GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Robin Ventura arrived for his first day as a major league manager a couple of weeks ago to find the door to his office at the team's spring training facility locked. He jokingly imagined it to be a message from the White Sox front office that had made him the most surprising managerial hire in years, telling him, "We've decided it's over."
The Ventura Era, of course, is only just beginning. But perhaps the biggest challenge for a man who has not spent one day as a coach or manager in professional baseball won't be unlocking any doors -- it'll be unlocking the mysterious downfall of his three most important players.
Indeed, to find the key to the Chicago White Sox' 2012 season, start here: a trio of lockers along the far left wall of the team's spring training clubhouse belonging to, from left to right, the superstitious one, the hunter and the slugger looking to change his luck.
White Sox fans know them better as Alex Rios, Jake Peavy and Adam Dunn, and know them by a different description: the team's three highest-paid players and the triumvirate whose performances in the coming years may have the most to do with determining if Chicago can reach the postseason for the first time since 2008.
In order for that to happen, Rios, Peavy and Dunn must be more like, well, Rios, Peavy and Dunn, not the impostors whose play in 2011 bore little resemblance to the output of their respective careers before last season. Rios and Dunn, in fact, were so bad that they posted negative Wins Above Replacement totals, as measured by Baseball-Reference, meaning that the White Sox would have been better off without either one of them in the lineup. Still, as Ventura noted, getting Peavy, Rios and Dunn -- who have combined for five All-Star appearances, will make a combined $43 million this year and are, respectively just 30, 31 and 32 years of age -- to play like their younger selves would be like adding three important pieces in free agency.
"If this team's going to compete, us three have to play a major role," said Peavy. "The good thing is we all know we can do it and have done it for multiple years."
Or, to put it another way, said Dunn: "Alex isn't going to have a year like that again, Jake's not going to have a year like that again and I'm damn sure not going to have a year like that again."
A year like that meant, for Rios, career lows in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging; for Peavy a career high in ERA and WHIP, and for Dunn an almost unfathomably disastrous season that resulted in a .159 batting average (he missed qualifying for the batting title by just six plate appearances, thus sparing him from having the lowest average in more than a century among qualifiers) and a franchise-record 177 strikeouts.
While Dunn, in the words of White Sox GM Ken Williams, "couldn't get out of his own way" last year, his first in the American League and first as a full-time designated hitter, and Peavy was still rebounding from a major injury suffered in 2010, Rios' case may be the most perplexing. He was neither new to his surroundings nor hurt. In fact, he was healthy enough to play 145 games last season, just three fewer than his average from 2005 through 2010. And after a lost season in 2009, during which he was traded from the Blue Jays to the White Sox and batted .247 overall, he rebounded in 2010 to reclaim his status as a force at the plate (a 111 OPS+ and a career-high 88 RBIs) and on the bases (34 steals). But Rios got off to a terrible start in 2011, going hitless in the first three games, and didn't push his average above the Mendoza Line for good until mid-June. Only a strong September in which he hit .307 with five of his 13 home runs for the season helped him finish at .227.
Rios blamed his struggles in part on his constant tinkering. "Every two weeks I tried to change stuff," he said. This year he vows to not make nearly as many adjustments, and in an effort to reclaim the form that made him a two-time All-Star for Toronto by the time he was 26, he spent the winter poring over videos from what he calls "my good years, trying to find little things to incorporate."
Asked what those little things are, Rios said, "Every time I say what I worked on it goes away, so I'm not going to say. It's just a little superstitious thing."
Peavy had no such trouble identifying the source of his struggles. Like Rios, he was acquired by Chicago in mid-2009, but pitched in just three games because of an ankle injury. In 2010 he tore the latissimus dorsi muscle in his back in mid-July and was shut down for the year. He returned in May 2011 -- "earlier than I should have," he noted -- and never did show the form that had made him a Cy Young winner with the Padres in 2007. "My arm just wasn't ready," said Peavy. "I'd go weeks without even wanting to play catch."
Peavy was able to get back to his typical offseason routine, and that didn't just mean spending plenty of time hunting in his native Alabama. He began to work out in November and to throw by mid-December. By the time camp opened, he had already thrown off a mound several times. "I feel like I finally have a chance," said Peavy, whose $17 million salary this year is the club's highest (and the last guaranteed year on a deal he originally signed with San Diego in December 2007). "This is the first time I've felt normal since 2009 in spring training with the Padres."
What made Dunn's epic difficulties so odd was that he felt completely normal in his first year since signing a four-year, $56 million contract before the season. But the man whose consistency had been his trademark -- seven consecutive seasons of at least 38 home runs from 2004 through 2010-- suddenly was helpless, and hapless, at the plate. He missed some time early in the season with appendicitis, saw his average fall below .200 for good on May 20, and finished with just 11 home runs, 24 below his career average.
"I don't know what happened," Dunn said. "If I did, I would have changed it. I'm just glad that it's over."
Dunn, who buys one scratch-off lotto ticket every day this spring, left little to chance in trying to regain the form that made him one of the most feared hitters in baseball. He brought a new dedication to his hitting and workout routines this offseason by being, as he put it, "more consistent every day." And while he remains one of the most affable players in the game -- happily mocking himself when he nearly tripped over a tripod en route to a practice field the other day, for instance -- now that camp has started, there's one subject that will be off-limits: "I'm going to stop discussing last year," he said.
He certainly won't have to talk about it with his new manager, who said, "He doesn't have to hit 70 home runs to make up for last year. I'm going to be patient with him, because he's earned it.."
On Tuesday morning, Ventura delivered his first message to his full squad before what will be his first season as manager. The central theme, he had said the day before, would be a simple one, and one that might resonate most effectively with the men against that far wall: Play hard, have fun doing it, and remember, "Everyone has a clean slate with me."