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White Sox try to build on last season's positives
Looking for a big finish, not just a fast start, the Chicago White Sox hope they can out-pitch their competition in the AL Central. That’s a tall order given that the Detroit Tigers line up behind Justin Verlander, but first-year general manager Rick Hahn hopes that his rotation will be deeper and even more effective. He re-signed Jake Peavy to work alongside lefty Chris Sale and is counting on a comeback from John Danks, the 2012 Opening Day starter who was limited to nine starts and eventually underwent shoulder surgery. The lineup lacks any especially dynamic young hitters, continuing to count on Alex Rios, homer-or-bust slugger Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. Manager Robin Ventura had his team in first place for most of 2012, with strong fielding as the trademark, but he will be challenged to improve on that 85-win season.
You can argue that the White Sox never should have let Mark Buehrle get away, but Sale has emerged as a potential long-term ace, and Peavy rebounded from three injury-plagued seasons to deliver 219 solid innings. Sale, an All-Star in his first year as a starter, draws some comparisons to Randy Johnson, with better command if not quite as much velocity. A few years ago, Danks looked like he’d be a staff ace, compiling a 3.32 ERA as a 23-year-old in 2008, but he now finds himself trying to turn around a slide that began in 2011. Gavin Floyd has been a consistent double-figure winner, which was why his contract option was exercised. Lefties Hector Santiago and Jose Quintana try will try to build off strong rookie seasons, with Brazilian prospect Andre Rienzo pushing for big-league consideration. Quintana has the edge over Santiago and Rienzo, who has a high ceiling, needs a full season in Triple-A.
How much does experience matter? Addison Reed and Nate Jones seemed to move past Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain to become the key guys in a group that is talented but wildly inexperienced. Reed is looking to build off a 29-save rookie season, and Jones carries just as much momentum into his second season after going 8–0 with a 2.39 ERA over 65 appearances as a rookie. He’s got the best stuff on the staff, but Reed doesn’t rattle, which is why he’s the closer. Thornton, arguably the best lefty setup man in the AL over the last seven seasons, appears to be a trade candidate with Donnie Veal and possibly Santiago or prospect Santos Rodriguez available to fill that role. Matt Lindstrom, signed as a free agent, adds some experience.
Shortstop Alexei Ramirez and second baseman Gordon Beckham provide up the middle fielding that’s as strong as any combination in the big leagues. But you wonder how much longer they will play together, as both have regressed as hitters. Ramirez’s OPS was .788 in 2008, his rookie season, and slipped to .651 last season. Beckham, a former first-round pick expected to be a force, had an .807 OPS as a rookie in 2009 but has been below .700 since. Carlos Sanchez, who hit .370 in 30 games in Double-A late last season, is a gifted fielder and promising on-base guy who could force himself into the mix at some point this season.
Konerko has been as consistently productive as any big leaguer over the last decade but at 37 is starting to show his age. Metrics suggest he’s become a liability in the field to go along with a career-long base-clogging tendency. The White Sox hope offseason surgery on Konerko’s left wrist will make this season more enjoyable for him, as it is the last one on his contract. He’s averaged 33 homers and 96 RBIs over the last nine years, and the Sox need him to get back to that level after a second-half slide ruined what was looking like a strong 2012. Third baseman Jeff Keppinger, signed to a three-year, $12-million contract, could get 500-plus at-bats for only the second time in almost a decade in the big leagues. He’s not flashy but could end the post-Joe Crede revolving-door approach at third.
Rios resurrected his career after a 2011 season that had people wondering if he could be productive again. He adjusted his batting stance, raising his hands into a more conventional position from an exaggerated crouch, and is pounding the ball in the fashion that prompted the Blue Jays to give him a seven-year, $70-million contract before the 2008 season. He’s had an up-and-down career since then but will establish himself as a true All-Star if he can repeat a season in which he had 37 doubles, 25 homers and 23 stolen bases. Center fielder Alejandro De Aza and left fielder Dayan Viciedo return for their second years as regulars. De Aza is a decent on-base guy and good baserunner. Viciedo is better than advertised defensively in left, thanks to a strong arm, but his low on-base percentage (.300) must be addressed to justify regular at-bats. Dewayne Wise is available if Ventura wants to consider a platoon. His on-base was only .322 against righthanders, however.
Few teams allow above-average catchers to walk, but the White Sox made almost no attempt to keep A.J. Pierzynski after he turned in a career year at age 35. It was clear that Hahn did not believe Pierzynski could duplicate that performance, and also that Hahn felt it was past time for 27-year-old Tyler Flowers to get his shot as a regular. Flowers, who is listed at 6'4", 245, spent the last two years backing up Pierzynski. He has hit only .205 in 108 games, but the Sox are sold on his ability to replace Pierzynski’s power and also to be an upgrade behind the plate. He threw out 33 percent of runners attempting to steal last season, and Sox pitchers had almost exactly the same earned run average with him catching as with Pierzynski.
