Chicago White Sox
Having done more spending than winning in recent years, the White Sox enter 2012 with a new manager and without their familiar expectations. They lost free agent lefthander Mark Buehrle, one of their two long-term cornerstones, to free agency, because the investments in Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn have not paid off. General manager Ken Williams is overseeing an awkward rebuilding project that is hindered by both the veterans with oversized contracts and a weak farm system. Robin Ventura, who takes the helm after Ozzie Guillen asked out of the last year of his contract to manage the Miami Marlins, will add Dayan Viciedo to the lineup, platoon Tyler Flowers at catcher and create a major role in the bullpen for Addison Reed. But there is no major wave of talent coming up through the team’s farm system, like the ones in Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
Disappointing last season, the White Sox starting pitching could be a mess in 2012. Peavy, healthy after 2010 surgery to reattach the lat muscle below his shoulder, hopes to be back to full strength in the third full season since he was acquired from San Diego. This is the last guaranteed season on his contract, and he’s being counted on heavily with the Sox needing to replace 327 innings from Buehrle and Edwin Jackson, who was traded at the deadline a year ago. The White Sox are also counting heavily on lefthander Chris Sale, who moves into the rotation after being used as a reliever last season. Sale and John Danks, who was signed to a five-year extension after a down season in 2011, appear to be the cornerstones of future rotations. Gavin Floyd, under Chicago’s control through 2013, is a likely trade candidate. Philip Humber, claimed on waivers from Oakland, and Zach Stewart, who was acquired for Jackson (whose acquisition in 2010 cost the White Sox Daniel Hudson), get chances to prove themselves. Humber had a strong first half as Peavy’s fill-in but had a 5.01 ERA in 10 second-half starts.
For the second year in a row, the White Sox head toward the season not knowing who will be the closer. Sergio Santos had established himself in that role but was surprisingly traded after signing a contract that placed him under the team’s control through 2017. Reed, who closed games for Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State, is viewed as a future closer but has only six games of experience. Veterans Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman will be counted on to help Reed and a cast of other youngsters get acclimated to the big leagues. The job seekers include lefties Hector Santiago and Charles Leesman and righthanders Dylan Axelrod, Jhan Marinez and Deunte Heath. Thornton, who has two years and $12 million on his contract, will be a candidate for a midseason trade if the Sox are not in contention.
Gordon Beckham has not developed into the run-producing second baseman the White Sox expected after he hit .270 with an .808 OPS as a rookie. His numbers have dropped two years in a row — his OPS fell to .633 in 2011 — and even though he’s only 25, this is a critical season, as he’s testing the patience of the organization. Beckham gives up too many at-bats, with his ability to put the ball in play no longer a given. He’s a solid enough fielder, but it was his bat that made him the eighth player taken overall in the 2008 draft. Alexei Ramirez is one of the few White Sox players who is a standout at his position. He has led AL shortstops in homers and extra-base hits over the last three seasons and was third among AL shortstops in defensive runs saved last year.
With Buehrle gone, first baseman Paul Konerko will carry a huge load as far as leadership. He made his fifth trip to the All-Star game last season, and while he’s 36, there’s no reason to expect him to slow down. The cast around him will determine if he can have his seventh 100-RBI season. Brent Morel returns for his second season as the third baseman. He’s a gifted fielder but was a disappointment at the plate in his rookie season. He did go on a late tear, hitting eight home runs in September to give him some momentum heading into this season.
With Carlos Quentin now in San Diego, there’s a lot of heat on Viciedo in left field and Rios in right. Quentin, a 2011 All-Star, provided some protection for Konerko. Viciedo, signed to a four-year, $10-million contract before 2009, has been patiently preparing for the 500-plus plate appearances that should be coming his way, but he had only a .641 OPS after being promoted late last August. Rios, surprisingly, is just as big of a question mark. The White Sox claimed him on waivers in 2009 and owe him $38 million over the next three seasons. The Sox understand why Toronto allowed him to leave with no compensation, as he’s been highly inconsistent. Rios was a plus in every way in 2010 but last year hit .227 with his fewest home runs since 2005 while allowing balls to fall all around him. Alejandro de Aza is a late bloomer who emerged as a fourth outfielder in 2011 but could hit his way into a much bigger role, possibly even taking over for Juan Pierre as a left fielder/leadoff man. He adds both speed and balance to the lineup, and he hit .324 for the Sox in 73 games over the last two seasons.
A.J. Pierzynski is the only catcher who has worked 1,000-plus innings in each of the last 10 seasons, but the streak could end in 2012. He’s 35 with his only real weakness being a sub-par arm that has contributed to opponents’ succeeding on more than 75 percent of their stolen base attempts over his career, including an 80 percent success rate last season. This could be Pierzynski’s last season with the White Sox — we’ve thought that before — depending on the play of Flowers, who has an .876 career OPS in the minors but has hit .197 in limited big league duty.
