White Sox try to regain winning form
Chicago wants repeat of 2005 World Series championship
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Reviews of Ken Williams' offseason additions and subtractions in building the 2007 White Sox steadily have been flowing in since early December.
In a word, the bulk of this analysis has been unflattering. Baseball Prospectus went as far as to project the White Sox having a 72-90 record for the upcoming campaign.
But after watching his team come together over the past six weeks in Arizona, getting a daily first-hand view of the young talent he has intermingled with the solid core of returning veterans, Williams now has the chance to answer those critics with the season's first pitch fast approaching. In the astute mind of the White Sox general manager, why does he believe this current squad has a chance to match the 2005 champions?
When given this opportunity to defend the unit he assembled, Williams instead chose to let his answer come from the play on the field.
"Well, I don't think it matters much why I think it is or why you think it is or what other people think anymore," Williams said. "On April 2, we get a chance to prove it. I'll look forward to not having to talk about it anymore and let the guys show what they can do.
"I've talked about all the things I like in regard to how the team is made up, but it's time for them to go out and play now. The talk really doesn't matter anymore."
While Williams chose to take a few punches in the gut from pundits around the country, some of the White Sox charges opted to speak out as to why they believe the 2007 campaign could be something special. In actuality, many held the same fervent belief about the 2006 squad, and that particular team's effort certainly would not be considered a grave disappointment by looking at the raw numbers.
The White Sox finished with 90 victories, taking them to that particular plateau in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1963-65. They led the Majors with 236 home runs, set a franchise record with a .9852 fielding percentage and had a starting rotation with five pitchers who won at least 11 games and led the Majors once again with 1,042 innings pitched.
All impressive numbers, to be sure, but all of those statistics didn't add up to a second straight playoff berth, let alone a second straight World Series crown. Under the leadership of Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen, that title has become the only barometer for success.
"In our own eyes, where we set the bar, I think we struggled a little bit in 2006," said White Sox leadoff hitter Scott Podsednik, whose average dipped from .290 in 2005 to .261 in 2006, and his stolen base total dropped from 59 to 40. "We got away a little bit from playing that crisp, fundamentally sound baseball like we did in 2005. We need to get everyone back pulling on that same rope."
"If you would have asked me the same question last year, I think we had a better team than we did in 2005," White Sox starting pitcher Mark Buehrle added. "But the results weren't that good. Everyone has been loose down [in Arizona], like it was in 2005, a lot of joking around and picking on guys on and off the field. The bonding and team chemistry feels pretty good so far."
Having chemistry and that special grinder sort of feeling that permeated the White Sox clubhouse in 2005 seems to be found amongst every championship team. But the greatest atmosphere in the world can't make up for a group's shortcomings, as was evident with the talented 2006 White Sox squad.
So, Williams went about his usual aggressive but highly prepared manner in strengthening some of those weaknesses. The greatest reclamation project was the bullpen, a deep, focal point in 2005. But Cliff Politte and Dustin Hermanson battled through injuries in 2006, Neal Cotts was ineffective and the White Sox missed a valuable innings-eater in relief such as Luis Vizcaino.
Bobby Jenks, who became the third player in franchise history to record at least 40 saves in a single season, leads a young, hard-throwing group of 2007 relievers, with Guillen having the potential to use a closer-type pitcher from the sixth inning moving forward. This group's apparent improvement has the White Sox manager highly optimistic.
"We've also played better baseball during Spring Training," Guillen said. "We do the little things. The win and loss record is not what people want, but I don't come to Spring Training to win games. I come to prepare my team to be the best team when we break camp."
A championship hangover also might have played a part in the White Sox inability to reach the 2006 playoffs. It's not that the team got fat and happy, but the White Sox became the target for every team in baseball. According to Podsednik, the White Sox also might have been a little bit in awe of what they accomplished, slightly diverting their overall focus.
"It was kind of like being put back in our place last year," Podsednik said. "It's really going to help us."
Questions still exist in regard to the current version of the White Sox, as Jose Contreras prepares to face off against Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia on Opening Day at U.S. Cellular Field.
Can key contributors such as Podsednik (sports hernia), Darin Erstad (right ankle) and Jose Contreras (hamstring, back) stay healthy all season? How will the season-ending torn right labrum suffered by backup catcher and right-handed hitting Toby Hall hamper the team's approach against the brutal run of high-level southpaws within the AL Central?
Most importantly, can the White Sox starting rotation bounce back and give this team a championship base as it did in 2005? With one of baseball's best offenses in place, the South Siders will go as far as their pitching takes them.
Williams has heard the questions and all the doubters, in the process. He elects to focus on what's ahead instead of the past criticism, hoping to provide his best answers while hoisting a championship trophy with chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Guillen in late October.
"There is only one mission," Guillen said. "That mission is to win the World Series. It's my job to make sure I push the pedal and make sure this team doesn't just go through the motions."
"Our team played well last year but not good enough in those few extra games we needed to win the division," Buehrle added. "It will be different this year."
"There are probably more things that I felt good about than I'm worried about," said Williams, providing a brief analysis moving forward from Arizona. "But you will never take the worry from me. It's part of what makes me tick and what drives me."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.