Pressing Questions: The Chicago White Sox

Scott Pianowski
January 19, 2012

It's going to be culture shock for the White Sox beat writers this spring, as the team downshifts from Ozzie Guillen's spice rack to Robin Ventura's vanilla personality. Ventura's dialect will be a lot easier to understand, but he's unlikely to fill up the notebooks the way Guillen did over the last eight seasons. Ozzie probably came out of the womb with sound bytes ready to go. Other than one ill-fated mound visit with Nolan Ryan, Ventura's pro career never invited controversy.

Ventura is a curious hire for the big chair because he has absolutely no experience whatsoever; he hasn't been a manager or a coach at any level. But perhaps his even personality will be just what the club needs to fly right (and to hit right); no offense crushed fantasy dreams like the White Sox in 2011. The White Sox finished with just 654 runs, their lowest full-season total since 1988, and there were underachievers all over the lineup. Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Gordon Beckham. … we'd like some answers please.

Is there any logical explanation for Adam Dunn's crash and burn?

You want a theory, we've got theories. Nothing we can prove, of course, but we can throw darts along with the rest of the crowd. Dunn's horrendous 2011 campaign (.159 average, 177 strikeouts, 11 crummy home runs) could be blamed on a springtime appendectomy, or the adjustment to a new league. Perhaps he never rebounded from a poor offseason conditioning program. Dunn also admitted he didn't adjust well to the DH role, though his production level actually dropped further when he was in the field.

The crazy part of it all is that Dunn was the ultimate in consistency before 2011, hitting 38, 38, 40, 40, 40, 40 and 46 homers in consecutive seasons. His batting average was never lofty and you had to deal with a ton of strikeouts, but at least you knew where the power would end up.

If you feel like a lottery ticket, Dunn is very affordable in the early mock season (ADP: 229). He's only 32. Every possible thing went wrong for him early in 2011, and then he was pressing to catch up, a man unsure of his swing. He might tax your average all year, but I expect he'll find a way to hit 30 homers again.

Okay, Mr. Optimism: talk yourself into Alex Rios now

Alex Trebek will flag me on this entry, because it's not in the form of a question. Oh, those tricky Canadians.

Rios is almost as cheap as Dunn thus far (ADP: 218), and I actually see him as a more appealing fantasy buy. He got back on the beam last September (.307/.341/.533, five homers), and although he wasn't much on the bases last year, there's still the potential to swipe 15-20. Rios's BABIP collapsed to .237 last year despite an increase in his line-drive rate; that's clearly bad luck. While Dunn is more of a "pick and hope" type of longshot, I feel confident you can make a profit on Rios this year, so long as he remains a buried commodity.

Who's the Chicago closer?

Sergio Santos fell into the ninth-inning gig last year — after Juan Pierre's fielding carnival personally wrecked the Matt Thornton experiment — but the White Sox have already moved on from Santos. They flipped the reliever in December, sending him to Toronto for right-handed prospect Nestor Molina, someone who's probably a year or so away from a contribution in the majors.

Respected pitching coach Don Cooper, a holdover from the previous staff, says the closing role will be figured out in spring training. Thornton could get another look, with Addison Reed and Jesse Crain also in the mix. Thornton is a rare lefty who has almost no platoon split; it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him into a specialist role. Still, he's 35. Crain was a little wild at times last year but generally had a good season, posting six relief wins, a 2.62 ERA and 70 strikeouts over 65.1 innings. Reed, who just turned 23, is a right-handed flamethrower who moved through the system quickly. He didn't look out of place in a late-season Chicago audition, striking out 12 (against just one walk) over 7.1 innings.

Your interest in any of these guys will depend on the price. The White Sox would be wise to give one of the two veterans a shot at closing first, potentially to enhance their value as trading chips. No matter Reed's profile and pedigree, it probably doesn't make sense to push the kid into the role right away. Cooper is open-minded enough to see that Thornton's early problems last year were tied to bad luck more than anything else. If I had to pick one of these guys today, all prices equal, I'd grab Thornton. But no one drafts for keeps on Jan. 19.

Is U.S. Cellular Field still a launching pad?

If you're looking for home runs, sure, this is the place to go. But the rest of the offensive profile is fairly tame on the South Side. Let's to go the grid, courtesy of the Bill James Handbook:

Paul Konerko is the biggest homer in the mix (next to you, of course, Hawk), posting much better numbers in Chicago for each of the last five seasons. Konerko dropped 172 OPS points on the road last year; it was a 306-point split the previous season. Jake Peavy is still trying to adjust to the park (and AL life): he's posted a 4.90 ERA in 21 lifetime appearances at The Cell.

What else is happing on the South Side?

I'd like to call Alejandro De Aza a post-hype player into his Age 28 year, though he wasn't a super-hot prospect in the Florida days. The White Sox recalled him and let him play in the second half of 2011 and the results were surprising (.329/.400/.520, 12 steels, four homers). GM Kenny Williams says De Aza will get the first crack at the leadoff spot, now that Pierre is mercifully gone. … Perhaps Beckham's 2010 mess could be blamed on the position switch — you always have to be careful when a player moves to a defensive position that's more challenging, as second base is over third base — but what do we say about his punchless 2011? With a .230/.296/.337 line, Beckham hardly resembled a major-league hitter, let alone someone who was a first-round pick in 2008. What would it take to push Beckham back to the minors for some seasoning? I'm not buying here. … Dayan Viciedo finally has a place to play, stepping into right field after the Carlos Quentin trade. He'll turn 23 just before the season starts. Viciedo's Triple-A line from 2011 inspires confidence (.296/.364/.489, 20 homers), but he didn't show any pop in a brief Chicago trial (one homer, .314 slugging over 102 at-bats). He'll probably begin the year near the bottom of the order. … It's not cast in stone yet, but it looks like highly-touted lefty Chris Sale will open the year in the rotation after working exclusively as a pro reliever. If the change becomes locked in, look for a moderate innings cap for Sale in 2012. … Although John Danks was able to nudge his strikeout rate forward in 2011, while trimming his walks, his ERA climbed to 4.33 and he only won eight games in 27 starts. Some bad luck was in play here; a .313 BABIP represented a 23-point jump from his career mark, and his fielding-independent ERAs were half a run lower than the front-door stat. Danks is never going to morph into a true fantasy ace, but you can make an easy profit if he returns to his 2008-2010 level. … Brent Morel clubbed eight homers and drew 15 walks in September, offsetting his .224 average and 18 strikeouts. He'll open the year as the third baseman and could become a pet project of Ventura's. How badly do you want to chase 25 potential homers? … Alligator Lizards in the air? I don't know what it means, either, but here's one potential explanation.