Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011
Posted 4:56 p.m.
By Brett Ballantini
With rumors, whispers, and team sources ever swirling through the offseason, look to BBQ to provide a bit of a reality check. While there wasnt much breaking news coming out of last weekends SoxFest, the way the team shapes up for the 2011 season is coming into clearer view. As we head into the relative radio silence that will bridge SoxFest and the first players trickling into Glendale three weeks from now, lets take a look at how the White Sox are taking shape:
What was the biggest shocker of SoxFest?
Aside from the fact that some fans actually were purchasing so-called game-used Mark Kotsay bats? Not much. Honestly, the biggest surprise was the affection back on full display between the onetime blood brothers, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and GM Ken Williams. Two full waves of reports depicting the renewed relationship, one at seasons end and another during the Winter Meetings, had already come and gone, but it was nonetheless surprising to see the interaction between the two friends, whether during a private moment in a corner of Fridays media social or on stage during their State of the Sox seminars.
Does Ozzie have a lifetime contract yet?
No, Williams roused SoxFest attendees at the beginning of the marquee event on Friday merely by announcing the White Sox had picked up Ozzies option to manage the club in 2012. However, Williams made it clear that if things clicked as planned in 2011, hell lock his skipper up: Providing we can get back to the basics and focus, I hope to extend Ozzie for the rest of hisand mycareer. Williams later expounded on his statement, indicating hes still a touch gun-shy about whether the drama that helped make 2010 such a trying year for both men is buried for good.
Does the teams brain trust like how the 2011 White Sox are shaping up?
In no instance did Guillen express anything but joy over how the roster has shaken out, admitting he left the clubhouse for the final time in 2010 thinking the White Sox would embark on a youth movement and that he was shocked when Williams brought in Adam Dunn, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman and brought back Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. Williams, the consummate hand wringer, was willing to admit being pretty content with his club: I guess I should be happy if people are only complaining about the 24th or 25th player on the roster, because that means they like the first 23. Still, when I asked the GM how he felt just a couple of hours earlier, during a pre-SoxFest session, he was typically frank, saying, I should have a better feeling about the team, but Im cautious, and nervous. I know about the mental and physical grind ahead of us.
It seemed like SoxFest pretty quickly turned into SaleFest. Whats the status on the phenom?
Oh, you mean the killer lefty who dominated at four levels of baseball and was the only 2010 draftee to play in the big leagues last year, yet somehow ranks only 25th on MLB.coms list of top baseball prospects? Yeah, the Chris Sale dilemma is a good problem to have. A couple things were clear coming out of SoxFest, if they werent going in. The first is that the ideal placement for Sale in 2011 is in the bullpen, likely in Matt Thorntons role as primary setup man and occasional stopper, as Thornton ascends to closer. The second is that Sales long-term placement on the staff is in the rotation, as soon as the 2012 season, when Edwin Jacksons contract will have expired. When pressed at different junctures of SoxFest, Williams indicated that his gut tells him Sale could spend April as the No. 5 starter, then shift to the bullpen for the remainder of the season, once Jake Peavy returns healthy.
All reports say Peavy is ahead of schedule. Thats a good thing, right?
Yeah, youre talking about adding a sixth potential ace to a group that already includes Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Jackson and Sale. Peavy is definitely frustrated that hes had to cash so many White Sox paychecks while on the DL, and Williams admitted he had received a text from Peavy that indicated the fireballer was well ahead of a rehabilitation schedule that had once pegged him as out as late as the entire first half of 2012. While the White Sox absolutely will not rush Peavy back, the fact that hes already been throwing off the mound is an indication that him starting the season in the rotation is not utterly farfetched.
Is there any concern about Sale having to flip back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen?
As Sale himself points out, he did the same thing last year. At Florida Gulf Coast University in 2010, the lefty averaged more than six innings per outing (15 starts and two relief appearances) before being drafted by the White Sox and shifting to the bullpen. This offseason, Sale has prepared to be a starter, and logic dictates that whether he has to shift from seven-inning outings to single frames in March, April, May or June, he can make that transition.
Were hearing now about that the White Sox might bring Freddy Garcia back into the fold. Will that render moot this Sale dilemma?
