By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) After a tumultuous finish to the 2011 season that ended with Ozzie Guillen’s departure to Miami, expectations for the 2012 White Sox have plummeted.
And considering the team’s three highest-paid returning players — Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn — provided next to nothing in 2011, it’s hard to blame fans for having a negative attitude going forward.
It also doesn’t help that while the White Sox’s neighbors to the north made a huge splash by hiring Theo Epstein, while Kenny Williams assembled a coaching staff with very little experience.
With that said, consider the White Sox a dangerous dark horse in 2012.
What’s being missed in all the negativity is that there’s as much evidence pointing to Robin Ventura being a great manager as there is pointing to him being a horrible manager. We simply don’t know. And what we do know about him as a person suggests that he will bring a much-welcomed breath of fresh air into a locker room that has been filled with drama and general awkwardness the last two seasons.
Meanwhile, Adam Dunn’s career numbers instantly make him Major League Baseball’s leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. If he and Alex Rios bat anywhere near their career averages, the White Sox are a contender in a division that always fluctuates from year-to-year.
The truth is that this likely won’t be a very busy off-season for the White Sox, but it will still be an important one. To get you ready, here are five burning White Sox questions for the winter:
1. What will the starting rotation look like in 2012?
The answer to this question starts with Mark Buehrle. Will the White Sox bring him back? At this point it’s obvious Buehrle only wants to play in Chicago or St. Louis and the Cardinals might not even be a realistic option. They don’t necessarily need another starting pitcher with Adam Wainwright coming back and depending on what happens with Albert Pujols, they may not want to pay up for a 32-year-old starter. Meanwhile, the White Sox can’t move Peavy, Rios or Dunn and their financial situation is worse than they are letting off. That doesn’t leave them a lot of cash to give to Buehrle, who made $14 million each of the last four seasons.
My guess is that Buehrle ends up taking a lot less money on a two- or three-year deal and stays with the White Sox. Kenny Williams may then look to move John Danks to free up the money to pay Buehrle. Danks is set to become a free agent after the 2012 season and is due for a raise in arbitration once again (made $6 million in 2011). Thus, Buehrle could end up being a cheaper option and moving Danks will bring back a prospect or two as Williams looks towards 2013 and 2014 like he said he would.
In the end, I’d be surprised if both Buehrle and Danks are in the rotation next season. Chris Sale is expected to join the starting five in the spring and it’s unlikely the White Sox would carry three lefties in the rotation.
You also can’t rule out a trade involving Gavin Floyd who is set to make $7 million in 2012 with a $9.5 million club option for 2013. Making such a move would free up more money, but it could also mean moving Zach Stewart into the rotation permanently, which would be risky.
Jake Peavy should be healthy by spring training, but fans have heard that before. The White Sox are on the hook for $17 million in 2012, but they hold a $22 million option for 2013. That at least gives them flexibility. If Peavy never recovers, they can let him go after 2012. If he’s pitching well, the Sox could move him before the trade deadline. Or, if he magically turns into a Cy Young contender again, they could even pick up the option. Right now, that appears unlikely, but either way, he’s in the rotation next season if he’s healthy.
Of course, that’s a big “if”. If you include Buehrle, the rotation might look like this: Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, Chris Sale, and Phil Humber, with Zach Stewart providing insurance if Peavy is unreliable. If this rotation looks a tad shaky to you, it’s because it is, but Williams is clearly looking toward the future. I wouldn’t rule out adding a cheap veteran, but there aren’t many options.
2. Which young position players are here to stay?
You can expect to see Dayan Viciedo and Tyler Flowers permanently on the major league roster next season. Both proved that they deserve a chance to play every day and they fit into the White Sox’s new younger identity. Brent Morel is also here to stay after playing a full season at the major-league level. Scouts raved about his potential even as he struggled last season and a power-surge in September (8 HR, 19 RBI) provided hope that might blossom a lot like Joe Crede did at the position.
It also appears likely that Alejandro De Aza will start the season as the team’s leadoff hitter. Juan Pierre is probably gone and De Aza did enough in 2011 to suggest he can be an everyday leadoff hitter at the major league level. However, Williams took that chance with Dewayne Wise a few years ago and it didn’t work out so this is certainly a position to watch.
Of course if De Aza and Viciedo are both on-board for 2012, the question becomes: What happens to Rios and Carlos Quentin? As mentioned before, Rios is nearly impossible to move so Quentin becomes a likely candidate to get traded in the offseason.
As for Tyler Flowers…
3. How will Robin Ventura handle the playing time of A.J. Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers at catcher?
Pierzynski only has one year left on his deal and Flowers’ surprising 2011 season — it appeared the Sox had given up on him entering the season — suggests he can be the team’s starting catcher of the future. In fact, considering he has a better arm than Pierzynski, one could make the argument that he should be playing every day next season. That likely won’t happen, but consider 2012 a transition year. Flowers should play more and Pierzynski’s 1,000-inning streak could end at 10 years.
4. Is this Gordon Beckham’s last chance?
Beckham’s numbers have declined each of the last two seasons and the .230 BA, 10 HR and 44 RBI he put up in 2011 won’t cut it at the major-league level. His above-average defense should keep him around if he can at least put up average numbers, but if he doesn’t do that in 2012, Williams will have to look for other options in the future.
It will be interesting to see if new hitting coach Jeff Manto has an impact on Beckham.
5. What will the bullpen look like?
Some fans were surprised to see Jason Frasor’s option picked up at $3.5 million Monday, but the move falls in line with Williams’ usual philosophy in the bullpen that usually pays off. He loves to load the pen with strong arms and let Don Cooper work his magic. Frasor was shaky after coming over from Toronto last season, but with a full offseason and spring to work with Cooper, the thinking is that he’ll be better off in 2012.
The White Sox were wise to sign Sergio Santos to a three-year deal with options through 2017. Williams deserves credit for finding a long-term closer so quickly after letting Bobby Jenks go. With Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain still in the fold, the Sox enter 2012 with a solid nucleus in the bullpen.
The biggest question becomes: Which left-hander replaces Chris Sale if he moves to the rotation? With no obvious in-house candidates, this is one of the few areas Williams will probably explore in free agency.
For more on the White Sox throughout the off-season, follow Adam on Twitter (@AdamHogeCBS).
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.