By Adam Hoge-
GLENDALE, Ariz. (CBS) After spending five days 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:
Greatest strength: The bullpen. New bullpen coach Bobby Thigpen will have plenty of talented pitchers to manage in the left field corner this season. With the addition of Matt Lindstrom, the White Sox have a solid group of veterans mixed in with young, live arms. In fact, they might have too many to start the season as a guy like Ramon Troncoso, a non-roster invitee, has been making a push for a roster spot that may not exist.
Addison Reed should continue to be a reliable closer and he’s followed by a number of qualified setup men. Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain are still around, but they could be pushed hard by the younger guys, especially with Crain battling a strained abductor in camp and Thornton showing signs of age. Nate Jones could end up being the top right-handed setup man, while Donnie Veal will get a look at the left-handed spot after holding left-handed hitters to just a .094 average last season.
Meanwhile, Lindstrom will certainly get plenty of work and there’s still Hector Santiago, who will likely be the first to jump into the rotation if needed. White Sox general manager Rick Hahn also talks highly of Jhan Marinez, Brian Omogrosso and Jeff Gray, and Leyson Septimo pitched in 21 games for the White Sox last season too. The point is, there’s a lot of depth, which should lighten the load on guys like Thornton and Crain and keep the White Sox in front when they hold late-inning leads.
Biggest weakness: Third base. Hahn went out and added Jeff Keppinger and Conor Gillaspie, which will likely send Brent Morel to Charlotte to start the season. At least there are some options there. The problem is, none of those guys are going to provide you with the power you’d like to see from the third-base position and it remains to be seen if any of them can give you quality at-bats in the two-hole, which I singled out as the biggest weakness last season and still figures to be an issue.
Keppinger’s .367 OBP last season was .30 points higher than his major league average and Gillaspie is too much of a wild card at this point. He’s having a good spring, but he never panned out with the Giants. The White Sox hope a change of scenery helps, but there’s no way to tell for sure until the season starts. Meanwhile, there’s a good chance Morel will end up contributing to the major league roster at some point this season and it’s possible some time in Charlotte will lead to better results with the White Sox now that he’s fully healthy. Again though, you can’t count on that.
Most impressed with: Chris Sale. This is a pretty easy one. Now locked up with a long-term deal, the White Sox have their ace of the future — as long as the arm holds up. But despite the awkward delivery, Sale just continues to go out there and dominate and it should be no different this year. Now in his second season starting, both he and the White Sox are counting on his arm being strong for the entire year.
This is a kid who gets it too. Not only could he have held out for more money, Sale played a part in getting the deal done when the two sides were stuck. He called Hahn personally to resolve the issues and that’s a perfect example of why the White Sox are in love with him. He’s a down-to-earth guy who isn’t going to change now that he has his money.
And he may even win a Cy Young.
Great sign: Paul Konerko looks good. Perhaps the biggest question I had going down to Arizona was this: Were Paul Konerko’s struggles last season a sign that he’s done or just a sign that he’s starting to deteriorate? There’s a big difference. Konerko is having a great spring with five home runs, which means he can still be counted on in 2013. Will he hit 40 home runs? Probably not. He might not even hit 30. But as long as he’s spraying the ball to all fields, he’s going to drive in runs and produce in the middle of the order.
A word of caution, however: Konerko looked better than ever last spring and he carried that into the season with a dominating first two months before falling off hard. How can the White Sox avoid that happening again? Expect Konerko to DH more and maybe get more days off. His defense is very valuable, but not as valuable as his bat, which the White Sox need to be working for six months, not just two.
Bad sign: Keppinger can’t stay on the field. The new White Sox third baseman has only played in eight games this spring with various issues, the most recent being irritation in his throwing shoulder. No one is expecting the guy to be a savior at third base, but he at least needs to be on the field as he gives manager Robin Ventura a lot of options with his lineup.
Both Ventura and Hahn say they aren’t worried about Keppinger being ready to play every day when the season starts, but what else are they going to say? Keep an eye on him in the next few weeks because this is a position the White Sox need as much help as they can get.
On second thought: The rotation should be very good. In fact, I almost declared it the team’s greatest strength. The reason I didn’t is because of the health concerns for John Danks, who is still coming back slowly and was hit hard last Saturday by the Diamondbacks. But if Danks gets back and can be a reliable No. 3 starter — the spot in the rotation I’ve always felt is his ceiling — then this could be one of the best rotations in the American League. Here’s how I see it playing out:
Chris Sale – A Cy Young contender.
Jake Peavy – A great No. 2 in any rotation.
John Danks – Probably an above-average No. 3 when healthy.
Jose Quintana – The White Sox don’t think last year was a fluke. Could be a very valuable back-end guy.
Gavin Floyd – Not exactly reliable, but there are a lot worse No. 5s out there.
Then you still have Hector Santiago, who the White Sox view as a future starter who is probably ready today. With Dylan Axelrod still in the fold and young guys like Simon Castro and Nestor Molina in the farm system, the rotation is in pretty good shape for 2013.
The verdict: It should be much of the same for the White Sox in 2013 with the team staying in contention for at least a wild card berth and a chance for things to go much better if everything comes together. With A.J. Pierzynski gone, the White Sox will need young guys like Tyler Flowers and Dayan Viciedo to produce immediately and that’s a big question mark. They can’t afford to sit around and wait. Hahn openly admits the team might not have as much power as last year, but he hopes they can make up for it with better hitting all around.
Really, when it comes down to it, 2013 is going to be about on-base percentage. The pitching should be there, but the power may not. Thus, the White Sox need to get on-base and do the little things to score runs efficiently.
For the White Sox to beat out the Tigers for the division, a lot will have to happen: Keppinger needs to play like he did last year with the Rays, Alejandro De Aza needs to strike out less and continue to be a solid leadoff hitter, Konerko needs to put together a full year of production, Adam Dunn can’t regress, neither can Alex Rios, and Flowers, Viciedo, Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham need to turn into the players they were billed to be.
Oh, and they need to beat the Royals.
All of that is possible, but it’s not likely it all happens together. That’s why I expect the White Sox to stay in contention again for five months, but eventually fall short of a Tigers team that should be much better out of the gate this season.
Had the White Sox won their last game of the season last year, my prediction of a 86-76 record in 2012 would have been spot on. This year, I’m calling for a couple more wins: 88-74 but no postseason berth.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, 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.