It certainly could. Garcia pitched better than expected for the 2010 White Sox (12-6, 4.64 ERA) and clearly feels at home with the team under the care of pitching coach Don Cooper and mentoring of Guillen. The skipper admitted prior to SoxFest that any team picking up Garcia had better talk to us, meaning that when Garcia is sweating a 20.00 ERA in spring training and looks utterly lost andor disinterested, dont be so quick to judge him. Under any circumstances that didnt find the White Sox already loaded with six potential aces, Garcia would already be back with the club. It seems a stretch that the cash-strapped White Sox would drop a couple million on a starter they may not even need in 2011, but then, insurance can be costly.
OK, lets get off of the mound and hit the infield. Whos at the hot corner?
The battle is between Brent Morel and Mark Teahen, as outlined by an uncommonly sensitive Guillen (who prior to SoxFest did not want to discount Teahen and thereby insult him before spring training even began). Had Guillen not spoken out in support of Teahen, it seems clear that Williams would have publicly endorsed Morel, as he has been an outspoken supporter of the rookies defensive ability and offensive toughness. Williams did say that unlike some of the other promising Chisox rookies (Dayan Viciedo, Jordan Danks), Morel would find a role on the 2011 teammeaning at worst, he foresaw a platoon among Morel, Teahen, and perhaps Omar Vizquel.
There are three regular outfielders on the teamand thats being generous by including Carlos Quentin among them. Arent the White Sox woefully thin in the outfield?
Juan Pierre was outstanding in left field in 2010, as was Alex Rios in center. Then there was right field, where Quentin lumbered. Whats troubling about Quentins play isnt so much that hes a poor fielderwhich undoubtedly he isbut that he hurts himself by fielding (as he does on the basepaths, which means the club ought to institute softball baserunning rules for Q, i.e. no sliding). As Quentin is limited as a player to his offensive prowess, he is a DH playing outfield. A survey of various 2011 projects peg Quentin at 130 games, so that alone leaves more than 30 starts for someone else. Apparently those will be sopped up by Brent Lillibridge, who would slide into center and shift Rios over to right (Guillen believes Lillibridge is a better defender in the outfield than the infield), and Teahen, who can man right field much more capably than he does third base.
Theoretically, Dunn can play left field, but given his subpar ability there and the injury risk he presents roaming the plains of U.S. Cellular Field, it seems highly unlikely the slugger will need his outfielders mitt with Chicago. And while the White Sox were largely covered last year in case of a serious injury by having Andruw Jones as their fourth outfielder, in such circumstances this season it will boil down to Lillibridge or Teahen, or a minor-leaguer like Jared Mitchell, Viciedo or Danksin all cases, significant steps down from any of the outfield starters.
What about The Tank?
Viciedo was the player most displaced by the Dunn acquisitionhe went from possibly starting at first base or DH to likely being ticketed for another full season at AAA Charlotte. The whomper who sends balls into the gap in a manner frighteningly reminiscent of Frank Thomas and Dick Allen will log a year in left or right field with the Knights unless is absolutely tears apart spring training and steals the third base job. Like Sale, Viciedos time to star with the White Sox in a role best suited to him will arrive as early as 2012.
How about some gut feelings about the club overall?
You have to like the position the White Sox are in, even with the primary competition for the AL Central crown coming from two other 100 million payrolls in the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers (shockingly making the AL Central the only division in baseball boasting three such clubs). Minnesota has been weakened this offseason by losses in the bullpen and the departure of feistmeister Orlando Hudsonnot to mention possible slow or incomplete recoveries from franchise players like closer Joe Nathan and first baseman Justin Morneau. And while Detroit has improved overall, it hasnt done enough to make up what was a seven-game gap behind the White Sox a season ago.
Within the White Sox, optimism abounds. Konerko will take at least a small step back, but should have that offset and then some by Dunn. Rios, Pierre, and Alexei Ramirez can be relied upon for the same production as 2010. Providing he doesnt spontaneously combust in right field, Quentin is due for similar or improved offensive production. Morelor whoever mans thirdcannot possibly be as collectively horrible as the platoon of TeahenViciedoVizquelMorelJayson Nix a year ago. Gordon Beckhams confidence is back, and if he puts up the numbers he did in 2010s second half, the second baseman will be on the brink of superstardom. Pierzynskis new contract will keep him from pressing and if he flags, Ramon Castro proved himself as a catcher capable of three starts a week. Sale is only going to get better, and Jackson was the White Soxs best starter in the second half. Dont expect the slow start from the rotation that helped scuttle the team a season ago, and any domino effect in the upon losing Jenks and J.J. Putz should be mitigated by the additions of Sale, Ohman and Crain.
As of this late January date, Ill submit 93 wins and a division title.
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.coms White Sox Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute White Sox information.