Cactus League countdown: Chicago White Sox

Like their crosstown counterpart Cubs did a year ago, the Chicago White Sox made changes at the top this offseason. Ken Williams moved from general manager to executive vice president, with assistant GM Rick Hahn dropping the “assistant” from his title.

Hahn’s first offseason at the helm came and went quietly, with the departures of two highly regarded veterans the biggest changes of note.
For the first time in nine seasons, the White Sox will come to camp without catcher A.J. Pierzynski, a clubhouse leader. After the most productive offensive season of his career (.278 batting average, 77 RBI, 27 home runs and a Silver Slugger Award), Pierzynski signed with the Rangers as the White Sox opted to invest more in their long-term future.

Also gone is third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who came over midseason from the Red Sox and produced plenty of big hits while winning over the blue-collar fan base. Like Pierzynski, his asking price was a little too steep for the White Sox, who declined his $13 million contract option.

First baseman Paul Konerko, a longtime southside favorite, is still around, but if the current trend continues, it could be his final tour of duty with the Sox. He’ll turn 37 in March and become a free agent after the season.

Free-swinging home run machine Adam Dunn and starting pitcher Jake Peavey return as well, so there remains a strong veteran presence, but their are gaps to be filled.

Behind the plate, the White Sox will turn to Tyler Flowers, a 27-year-old with just 108 major league games under his belt. Scouting reports on Flowers say he’ll provide solid defense and game management as Pierzysnki did, but his bat is an unknown. He’s displayed some power and on-base ability in the minor leagues, but has not hit for a high average.

Journeyman Jeff Keppinger, who has played for six teams in eight big league seasons, is the new third baseman. He owns a .288 career average and batted .325 last season but has topped 500 at-bats in a season just twice. Manager Robin Ventura has said Keppinger could end up moving around the infield a bit but will primarily play third.

Keppinger’s health is a bit of a question after he broke his right fibula in the offseason. He’s expected back for at least part of spring training, but his availability for Opening Day is uncertain.

Time will tell if Flowers and Keppinger can be suitable replacements to Pierzynski and Youkillis or at least enough for the White Sox to challenge the Tigers in the AL Central. That’s a tall task considering the Tigers added outfielder Torii Hunter to an already stacked lineup that gets designated hitter/first baseman Victor Martinez back this season.

Ventura impressed in his rookie season as a manager, showing natural leadership ability and comfort in the position despite no previous coaching experience. The White Sox sat atop the AL Central for 117 days but were eventually overtaken by Detroit, which enters 2013 as a prohibitive favorite.

Little was expected of the White Sox at this time a year ago, and after silencing many doubters last season, they should at least be a more confident bunch as they arrive for camp, despite some questions to be answered.

Who’s new: IF Keppinger, P Matt Lindstrom, free agents; P Zach Stewart, waivers (Pirates); OF Blake Tekotte, trade (Padres); C Bryan Anderson, 3B Josh Bell, P Jeff Gray, minor-league free agents.

Who’s gone: P Phillip Humber (Astros); P Francisco Liriano (Pirates), P Brett Myers (Indians), IF Ray Olmedo (Twins), C Pierzynski (Rangers), 3B Youkilis (Yankees), IF Jose Lopez (Japan); P Brian Bruney, 1B Dan Johnson, free agents.
Battle ground: The lineup looks mostly set, save a bench job or two. Hector Santiago and Stewart could push Jose QUintana for the final spot in the rotation, and there could be room for two if John Danks isn’t ready for the start of the season following offseason shoulder surgery.
Health watch: Starting pitcher Danks had shoulder surgery in August and is throwing off a mound, but White Sox manager Ventura said Danks will be limited early in spring training. … Third baseman Keppinger broke his right fibula during the offseason but will reportedly be ready sometime during spring training. … No. 1 starter Chris Sale will be restricted early in spring training, according to Ventura, so as to stay fresh for the start of the season.
Sneak preview: No. 1 prospect Trayce Thompson will be in big league camp for the second season on a non-roster invitation. The 21-year-old outfielder spent most of 2012 in Single-A but made it all the way to Triple-A by season’s end and finished with a combined 25 home runs and 96 RBI. Reports say he needs to cut down on his strikeouts, but his bat should land him in the majors within a couple seasons.
Spring training info: Camelback Ranch – Glendale, 10710 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix. First workouts Feb. 13 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 18 (full squad). First game: Feb. 24. Tickets: