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TWO SEASONS removed from a World Series title, the 2007 White Sox were a colossal disappointment, already 111⁄2 games out of first by June 21 en route to their worst record since 1989. "Guys were embarrassed by how we played last year," says Mark Buehrle, Chicago's lefthanded ace. "In the second half it was tough to come to the field every day. When you're playing that bad, you don't even want to show up."
The drive to U.S. Cellular Field shouldn't be such a dismal experience in '08. General manager Kenny Williams was active this off-season, trading righthander Jon Garland to the Angels for shortstop Orlando Cabrera and sending prospects to the A's and the Diamondbacks for outfielders Nick Swisher and Carlos Quentin, respectively. Williams also signed veteran free-agent righthanders Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel to shore up the seventh- and eighth-inning relief pitching in front of closer Bobby Jenks.
"We covered the little holes we had," says manager Ozzie Guillen. That may be true, but there are some gaping ones--particularly in the rotation--that still need filling.
Acquiring the gregarious Cabrera and the irrepressible Swisher was a good first step in retooling the lineup; they are playoff veterans who have made fast friends in a clubhouse that has only 10 holdovers from the '05 championship team. "They bring a swagger," says DH Jim Thome. They also bring needed offense. Cabrera, who had a .345 on-base percentage and is an ideal No. 2 hitter (not to mention a Gold Glove winner) gives Chicago a lift at short, where last year's occupants hit only .239. Swisher, who had a .381 OBP last year, will play left, with speedster Jerry Owens playing center. "They are good team guys with good energy, but more than anything they're just good players," says first baseman Paul Konerko. "Those guys getting on base more will have an effect trickling down the lineup."
Ready to take advantage are the 3-4-5 hitters, Thome (37 years old), Konerko (32) and rightfielder Jermaine Dye (34), all of whom suffered a precipitous decline last summer, from a cumulative .306 average, 121 home runs and 342 RBIs in 2006 to .262, 94 and 264. In all, the White Sox scored 175 fewer runs and ranked last in the majors in batting average (.246), average with runners in scoring position (.243) and on-base percentage (.318). "Last year was just a broken year," says Konerko. "In no way, shape or form was there anything good about it."
Chicago was still second in the AL with 190 home runs, but the club had the majors' worst record in games in which it didn't homer (13-44). So for the second straight spring Guillen is preaching small ball and situational hitting. "Two-out hits, moving runners along and taking extra bases are a big deal that everyone's talking about," says third baseman Josh Fields. "That's a big focus, to put pressure on the defense. It makes it a lot easier to hit."
Pitching, though, is what will ultimately keep the White Sox from contending with the Indians and the Tigers. Buehrle and Javier Vazquez, who were both signed to affordable extensions last year, return to anchor Chicago's rotation, but the other three slots are questionable. Aging Jose Contreras suffered his first losing season in '07, and John Danks and Gavin Floyd are unseasoned former first-round picks who haven't yet lived up to their potential. Floyd, at least, has been impressive this spring and will begin the year as the No. 5 starter. "He's got the nastiest stuff on the staff right now," says Buehrle. "I'd give my left arm to have what he has, the way his ball moves."
With the new faces onboard, this summer should at least be more fun. "Even though we are underdogs in the division, we still have a lot of pressure from Ozzie and Kenny to perform at a high level," says Cabrera. But chances are, it won't be high enough in the AL Central.
CONSIDER THIS a modest proposal ...