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This pitcher's got the right stuff

There are two kinds of successful major league pitcher. Some treat the game like a game, and are philosophical and resigned to occasional failure. Others are like Jake Peavy, who at 28 has two ERA titles and a Cy Young Award, and designs on more and better.

"You see this guy throwing on the side," says Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen approvingly, "there's nobody hitting and he's cursing himself out. That's the way he is."

The intensity might do the Sox some good next year. It won't now. When the White Sox traded for Peavy in July -- it was the second time they'd done so this year -- they were one good night away from first place. By the time he made his first start for the team Saturday, though, the season was so thoroughly cashed out that before the game, a reporter asked Guillen why they were even bothering to start him.

"Why? Because that's why we got him," Guillen said.

This was a sensible enough answer. That the question was even asked, though, tells you a lot about just how disastrous a run the team has endured lately. So does the fact that Peavy's first start since June 8 counted as one of the team's brighter spots of late. Picking up the 13-3 (RECAP | BOX) win over the Kansas City Royals by going five innings and giving up three runs, is nothing to be ashamed of. But it's nothing much, either. (Peavy didn't seem especially impressed by his own performance after the game: "Did some things well, did some things not-so-well.")

Between the time Peavy agreed to accept a trade from San Diego to the South Side and his debut, though, the Sox have suffered. The worst was a horrific August -- they won back-to-back games just twice. Peavy couldn't help, first because he was hurt and then because he was hit by a comebacker while rehabilitating the injury. Outfielder Alex Rios, snared on waivers in early August and owed about $60 million over the next five seasons, simply didn't help, starting his Sox career by hitting .179 with one walk in his first 15 games. (He's been even worse since.) The month ended with the team trading off designated hitter Jim Thome and starter Jose Contreras in deals that amounted to a straight waving of the white flag, and had the feel of a debacle.

The easy read on this is that it's all the fault of general manager Ken Williams. Not only did the Peavy and Rios deals do nothing for the team's pennant hopes, but they were just the latest in a series of seemingly botched moves. Last winter, for example, he traded off starter Javier Vazquez and nominal center fielder Nick Swisher. The former ranks among the National League leaders in strikeouts, innings and fewest baserunners per inning. The latter may have been some kind of butcher in center last year, but he's hitting .256/.374/.506, while Sox center fielders have hit .224/.276/.308.

Trade off two players who might have made the difference between a losing season and a playoff spot, enter the season with gaping holes at their positions, and watch two pricey new players brought in to fill those holes do nothing while your team declines to win a division title that's there for the taking, and you're going to be called a fool -- and Williams has been. As badly as these moves seems to have turned out, though, they're nowhere near as bad as they look. They may, if they work out, even have set the Sox up for years to come.

If this isn't obvious, that's partly because of the nature of the team's strategy, which involves, as it long has, an appreciative eye for damaged goods. This tends to irritate Sox fans, second citizens of a second city who nurse their grievances and like to think of themselves as being difficult to impress.

"You very rarely get a player that's going to come here and everyone is jubilant and all for it," Williams told me earlier this year. "That player generally -- particularly with most of my acquisitions -- comes with a certain amount of negativity attached to it, of skepticism attached to it."

A bit of a trash picker, Williams has acquired all sorts of seemingly failed prospects and broken down veterans over the years; it's easier, after all, to get a bargain when buying low. He also has an excellent medical staff, which has allowed him to acquire the injury-prone likes of Thome and Carlos Quentin with more confidence than most teams might. (It's also perhaps led to him to rely more heavily on shot pitchers like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia than he should, part of what has the team in its present fix.)

Neither Peavy or Rios fit this profile neatly; they were available more because their teams couldn't afford to pay them than because of concerns over their performance. (Peavy is owed $52 million through 2012.) But they fit in with Williams' general pattern, which is to take on risk in search of reward.

Peavy's upside is obvious. It's worth noting, though, that he's no sure thing. In his career, Peavy has given up .62 home runs per nine innings in San Diego's Petco Park, and 1.13 everywhere else. In San Diego, pitching in a spacious park in heavy air, fly balls settled into outfielder's gloves. At U.S. Cellular Field, which isn't a great hitter's park but has consistently ranked as one of the best home run parks in the majors for years, some of those balls are going to go over the fence, perhaps enough to make him more of a No. 2 pitcher than an ace. (For his part, Peavy says that pitching in a yard that plays smaller won't cause him to change his approach.)

Rios is more of a risk, as his wretched play in Chicago so far shows, and he offers more modest returns. While he's been a minor star at his best, in the end he's a 28-year-old whose career batting line of .280/.330/.443 is almost exactly average and whose center field defense is good but unspectacular. Assuming the Sox can get him straightened out (perhaps profane Guillen tirades will help), he'll probably be a slightly above-average player, worth what he's being paid but no more.

Easy as it can be to forget, though, it would be just fine if Rios were merely a competent center fielder with a decent bat and Peavy were a No. 2. The White Sox, even if they represent the rust belt half of Chicago rather than half that serves as global financial center, are a well-off team in a wealthy city. They can afford to play market value for solid players who fit their needs. They can even afford it to watch expensive players implode. The Sox will be paying Rios less next year, for instance, than the Royals, a poor team, will be paying Yuniesky Betancourt, Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth.

What Williams has done over the past year doesn't, in its totality, look at all bad. Swapping out Vazquez for Peavy would have been fine on its own; Peavy is younger and better. By trading Vazquez, though, Williams also acquired Tyler Flowers, a catching prospect who draws walks and hits for some power, and looks quite ready for the show. (He got his first major league hit Saturday.) As unbearably bad as he's been since coming to Chicago, if Rios does more or less what he's done throughout his career, next year he'll be at least as good as Swisher, and far more suited to the team's needs because he's a true center fielder. And a variety of other moves, such as the promotion of Rookie of the Year candidate Gordon Beckham, have worked out well.

Had Williams relied less on ancient pitchers like Contreras, had Quentin not gone down with a foot injury, had Peavy not been hit with a comebacker in the minors, and had some younger Sox like Brian Anderson and Chris Getz done more, the team would probably, at worst, be in a tight race for the division flag. As is, though, the team has stayed semi-respectable while achieving a makeover on the fly.

Next year, the White Sox will enter the season with a front four of Peavy, Mark Buerhle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd, whose average age will be 28 and on whom they'll be reasonably able to count for something like 800 innings with a a sub-4 ERA. With Quentin, Beckham, Rios and perhaps Flowers in the lineup, their offense should be good, and it will be cheaper and younger than it has been in some time. Like his new ace, Williams has done some things well and some things not so well; also like him, he's set to have a much nicer 2010 than he had a 2009. There are rivals who would do an awful lot to be able to say as much.

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