To know Dunn is to respect him, which made it easy to explain how he was named Comeback Player of the Year even though he hit .204 and finished one strikeout short of matching the all-time record. It was impossible to ignore his 41 home runs, but the reality is that Dunn was never happy with his performance, even if it was much better than the nightmare 2011 season in which he hit .159 with only 11 homers. This is not an especially deep team, as Dunn, Konerko, Rios, Peavy, Danks and Floyd earn a combined $74.25 million (even with Konerko deferring $7 million of his salary), leaving little for spare parts. The Sox picked up corner infielder Conor Gillaspie over the winter and the former Giant appears to have earned a roster with a strong spring. Jordan Danks could figure in as an extra outfielder, though former Padre Blake Tekotte will also be in the mix to win a spot. Angel Sanchez, claimed in the Rule 5 Draft, and backup catcher Hector Gimenez round out a second-division bench.
Hahn, who had spent 12 years as Ken Williams’ assistant general manager, takes over an organization that has wasted its post-World Series spike in attendance, which has fallen below two million, where it was in 2004. Williams repeatedly went for the jugular and failed after the ’05 championship, trading away kids for veterans and largely neglecting the farm system. Hahn’s mandate is to rebuild the foundation while trying to contend behind the declining base of veterans. It’s a daunting task, but he is off to a good start by penciling in Brent Morel, Carlos Sanchez, Tyler Saladino and Andy Wilkins as his Triple-A infield rather than rush any of them to Chicago. The Sox gained a pulse internationally when Williams hired Marco Paddy from Toronto to run that operation, and the 2012 draft — the first with the spending limits favored by Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — seemed a step in the right direction. Ventura finished third in Manager of the Year voting in his first season on the job. Pitching coach Don Cooper remains a key organizational asset.
There’s nothing wrong with this team that Mike Trout or Bryce Harper couldn’t fix. But the White Sox haven’t found many impact hitters in the draft since the run that brought them Frank Thomas, Ray Durham, Mike Cameron and Ventura, among others. The Sox were fourth in the AL in scoring last year but seem unlikely to sustain that level given the age of the lineup. They’ll need great pitching and fielding to compete. The presence of Sale, Peavy, Reed and Jones gives them a chance, but it will take surprising contributions elsewhere to win 85-plus games and click with a shrinking fan base.
CF Alejandro De Aza (L)
Leadoff man with speed had a higher WAR than Paul Konerko last season.
3B Jeff Keppinger (R)
Solid right-handed bat figures to get 500-plus at-bats in first year of three-year deal.
RF Alex Rios (R)
Best hitter in the lineup hit mostly fifth and sixth a year ago, a mistake Robin Ventura shouldn’t repeat.
1B Paul Konerko (R)
Surgery on left wrist may explain why his OPS dropped from .932 at All-Star break to .771 in the second half.
DH Adam Dunn (L)
Fifty-homer season isn’t out of the question if he stays healthy and figures a way to make better contact.
LF Dayan Viciedo (R)
Decent first season as a regular, highlighted by .289 average with runners in scoring position.
SS Alexei Ramirez (R)
While hitting career-low nine homers, took only 14 unintentional walks in 621 plate appearances in 2012.
C Tyler Flowers (R)
Favorite of teammates and coaches last two years when serving as A.J. Pierzynski’s understudy.
2B Gordon Beckham (R)
.270 average as rookie in 2009 has shrunk to .245 career batting average.
OF Dewayne Wise (L)
Veteran with all-around skills could get 250 at-bats if Viciedo starts slow.
SS Angel Sanchez (R)
Houston’s primary shortstop in 2011, he hit .320 in Triple-A last year.
C Hector Gimenez (S)
Next to Wise, probably the best hitter in the group; could emerge as a key contributor.
1B/3B Conro Gillaspie (L)
Picked up from San Francisco over the winter, he had six extra-base hits in his first 32 at-bats in the spring.
LH Chris Sale
A 17-game winner and All-Star in first year as a starter, he looks like a cornerstone player.
RH Jake Peavy
Fifth in AL with 219 innings last year; White Sox are betting he’s overcome run of injuries.
LH John Danks
Signed to a $65-million contract a year ago, he is a question mark after shoulder scope last August.
RH Gavin Floyd
With free agency around corner, the consistent double-figure winner is a trade candidate.
LH Jose Quintana
A major surprise as a rookie; started 22 games and pitched 136.1 innings.
RH Addison Reed (Closer)
Stephen Strasburg’s old college closer was 29-for-33 in his rookie season.
RH Nate Jones
High-90s fastball and snap-dragon curve give him chance to be eighth-inning force.
RH Jesse Crain
Veteran setup man makes mistakes up in strike zone but held hitters to .171 average last year.
LH Matt Thornton
Quiet leader in bullpen, the veteran workhorse worked a career-high 74 games at age 35.
LH Donnie Veal
Former Cubs second-rounder throws a slider that was death to left-handed hitters down the stretch.
RH Dylan Axelrod
Independent League find has a filthy slider and the ability to start or relieve.
RH Matt Lindstrom
Veteran allowed just four of 20 inherited runners to score last season split between Baltimore and Arizona.