There were 272 homers hit at U.S. Cellular last season, 39 more than at any other park in the majors. There have been at least 218 homers at U.S. Cellular in each of the past five seasons.
Very friendly confines
Since U.S. Cellular opened in 1991, the White Sox have had the American League’s third-best record at home (620–477), behind only the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners.
But only one of these teams wins
Setting a franchise record with 242 home runs, the White Sox ran their streak of 200-plus homer seasons to five. That’s tied for the longest streak in major-league history with the Yankees, who have also had 200-plus every season since 2000. The Sox had a franchise record six players with 20-plus home runs last season.
Hey, I know you
Manager Ozzie Guillen has assembled a homegrown coaching staff. It includes five former White Sox players — bench coach Harold Baines, hitting coach Greg Walker, third base coach Joey Cora, first base coach Tim Raines and bullpen coach Art Kusnyer. Pitching coach Don Cooper is the odd man out.
Better than advertised
While the White Sox have long been considered subpar defensively, they’ve had a .984 fielding percentage three years in a row. Their best fielder statistically last season was left fielder Carlos Lee, who didn’t make an error.
Tough to hit
Submarine-style closer Shingo Takatsu limited hitters to a .182 average, the fourth-best among AL pitchers. He ran off a string of 26.2 consecutive scoreless innings from April 23 through June 29th, the 10th longest streak in club history. At one point he retired 29 straight batters.
The White Sox played the quickest games in the major leagues in 2004, averaging 2 hours, 39 minutes. That was largely a credit to Mark Buehrle. His 35 starts lasted an average of 2:33, including 11 that were played in less than 2:20.
Pitchers can’t hit
The Sox were 2–7 in games played without the designated hitter last season.
Finally, the White Sox are trying a different lineup. Losing Magglio Ordoñez to free agency meant the end of the foursome of right-handed hitters that had filled the middle of the order since 1999. GM Ken Williams went one step further by trading Carlos Lee. That leaves the Sox more dependent on Paul Konerko, who a year ago was second in the AL with 41 home runs and added 117 RBIs, and Frank Thomas. They will have some more balance around them, however, including a potentially dynamic pair of table-setters in Scott Podsednik and Aaron Rowand.
Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia give the White Sox left-handed and right-handed workhorses at the front of the rotation. While neither is dominant enough to be considered among the American League’s true elite, both have been winners throughout their careers, combining for a 154–99 career record. Jose Contreras, acquired from the Yankees during the 2004 season, is the likely No. 3 starter. At times he’s brilliant; at times it looks as though he’s throwing batting practice. A consistent season from Contreras would be a huge boost to the starting rotation. Orlando Hernandez, another former Yankee (and Cuban defector) was signed to a two-year deal in the offseason. He is a proven big-game pitcher, but he has battled shoulder problems in recent years. Still, he went 8–2 with a 3.30 for the Yankees last season. The acquisition of Hernandez allowed the White Sox to push Jon Garland down to the fifth spot, giving the team its deepest rotation in years. Garland has been remarkably consistent (and average) over the past three seasons: He was 12–12 with a 4.58 ERA in 2002; 12–13 with a 4.51 in ’03; and 12–11 with a 4.89 in ’04. The Sox will gladly take 12 wins from a fifth starter this season.
In Japan, Shingo Takatsu’s nickname was Mr. Zero. He didn’t quite live up to that in the big leagues, but he converted 19-of-20 chances after taking over for Billy Koch. He’ll go for 40-plus saves this time around. The cast in front of him should be stronger than in 2004. Luis Vizcaino, acquired from Milwaukee with Podsednik in the Lee deal, and Damaso Marte are the primary setup men. Dustin Hermanson could move into a similar role if he’s not needed in the rotation. Otherwise, almost everyone is back from ’04, led by veteran Cliff Politte and second-year men Jon Adkins and Neal Cotts.
Williams had hoped to rebuild around Omar Vizquel, but San Francisco stepped in at the last minute to sign the former Cleveland Indian. Williams figured Juan Uribe was as good as any of the other available shortstops in the White Sox’s price range, so he turned the job over to him. Uribe should be fine if he doesn’t gain too much weight in the offseason, which is a concern. Second baseman Willie Harris, who had a .343 on-base percentage despite being shut down by lefthanders, is still proving himself as a regular.
With Ordoñez and Lee gone, and Thomas almost certain to be gone after 2005, this has become Konerko’s team. He has been prone to long slumps but is still averaging 27 homers and 94 RBIs in his six full seasons with the White Sox. Third baseman Joe Crede has a short leash after allowing his batting average to drop two years in a row. The Sox have been frustrated enough by him that they strongly considered importing Norihuro Nakamura from Japan.
With Podsednik in center and Rowand and Jermaine Dye on the corners, this should be the best defensive group the Sox have had in years. The offensive production is less certain, however. Podsednik, who was runner-up to Dontrelle Willis for NL Rookie of the Year two years ago, suffered a 70-point drop in his batting average last year. Dye has been bothered by injuries throughout his career and has averaged only 62 RBIs and 111 games the last three seasons. Rowand could emerge as an All-Star if he picks up where he left off a year ago.
A.J. Pierzynski isn’t the most popular player in the majors — one former Giant teammate anonymously called him a “cancer” in the Oakland Tribune last year — but he swings a good bat and he has been on winning teams. The starting catcher for the Twins’ AL Central title teams in 2002 and ’03, Pierzynski was signed in the offseason to fill a gaping hole behind the plate. His arrival sends Ben Davis, a career .237 hitter, to the bench.
When Thomas is healthy, he still drives the ball almost as well as any player in the league. He will be watched closely in spring training because of a stress fracture in his left foot, which wasn’t operated on Oct. 6. If Thomas needs time off, Carl Everett will step in. He should play plenty if he reports in shape, spelling Rowand and Dye in the outfield. Ross Gload, a poor man’s Mark Grace, serves as a fourth outfielder and a backup first baseman. Timo Perez did a great job a year ago but could lose his spot to former first-round pick Joe Borchard, who is out of options.
This is a critical year for Williams, who could lose his job if his latest overhaul doesn’t help make up the gap on Minnesota. He can’t say he hasn’t had a chance, as he’s in his fifth season since taking over a team that had won 95 games in 2000. Williams is an aggressive GM, but he could be haunted by one move he didn’t make, failing to land Chicago native Mark Mulder, who was traded from Oakland to St. Louis. The hiring of Guillen as manager has had minimal impact, but he probably has a longer rope than Williams.
It’s going to be tough for the White Sox to make a big impact without their best player, Ordoñez. But the top-of-the-order combination of Podsednik and Rowand gives them a chance to start working pitchers and running the bases. Their pitching staff must be effective, because the Sox are not going to outslug anyone this year.