Forget that only two teams in the majors outscored the White Sox last season. Or that no club was more productive than Chicago with runners in scoring position. Or that the South Siders' on-base percentage (.342) was higher than it was in 2005 (.322) when they won the World Series. Manager Ozzie Guillen arrived at training camp still peeved over his team's offensive performance last season. "We were s---, pathetic," Guillen growled early in spring training. "We hit too many home runs. Our situational hitting was horrible. This year we're going back to small ball."
While it's true that no other team relied more on the long ball in '06 -- the White Sox scored 45.9% of their runs on homers -- in truth the 2005 team, the purported masters of small ball, scored 42.4% of its runs on homers in the regular season and 47.8% in the postseason march to the title. Still, true to his word, Guillen designated one field at the spring facility in Tucson specifically for Small Ball 101, and every hitter except veteran sluggers Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and Jim Thome was schooled in such fundamentals as bunting and moving runners over. "Hopefully we'll be better in the close games," says catcher A.J. Pierzynski, referring to Chicago's 24-21 record in one-run games after a charmed 35-19 mark the year before, "but we're still a big-time power-hitting club. I don't think we're reinventing our offensive philosophy here."
Nor should they try. The juggernaut lineup that swatted 236 homers, 26 more than any other club in the league, returns intact, and as one rival AL general manager says, "It's the biggest reason why the White Sox will be scary again." Thome, a notoriously slow starter throughout most of his career, got a leg up on the 2006 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award with a white-hot April in which he batted .300 with 10 homers. For the second straight spring the DH, who was slowed down the stretch by back and groin injuries, often appeared in B games against minor leaguers after regular exhibition games and frequently led off every inning of those games to get as many at bats as possible. "That helped me a lot last year," says the 36-year-old Thome, who needs 28 home runs to reach 500. "I can't say I'll have the same type of April, but it does help you see pitches better. And health-wise I feel great."
The rotation, a strength two years ago, looked like the Dan Ryan Expressway last summer -- an ugly work in progress. For the second straight year the starters stayed injury-free (five of them accounted for 159 of 162 starts), but the carryover effect from the heavy workload of the extended '05 postseason took its toll, or so the theory goes. The ERA of each of the first four pitchers in the rotation rose by at least two thirds of a run. Because they had shorter outings last year (no White Sox pitcher logged more than 217 innings after three topped 220 in '05), fatigue shouldn't be an issue this year. The starter that Chicago most needs to bounce back is lefthander Mark Buehrle, whose ERA jumped 1.87, to 4.99. "He's lost a tick off his fastball, but for a [finesse] pitcher like him, that's everything," an AL scout says of the former staff ace. "If he doesn't get his velocity back, he's going to be a fourth or fifth starter from now on."
With Buehrle and Dye possibly leaving the team through free agency after the season, and Pierzynski, third baseman Joe Crede and righthander Jon Garland eligible after '08, many in Chicago are anxiously awaiting the time when general manager Ken Williams begins the inevitable makeover. Still, with eight of nine regulars and two starters between the ages of 28 and 33, these White Sox have one more run in them. Says Konerko, "We've got as great a shot to win [the World Series] as we're ever going to have." -- Albert Chen
Issue date: March 26, 2007