By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (86-76) - Second Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Cliff Politte, RP - Shingo Takatsu, SS - Juan Uribe
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 2B - Roberto Alomar, SP - Bartolo Colon, OF - Carl Everett, RP - Tom Gordon, INF - Tony Graffanino, RP - Scott Sullivan
PROJECTED LINEUP: Willie Harris (2B); Jose Valentin (SS); Frank Thomas (DH); Magglio Ordonez (RF); Carlos Lee (LF); Paul Konerko (1B); Aaron Rowand (CF); Joe Crede (3B); Miguel Olivo (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Esteban Loaiza (RHP); Mark Buehrle (LHP); Jon Garland (RHP); Scott Schoeneweis (LHP); Dan Wright (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Billy Koch (RHP) or Damaso Marte (LHP)
MANAGER: Ozzie Guillen
After squandering a September lead in the AL Central last season, the White Sox finished as the runner-up in the division by four games to the Minnesota Twins. Then came the changes in the offseason. Jerry Manuel was fired as manager and replaced by former White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen. Starting pitcher Bartolo Colon, reliever Tom Gordon, second baseman Roberto Alomar and outfielder Carl Everett were then all lost to free agency.
The White Sox haven't been to the playoffs since 2000 when they won the AL Central. They went 13-1 during a stretch right after the All-Star break last season. A victory over Minnesota on September 9 had Chicago two games in front of the Twins for first place. However, the wheels proceeded to fall off as the White Sox lost six of eight games with five of those defeats coming to the Twins.
Guillen's team has a strong nucleus going into this season. Although it's his first managerial job, Guillen is acting tough and said his players should be prepared to win at any cost, even if it means slugger Frank Thomas bunting in a sacrifice situation. Guillen, who was the third base coach for the World Series champion Florida Marlins last year, has a strong desire to win and that was evident early in spring training when he ripped into his players for not being intense enough.
Righthander Esteban Loaiza had the best season of his career, going 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA, and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. The White Sox worked hard in the offseason to improve their bullpen and acquired Cliff Politte and Shingo Takatsu, who holds the Japanese career saves record.
Rightfielder Magglio Ordonez and first baseman Paul Konerko are still on the team, but that could change with several trade rumors floating around.
Assuming Konerko is with the White Sox, he'll have to rebound from the worst full season of his career, as he hit .234 with 18 homers and 65 RBI in 137 games. That was a 70 point drop in average from 2002 when he drove in a career-best 104 runs. Konerko would return for his sixth season as first baseman for the White Sox, but there are rumors he could be dealt to the Dodgers with Chicago getting either Odalis Perez or Kazuhisa Ishii in return.
Willie Harris is likely to start the season as the starting second baseman, but he is getting a run for his money for the No. 1 job from Juan Uribe. Harris, who could lead off, has never hit his stride offensively, as he batted .204 last season and is a career .213 hitter since breaking into the majors in 2001 with Baltimore. Uribe, who was acquired from the Rockies in exchange for Aaron Miles in December, hit .253 in 87 games with Colorado last year and is known more for his solid defensive skills.
Shortstop Jose Valentin begins his fifth season with the White Sox. His batting average, which was .237 last year, has gone down each season since 2000. However, he did equal a career-high with 28 homers and drove in 74 runs last year.
Joe Crede, an average fielding third baseman, also has some work to do offensively this year. IN 2003, his first full season with Chicago, he batted .261 with 19 homers and 75 RBI.
Miguel Olivo will likely get the nod as the starting catcher, although he could also share time with veteran Sandy Alomar Jr. The 25-year-old Olivo is the backstop of future for the team and has a strong arm to throw out runners. Alomar, who is 37 and entering his 17th major league season, was signed more for insurance. Neither catcher is strong offensively.
Assuming Ordonez remains with the White Sox, the team will have two hard- hitting outfielders again in their lineup. The 30-year-old Ordonez, who will play right field, hit .317 with 29 homers and 99, barely missing out on his fifth consecutive 30-30 season. The four-time All-Star has been coveted by many teams. He really came alive last year after the mid-summer break, hitting .346 in the second half of the season.
