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Chicago White Sox
The Big Hurt will have to carry a big load in a lineup that has some big holes to fill
By Ian Thomsen
First baseman Frank Thomas is the White Sox' only proven slugger, as well as their only regular who's 30 or older. He seems a lonely, isolated giant. Now that free agents Albert Belle and Robin Ventura have fled the South Side, taking with them more than a third of the club-record 198 homers Chicago hit last year, who's going to protect Thomas in the lineup? "I'm not concerned about that," Thomas says. "It's up to me to protect some of the younger guys. I'm a great hitter -- let me do something to help them."
Such noble sentiments offer some hope to White Sox manager Jerry Manuel. Alas, the numbers aren't so comforting. Nine teams tried to make do with payrolls of less than $30 million last year; their average record was 68-94. Chicago's payroll this season will be in the neighborhood of $26 million. The White Sox will also be among the youngest teams in the American League.
The duties of leadership have come Thomas's way a little earlier than expected. When he arrived in Chicago in 1990, the clubhouse foreman was 42-year-old Carlton Fisk. "I've learned from good parents," two-time MVP Thomas says metaphorically. He vows to lead by example after hitting only .265 last year, the first sub-.300 average of his career and a free fall of 82 points from his league-leading mark of '97. Thomas still came through with 29 homers and 109 RBIs, but he calls his output of last season "not good at all." He arrived at camp weighing 257 pounds, 15 fewer than he did at the end of last season.
Thomas, the number 3 hitter, will have to make the most of the few good pitches he'll see. In the cleanup spot last year Belle produced club records of 49 home runs and 152 RBIs in 609 at bats. The players who will follow Thomas in the order this season -- Magglio Ordoñez, Paul Konerko, Greg Norton and Jeff Abbott -- combined for just 42 homers and 171 RBIs in 1,295 at bats. Those four have a total of 41Ú2 years in the majors. "There's almost less pressure on me because Albert did so well," says Abbott, 26, who will take over for Belle in left. "Nobody's expecting me to do what he did,"
The White Sox would like to get 20 to 30 homers from rightfielder Ordoñez, a 25-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela, who has the thick legs of a power hitter. He hit 14 as a rookie last year while growing accustomed to Chicago. "I was never in a big American city before, and it takes time -- you don't focus on the game like you're supposed to," he says. If he needs more help, he won't have to look far. "I know 15 or 16 players on this team from the minors," Ordoñez says. "It's like we have all come up together. It's going to be fun."
According to the Sox brass, surveys and focus groups indicate that fans want a younger, harder-working team. Management has been downsizing since its so-called White Flag trade of two seasons ago, when in July Chicago dealt three veterans for six prospects though it trailed the first-place Indians by just 31Ú2 games. At least three of those prospects -- shortstop Mike Caruso and pitchers Keith Foulke and Bob Howry -- should make contributions this season. "Our club was a force in the early 1990s, but for some reason, after the strike we had a hard time getting our fans back," says general manager Ron Schueler. "We didn't go out of our way to make them feel good, to let them know we appreciate them."
Schueler vows to hold on to the young players who prove themselves, like All-Star second baseman Ray Durham, 27, who recently signed a four-year, $20 million contract. Durham and the 21-year-old Caruso were on the field early in the morning this spring, trying to improve a defense that has been among the league's worst the last two years. The departure of Ventura, winner of five Gold Gloves at third, won't help. "I hope we'll be average at third base," Manuel says in a challenge to Ventura's replacement, the 26-year-old Norton. Pushing Norton will be a couple of the Sox' best prospects, Carlos Lee, 22, and Joe Crede, 20.
The most stable aspect of the youth movement is the pitching rotation. The first four starters -- James Baldwin, Mike Sirotka, John Snyder and Jim Parque -- were a combined 41-28 for a Sox team that was two games under .500. Their average age is 25.
Perhaps Chicago's wisest move was to extend the contract of Manuel by three years, through 2002. He's known for his patience and teaching skills -- qualities his troops will need. "We have to take on the concept of the team rather than individuals because we don't really match up individually," says Manuel. "We're trying to get career years out of young players who have never had careers.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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