White Sox quiet, boring -- and still a contender

BY foxsports • February 22, 2013

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It’s easy to overlook the White Sox. The team that once had the bold, brash Ken Williams as general manager and the loud, profane Ozzie Guillen as manager practically has gone mute.

Robin Ventura, entering his second season, is leading another tranquil camp. GM Rick Hahn, completing his first offseason, barely tinkered with his roster. Yet almost to a man, the White Sox are confident — quietly confident — that they will be even better than they were in 2012.

Me? I miss the old lunacy of Kenny and Ozzie, and am sickened that the team’s idea of a spring training controversy is now a sore Matt Thornton elbow that isn’t all that sore. But I’ve got to admit, I understand the White Sox’s optimism, even if I don’t completely agree with it, even as I fall asleep writing about them.

Thornton made a great point Thursday, rattling off all of the questions the White Sox faced last spring and then answered in resounding fashion:

• the move of left-hander Chris Sale to the rotation;

• the comebacks of right-hander Jake Peavy, designated hitter Adam Dunn and right fielder Alex Rios;

• the potential of center fielder Alejandro De Aza and left fielder Dayan Viciedo;

• the void at closer;

• and, finally, the competence of Ventura, who had never managed at any level.

The questions this spring, coming off an 85-win season and a strong challenge to the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, are neither as extensive nor as alarming.

The White Sox figure their young pitchers, in the rotation and bullpen, will only get better. And they’re planning on the return of left-hander John Danks, who did not pitch after May 19 last season but seemingly is recovering well from shoulder surgery.

All of that partly explains why Hahn did not overreact to the team’s collapse at the end of last season — the White Sox led the Tigers by three games on Sept. 18 before going 4-11 and finishing three games behind.

Other teams in the Central were far more active in the offseason.

The Royals traded for right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis. The Indians signed first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher and center fielder Michael Bourn. The Tigers added right fielder Torii Hunter to a group that already includes right-hander Justin Verlander, third baseman Miguel Cabrera, first baseman Prince Fielder and returning-from-injury designated hitter Victor Martinez.

The White Sox? Their biggest move was to sign Peavy to a two-year, $29 million extension on Oct. 31, keeping him off the open market. They later added two complementary pieces in infielder Jeff Keppinger and reliever Matt Lindstrom.

Not that Hahn wasn’t itching to do more.

“It is tough when you have other (trades) going on around you,” he said. “There’s a strong temptation first to try to be part of that, add yourself in as a three-way or four-way. And we did explore some of those avenues, but obviously it becomes pretty complex.

“Secondly, in my first year in this position, there’s a natural temptation to want to do something splashy or big and leave your mark. But being able to re-sign Jake and having Danks come back to the rotation were two pretty important moves to us as we entered this offseason.

“We weren’t going to go out and do something just for the sake of making me look good or making the organization look active. It might make headlines in January, but you regret it come June.”

Keep in mind as well that Hahn can adjust along the way, just as Williams did last season before his promotion to executive vice president, adding third baseman Kevin Youkilis, reliever Brett Myers and left-hander Francisco Liriano as needs arose.

The White Sox know their lineup is overly right-handed following the loss of free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski. They were looking to add a left-handed-hitting infielder who could spell Keppinger at third and also play either second or first. On Friday, they acquired such a player, trading for the Giants’ Conor Gillaspie, who plays third and first.

Gillaspie, though, could be squeezed. White Sox third baseman Brent Morel has looked good in early drills after missing most of last season with a lumbar back strain. Morel, like Keppinger, is a right-handed hitter, but the White Sox might want to give him another look seeing as how he was once of their better prospects.

The biggest questions with the Sox, though, are how well Sale will recover from an increase of innings from 71 in 2011 to 192 in ’12 and whether lefty Jose Quintana can build on his surprising rookie season.

Sale faded in his first season as a starter, producing a 2.61 ERA in his first 22 starts and a 4.62 ERA in his final seven starts. Quintana followed an even more alarming trend, as evidenced by his monthly ERAs after he joined the rotation in May: 1.76, 2.38, 3.67, 4.20, 6.75.

The return of Danks would ease the burden on Quintana, reducing him to a fifth starter. Sale, meanwhile, again should benefit from being under the supervision of pitching coach Don Cooper and trainer Herm Schneider. Both give the White Sox an edge, as they excel at keeping the team’s pitchers effective and healthy.

Catcher Tyler Flowers also could enhance the pitching; the White Sox consider him a stronger defender than Pierzynski, and their pitchers love throwing to him. Then there are all the hard throwers in the bullpen — Thornton, Lindstrom, Nate Jones, Addison Reed. It could be an impressive group.

As for the offense, here is a surprising statistic: The White Sox were fourth in the AL in runs last season, behind only the Rangers, the Yankees and Angels. There is room for growth, too. Viciedo, who turns 24 on March 10, should only get better, and Keppinger will be an upgrade at third. The White Sox were last in the AL with a .600 OPS at that position last season.

Yet, for all of the rosy scenarios, the White Sox might not be as good as they were last season.

One opposing player asks, “Who do they have that can be better than last year?” The question applies not only to youngsters such as Sale and Quintana but also to veterans such as Peavy, Dunn and Rios. Don’t forget that the competition within the division should be more intense, adding to the degree of difficulty.

The White Sox will struggle to overtake the Tigers, and they face pressure from another front as well — the AL West could earn both wild cards once everyone gets done abusing the division’s new punching bag, the Astros.

OK, I’ll push the mute button now. The White Sox prefer silence.

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