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1 Chicago White Sox
Peter King
April 03, 2006
The defending champs add some big hurt to their lineup
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April 03, 2006

1 Chicago White Sox

The defending champs add some big hurt to their lineup

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PITCHER PVR W L K WHIP ERA
LH Mark Buehrle 26 16 8 149 1.18 3.12
RH Freddy Garcia 49 14 8 146 1.25 3.87
RH Jose Contreras 53 15 7 154 1.23 3.61
RH Jon Garland 35 18 10 115 1.17 3.50
RH Javier Vazquez [New acquisition] 65 11 15 192 1.25 4.42

Jim Thome looks every bit of his 35 years. Lines are forming at the outside of his eyes, his hairline is receding. And though he had nine straight 30-home run seasons from 1996 through 2004, Thome is as eager as a rookie to make a powerful first impression on his new team. Seated in front of his corner locker in the White Sox clubhouse on an early March morning, he spoke with the intensity of NFL linebacker Ray Lewis. "Trust me," he said, "I've got the fire to be the hitter I know I still am. It sounds weird, and I don't know if people will understand this, but I've got to prove myself all over again.

"Not to them," he continued, pointing a finger around the room before thumping himself on his chest twice, with feeling, "but to me. I've got to prove I belong on the World Series champions."

The White Sox are rolling the dice with Thome, who's coming off back trouble and a torn elbow tendon that limited him to 59 games in 2005. After hitting 49, 52, 47 and 42 home runs in his four previous seasons, Thome hit seven last year and batted .207. The Phillies were willing to pick up nearly half of the $46 million remaining on his contract in making a November trade that landed them centerfielder Aaron Rowand and two minor leaguers. Thome says his back and surgically repaired elbow are fine now, but to protect their pricey investment ($24 million over the next three years) the White Sox will employ Thome almost exclusively as a DH, occasionally using him to spell Paul Konerko at first base.

"The DH role should help him stay healthy," says manager Ozzie Guillen. "We want to save him from the wear and tear of the field. We feel confident he can be the hitter he's always been."

If Thome stays fit, his value is obvious. "Seems like we struggled to score more than three or four runs a game last year," says Konerko. Among AL clubs only Minnesota and Seattle had lower team batting averages than Chicago's (.262) in '05. That prompted G.M. Kenny Williams to make the aggressive move for Thome, which had a side benefit: Konerko, the top free-agent bat on the market, said the acquisition of Thome was the decisive factor in his decision to re-sign with the White Sox (five years, $60 million) despite more generous offers from the Angels and the Orioles. "I knew Kenny was going to go out and get us a bat," says Konerko, who, with the declining health of Frank Thomas, was the only consistent power threat in the lineup the last few years. "I had no idea it'd be someone the caliber of Jim Thome. That clinched it. It showed me that not only were we trying to stay on top, but we were also trying to get better."

To get ready for the season, Thome began a new workout regimen that he continued into spring training. Each day he spent an hour on core training--back, torso, abs--before moving on to regular baseball drills. After practices or games he spent 30 minutes rehabbing the elbow. "Now I understand how important maintenance of my body is, at my age," Thome said. "I can't look into a crystal ball, but I'd like to play 150 games, and I think I can."

If he's even 80% of his old self, Thome will be an upgrade over last year's designated-hitter duo of Thomas and Carl Everett, who combined for 30 homers in 135 games but had an on-base percentage of only .311. A three-time league leader in walks, Thome (career OBP: .408) should easily beat that number.

The White Sox should be similarly improved on the mound. Javier Vazquez, who was obtained from the Diamondbacks in a deal for Orlando Hernandez, might be the best No. 5 starter in baseball. Having thrown at least 198 innings in each of the last six seasons, the 29-year-old righthander is more durable than the rickety, 41-year-old Hernandez. In the bullpen flamethrowing Bobby Jenks, fresh from a strong postseason in which he had four saves, takes over the closer's role from Dustin Hermanson.

But pitching was already a Chicago strength. Where the White Sox got the biggest upgrade is at the plate. "From what I've seen so far this spring," says Konerko of Thome, "he's going to hit 30, 35 home runs by accident."

IN FACT

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