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For four springs general manager Ken Williams heard front-office executives on other clubs tell him how talented his lineup was: DH Frank Thomas, rightfielder Magglio Ordo�ez, leftfielder Carlos Lee and first baseman Paul Konerko all had 30-homer, 100-RBI capability. Yet that muscle wasn't enough to win the AL Central, and the club finished second the last three years. "I hate second place," Williams says. "And it got to the point that I hated hearing how talented we were. I wanted to move away from being a one-dimensional team."
To achieve that goal, Williams had to move some of those players. So in the off-season he did not attempt to re-sign Ordo�ez--a free agent who landed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Tigers--and instead used the $14 million Ordo�ez was paid last year to sign free-agent outfielder Jermaine Dye (two years, $10.15 million) and re-sign others. Williams also traded the laid-back Lee to the Brewers for outfielder Scott Podsednik, who had 113 stolen bases over the last two years, and setup man Luis Vizcaino, a reliable righthander against whom batters hit .228 in 2004. With the $6 million freed up on the payroll as a result of the trade, Williams signed free agents A.J. Pierzynski, an above-average offensive catcher, and oft-injured Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, an aging righthander who is still effective when healthy.
"We're not a one-dimensional, hit-or-miss offense," Williams says. "Beginning last year, when we started to reshape this team, almost every major thing we did centered around pitching. The Podsednik trade was as much about Vizcaino and the chance to clear money to sign El Duque. In this division I'm convinced the team with the best pitching will win."
The White Sox have one of the most intriguing rotations in baseball. Intriguing not only because they have five guys capable of winning 15 games each but also because those five guys could just as easily falter. With a fastball that tops out in the high 80s, Mark Buehrle isn't a classic No. 1, but he's an innings-eater (his 2451/3 innings led the league last year) and has averaged 16 wins a year since '01. His off-season regimen is far less taxing. "I go home [to St. Charles, Mo.] and don't do much," says the 26-year-old lefthander, who has been battling a stress reaction in his left foot this spring. "I think this year I played catch in the front yard once or twice with a buddy, just to keep my arm loose."
Following Buehrle in the rotation is Freddy Garcia, who has better stuff than his 25--25 record over the last two years indicates. Williams took a big risk in June when he packaged catcher Miguel Oliva and two top prospects for Garcia, who was eligible for free agency after the season. Garcia's close friendship with manager Ozzie Guillen was a major factor in the hard-throwing righty's decision to remain in Chicago for the next three years. The White Sox hope that rapport will help Garcia find the form that he displayed in his first four big league seasons, when he won at least 16 games three times for the Mariners. Also returning is No. 5 starter Jon Garland, a 6'6" beanpole who has won 12 games in each of the last three seasons.
Williams's gamble this year is counting on two past-their-prime Cuban righthanders to close the gap on the Twins. Despite being limited to 53 starts over the last four seasons because of shoulder, elbow and foot injuries, Hernandez has displayed good arm strength this spring. Jose Contreras, who was acquired from the Yankees for righthander Esteban Loaiza at the trade deadline last year, was a combined 20--11 over the last two seasons, but he was mostly inconsistent and had a 4.85 ERA in that time. The White Sox are trying to get him to work faster and stop telegraphing his pitches. "This is a big year for Jose," says Hernandez. "I talk to him every day about pitching. Mentally, I think it's good for him to be out of New York. This year he starts a new life."
And with their new identity, so too do the White Sox. This, say his players, is the type of team Guillen has craved. "He's finally got what he wanted," says Buehrle, "pitching, speed and defense." --P.K.