AL Central: White Sox meld misfits

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The mound of boxes, duffels and suitcases in the Chicago White Sox clubhouse rose as the day passed. The trucks are coming, and so is the time to clear out.

For more than a month, the leading men and misfits of general manager Kenny Williams labored in the desert. And as the players flopped their American Touristers atop the pile, perhaps they suspected the ride from here could be unpredictable.

The White Sox need Carlos Quentin to bounce back from injury.
(Getty Images)

Four seasons removed from a World Series championship, near life-sized pictures from which line the hallways here, the White Sox have backed from 99 wins to 79. A graph of their win totals since 2004 – 83-99-90-72-89-79 – would reflect not consistency, but their manager’s heart rate in the course of a typical postgame media conference.

The ride speaks to the lure of the very mediocre American League Central Division, to the precociousness of youth and fragility of middle age, and finally to Williams’ restless and gambling spirit, the last of which brings us again to the growing assortment of baggage accumulating in the clubhouse.

Hoping to hit big and willing to live (or not) with the risks, the White Sox are days from breaking camp with a roster of great potential. For what, exactly, rests in the bats and arms and psyches of proud and decorated men currently sorting through maladies of injury, circumstance and wayward career path.

Any more hopes and dreams, the White Sox would have themselves a full-on high school commencement address. But that’s the beauty of their all-in play here.

Williams and assistant GM Rick Hahn have lined manager Ozzie Guillen’s clubhouse with forgotten (Juan Pierre(notes)), waived (Alex Rios(notes)), released (Andruw Jones(notes)), undervalued (Carlos Quentin(notes)), fragile (Mark Kotsay(notes)), broken-down (J.J. Putz(notes)), bygone (Freddy Garcia(notes)) and overlooked (Mark Teahen(notes)) players.

They have also reworked Guillen’s 25-man roster with former All-Stars, cleanup hitters, Gold Glove winners, home-run champions, stolen-base leaders and World Series heroes.

Standing back a ways, there is a lot to wonder about here, given all Williams, Hahn and Guillen are asking to go right. Up close, well, let’s say they couldn’t have asked more from the past month. And if you are skeptical of four weeks of spring training numbers (as you probably should be), the alternative to Rios, Pierre, Jones and Kotsay all hitting over .300 (and Kotsay hitting over .400) would be far more telling.

“Come around in August when we’ve played 125 games,” Kotsay said. “Hopefully it’s still happening.”

The outfield/DH rotation – Pierre, Rios, Quentin, Jones and sometimes Kotsay – is, first, reasonably healthy. That’s especially important for Quentin, who, at 27, has not played more than 130 games of a major league season, but in his most recent 229 games hit 57 home runs, many on bruised hands, heels, feet and knees. The outfield/DH rotation is, second, reasonably clear-headed. Under the direction of hitting coach Greg Walker, Rios has gone back to the hitting mechanics that made him a blossoming stud in Toronto (and got him $70 million). And, unlike in Los Angeles, Pierre has been given a position and a place in the lineup, both his to keep unless he plays or hits himself out of them. The outfield/DH rotation is, third, trimmer. Jones has what looks somewhat and suspiciously like abs and a waist, which probably isn’t too much to ask of a 32-year-old center fielder, though it did take Jones a couple seasons to see his descent was self-inflicted.

Baseball life is always good – or rationalized away – in March. Like a soft non-conference football schedule, however, all you can do is knock down what’s in front of you. That’s what camp has been for the White Sox, team comeback, guys all over the locker room playing for their at-bats, for their place in Guillen’s graces, for their careers. Jones, winner of a two-year, $36.2 million contract from the Dodgers barely more than two years ago, will play on a base salary of $500,000, and he was fortunate to find that. For a month, he’s only been the team’s best center fielder.

Alex Rios has a six-year career batting average of .281.
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“It’s great,” he said. “It feels great to feel good about myself and play the game. Now it’s just about an opportunity to play. If I get my 500 at-bats I’m going to be up there with all the other guys, with the numbers I always had. It’s about confidence. All that I went through made me stronger.”

