2011 pre-season preview: AL Central – Chicago White Sox
White Sox 1B Paul Konerko
Chicago White Sox (2010 record: 88-74)
The White Sox won 88 games last season and still didn’t get a sniff of the division title due to the success of the Minnesota Twins. During the off-season, GM Kenny Williams decided to re-shuffle the deck to play to his team’s strengths – when playing in a park that caters to offense, add offense.
Williams signed Adam Dunn away from the Washington Nationals and will situate him at Designated Hitter. The strapping, left-handed slugger has averaged more than 40 HR per season over the last seven years, and should enjoy playing half of his games at U. S. Cellular Field, which has been an especially good park for home run hitters (though it favors right hand hitters a bit more than lefties). The ballclub will also add rookie Brent Morel to the lineup, hoping he will provide more “juice” than light-hitting Omar Vizquel.
Inserting the newcomers into a lineup anchored by 1B Paul Konerko, CF Alex Rios, RF Magglio Ordonez and SS Alexei Ramirez should enhance the offense considerably. And if 2B Gordon Beckham should rebound from a rather listless campaign in 2010, the Pale Hose should be able to field six players who are capable of hitting 20+ HR and driving in more than 75 runs.
Catcher: A J Pierzynski
Designated Hitter: Adam Dunn
Dunn instantaneously supplants Konerko as the straw that will stir the offensive attack on the South Side. He will assuredly strike out upwards of 200 times, but he should hit in the vicinity of .260, hit 45 HR and drive in more than 100 runs – considerable improvements on last year’s DH tandem of Mark Kotsay and Manny Ramirez.
Konerko was a free agent at the end of last season and dabbled with the idea of leaving town, but that would have been foolish – he was built to hit in that ballpark and is well suited (temperamentally) to play in Chicago. The White Sox gave him a three year deal and he gladly signed on the dotted line on December 8th. He had an excellent season last year, but benefitted from a higher-than-usual hit percentage… I expect a solid .280 BA, with 28-30 HR and 80 RBI this year.
Across the diamond, the untested Morel will get the first shot at winning the club’s third base job. He left a little to be desired with the bat last year, but his outstanding defense caught the attention of manager Ozzie Guillen and he has been handed the 3B gig – for now. He hit .322, with 10 HR and 64 RBI in an abbreviated minor league campaign last year, so the potential is there.
The middle infield is manned by 2B Gordon Beckham and SS Alexei Ramirez. Overall, Beckham was a disappointment last year, but it is likely that his offensive struggles were related to his move from third base to second base – in the field. Once he got settled into his role at second base, his offense picked up nicely in the second half. He is a candidate to put together an outstanding comeback campaign in 2011.
Alexei Ramirez has become one of the best shortstops in the league. He was named the recipient of the Silver Slugger Award last season after hitting .282, with 18 HR and 70 RBI. And if you read my website, it will come as no surprise to you that I believe he was deserving of the Gold Glove Award, as well.
Like Konerko, Pierzynski was a free agent this past winter and considered moving onto greener pastures, but when all was said and done, it was the White Sox who gave him a pile of green to return to the club. He is no longer an all-star caliber performer (he made his last all-star team in 2006), but he regularly hits better than league-average, compiles double-digits in home runs, and will knock in close to 60 runs while getting 500+ ABs.
In the outfield, Juan Pierre had the fourth-best OBP among leadoff men in the American Leagie last season. When you add his 68 stolen bases and 96 runs into the equation, he has proven to be an invaluable performer atop the batting order.
Rios had clearly lost interest in baseball during his last half-season in Toronto, and he seemed even less interested in the game after being traded to the White Sox (.199, 3 HR, 9 RBI in 146 AB), but he turned things around nicely last year, compiling a .284 BA, with 21 HR, 88 RBI, 89 R and 34 SB. He has played somewhat uninspired at times in spring training, so it is hoped that he will be more interested once the regular season begins.
Quentin had a monster year in 2008, but that now appears to have been the outlier, as he has hit under .255 in every other big league season. He makes good contact (83% for his career), but benefits from a brutal hit rate (just 25% for his career). If he ever gets lucky and posts a 28-30% hit rate for the year, he could put together an MVP-type season. But don’t hold your breath.
The pitching staff:
Closer: LHP Matt Thornton
The big question with the Pale Hose revolves around the pitching staff. John Danks and Edwin Jackson were the only starters to post ERAs under 4.00 last year, although Gavin Floyd was close (4.08). Buehrle maintained elite control, but he has become more hittable over the years. The club thought Peavy would be disabled for the first two months of the season, but it appears he will be ready to pitch by the end of April. If he does, in fact, make it back into the rotation that soon, the rotation will be in good shape.
There has been ample conjecture that the organization would hand the closer’s role to rookie lefty Chris Sale, but Guillen put those rumors to bed early in spring training by naming veteran southpaw Matt Thornton to be his closer. Thornton regularly posts an elite strikeout rate (he has averaged 11 K per 9 IP over the last two years) rate and an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio (better than 4-to-1).
Behind him, the Sox no longer have Bobby Jenks (now in Boston) or JJ Putz (now in Phoenix), but Sale, fellow left-hander Wil Ohman (3.21 ERA last year) and righties Sergio Santos (2.96 ERA in 2010) and Jesse Crain (3.04 ERA with Minnesota in 2010) provide hope for a reliable bullpen.
Prediction for 2011: 1st place (89-73)
The White Sox offense will be a little better in 2011, though I expect regression from 1B Paul Konerko to offset some of the gain provided by Dunn. I also expect some regression from the pitching staff, as I don’t trust Jackson’s stuff, Peavy’s health or the bullpen.
Overall, I foresee a one-game improvement and a division title.
White Sox top prospect, Chris Sale
Top Five Prospects:
Sale became the first player from the 2010 draft (1st round, 13th overall pick) to make the major leagues when he was promoted to the White Sox in August. He played a key role in the ChiSox bullpen over the last two months of the season.
While the front office and manager have toyed with the idea of making him their closer, he is ultimately headed for the starting rotation. At 6’6”, 175 lbs, and with a fastball that will touch 100 mph, he has drawn comparisons to future Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson. His fastball rates a “70” on the scouts 20-80 scale. He also has a plus changeup (rated a “65”) that the White Sox scouts considered his best pitch when he was drafted. He also has a “plus” slider.
He throws from a three-quarter arm angle and sometimes struggles to stay on top of his pitches, causing him to leave pitches up in the zone and struggle with his command. It’s likely he will stay with the club and work out of the bullpen… it’s also entirely possible the team will send him to Triple-A to stretch out and work as a starter. Whatever the GM and manager decide to do with him in 2011, he will ultimately be groomed to evolve into the staff ace sometime in the next few years.