The White Sox were something of a surprise winner in the AL Central last season, because the expectation that the “1,000-run” Tigers and the sabermetrically savvy Indians would be dueling for the honors went spectacularly unfulfilled. Even so, with the team only a few short months removed from that neat feat, we’re already predicting a fold-up as dramatic as the one we projected for the team in 2007, when we pegged the Sox to win 72 games, and despite their pre-season outrage on the subject, they won 72 games. This time around, we’re initially pegging them for 73 wins, which seems like a rather major step back for a division-winning ballclub.

So, what gives? Well, we really don’t have it out for the Sox, but when you look at what they’re walking into camp with, this is a team with a lot of question marks as far as who’s in the lineup and in the rotation, additional questions about the performance levels of key veterans in the near terms, and sort of more fundamental questions about how well it all comes together-or not.

Take the lineup questions. Where many teams will have camps where spring competition for jobs involving regular playing time is a formality likely to be dispensed with before we’re very far into March, the Sox will have real battles at three lineup slots. Picking a center fielder, a second baseman, and a third baseman when you don’t have a blue chip prospect ready at any of those positions represents a lot of elective decision-making for general manager Kenny Williams and skipper Ozzie Guillen. While there are possibilities in terms of platooning or aggressive roster management, and while Ozzie’s a very nimble manager when it comes to creating roles in which secondary players contribute effectively, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that anyone can make Jerry Owens or DeWayne Wise or Brian Anderson a good center-field option. Trying to conjure up a combination that gives you the virtues of each overstates the usefulness of any. You find the same challenge at second and third base, where Ozzie’s choices from among Wilson Betemit, Chris Getz, Josh Fields, Jayson Nix, and Brent Lillibridge could turn out well-Betemit might be a platoon asset at third, bopping against right-handers, Getz might be a decent leadoff option, and Nix’s defense might do the pitching staff a few favors, but that’s a lot of uncertainty. Finding positive solutions to these questions will make a major difference in how well the Sox do in outperforming our initial projection.

Sorting out the rotation in the wake of the decision to trade away Javier Vazquez to the Braves after already losing Jose Contreras for the first four months or so represents another significant, difficult challenge for Guillen and pitching coach Don Cooper. Will Bartolo Colon be able to step in and give the club 25-32 starts with an ERA under 5.00? At BP, we’re somewhat down with the latter part of that proposition, but given the problems with his health, weight, and durability, getting any rotation regularity from him seems a tough bet to make. Maybe he rewards Williams’ faith, but the track record involved isn’t great. Even then, that gets you to just four, and skips over picking a fifth between hard-throwing lefty Clayton Richard-who broke through as far as becoming a prospect last season, but wasn’t consistent enough in The Show-and several less promising right-handed organizational types to round out the unit. Add in the doubts over how John Danks will do a year after making a huge step forward in both performance and workload, as well as concerns that Gavin Floyd‘s inconsistency seems to be just part of what you get with him beyond the talent, and pegging the Sox rotation as a source of strength becomes pretty tough, no matter how much Danks and Floyd have already rewarded Williams’ decisions to trade for them.

Which also brings us to the questions over whether or not the “established” veterans on the ballclub actually provide the foundation for a division title defense. Last season’s first-half slump from slugger Paul Konerko reflects the risks involved with older players on teams without great depth; if, as forecast, he contributes another season like ’08 in the aggregate instead of something closer to the .514 he slugged in his last 60 games, the Sox will struggle to score runs. Jim Thome is entering into his age-38 season and has a long list of breakdowns in his recent past. Jermaine Dye is 35. A.J. Pierzynski‘s turned 32 and has been able to carry a heavy workload so far, but if he breaks down, even his merely solid production will be impossible for the Sox to replace given the alternatives. Carlos Quentin‘s accident breaking his own wrist last September can be overlooked, but past problems with staying healthy when he was a D’backs prospect create questions over whether or not he can stay in the lineup that go beyond just wondering if he can keep hitting like an MVP candidate.

Finally, there are questions about how the White Sox defense is supposed to shape up. Maybe Alexei Ramirez is going to be completely effective as a shortstop, but his defensive performance at the keystone was scatter shot at best. The same things that made him occasionally frustrating there-a blend of brilliant plays and sloppiness-could translate badly or well. As is, the team has to sort out who’s starting at second and third, and in 2010 top prospect Gordon Beckham should enter the picture at second base. If there is any good news, it’s that if Ramirez doesn’t pan out at short, an eventual move to third or to center would at least help paper over the holes at those positions, but that’s just rejumbling the lineup and roster problems they already have to resolve.

Last season’s division title was an excellent example of a good team exploiting two things: circumstance, and the wisdom of past deals pulled off by general manager Kenny Williams. That combination is kind of volatile, though. Take the element of circumstance: on paper, the division is incredibly evenly matched. Picking the Sox to win 73 games and the Indians to win the division with 83 represents the tightest grouping in any division in baseball. Which perhaps paradoxically makes the Sox the one team initially pegged for the basement who might totally upset that apple cart if certain things swing their way and Ozzie and Kenny address these problems before Opening Day. Who says spring training doesn’t matter?