By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) After spending a week at spring training in Arizona, I’ve come to a number of conclusions regarding the White Sox. Below are my thoughts on the team and my final verdict for the season:
Biggest strength: Paul Konerko. It’s probably not a good thing when you have to pinpoint a team’s strength to a specific 36-year-old player, but Konerko looks as good as ever. He’s been candid about getting older, admitting he’s had to work harder than ever before. That work looks like it’s paying off though. Konerko batted .406 in the spring while registering the second-most at-bats on the team. Surprisingly, he didn’t hit any home runs, but he sprayed the ball to all fields, hitting five doubles and, gulp, even a triple. Konerko is just four home runs shy of 400 in his career and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets there by the second week of the season. He’s truly locked in right now.
The good news is that there are a few other broader areas that could be the team’s biggest strength. I love the arms in the bullpen, but Addison Reed, Hector Santiago and Nate Jones are unproven so it’s hard to put that much faith in them right now. Defensively, the infield should be one of the best in the league and even the outfield won’t be too bad. Dayan Viciedo is definitely struggling in left field, but when Kosuke Fukudome plays, the White Sox will have an above-average defensive outfield. Alejandro DeAza tracked down everything in center this spring and Alex Rios appears to have gotten over his defensive struggles. He looks comfortable in right field.
And, of course, if Adam Dunn and Rios improve offensively, the biggest strength won’t just be Konerko, but the entire heart of the order. That’s a big “if” though.
Biggest weakness: The White Sox don’t have a true No. 2 hitter and it’s probably the largest hole on the team. Brent Morel and A.J. Pierzynski got the most looks at the two-spot in spring training and I get the feeling Morel will start the season there. Beyond having a rough season at the plate, the third-baseman walked just 22 times last season and posted an OBP of .287. Pierzynski walked just 23 times and posted a .323 OBP. Neither player gets on base enough and neither one steal bases, leading to congestion on the basepaths with Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko following in the order.
The problem is that the White Sox don’t really have any other options. Ideally, Gordon Beckham would be the guy to hit for average, take some walks and provide a little bit of power in the two-spot, but he’s already failed there and the White Sox want to take the pressure off him by batting him lower in the order.
Most impressed with: Robin Ventura. Anyone who thinks Ventura is just Kenny Williams’ puppet is simply wrong. Williams still has power over the roster — he is the GM after all — but Ventura has full control over the lineup, rotation and bullpen order. He also happens to know what he’s doing. Ventura might not have any coaching experience, but he clearly hasn’t forgotten the game. To his credit, he’s been honest about the growing pains, but I was very impressed with him the last week of spring training. He talks more like a veteran manager than a rookie and he clearly has a plan for this team. I know it’s not saying much, but I’m confident that this isn’t another Vinny Del Negro or Mike Quade situation in Chicago. Ventura knows what he’s doing.
Great sign: The attitude in clubhouse. Every spring brings new hope and you rarely ever see a “tight” clubhouse at the beginning of the season, but the White Sox’s is noticeably different. Players always downplayed the Ozzie-Kenny distraction last season, but when they arrived at Sox Fest in January, a number of them admitted it was an issue. It only took about five minutes in the Camelback Ranch clubhouse to notice how different it was from the U.S. Cellular Field clubhouse last season. The most noticeable difference was that Adam Dunn is back to being a goofball (something he rarely showed last season). There’s also an obvious respect for the new coaching staff. Robin Ventura relates to the players well and new bench coach Mark Parent is constantly keeping things loose by messing around with the players. The point is, there was obvious tension in that clubhouse last season and it appears to be the exact opposite now.
Bad sign: Jake Peavy won’t change his approach. The right-hander appears healthy and he’s pitching well enough to be effective, but he’s made it clear he won’t dial down his aggressiveness. I got a chance to see him up close and personal in a minor league game and he was just as amped up as always. In many ways, that’s a good thing because without that drive, Peavy wouldn’t have won a Cy Young Award. That said, it’s that same aggressiveness that led to his lat tearing completely off the bone like a rack of ribs at the Twin Anchors. If he’s unwilling to dial it down a notch, then unfortunately another injury seems inevitable. I ultimately see Peavy destined for the bullpen, either later this year or next.
On second thought: The White Sox farm system is better than most think. It’s definitely not a top 10 system, or even top 20 for that matter, but I find it hard to believe it’s the worst in baseball as some publications have dubbed it. Don’t forget that Kenny Williams added some pitching depth by adding Simon Castro, Nestor Molina and Pedro Hernandez in offseason trades (Carlos Quentin and Sergio Santos). Jared Mitchell and Jordan Danks bounced back with big springs and one or both could be September call-ups. Trayce Thompson has great power and the White Sox have high hopes for last year’s top pick Keenyn Walker. I made a point of spending some time on the backfields of Camelback Ranch and after hearing everyone bash the system all winter, I was surprised at the talent I saw. The future isn’t nearly as dire as I thought.
The verdict: Last year, Adam Dunn’s batting average (.159) would have been the worst in baseball history, but he didn’t have enough plate appearances (was six short). Alex Rios was bad at the plate and took it out to the field with him. Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel were supposed to be a lot better. Jake Peavy never really had an impact. The Guillen drama suffocated the clubhouse. All that and the White Sox still won 79 games. If those five players provide even a slight bit of improvement this season, the White Sox will win at least five more games. And if just a couple of those players play completely up to their potential, all the sudden the White Sox are in legitimate contention. Unfortunately, the Tigers are going to be tough to beat and the AL East could be four-deep, meaning even the second Wild Card team will likely have at least 90 wins.
In the end, I see improvement, but not quite enough to make the playoffs because of the competition. I think the White Sox will go 86-76, flirt with the Tigers for most of the season, and ultimately fall a few games short of the last Wild Card spot.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.