Can Dunn recover after being a flop of historic proportions? He lost his bat speed, his strike zone judgment and his confidence after signing a four-year, $56-million contract. He had averaged 40 homers over the previous seven seasons but hit .159 with 11 home runs, including an .064 average against left-handed pitchers. He’s likely to be used in a platoon with Viciedo and Brent Lillibridge until he shows he’s a force again. Dunn is owed $44 million, so he’ll have a long leash. Lillibridge can be an excellent role player, starting all over the field and hitting for power. Ozzie Martinez, acquired from Florida with Marinez as Guillen compensation, replaces Omar Vizquel as the backup middle infielder. Flowers has established himself everywhere except the big leagues.
Ventura was highly respected for his skills and his leadership during 10 seasons playing for the White Sox. He’ll need every bit of his intellect and character as he replaces Guillen in the manager’s office. Ventura retired as a player after 2004 and didn’t return to the game until last summer, when he took a job as an advisor to farm director Buddy Bell. Inexperience is a major issue for the coaching staff too, with pitching coach Don Cooper and first base coach Harold Baines the key holdovers from the Guillen era. Williams, the long-time GM, was under heat last season, but chairman Jerry Reinsdorf stuck with him rather than promoting assistant Rick Hahn or creating a position for Tony La Russa. Williams wears a World Series ring from 2005 but allowed the farm system to deteriorate and painted himself into a corner with unproductive acquisitions. The Sox did make a significant hire in the offseason, adding former Blue Jays Latin American operations director Marco Paddy as an assistant to Williams. Paddy faces a big job trying to help the Sox sign more prospects from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.
Despite a record payroll of nearly $128 million, the White Sox suffered a losing season and enter a year that could expose the organization’s lack of young talent. Ventura should win Manager of the Year honors if he can help them avoid their fourth losing season in the last six. Bounce-back seasons from Dunn and Rios could provide some thump for a team that was 11th in scoring in the AL a year ago, but Buehrle’s loss will be heavily felt by a pitching staff that looked to him for leadership. If the Sox aren’t contending at midseason, Williams will almost certainly continue to jettison veterans. It’s possible Williams himself could be a casualty if there are not strong signs of internal growth.
CF Alejandro de Aza (L)
11th pro season could provide big league breakthrough if he continues to hit.
SS Alexei Ramirez (R)
Did his best hitting after overdue promotion from down in the order in midseason.
1B Paul Konerko (R)
Coming off his best back-to-back seasons, he’ll carry a bigger load than ever.
DH Adam Dunn (L)
Struck out 177 times in only 496 plate appearances in first season with the Sox.
LF Dayan Viciedo (R)
Bad-ball hitter with questionable plate discipline; compared to Vlad Guerrero by one minors manager.
3B Brent Morel (R)
Good hands in field earned him patient handling when he had two homers, 22 RBIs through August.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L)
He’s the anti-Dunn, striking out once every 15.2 plate appearances last season.
RF Alex Rios (R)
In the last three years, he’s experienced BA swings of minus-44, plus-37 and minus-57 points.
2B Gordon Beckham (R)
White Sox wouldn’t give him up in Adrian Gonzalez trade talk after 2010.
UT Brent Lillibridge (R)
Fifth big league season could be the first time he gets 200-plus at-bats, with frequent outfield starts.
SS Eduardo Escobar (S)
Got his first big league hit off Cy Young winner Justin Verlander; could be trade chip.
INF Ozzie Martinez (R)
Promoted to majors by Florida in 2010 but hasn’t hit; will get a look at second base in the spring.
C Tyler Flowers (R)
King-sized (6'4", 245) receiver handled Sox pitchers well (3.96 catchers’ ERA).
OF Kosuke Fukudome (L)
Former Cub should be much better bargain on the South Side.
LH John Danks
Looking to bounce back after season that included 0–8 start and first career stint on DL.
RH Gavin Floyd
Since 17-win season in 2008, has gone 33–37 with a 4.17 ERA; averaging 30 starts and 191 innings.
RH Jake Peavy
Candidate for midseason trade to NL (career ERA 3.29 in NL) if he is finally healthy and effective.
RH Philip Humber
2011 All-Star candidate faded badly after the break; needs to re-establish himself.
LH Chris Sale
Moves from bullpen with hope he’ll grow into staff ace in post-Mark Buehrle era.
LH Matt Thornton (Closer)
Only bullpen holdover from before 2011, he failed as closer but could get a mulligan.
RH Jesse Crain
Solid set-up man could get chances to close at the start of the season.
RH Addison Reed
After holding minor leaguers to a .158 average, will play a big role filling hole left by Sergio Santos trade.
LH Will Ohman
This will be first time he’s spent back-to-back seasons with the same team since leaving the Cubs in 2007.
RH Zach Stewart
Made eight starts for White Sox in 2011 and figures to be a spot starter and long man.
RH Dylan Axelrod
Former Padre is a strike-thrower who could start if needed.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals