At some time during his so-called offseason, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams might well have leaned back in his leather chair, swung his wing-tipped shoes up onto his desk and clasped his hands comfortably behind his head, reflecting on a job well done.
If Williams actually did that, though -- and there's little evidence he did -- you can be sure he had a cell phone to his ear the whole time.
Not long after the Sox finished sweeping the Astros in the World Series last October, Williams went to work improving a team that was, from start to finish, the best in baseball in 2005. He re-signed those he had to re-sign, made an especially big trade to put more oomph in the lineup and solidified an already formidable rotation. All the work has paid off, too; the White Sox are, hands down, the team to beat in '06. And not just in the American League Central, either.
A nifty trade for former Indians and Phillies slugger Jim Thome, who missed most of last season in Philadelphia with assorted injuries, instantly gave the middle of the order some added seriousness. Re-signing postseason hero Paul Konerko, the likable first baseman, was a necessity. A trade for pitcher Javier Vazquez strengthened an already enviously deep rotation. The only remaining possible trouble spot in the team's everyday lineup is in center field. Aaron Rowand left in the trade to land Thome, so center now belongs to 23-year-old rookie Brian Anderson.
The White Sox likely have just one challenger in the Central, but they're legitimate. The Indians, who return most of the team that had the second-best record in baseball in the second half of '05, will have to go this year without AL ERA champ Kevin Millwood (a free agent who signed with Texas) and popular left fielder Coco Crisp (traded to Boston). But Paul Byrd (formerly of the Angels) and Jason Johnson (who played last year in Detroit) will fit nicely in the Cleveland rotation, while Jason Michaels (obtained in a trade from Philly) takes over Crisp's spot in left field.
The Sox and Indians may get a little challenge from the Twins, who tried to fix a broken infield with a trade for second baseman Luis Castillo and the signing of third baseman Tony Batista. The Twins still have a pretty impressive rotation, topped by perennial Cy Young candidate Johan Santana, and a good bullpen featuring closer Joe Nathan. Center fielder Torii Hunter returns too, after he missed most of the second half of the '05 season with a broken ankle. But the Twins' lineup just doesn't compare, and the pitching probably is not as good as Chicago's or Cleveland's either.
The Tigers signed free-agent lefty Kenny Rogers, and the Royals spent money on old favorites Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek and Doug Mientkiewicz. Neither team is good enough to hang with the Sox or Indians right now.
Nobody would have blamed the White Sox G.M. if he had played the same hand again with a team that won an AL-best 99 games last season and went 11-1 during its postseason romp. That strategy might have worked, too.
But this hand, without a doubt, is better. And everyone in baseball knows it, too.