absolute revelation after being selected with the 13th overall pick in the June draft. The tall, rail-thin lefty from Florida Gulf Coast University showed more stuff than nerves in a late-season stint after only 11 minor league appearances. Sale, who throws a triple-digit fastball with great command, profiles as a front-of-the-rotation starter. He could start this season, but heads toward spring training as the most likely replacement for non-tendered closer Bobby Jenks. Jesse Crain, whose strong second half helped Minnesota win the AL Central, supplants J.J. Putz as the top right-handed set-up man. Matt Thornton, an All-Star in 2010, leads the majors in strikeouts by left-handed relievers since 2008, and had the most strikeouts among AL relievers last season. Sergio Santos, in his second season, and veteran Tony Pena are bridge guys in front of Thornton and Crain.
Alexei Ramirez has quietly become one of the best shortstops in the American League. He was named the Silver Slugger winner after batting .282 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs, and many felt he deserved the Gold Glove over Derek Jeter. He plays with an infectious spirit and a creative style developed long ago in Cuba. He has enough arm to make plays deep in the hole, regularly sending the White Sox into the dugout with a pitcher pumping his fist. Beckham was viewed as Ramirez’s equal entering 2010 but took a step backward at the plate while moving from third base to second. He was confused and frustrated before crushing the ball in the second half of the season.
Paul Konerko is too good for anyone to let walk away. His return was uncertain throughout 2010, but he put his head down and continued to prepare for games as relentlessly as anyone this side of Jim Thome, and the result was a new three-year contract, with a small raise. He’s 35 but still in the prime of his career, benefiting from work to become a better fielder and smarter baserunner. He’s the guy the White Sox want at the plate with the game on the line. Morel is untested but appears solid as a third baseman. He offset a .231 average with excellent fielding during a September trial, and he improved as a hitter climbing through the minors. There’s depth at the position if Morel doesn’t hit, with Omar Vizquel, Mark Teahen and Dayan Viciedo on the roster.
Alex Rios anchors a veteran cast that offers speed and pop. He has made GM Ken Williams’ huge gamble pay off. The waiver claim that brought him to Chicago late in 2009 was effectively the organization’s biggest ever free agent signing, as he was owed $62 million. He’ll have to keep producing, as he’s signed through 2014, but the gauge is pointing upward after his best season since 2007. He’s among the league’s top two-way players, covering ground and making plays in center field while using his bat and his speed to be disruptive at the plate. Workaholic/buntaholic Juan Pierre had the fourth-best on-base percentage among AL leadoff men last season (.339), behind Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter and Austin Jackson. Right fielder Carlos Quentin was the subject of offseason trade rumors after he tested manager Ozzie Guillen’s patience by failing to hit .250 for the second year in a row. He drives in runs, however, and should feel less heat with Rios, Dunn and Konerko hitting in front of him.
A.J. Pierzynski is like the outfield showers at U.S. Cellular Field. You can count on him to be there in the heat of the summer. He returned with a two-year contract after exploring the free agent market. This is Pierzynski’s seventh year as the White Sox catcher and 11th as a big league regular. He’s four seasons removed from his last appearance as an All-Star but remains durable. That’s a very valuable quality as the Sox haven’t developed any young catchers to push Pierzynski. Tyler Flowers was considered a likely successor but went backward in 2010, making the re-signing of Pierzynski a popular decision.
Dunn will be the centerpiece of the campaign if the White Sox succeed in overtaking a Minnesota team that appeared entrenched at the top of the AL Central when 2010 ended. Williams had tried to acquire Dunn in a trade with Washington before the July 31 deadline but struck out. He seemed even less likely to get Dunn when the signing period arrived in November, his hands seemingly tied by the 2009-10 additions of Rios, Peavy and Jackson, but owner Jerry Reinsdorf bought Williams’ push to increase the payroll. U.S. Cellular Field should allow Dunn to hit more than the 38 homers he managed at spacious Nats Park in both 2009 and ’10. Alejandro De Aza is in position to be the fourth outfielder, while Vizquel, Teahen and Viciedo provide depth in the infield.
Guillen is as good as it gets running a team, but Reinsdorf and Williams may have reached a point where they wonder if he’s worth the trouble his attention-seeking candor causes. A White Sox guy through and through, Guillen heads into 2011 without the contract extension he should have received. That won’t quiet rumors he could be headed to the Florida Marlins, who play where he makes his offseason home. Williams is in an ideal situation, with an aggressive, loyal owner (Reinsdorf) and an experienced, well-connected assistant GM (Rick Hahn). He’s won with cornerstone players he inherited when he replaced Ron Schueler after the 2000 season (Konerko and Buehrle) and had only two homegrown players (Buehrle and Beckham) on the team for much of 2010.
Reinsdorf’s will to win has put the White Sox in position to contend, but the Twins have prevented them from putting together a streak of postseason appearances. They have the pieces to get back to the playoffs but face a big challenge in beating a Minnesota team built around Joe Mauer, arguably the AL’s best player, and holding off a Detroit team built around Miguel Cabrera, the one hitter in the league capable of winning a Triple Crown. The fallout from a failure could be heavy, as the Sox have paid a high price in terms of prospects and dollars to build this team.