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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Like his team, White Sox general manager Ken Williams is routinely underrated. He's one of the best GMs in the game, though listings of the great current GMs usually exclude him.
Williams and his team aren't exactly media darlings. They are the second team in the second city, and treated as such. But it's more than just geography or history or lovability.
No one has written a book on the White Sox's style, though they certainly have one of their own. They are never the chic pick. Last year they finished first in a tight, tough American League Central. But now, in some cases, they're a last-place pick.
"People don't really understand our way, our method," Williams said.
As he's talking, Williams is doing what he does, which is perusing the talent that's out on the back fields here. And by the way, he likes what he sees very much.
Yet, other people are looking at the payroll cut from $111 million to $96 million, and uncertainties at second base, third base, center field, plus two spots in the rotation, and are picking the White Sox to fall to the bottom of the AL Central.
Although Williams -- whose 59 trades involving 157 major league players is more than any other GM during his tenure -- has a history of good deals, and got Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez in trades and signings that can only be considered superb, the doubters still far outnumber the believers. And although Williams' White Sox have the best record in their division over the past four years -- winning two division titles and a World Series in that time -- the doubters still far outnumber the believers.
I'm not sure whether this means anything, but it's interesting to note that while their co-tenant at the beautiful new Camelback Ranch, the P.R.-driven Dodgers, let everyone in, the White Sox's side has fort-like qualities, such as the tunnel from the clubhouse to the practice fields.
"We need to take a Promotions 101 class," said Williams. "It's our fault. We don't let too much of the outside world in. It's like a fraternity."
As for what the Sox are all about, Williams said, "We've done a lousy job of articulating it to the general public."
No surprise -- hardly anyone outside of the Sox's inner circle seems to like the Sox again. Regardless of whether it bothers Williams, it certainly doesn't affect his opinion.
"We know what we've got," Williams said. "We've got a chance to win a division. And if you've got a chance to win a division, you've got a chance to win a World Series."
Most folks predicted the White Sox wouldn't make the playoffs last year, and they wound up winning a tight, competitive AL Central. Same thing this year. Most see them as a third- or fourth-place finisher, if not dead last.
The vaunted Baseball Prospectus picks the Sox dead last, though with an explanation. The smart fellows at BP explain that they routinely underestimate what Williams and Co. do because they use numerical formulas while the Sox's front office has its own brand of magic.
That's a nice bouquet. But it's still last.
Putting aside his baseball picks, BP star Nate Silver is actually a favorite in Chicago's front office since he correctly predicted that noted White Sox fan Barack Obama (an acquaintance of Williams' and others in the Sox front office) would win the White House. Silver got quite a sterling reputation after nailing the presidential election, but he isn't perfect, as one White Sox person noted. "I hear his Oscar picks [stunk]," that person said with a laugh.
BP has been a pretty good baseball predictor, as well, but regularly underestimates the Sox; by an average of 8 1/2 wins a year, it turns out. Contrary to what others believe, the Stanford man Williams says they do look at SABRmetrics (and even goes so far as to point out his SABRmetrics guy, Dan Fabian). But they go with their eyes and their gut and their heart more than just the raw numbers. And that doesn't compute for some prognosticators.
The Sox, in fact, seem to specialize in players with bad stats who would qualify as "reclamation projects." Jose Contreras, who's months ahead of projections, and Bartolo Colon are the clear stars of camp so far and appear ready to make the Opening Day roster as the Nos. 4 and 5 starters (over youngsters Clayton Richard and Jeff Marquez).
People in the game respect the Sox's way much more than outsiders do, and they do remark how the White Sox front office is as tight-knit as they come. "One thing about all the White Sox people, they all seem to take pride in being with that team," one AL general manager said, attributing that to the organization's two biggest personalities and leading men, manager Ozzie Guillen and Williams.
"Every day, every night, we're just kind of hanging out," Williams said. "Underneath all the layers of fun -- and Ozzie -- is a very structured way of doing things. It's a structured business model ... but only to a point."
Others don't see the structure. They see Guillen's goofy facade (on this day, he was excitedly commenting on the garb of fans, the managing of Venezuela's Luis Sojo and anything else that might come up that has nothing to do with the Sox) and Williams' tempestuousness and wrongly assume they're just guessing.
Out here on the back field, Williams is swiveling his head, enjoying the exploits and engaging in a rare bit of promotion. Outsiders may see holes at second base, third base and center field. But Williams sees strength at least at second and third.
"We've got too many infielders," he said. "We don't know what to do with all of them."
Everyone at second has been superb this spring, including Chris Getz and Jayson Nix, and everyone here will tell you Getz is the favorite. But Williams, who'll consider thinking outside any box, says they've been talking a lot about No. 1 draft choice Gordon Beckham, who's tearing up the Cactus League. "Beckham's trying his best to kind of screw up all these plans," Williams said.
The White Sox have youngsters all over these back fields who can play, according to Williams. If anyone's down on Josh Fields at third, it's not Williams. "He's going to have a good year now that he can feel both his legs," Williams said of the young player who had two surgeries on the same knee last year.
Williams actually envisions one of the best infields in baseball, and maybe the best shortstop. About Alexei Ramirez, Williams said, "I've never seen anyone who can play every position, and play it at Gold Glove caliber. He never played second base before last year, and he made plays I've never seen made."
"That's the only position where you might say, 'We'll see what happens,' " Williams said.
You can claim this is just talk. But the reality is, the Sox have outplayed their division over the past several years. And Williams has out-thought many of his competitors.
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