By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (83-79) - Second Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS:
ADDITIONS: OF - Jermaine Dye, RP - Dustin Hermanson, SP - Orlando Hernandez, 2B - Tadahito Iguchi, C - A.J. Pierzynski, OF - Scott Podsednik, RP - Luis Vizcaino
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 2B - Roberto Alomar, C - Sandy Alomar Jr., OF - Carlos Lee, OF - Magglio Ordonez, SP - Scott Schoeneweis, SS - Jose Valentin
PROJECTED LINEUP: Scott Podsednik (LF); Tadahito Iguchi (2B); Frank Thomas (DH); Paul Konerko (1B); Aaron Rowand (CF); Jermaine Dye (RF); Juan Uribe (SS); A.J. Pierzynski (C); Joe Crede (3B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Mark Buehrle (LHP); Freddy Garcia (RHP); Jose Contreras (RHP); Orlando Hernandez (RHP); Jon Garland (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Shingo Takatsu (RHP)
MANAGER: Ozzie Guillen
Power at the plate has been the mantra of the Chicago White Sox the last few years, but they haven't won the AL Central since 2000 and are now trying a different approach. The Sox addressed their needs in the offseason with more speed and defense by trading Carlos Lee to the Brewers for Scott Podsednik, who topped the majors with 70 steals last season. They also signed second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, who had power and speed playing for Fukuoka of the Japanese Pacific League.
Last season, the White Sox ranked ninth in steals in the AL, but with Podsednik, Iguchi and even centerfielder Aaron Rowand, Guillen's team could pose more of a threat - that is if the trio will be smart on the bases and if there is enough power to drive them in from the middle of the lineup.
There were high expectations in Ozzie Guillen's first season as manager, but injuries to Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez put a damper on a possible run toward the division title. Chicago ended up four games over .500 and nine games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins. Despite losing Ordonez and Thomas for nearly half the season, the White Sox finished with 242 homers, tied with the New York Yankees for most in the majors.
Thomas had surgery after the season to repair a stress fracture in his left ankle and likely won't be ready to return until at least mid-April. Ordonez, who had bone marrow edema in his left knee and played in only 52 games, signed a lucrative contract with Detroit in the offseason.
The White Sox were third-to-last in the American League in ERA at 4.91 last season. Mark Buehrle (16-10) and Jon Garland (12-11) were the only double- digit winners last year, and the remainder of this year's starting rotation is like Jeckyll and Hyde with Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. To make matters worse, Buehrle has a broken bone in his left foot and may not return until early May.
First baseman Paul Konerko is coming off the first 40-plus HR, 110-plus RBI season of his career and is the best pure power hitter on the team, next to a healthy Thomas. The fault of Konerko is not taking enough pitches, as he struck out a career-high 107 times last season, 57 more times than 2003. For that reason, pitchers aren't afraid of challenging him, even if Konerko ends up with another 40-plus homer season.
Iguchi ranked among the JPL leaders in 2004 in average (4th, .333), hits (3rd, 170), runs (2nd, 96), total bases (4th, 280), RBI (T8th), stolen bases (T4th, 18) and on-base percentage (7th, .394). The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder had 159 steals in eight seasons in Japan and his on-base percentage was .394 last year. With Iguchi hitting behind Podesdnik, the Sox could employ the hit-and- run, only if they had a better contact hitter behind them.
Shortstop Juan Uribe has shown surprising power for a guy who has a 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame, but he's not likely to exceed his 23-HR total from last season. The downfall is Uribe fails to pick his spots on the bases, as he was caught 11-of-20 times when trying to steal last season and he strikes out too much for a shortstop.
Third baseman Joe Crede (21 HR) adds more power to offset the losses this winter, but he'll be under tremendous pressure to raise his .239 average from last year. That's the prime reason the Sox will likely have him hitting ninth, to get his average on track to where it was in his rookie season (.285 in 2002).
If Pierzynski could have avoided a poor start and finish to 2004, he could have been a .300 hitter for a third straight season. There was talk last year that the pitchers weren't happy with him in San Francisco, and he was consequently released by the Giants after hitting .272 with 11 home runs and 77 RBI in 131 games. A big advantage for A.J. is his familiarity with the American League, as he played for the Twins from 1998-2003. He's also been a valuable hitter in the bottom portion of the lineup, batting above .300 for his career each from the six, seven and eight slots.
One of the weaker outfielders defensively in the majors, Podsednik makes up for that in his speed, but last year he crashed offensively with a .244 average and 105 strikeouts. In order to steal a base, you have to get on base, and last year Podsednik's OBP dropped to .313. The leftfielder has the tools to lift his batting average a few notches, but won't return to the .314 mark he sustained in his rookie campaign two years ago.
