The times are changing on the South Side of Chicago. After Ozzie Guillen’s eight-year tenure produced mostly winning baseball, a pair of AL Central titles and the 2005 World Series champion that got the White Sox off the schneid they’d been in since the Black Sox scandal. But the constant tension between Ozzie and GM Kenny Williams finally became too much and after an underachieving season in 2011, Ozzie’s in Florida, and Robin Ventura is Williams’ man in the dugout. Let’s size them up, using TheSportsNotebook’s usual measuring points of the ability to get on base, power, starting pitching and the bullpen.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: A lot of hope here is being placed in 27-year-old outfielder Alejandro De Aza. He’s expected to start in left field and last year’s trial run saw him hit .329. It was only 150+ at-bats, but given Chicago’s desperation for a consistent table-setter, a lot is going to be expected of De Aza. Brent Lillibridge is someone else who does a good job in getting himself aboard and all Ventura has to decide is where to play him. Lillibridge is listed as an outfielder, but he’s a manager’s dream and can play any infield position as well. Where he ends up, therefore, depends on more on what happens with those around him. And what’s around Lillibridge and De Aza are a lot of guys who have to step it up.
Alex Rios’ halycon days of 2006-08 in Toronto are so far in the rearview mirror it would scarcely seem worthwhile to hope for revitalization, except for the fact that Rios is still only 31. Veteran Kosuke Fukodome was unpopular on the North Side because he didn’t get hits consistently, but his plate discipline was enough to get solid on-base percentages until he really struggled after a midseason trade to Cleveland last year. Fukodome might not be in the starting lineup on Opening Day, but there’s plenty of opportunity get 400-500 at-bats in this offense if he can get on base. The organization is hoping second baseman Gordon Beckham’s bat will develop. The same goes for third baseman Brent Morel. Beyond that A.J. Pierzynski has been a mediocre offensive player throughout his career. If you want this all summed up in a sentence (and in fact you’re undoubtedly begging for that), the White Sox are relying on unproven or fading talent to jumpstart their offense.
POWER: One Chicago player who has zero problem getting on base is Paul Konerko and I’d have mentioned him one segment up if not for the fact that he’s the man runners have to be sitting out there for. He puts up numbers worthy of a first baseman, which is to say MVP-caliber. He’s hit 30+ home runs and slugged over .500 each of the last two seasons and the 36-year-old had a steady career going before that. What the White Sox now need is for DH Adam Dunn to enjoy a career revival. From 2004-10, Dunn hit between 38 and 46 home runs every year, took his walks and could only be criticized for striking out too much. That was in the National League and perhaps the shift to designated hitter and being out of the flow of the game was too much for him last year, but whatever the reason 2011 was a complete disaster as he hit .159 with 11 home runs. Suffice it to say, there’s some pressure on Dunn this spring. Ventura is also hoping for a power contribution from 23-year-old rightfielder Dayan Viciedo. In ’10, the kid slugged over .500 in very limited time. In the same limited time last year he struggled. He’ll get every opportunity to succeed this year.
STARTING PITCHING: Chicago’s starting pitching didn’t seem bad last year if you looked at the individual parts. But get enough arms performing just a little bit below career norms and you have a cumulative problem. Then if Mark Buerhle, the mainstay and workhorse of the rotation, follows the former manager to Florida you have a bigger one. John Danks and Gavin Floyd are good pitchers, but whether they can 1-2 in the rotation for a contender is another question. Jake Peavy won a Cy Young Award in 2007 for San Diego, but shoulder injuries, plus leaving the National League in general and Petco Park in particular, has had disastrous effects on his career. Peavy hasn’t stayed healthy in three years, nor has he pitched well when he’s been able. Philip Humber was a pleasant surprise last year, posting a 3.75 ERA in 26 starts, and the other rotation spot is Chris Sales’ to lose. Sales is being converted from the bullpen, where he pitched very well last year in extensive work.
RELIEF PITCHING: Ventura’s got problems here. Matt Thornton is the closer, and while the 35-year-old has been a steady setup man and might be a decent closer, he’s the best of a very thin lot. Jesse Crain is similar to Thornton as the right-handed setup man–good enough, not great. And the lefthanded spot is officially going to Will Ohman, but while he’s had some flashes of success in his career, it’s mostly mediocre. I suppose on the flip side of all this, we can say Ventura has an opportunity, to mix and match with his other relievers and see if he can create an effective unit.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 74.5–I’m surprised to see the number this low. Given the weaknesses I’ve outlined a 74-88 season is obviously not out of the question, but I also think that’s Chicago’s bottom. If the starting pitching steadies and even a couple of the offensive players come through and help Konerko, Chicago can certainly break even. There’s a lot of room on the upside of this total, so I’m going Over.