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?

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
On the AL Central, I agree with your assessment of the White Sox. Being from Minnesota, I of course cheer for the Twins. I see this being an extremely tight division. I don\'t know why, but I have this strange feeling that the Royals win it this year.
Nice article, Christina. I didn\'t consider how tight the AL Central race was. While the scenario where the Sox come out on top is possible, I don\'t think it\'s any less likely that things break the WRONG way for the Sox - Konerko falls off the rest of his cliff, Thome can\'t stay healthy, Danks isn\'t as good as we thought, Quentin can\'t stay healthy. It seems possible the Sox are even worse off than the 73 game winners pecota is predicting.
contreras is already doing long toss, so it seems likely that he\'ll appear long before august. if you believe the sunny spring training reports, he may be on a major league mound in april. the initial assessment of twelve months recovery/rehab for his ruptured achilles was quite conservative to begin with. nine months was a much more likely target and it looks like he\'ll hit that.
Much as I\'m a lifelong Sox fan, a realistic look says they have only one hitter on an upward career arc, and he is fragile. To contend, they would have to get productive years from Thome, Konerko and Dye -- they\'ve all been wonderful playters, but I just can\'t see ALL of them having another big year. I feel better about the pitching, especially if early-spring reports about Contreras are anywhere near accurate. But I worry about the lack of gloves in the infield and range in the outfield. On the other hand, it IS a lousy division . . . . “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that\'s the way to bet.” -- Damon Runyan
Of all the problems you outlined, Christina, the 3B situation concerns me least. A Betemit/Fields platoon may have limited upside, but it couldn\'t be worse than what the Tigers or Twins are throwing out there. By the way, does anyone else think it wouldn\'t be the worst idea to give Mark Grudzielanek a cheap contract to hedge against both Nix AND Getz falling flat?
Do you guys really take credit for the 2007 White Sox projection? You got the win total right, but totally missed everything else (the actual pitching and offense were opposite of your projection).
Reviewing the AL Central makes me wish the Orioles were in the AL Central rather than the AL East. Those 57 games against the Yanks, Red Sox and Rays will be tough.
The Blue Jays would win the Central if they were actually in it.
I am a Twins fan so I am extremely biased but I think there is a very good chance the White Sox fall completely off the table this year. The pitchers have been overworked for years, the position players are getting old, and they will have zero defensive stability. I think this is the year that everything blows up on Kenny and Ozzie. Too bad I think the Twins are going to struggle as well. Somehow when looking at this division I keep coming back to the Royals to win it, as jwillie said.
Who is \"overworked\"? Buehrle is one of the most consistant pitchers in the game, basically locking up 200 innings a season for the past 6 to 7 seasons. Danks and Floyd are coming off sophmore seasons where they showed they could handle the work load. Forth and Fifth spots are going to be awful, I\'ll give you that. As a Sox fan, im not optimistic, but looking at the Twins, I wouldn\'t like my chances this year either.
Overworked? Ozzie has been very good about pushing pitchers to a limit and stopping before abuse. Just because a team does something well, doesn\'t mean there is a problem. The whole division sucks which is exactly why its a good time to attempt to retool on the fly.
I like Baker, Slowey, Liriano to win it for the Twins.
Well if the Indians finish ahead of the Sox, it will be the 2nd time in 9 seasons they would have been able to accomplish it....although I think this is the 9th year in a row that they were predicted to do so. Oh those Shapriometrics.
In a division where a team could win it with a barely above .500 record, one player can make a bigger difference than usual. The one player who has the biggest upside/downside in all of baseball is Liriano. When healthy, he\'s been lights out. There is a big question about his health, though. If he pitches 200 innings, I would think the Twins will win the Central, unless their are major injuries to multiple key players. I don\'t see the Royals-love.
I would have to say the same in regards to Travis Hafner. If\'s he\'s back to his pre-broken wrist/hit in head with pitches production. That\'s 3-5 additional wins the Indians would be receiving.
Despite PECOTA\'s projections, 2009 seems like it could be a repeat of 2006 (incl. Ozzie bemoaning the performance of his team to the press at the end of the season), except with the Royals breaking the .500 barrier. If the Tigers can get their mental game in order (if any team in the AL could use a shaman or Tibetan monk in the clubhouse, it\'d be the Tigers), and M. Cabrera has a monster season, that might be enough for them to put them over the top.
So many of these things is how you look at them and how you analyze them. Christina seems, to me, to be taking a glass is half empty approach. Consider: -The organization has been high on Owens for a long time. Maybe there is something to it, they seem to make more right bets than wrong ones. Anyway, it\'s not like Swisher gave them much in CF last year. Considering defense Ownes-Anderson has to be at least as good as Swisher and Griffey out there. -I like Getz. He makes a lot of contact and is just the kind of player the Sox need in their lineup. -Ramirez was never a 2B so it makes sense he was erratic. He is \'naturally\' a SS. -Fields is not replacing Crede, he is replacing Uribe. He is a lot better than Uribe. I really think they can figure out the back end of the rotation. Contreras, Richard, Colon, Poreda, or something else will make it work. Why can\'t we be positive about the top three? Buehrle-Floyd-Danks is a real good way to start. It\'s easy to poke holes at Dye-Thome-Konerko, but almost every team is dependent on veterans in their mid to late 30s. I really think the AL Central comes down to bullpen performance.