1) Change is in the wind.On paper this team isn't as strong as the one that won the AL Central last year in a one-game playoff with the Twins. A half dozen impact players from last season are gone (Orlando Cabrera, Joe Crede, Javier Vazquez and Nick Swisher, to name a few) and the Sox have more question marks going into this year than in recent memory; second base, third base, center field, the back of the rotation and multiple spots in the bullpen are up in the air.
But there's little doubt that the amount of raw talent in camp is higher than it has been in years, and that means the future is coming a lot sooner than later to the South Side. The organization has made a big commitment to keeping minor league talent in-house instead of dealing it away at midseason, which has been Kenny Williams' calling card during his 10 years as GM. With the contracts of veterans such as Jim Thome, A.J. Pierzynski, Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko coming to an end over the next couple years, the team's emphasis on youth, speed and athleticism has yielded exciting infield players such as Dayan Viciedo, Brent Lillibridge, Chris Getz and Jayson Nix, all of whom figure to see significant time this season. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for the laundry list of young guys at whom Ozzie Guillen is getting a good look this spring.
2) Viva la revolución!With the Venezuelan-born Guillen in charge, the White Sox clubhouse always has taken on a decidedly Latino flair. But this season the flavor is distinctively Cuban. Veteran Jose Contreras is back for a sixth season, and Alexei Ramirez is following up an impressive rookie campaign at second base. This spring's Cuban revelation is Viciedo, the third baseman who defected less than a year ago and has dazzled in camp with bat speed and ability that belie his tender 20 years. His size -- 5-foot-11 and a broad-shouldered (and ample-bellied) 240 pounds -- has also made him stand out.
Viciedo's skills in the field leave a little to be desired, but it's hard to find anyone who has watched him play that isn't giddy over his potential. "He's special," says veteran first baseman Konerko. "He's young, but his mannerisms -- his hands, his arm and his bat -- that's what you're looking for in a third baseman, because you can always improve footwork."
3) Underdog, shmunderdog.The AL Central likely will be the most competitive division in baseball this season -- jeez, even the Royals may be a factor. And that suits the Sox just fine. "We've been picked to win, we've been picked to come in last," says veteran lefty Mark Buehrle. "I don't think we've ever finished where we were supposed to."
Behind the staff ace, the rotation features '08 revelations John Danks and Gavin Floyd, who combined for 29 wins and 401 innings last season. If Contreras and Bartolo Colon approach full health from offseason surgeries -- and by all accounts, they're shockingly ahead of schedule -- Chicago's rotation could be downright fearsome. The set-up ahead of closer Bobby Jenks is shaky, but this pitching staff is, on paper, good enough to keep up with Cleveland's and Minnesota's. That would be the key to the Sox making back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history.
He may not be the most famous athlete with that last name, but it's a decent bet that he'll end up leaving a bigger impact on the American sporting landscape. Former University of Georgia star Gordon Beckham is showing why the Sox made him the No. 8 pick in the '08 draft, especially with his work at second base. "He kind of looks like [Ryne] Sandberg out there," says Guillen. "The way he handles himself in the field -- he has that same kind of ability." Beckham is a long shot to make the Opening Day roster, but he fits the mold perfectly for the young, athletic core that the Sox are building.
Rare is the major league owner who can waltz unannounced into the clubhouse without commanding a respectful hush from the players whose checks he signs. Then again, rare is the line that Pierzynski won't cross. So it made sense that the outspoken catcher was the first to break the uncomfortable silence when Jerry Reinsdorf passed through the locker room shortly before the first-ever spring game played at Camelback Ranch earlier this month. "Jerry! Jerry!" yelled Pierzynski, and proceeded to instruct Reinsdorf to make sure that his guests in the corporate box behind home plate don't fall asleep during televised games -- especially when Pierzynski comes to bat. Maybe that bleach finally soaked through A.J.'s scalp and into his brain, but say this for him: He is unapologetically his own man.
A Latin-friendly clubhouse, a growing reputation as a safe haven for Cuban players and a manager in Guillen who absolutely loves the World Baseball Classic. Think foreign players looking to make the majors don't have an eye on the Sox? Or more important, vice versa? ... Beckham has a signed black-and-white photo of Harold Baines above his locker, given to him by his teammates. Apparently Pierzynski joked that the Sox should "un-retire Harold's number" for Beckham, who innocently retorted, "Who's Harold?" ... Williams on his long relationship with Guillen: "We were brothers back when we played with each other. Sometimes we hugged, sometimes we fought. Here we are 25 years later still doing the same old stuff. Somebody was crazy enough to put us in charge of this whole thing."