By Laurence Holmes-
(CBS) So here we are in late August and the White Sox are still in first place.
The season has been a surprise to everyone that doesn’t have an office or locker stall at U.S. Cellular Field. There have been comebacks by Jake Peavy, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. Paul Konerko continues to be the rock of the lineup. Chris Sale may win a Cy Young Award. Robin Ventura could have dibs on Manager of the Year.
But what about their boss?
World Series aside, this may be Kenny Williams’ best season as White Sox general manager.
Let’s start with the hiring of Ventura. Williams rolled the dice on a guy who had no managerial or coaching experience in professional baseball. Had it gone poorly, there are plenty of fans who would’ve thought their GM had gone mad and expected him to follow disposed ex-manager Ozzie Guillen out the door.
Ventura has exceeded all expectations, except for maybe his own. Williams augmented the staff with coaches who made up for Ventura’s inexperience. With Mark Parent, Joe McEwing and Don Cooper, the White Sox have three potential MLB managers on their staff. Coop is a known commodity, but Parent’s attention to detail and adding the emphasis on defense has made a big difference. The White Sox make sure to have infield practice at the start of each series. Right now they rank second in the league in team defense.
“If you have to go and hit the cut-off man in practice, if it happens in a game, you know, hey we just did this earlier. It’s doing the fundamentally sound things that are going to take you to the next level,” White Sox radio analyst Darrin Jackson recently told me. “This team has improved. (The coaches) work hard and they make sure the guys don’t forget it.”
Hitting instructor Jeff Manto shared the fundamental philosophy and broke guys like Dunn down to hitting off a tee in spring training.
“I walked into a pretty good situation and the only thing I added was maybe a little different approach,” Manto said. “The guys are definitely getting their work in, they’re paying attention to detail. To go in there and add anything more than the simplicity that we’ve been adding would probably be detrimental.”
Now let’s take a look at the moves. The Boston Red Sox had no use for Kevin Youkilis. Williams and the White Sox swooped in and got him and cash from Boston. Williams would rather make moves in advance of the deadline instead of having the lack of time play a role in negotiations.
“If you think the guy can help, let’s get ahead of the curve and pick up some games now rather than wait until after July,” Williams said. “Those games may mean the difference.”
Youkilis has been instrumental in the White Sox staying in first place. He’s provided game-winning hits and shored up the defense at third.
“He’s been sound over at third base,” Jackson said. “He’s very good, has good hands. I like the way he gets rid of the ball quickly. Very reliable.”
A young bullpen provided a boost early on, but as the team got to the halfway point, Williams wanted more of a veteran presence. So he got out ahead of the pre-deadline market and added Brett Myers to his pen in a trade with Houston. Jesse Crain got healthy and the Sox got a lot more experience to provide support for young closer Addison Reed.
With John Danks lost for the season, the White Sox needed more depth in the rotation. The White Sox did something they hadn’t done in 25 years, making a trade with the Twins for Francisco Liriano.
“There were other guys on the market, but for us it’s not just about winning the division,” Williams said. “It’s about winning the division and if you get into postseason play having the weapons to actually win … (Liriano) can shut somebody down. He can shut anybody down if he’s right.”
Since joining the White Sox, Liriano has been mostly effective giving up two or less earned runs in three of the four starts he’s made for his new team.
Even the small moves have seemed to work. Sending Jordan Danks down after his first game-winning homer looked harsh. Williams chose to rely on veteran DeWayne Wise instead. In five games, Wise has hit two homers and driven in seven runs.
Luck plays a role, but Williams deserves some credit for continuing to be bold when the moment arises. As an organization, the White Sox goal is to always be looking for opportunities to win the World Series that’s in front of them. Rebuilding hasn’t really been an option.
“We aren’t doing our job — and Kenny has set this tone for 12 years — if we aren’t consistently looking to get better,” Assistant General Manager Rick Hahn told me. “It is really part of what we’re passionate about — being able to be diligent to make that next move.”
When I offered up the idea to Williams that this may be his best year as GM, he quickly shot that down.
“I don’t measure things the way everyone else does,” he said. “I start every season thinking we have done our best to field a team that can compete from a personnel standpoint. After that, it’s up to the players, their performance and the coaching staff’s ability to motivate, teach and put them in positions to succeed.”
There is still time to make a waiver trade between now and the end of the month. The call-ups throughout September will be important too, but with 120 games gone, Williams feels like the team he has is good enough. He hopes the luck they’ve had doesn’t run out and isn’t ready to pat himself on the back just yet.
“Lastly, you pray for health,” the GM added. “Some years things just come together and are better than others. I temper my excitement because it takes you away from the focus of the grind. The only time for reflection is after the season.”
For more White Sox coverage from Laurence Holmes, follow him on Twitter at @LaurenceWHolmes. Listen to his show weeknights from 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. on 670 The Score & 670TheScore.com.