More important, perhaps, it made him skinnier. For the moment, it appears he’ll share DH at-bats with Kotsay, the left-handed hitter. But these will be Guillen’s daily decisions. His best defensive outfield would have Jones in left (or center), Rios in center (or left) and Quentin in right. His best offensive lineup will depend on who’s going well, and where the power is coming from, and if they’re really becoming a team that will pitch and defend, and then score runs without the ball leaving the yard, and if Pierre and Gordon Beckham(notes) are getting on base for Quentin and Paul Konerko(notes). The managerial buzzwords have been flexibility and matchups, the clubhouse buzzword has been history – as in, look what these guys have done, what they once were capable of.

“I did it before,” Rios said. “Why couldn’t I do it again? I just needed some time off to clear my head. It’s a fresh start. I hope I can do what I did again.”

The signs aren’t bad. Walker called Rios’ first four weeks, “The best combination of preparation work and game work I’ve ever had. It was exceptional.”

There’s still a week left in spring, for whatever that means. The results, like those big trucks, are coming. The results will be as much on Williams and Hahn as they are on Pierre, Rios, Jones and the rest. This is what the White Sox do, what makes them interesting. Now we find out if it makes them win again.

The rest of the AL Central, alphabetically …

Acta

ClevelandCleveland Indians: Mark Shapiro and Co. are starting over with a new manager (Manny Acta) and the proceeds from salary dumps of CC Sabathia(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Victor Martinez(notes) and Casey Blake(notes). For the moment, they’ll lean heavily on recovering Jake Westbrook(notes) (Tommy John surgery), Fausto Carmona(notes) (gopherball-itis), Travis Hafner(notes) (too much project, too much donkey) and Grady Sizemore(notes) (elbow, abdominal, etc.) On the bright side, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo(notes) is coming off his best season and is in their uniform, not the South Korean army’s. While the top prospects won’t likely alter the Indians’ immediate fortunes, catcher Carlos Santana(notes), first baseman Matt LaPorta(notes), left fielder Michael Brantley(notes) and pitchers Justin Masterson(notes) and Carlos Carrasco(notes) should all see significant time. Closer Kerry Wood(notes) (back) and first baseman Russell Branyan(notes) (back) will start the season on the DL.

DetroitDetroit Tigers: After May 9, the Tigers were in first place every day of the season except Oct. 6. Unfortunately for them, that was the day playoff teams were selected. That’s what losing six of your last nine and having your best hitter spending too many hours at the Birmingham Townsend Hotel bar will do. Preparing for life after payroll binge, the Tigers moved Curtis Granderson(notes) and Edwin Jackson(notes) for two big arms (Max Scherzer(notes) and Daniel Schlereth(notes)), along with reliever Phil Coke(notes) and what they hope is their center fielder and leadoff hitter (Austin Jackson(notes)). With Justin Verlander(notes), Rick Porcello(notes) and Scherzer at the top of the rotation, life gets better in Motown if two of Dontrelle Willis(notes), Nate Robertson(notes) and Jeremy Bonderman(notes) can be effective again.

Greinke

Kansas CityKansas City Royals: In Kansas City, it’s known as The Process, or the plan in place to rebuild the once-proud Royals. At Yahoo! Sports it’s known as The Gimme, or the method of predicting the AL Central standings, starting at the bottom with the once-proud Royals. The club’s gradual – very gradual – ascent to .500 (it’s happened once since 1993) took a hit when the Royals slipped to 97 losses last season. There is little to suggest this is the year the Royals will push the Twins, Tigers or White Sox. But with Zack Greinke(notes), Billy Butler(notes) and Joakim Soria(notes) around, the club could have its moments. The anticipated breakout year for Alex Gordon(notes) has been delayed at least a few more weeks because of a thumb injury, No. 2 starter Gil Meche(notes) suffered from neck and shoulder soreness in spring training and Rick Ankiel(notes) has a sprained ankle.

MinnesotaMinnesota Twins: With so much excitement over the opener, few could have known the season might turn on the closer. The Twins and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have their new open-air, state-of-the-art ballpark, a near $100-million payroll and a contract extension that will keep local guy Joe Mauer(notes) in town for almost another decade. The tightness in Joe Nathan’s(notes) elbow, however, turned out to be an invitation for Tommy John surgery, opening the ninth inning to matchups, hot hands and other potential fun. GM Bill Smith has the time and the prospects to make a trade, and the division will probably stick around long enough for Smith to sort through his options, but none is likely to be as consistent as Nathan. At least the rotation should be deep: Francisco Liriano(notes), himself a veteran of TJ surgery, is again pitching with velocity and late break.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Mar 29, 2010