Ordonez will be joined in the outfield by Carlos Lee, who led the team with 113 RBI last year. The 27-year-old Lee returns for his sixth season with the Sox. He is growing into one of the most complete package players in the majors. Lee hit .291 with a career-best 31 homers last year, scored 100 times and had a career-high 18 steals.
Aaron Rowand is taking over as the full-time center fielder after the White Sox lost Everett. The 26-year-old Rowand had a slow start to the 2003 season, hitting .132 in April before being demoted to Triple-A Charlotte. The extra time in the minors seemed to pay off, as he batted .375 in June and .433 in July. Rowand tailed off in August, but came back in September by going 8- for-17.
Thomas will see most of his time as the DH, but could also platoon at first with Konerko. The Big Hurt had another powerful season in 2003, belting 42 homers and driving in 105 runs, but his .267 average was still well off the mark of 2000 (.328). The two-time AL MVP and five-time All-Star is expected to continue hitting in the third spot this season.
Thomas was obviously upset at Guillen's comments during his first press conference when the new manager said "I'm sorry, but Frank's going to play my way. To me I want Frank to be the same player in '91 when I was here. If you don't want to be the same Frank, having fun, playing the game right, respecting teammates, we're going to have a little problem."
Thomas refused to return several phone calls from Guillen, but the two have insisted the problem is behind them.
Considering Loaiza and Mark Buehrle are both great distance pitchers, it's no wonder they're at the top of Guillen's rotation. Both finished near the top in the American League in innings thrown last season. Buehrle was fifth with 230 1/3 and Loaiza was sixth with 226 1/3. Loaiza, who was actually a non-roster invitee last spring training, topped the AL with 207 strikeouts. Buehrle, who had 19 wins in 2002, followed that up with a tough 14-14 season last year and a 4.14 ERA.
Jon Garland, a 24-year-old righthander, will be the No. 3 pitcher on the staff. He posted 12 victories (12-13) for a second straight season, but still has a high ERA (4.51).
Lefthander Scott Schoeneweis is expected to return as a starter after spending 2003 in the bullpen. In 59 appearances he was 3-2 with a 4.18 ERA. Schoeneweis was a starter for Anaheim for over two seasons.
Righthander Dan Wright, who struggled with a 1-7 mark and a 6.15 ERA over 20 games (15 starts) last year, has the inside track on the last spot.
The White Sox are loaded with potential closers, especially after acquiring Takatsu from Japan. Billy Koch, Damaso Marte and Cliff Politte all have the ability to finish games, meaning one of them may be dealt soon. Koch started 2003 as the team's closer, but then gave way to Gordon, who won't be back this year as he signed with the Yankees.
Chicago had trouble at the closer position last year. Koch struggled with just 11 saves. Marte also had 11, while Gordon had 12. Koch will be given the first shot to close games despite 5.77 ERA in 2003.
Earlier in March, Marte agreed to a three-year, $4.5 million contract extension, which includes team options for the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Over two seasons with the White Sox, spanning 139 games, Marte has compiled a 5-3 record with 21 saves and a 2.12 ERA. He went 4-2 with a 1.58 ERA last year.
Takatsu, a 35-year-old sidearming righthander, topped the Japan Central League with 34 saves last season. In 13 seasons with the Yakult Swallows, Takatsu posted a record of 35-39 with a 3.13 earned run average in 525 games. He was a five-time All-Star and guided his team to four championships. He was known in Japan as "Mr. Zero" because he did not surrender a run in 10 career Japanese series games.
Lefty Kelly Wunsch, along with righthanders Dan Wright and Matt Ginter are also in the bullpen.
Outfielder Ross Gload is also expected to see some playing time after hitting .315 at Triple-A Charlotte last year. The bench is thinner from last season, especially with infielder Tony Graffanino no longer on the team.
Chemistry will be the key for this team, especially with a feisty Guillen as the new skipper. He may have a lot of learning to do in his first year as manager and understanding there will be give and take with today's major leaguers. However, playing in a weak division like the AL Central, the White Sox have a good chance to overtake Minnesota, if they remain focused and aren't held back by players with huge egos.