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South Side 'back to normal'

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

Out at the offices on West 35th Street in Chicago, Kenny Williams "crawled out from under the rock I've been under the past couple weeks" to discover the locals thought a lot more of him last winter.

A baseball general manager always looks smarter standing next to a World Series trophy. Or on top of one of those double-decker buses, his mouth wrapped around a Cohiba. Imagine what it would do for Jim Bowden's image.

Then you make a few trades for some guys no one's heard of and, well, in a town like Chicago, you start paying for your own stinkin' drinks again.

"Things are back to normal," Williams said. "That whole love-fest thing, they were making me uncomfortable anyway. This is much more the way I remember it here."

For a while there, Jerry Reinsdorf was the cranky grandfather who finally had blurted out the right answer during Jeopardy!, if maybe not in the form of a question, for which you'd forgive him.

Williams was the ex-jock G.M. who had acted as though he knew more than anyone, and sometimes he did.

Ozzie Guillen stood on the top step and ran that part from behind a rant and a smirk, and on the night of Oct. 26, 2005, they all turned Minute Maid Park into the biggest Mimosa ever.

After an off century, the Chicago White Sox finally had tied together enough pitching and enough of a lineup and enough character to be great, an organizational plan and outcome that appears to have bought them exactly one year of presumed proficiency.

Since trading 23-year-old pitcher Brandon McCarthy to the Texas Rangers two days before Christmas, that coming 2½ weeks after trading 17-game winner Freddy Garcia to the Philadelphia Phillies, Williams has been accused by the friendlies of:

Drinking too much eggnog. Wait, "way" too much eggnog.
Channeling Billy Beane.
Franchise-wrecking arrogance.
Evidently, when you don't spend $300 million on your ballclub in a month, they ship the clown suit over from Wrigleyville.

And from out of the little car: Gavin Floyd, Gio Gonzalez, Nick Masset, John Danks and Jacob Rasner, the pitchers who came in those two trades and will replace Garcia in the rotation and McCarthy in the bullpen and then help fill out the top end of the farm system. Of them, only Rasner, who pitched in Class-A last year, is what scouts consider a low-ceiling guy.

That's just the beginning. In a market that has seen massive contracts ferried to more than a few middle-of-the-rotation starters, Mark Buehrle – like Garcia – is nine months from free agency. Javier Vazquez is two seasons away and, in a year, arbitration eligible.

When Williams traded Garcia, a workhorse who had thrown at least 200 innings in seven of eight seasons, it was assumed McCarthy, who had bided his time in the bullpen last season, would become the fifth starter. The White Sox had boasted about him for years and, if a game plan was changing, McCarthy – young, good arm, living near the big-league minimum wage – seemed a decent place to restart a philosophy.

Instead, Williams watched the Rangers dally in the Barry Zito free agency, saw the Rangers were thin in starting pitching, and initiated the conversations that eventually would put a Rangers uniform on McCarthy and a couple more live arms in Chicago.

"They put up a good front with McCarthy over the last couple years," one American League executive said. "They got people to think they really liked him."

Well, actually, they did like him. He has a good curveball and a good changeup that, according to one scout, "he kind of falls in love with." The fastball is straight and sometimes up in the strike zone, which means home runs, but, again, he's 23 and these things happen at 23.

The same scout said he likes Gonzalez, Masset and Danks and had his doubts about Floyd. The White Sox saw enough of Floyd at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to decide he had smoothed his delivery, and that as a result he was throwing sharper curveballs and fastballs with more sink and for more strikes. Hitters were swinging and missing again.

"We believe Gavin Floyd had turned such a corner that he's pitched like the guy everybody thought he would a couple years ago," Williams said.

They also believe Masset, a right-hander, is "a tick below Bobby Jenks," and that he and the left-hander Danks, no matter how the fifth starter sorts out, will help Williams reach his goal of building one of the best bullpens in baseball.

Admittedly, whittling down a pitching staff that a year before had won the hardened hearts and minds of White Sox fans might strike folks as an odd way to go about it. But the White Sox had lost that edge last season, when their starters ranked eighth in the league in ERA, and their relievers were worse.

That's partly explained by U.S. Cellular Field, which Williams swears has become the Child of Coors Field. But, then, it's an even better reason to reconfigure the staff away from straight, high fastballs and toward ground balls.

Yes, they'll be cheaper than they would have been. No, it's not a given that this is entirely Williams' baseball plan and not Reinsdorf's salary lockdown. Probably, it's some of both. But unless you love writing luxury-tax checks, the next few winters probably are not a great time to rebuild your rotation.

"We've attempted to give ourselves an equal chance to sustain what we have and at the same time fortify our pitching for the next four or five years," Williams said. "The plan is accelerated when you see mediocrity rewarded to the degree it's been rewarded this offseason. That's not a game we're going to play."

"I'm all for paying impact players," he added. "[But] the problem with that is it drags others up to what I consider unconscionable levels. So you play that game or chart your course."

If it reminds you a little of what the Yankees are doing – think Gary Sheffield for three pitchers and Randy Johnson for two pitchers and an outfielder, not re-upping Mike Mussina and signing Andy Pettitte – well, Williams is right there with you. In fact, when he spoke to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman recently he said he told him, "I see what you're doing. And I like it."

All of this forethought leaves the possibility the White Sox will tread water in the ferocious American League Central in 2007 and again finish just short of the postseason. Williams doesn't think so.

"We just decided to go a different route than other people," Williams said.