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Drama-heavy White Sox need quartet of starters to carry them

It tells you what you need to know about expectations for this year's White Sox that the story of their spring has been a social media fiasco involving manager Ozzie Guillen's son Oney, who resigned from a job with the club after irritating the front office with a burst of oversharing on Twitter. Still, while the younger Guillen's departure is plenty interesting for what it says about the relationship between his father and general manager Ken Williams, the real interest lay elsewhere, in what he actually wrote.

"I hope the dorks aren't running the organization or else were [sic] [screwed]," he groused at one point. "3 geeks who never played baseball a day in there [sic] life telling experts what to do."

When the manager's son is griping like that in a public forum before the games even count, it's fair to say that in private, people are preparing to pass blame. And why not? The Sox were lousy last year and have just three everyday players likely to be at all above average this year, one of them the oft-injured Carlos Quentin. Bookmakers have set the over/under line at 83 wins, and two worthy statistical models, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA and Sean Smith's CHONE, are even glummer, forecasting 79 wins. Dire days seem near on the South Side.

Dysfunction and bad odds aside, though, the White Sox will likely be quite good this year. I even like their chances at the pennant. Outside the line of unintentional entertainment, they don't have great strengths, but they do have one in their starting pitching. It's considerable.

Mark Buehrle, Jon Danks, Gavin Floyd and Jake Peavy are the sort of quartet who could have been designed to be arrayed in a row for a magazine cover, holding baseballs toward the center of the shot and glowering. They're a fun lot. Buehrle throws about the slowest fastball in the American League, owns a no-hitter and a perfect game, and ambles into ballparks wearing flip flops. Peavy, winner of two ERA crowns, throws impossibly crisp, hard pitches, each of which at times seems to anger him more than the last. Their younger rotation mates, both formerly stalled prospects, sometimes come off as a bit dazed by how they've grown into their potential. Big games would suit them.

They're liable to pitch some this year, because they're very good. Without a stat sheet, you know they're formidable: Buehrle and Peavy are a classic left-right pairing to top any rotation, while Danks and Floyd have established solid reputations of their own over the last two years. If anything, though, this group is better than it looks.

While their raw ERAs weren't outstanding, largely because they were pitching in one of the better hitter's parks in the game, Buehrle, Danks and Floyd all ranked in the top 20 in the majors in park- and league-adjusted ERA over the last two years, during which time they averaged over 200 innings per year apiece. Peavy, for his part, is a Cy Young award winner and one of four active starters who's struck out more than a man per inning over more than 1,000 innings. It says a lot less about him than about the strength of the team that he could plausibly have a typical season and be the fourth-most valuable starter on the team.

As you'd expect, teams with this kind of rotation depth tend to do very well, almost regardless of whatever flaws they may have. Think of it this way: Given four pitchers of this quality, the Sox stand quite a good chance of having three starters pitch at least 200 innings with an adjusted ERA of 110 or better. (For context, between 25 and 30 pitchers will do as much in a normal year.) Since the introduction of the wild card, adjusting for the strike-shortened 1995 schedule, 22 teams have had three starters do this; of them, 19 have made the playoffs, and six have won pennants.

Before any Sox partisans get too excited, one curious fact is worth noting: Of the three teams that met these criteria and didn't make the playoffs, two were recent White Sox teams. One of those was the 2003 edition, which won 86 games, and it's an instructive comparison. That team was league average at the plate, and largely carried by the terrific pitching of Buehrle, Bartolo Colon and Esteban Loaiza, along with some stellar bullpen work of the sort this year's edition seems unlikely to match. The other was the 2007 version, which won 72 games but lacked offensive support. Starting pitching will do you a lot of good, but even the best needs some help.

Recent failures aside, though, it takes real work to run out a bad team with four pitchers this good soaking up 800 innings, as one can reasonably expect they will. This makes the current display of knife-grinding a bit odd. Should the Sox botch things up, it will by all means make sense for the Guillens to claim that Williams' West Loop restaurant serves lousy food, and for the front office to grind teeth over the Guillens' unnatural attachment to their smartphones. Still, the best thing might be for everyone to wait a bit before grabbing a neck to choke. Any team on which what's left of Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre and Omar Vizquel have reasonably prominent roles could be a disaster. If any team won't be, though, it's this one.

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