2. Chicago White Sox
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A proven postseason pitcher joins a powerful lineup for a playoff push
By Mark Bechtel
As a result, the 31-year-old Valentin has one more thing to learn: how to play centerfield.
In December, Valentin got a call from new White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, who told him that Chicago had a chance to get Royce Clayton from the Rangers for the bargain-basement price of two marginal pitching prospects. Clayton has been one of baseball's best defensive shortstops for nearly a decade, but he became expendable after Texas invested a quarter of a billion dollars in Alex Rodriguez. Valentin, who had signed his new contract only three weeks earlier, told Williams to pull the trigger.
Keeping Valentin's bat in the lineup was as important as adding Clayton's glove to the White Sox' infield. After coming to Chicago in a trade with the Brewers last spring, Valentin went 2 for 4 on Opening Day and never let up. "I was happy here," says Valentin, who, according to manager Jerry Manuel, will also see some innings at second, third and short. "The manager told me I was going to play every day no matter what, and that was something I was missing in Milwaukee." That satisfaction, plus the prospect of continuing to hit in front of Frank Thomas, led Valentin to re-sign.
The 5'10" Valentin doesn't have the typical rangy centerfielder's build that enables the best ones to cover a lot of ground. But he has a couple of things working in his favor, too. First, he has actually played some centerfield for his hometown team, Mayaguez, in Puerto Rico's winter league over the past few years. Then there's his tutor, White Sox first base coach Gary Pettis, who won five Gold Gloves between 1985 and '90 playing center. This spring Pettis worked with Valentin on the mechanics of playing the position, such as lengthening his throwing motion, as well as the mental aspects, such as knowing when to hold a runner at first to keep a double play possibility alive rather than try to gun down another runner at the plate. "I've never worked so hard in spring training," says Valentin.
There's added incentive for all the White Sox to turn it up a notch. Despite having the best record in the league last year, Chicago slumped in the postseason, scoring just seven runs and getting swept by the Mariners in the Division Series. Alarmed that none of their pitchers could outduel the Mariners', the White Sox in January exchanged lefthanders with the Blue Jays, giving up 29-year-old Mike Sirotka to get 37-year-old David Wells. The reason Chicago sacrificed one of baseball's rarest commodities -- a young, talented lefty -- for a 15-year veteran is simple: Wells's eight postseason wins are eight more than the rest of the staff has combined. "We've put together a good foundation, and we have to build on that," says Manuel. "A lot of times that means going out and acquiring a veteran pitcher."
Getting off to a good start will also be important: Chicago plays five games against Cleveland in the first 10 days of the season, and the Indians will be looking to take command of the AL Central race, which they won for five straight years before the White Sox ended the run in 2000. Being the hunted instead of the hunter will be a new sensation, but, says Manuel, "we're still hunting. We're hunting a championship."
Issue date: March 26, 2001