Guillen expects return to small ball
White Sox hope to be less reliant on home runs, run bases better
CHICAGO -- The Chicago White Sox hit home runs as a staple of their offense.
It's a fact known well by the South Siders' collective opposition, not to mention manager Ozzie Guillen, hitting coach Greg Walker and the players listed up and down the White Sox roster. It's the same realization arrived at by the plethora of fans filling up U.S. Cellular Field, who prepare for a fireworks show every time they venture to 333 W. 35th St.
Those home runs also have become a convenient excuse for White Sox detractors whenever the team has struggled with the bat during Guillen's five-year tenure. The team lives and dies with the long ball, almost like a local softball team, so the critiques go, and if they aren't clearing the fences, they aren't scoring runs.
But here's another fact to add to the list above. The White Sox will never win in their home ballpark if they adopt the "piranha" style exhibited by the Minnesota Twins. Home runs are a necessity, game-changers in an offensive-minded American League.
Finding that balance between power and doing the little things stands as one of the results general manager Ken Williams hopes to witness on the field after putting together the 2009 roster.
"Well, we are definitely gong to be more athletic," said Williams, during a Wednesday press conference at U.S. Cellular.
"You rarely will find a team that can hit a bunch of home runs and that is going to be fast," said White Sox outfielder Brian Anderson, in town for SoxFest this weekend. "But you do want guys on base who can run in front of those power hitters."
The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, who reached the World Series and eliminated the White Sox in the AL Division Series, featured that balance spoken of by Anderson. The Rays blasted 180 home runs, ranking fourth in the AL, and led the league with 142 stolen bases.
Another example of that near-perfect mix came from the 2005 White Sox. The group with 110 total wins and the franchise's first World Series title in almost nine decades knocked out exactly 200 home runs to sit fourth in the AL and swiped 137 bases to rank third.
This exciting style of play under Guillen earned the apropos nickname of "Ozzie Ball" and became a common part of the Chicago vernacular after the White Sox swept Houston to finish off their title run. As Guillen has pointed out since, maybe "Ozzie Ball" was a bit misinterpreted or overstated.
Even with the offensive balance, the White Sox ranked ninth in the AL with 741 runs scored. The 2008 Rays also ranked ninth out of 14 teams with their 774 runs scored.
Ultimately, it wasn't about the home runs or stolen bases specifically. The respective success for these two teams centered on top-notch pitching (2005 White Sox first in ERA, 2008 Rays second) and defense, with just enough offense to win consistently. Guillen sees a return to that style of baseball during the 2009 campaign.
"Baseball is going back to basics, with pitching, playing defense and getting the guys over," said Guillen during a Thursday appearance on the television show Chicago Tribune Live.
To follow that theme, Guillen intends to focus solely on bunting on one of the practice fields at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. Some of Guillen's starters won't be called upon to steal a base or lay down a bunt, pretty much at any point of a game, regardless of the close score.
Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Quentin and, to some extent, A.J. Pierzynski, will be driving in runs and taking 90-mph fastballs or hanging curves deep into the Chicago nights. Their game is about production, and without that powerful middle, the White Sox basically would have little chance in the AL Central -- especially during games at hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.
Changes will come in 2009 from the rest of the lineup. Whether Chris Getz or Brent Lillibridge winds up at second base or it's Jerry Owens, DeWayne Wise, Anderson or Lillibridge in center, they have the capacity to infuse that energy and become table-setters or distractions around the lineup's strong middle. Josh Fields and Alexei Ramirez, both hitters with their fair share of power, also can show a little speed on the basepaths.
"Fields is a silent assassin on the basepaths," said Anderson with a laugh. "You look at him and think he's a squatty toad over at third base, and then he steals 15 or 20 bases. I'm excited to see all those guys out there."
White Sox home run critics will continue to make their presence known if the offense becomes too reliant on the majestic 400-foot drives. And because of injuries in 2008, the team did become too much all-or-nothing in its attack. That result could change thanks to the offseason changes made by Williams, and Guillen is excited by the possibilities.
"I wish the fireworks would go off when someone hits a triple or gets the guy over," said Guillen with a laugh.
"Our ballpark plays well for the home run hitters," Anderson said. "We have guys there who hit home runs and who are not fast, so it just gives people something to talk about when we are not stealing bases."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.