Rowand's bat skills continue to develop, and he's expected to be a big contributor this year at the No. 5 slot in the lineup. Last year, he hit a career-best .310 with 24 HR and 69 RBI, but most of his time was spent at the top of the lineup. There will be more pressure on him in 2005 with men in scoring position, especially if Konerko struggles early and Thomas is out of the lineup.
Although Jermaine Dye hit better for average last season (.265) than he did during an injury-plagued 2003 (.172), it's still short of his meaty production years from 1999-2001. His range in the outfield is mediocre and since he's susceptible to injuries, the White Sox may limit his time if Thomas is healthy and Carl Everett can step in and play right field.
Everett will likely take over the DH duties until Thomas is ready to return. The problem is Everett is also fragile, proven by the fact he played in only 82 games last year, but he still has the offensive abilities to succeed as evidenced by his .301 average after he joined the Sox in 2003. However, last season that mark dropped to .266 when he re-joined the club following a stint for the Expos. His career .245 average at U.S. Cellular Field is sure to go up, especially since he's a switch-hitter.
If the team medical staff has its way, Thomas won't be back in the lineup until at least May, but he's pushing for a return sooner than that. It would be best if Thomas waited, as the Sox are hoping he can return to form that netted him 42 homers and 105 RBI in 2003.
With at least 14 wins in each of the last four seasons, Buehrle has become the bona fide No. 1 man on Chicago's staff, and it wouldn't be shocking to see him push 15 wins again this year, especially if he returns strong from his injury. A lefthander with excellent pitch selection is hard to overlook, even if he did give up 33 homers, tied for the fourth-most in the AL last year. Yet, his 3.89 ERA was eight-best and most of the homers he gave up were because the White Sox play in a hitter's friendly ball park. He also continues to be the most durable pitcher in the Junior Circuit, evidenced by his league-leading 245 1/3 innings last year.
Although Garland is coming off his third consecutive 12-win season, he will be at the back of the rotation, and for good reason. The 25-year-old righthander gave up 34 homers, fourth most in the AL. He has a low strikeout-to-walk ratio and that is preventing him from advancing up the ladder, even though he is an innings eater.
The wild card of this year's team has to be Garcia, Contreras and Hernandez. Each pitcher has the ability to win 15 games, but injuries and mechanical flaws have prevented all three from excelling recently. Garcia, who logged a 4.46 ERA in 16 games last season, hardly qualifies as a No. 2 starter, even though he posted 18 and 16 wins, respectively, in 2001 and '02 in Seattle. Contreras is listed at 33-years-old, but at times he throws like he's 53, with poor location on his pitches and his high ERA (5.64 in 2003, 5.30 in 2004) to boot. Limiting the pitch count on Hernandez can do wonders, especially since he lasted over seven innings just once last season on the rebound from an injury as he missed all of 2003 and half of 2004.
Seeing a pitcher for the first time can be intimidating, especially if he has an unorthodox delivery. Such was the case with Dontrelle Willis with the Florida Marlins in 2003. Shingo Takatsu's performance was similar last year. As the closer for the White Sox, Japan's all-time saves leader made lasting impressions with 19 saves and a 2.31 ERA in 59 appearances. Now that AL hitters know what he's about, and factoring in Takatsu's age (36), it's likely his ERA will rise this season.
If Takatsu struggles, the White Sox could also use Damaso Marte and Luis Vizcaino as closers. Marte had six saves last season, but isn't as reliable due to his wildness, and Vizcaino has a tendency to allow too many homers. Dustin Hermanson and Cliff Politte are other seasoned veterans in the bullpen. Neal Cotts will the lefthander in middle relief, but needs to improve on his 5.65 ERA from last year.
The reserves are relatively thin for Guillen, except there is the luxury of having Willie Harris at second base. In fact, Harris may even platoon with Iguchi, and the plus is Harris will be used as a pinch-runner late in games. He stole 19 bases last year. Ross Gload can be used in the outfield or at first base, while Ben Davis will spell Pierzynski.
Many teams head into the season knowing exactly where they stand in relation to challenging for a division title. The Sox are one of the few clubs who are on either side of the fence. If Podsednik and Iguchi get on base consistently to set the table for Konerko and Thomas, they'll find opportunities to pump up the volume in the Windy City. If not, it could be disastrous. The same goes for the trio of Hernandez, Garcia and Contreras. Will there be 35 wins between the three or 20? There are too many variables pointing to the possibility of injuries, especially with a roster that has a history of them. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Sox below .500 for the first time since 1999.