MANAGER OZZIEGUILLEN fourth season with White Sox
FORGET THAT onlytwo teams in the majors outscored the White Sox last season. Or that no clubwas more productive than Chicago with runners in scoring position. Or that theSouth Siders' on-base percentage (.342) was higher than it was in 2005 (.322)when they won the World Series. Manager Ozzie Guillen arrived at training campstill peeved over his team's offensive performance last season. "We weres---, pathetic," Guillen growled early in spring training. "We hit toomany home runs. Our situational hitting was horrible. This year we're goingback to small ball."
While it's truethat no other team relied more on the long ball in '06--the White Sox scored45.9% of their runs on homers--in truth the 2005 team, the purported masters ofsmall ball, scored 42.4% of its runs on homers in the regular season and 47.8%in the postseason march to the title. Still, true to his word, Guillendesignated one field at the spring facility in Tucson specifically for SmallBall 101, and every hitter except veteran sluggers Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerkoand Jim Thome was schooled in such fundamentals as bunting and moving runnersover. "Hopefully we'll be better in the close games," says catcher A.J.Pierzynski, referring to Chicago's 24--21 record in one-run games after acharmed 35--19 mark the year before, "but we're still a big-timepower-hitting club. I don't think we're reinventing our offensive philosophyhere."
Nor should theytry. The juggernaut lineup that swatted 236 homers, 26 more than any other clubin the league, returns intact, and as one rival AL general manager says,"It's the biggest reason why the White Sox will be scary again." Thome,a notoriously slow starter throughout most of his career, got a leg up on the2006 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award with a white-hot April in which hebatted .300 with 10 homers. For the second straight spring the DH, who wasslowed down the stretch by back and groin injuries, often appeared in B gamesagainst minor leaguers after regular exhibition games and frequently led offevery inning of those games to get as many at bats as possible. "Thathelped me a lot last year," says the 36-year-old Thome, who needs 28 homeruns to reach 500. "I can't say I'll have the same type of April, but itdoes help you see pitches better. And health-wise I feel great."
The rotation, astrength two years ago, looked like the Dan Ryan Expressway last summer--anugly work in progress. For the second straight year the starters stayedinjury-free (five of them accounted for 159 of 162 starts), but the carryovereffect from the heavy workload of the extended '05 postseason took its toll, orso the theory goes. The ERA of each of the first four pitchers in the rotationrose by at least two thirds of a run. Because they had shorter outings lastyear (no White Sox pitcher logged more than 217 innings after three topped 220in '05), fatigue shouldn't be an issue this year. The starter that Chicago mostneeds to bounce back is lefthander Mark Buehrle, whose ERA jumped 1.87, to4.99. "He's lost a tick off his fastball, but for a [finesse] pitcher likehim, that's everything," an AL scout says of the former staff ace. "Ifhe doesn't get his velocity back, he's going to be a fourth or fifth starterfrom now on."
With Buehrle andDye possibly leaving the team through free agency after the season, andPierzynski, third baseman Joe Crede and righthander Jon Garland eligible after'08, many in Chicago are anxiously awaiting the time when general manager KenWilliams begins the inevitable makeover. Still, with eight of nine regulars andtwo starters between the ages of 28 and 33, these White Sox have one more runin them. Says Konerko, "We've got as great a shot to win [the World Series]as we're ever going to have."
a modest proposal...
The White Sox hada lot of fifth-starter candidates in camp, none more intriguing than23-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Haeger. The youngest true knuckleballer toreach the majors since Charlie Hough in 1970, Haeger (left) made sevenappearances for Chicago in 2006. At Triple A Charlotte last year he enjoyed hisbest season as a pro, with 130 strikeouts and 78 walks (in 170 innings)--arespectable ratio for a flutterball pitcher. Haeger is especially adept atavoiding the long ball (23 in 516 1/3 professional innings), which is not atrait normally found even in the best knuckleballers and one that will servehim well in homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. Finally, manager Ozzie Guillenloves to work his starters deep, and if there's one thing a skipper can counton from a knuckleballer, it's a lot of innings. Haeger belongs in therotation.
[This articlecontains tables. Please see hardcopy or pdf.]
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2006 STATISTICS
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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ERA of closerBobby Jenks, the highest of any pitcher with at least 20 saves in the AL lastseason. But he was also the third pitcher to save 40 or more games in hissecond full season. Jenks's strong strikeout rate (10.3 per nine innings) andgood walk rate (4.00 per nine, a figure inflated by 10 intentional passes) weremore instructive indicators of his effectiveness.