CHICAGO -- It would be easy to blame the disappointing 2011 White Sox season on Adam Dunn's and Alex Rios' massive offensive slumps, as well as Jake Peavy's mound struggles as he fought back from 2010 surgery to reattach his lat.
That assessment would be somewhat unfair because a total team effort left the South Siders well short of their playoff goal, but easy nonetheless.
To say this particular trio, along with second baseman Gordon Beckham, must bounce back for the White Sox to contend in 2012 ... Well, not only is that an accurate statement, but their possibility for future success or failure also becomes a serious consideration for general manager Ken Williams to weigh in building next year's team.
"Well, we are going to have our challenges," Williams said. "We've got a good young core of players that have come through, and have really shown some ability and have played really well. We've got to blend that with some of the veterans that we know are coming back. And the difficult part about that is not really having a good gauge as to what to reasonably expect, based on what has happened.
"Do you go back to counting on what they have done for seven or eight years in some cases, and look at this as an aberration? Or do you account for it, and account for the uncertainty and commit yourself to making sure that we continue to build this young core up so that this next group can do something special?
"Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward," Williams said. "That might be the point where we are at, right now. But it's too early to make that decision."
With Dunn owed $44 million over the next three years, Rios owed $39.5 million over three and Peavy on the hook for $21 million for one year (with a potential 2013 buyout), it seems unlikely any of them will be anywhere but in Chicago. All three players speak with confidence concerning bouncing back to their career norms, which would almost instantly make the White Sox an American League Central contender, assuming young talent such as third baseman Brent Morel, pitcher Chris Sale and outfielder Dayan Viciedo continue to develop. Add in the potential for a rejuvenated Beckham to go with veteran staples such as Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski and Alexei Ramirez, and this same 2011 failure could be a 2012 division champ.
"Absolutely. I have faith in every single one of these guys," Sale said. "This is like a family, right now. And we pull for one another, and some guys have had good years and some have had bad years.
"You can throw that out the window, and come back next year with a clean slate. There's a lot of talent on this club. This year wasn't the year we expected, not the year we wanted, by any means. But I truly believe this group of guys here can make a run for it."
Position by Position
The first disabled list trip of Pierzynski's durable and accomplished career slowed down one of the best offensive runs he had been on in recent memory. Pierzynski has full no-trade veto power. But more importantly, he has plenty of value handling pitchers and at the plate. Look for the reserve role to go to free agent Ramon Castro to Tyler Flowers, who made a positive mark on the pitching staff with his work behind the plate late in the season.
Like a good bottle of wine, Konerko simply gets better with age. The White Sox captain posted his fifth career season with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs, playing hurt for a good portion of the last two months. He shows no signs of slowing down in the final two years of his three-year, $37.5-million deal. Viciedo and Dunn will both be able to work in at first, when needed.
Beckham has talked about fighting to find a more consistent mental approach, as much as making adjustments at the plate, in preparing for a greatly improved year in 2012. His defense was Gold Glove-caliber, and he clearly has the potential to be a consistent extra-base run producer offensively. Omar Vizquel wants to continue playing at 45, but it's not likely the free agent will return as the White Sox utility infielder.
Alexei Ramirez's 2011 numbers didn't finish far off from his 2010 American League Silver Slugger effort, but it was not the breakout effort the White Sox expected, after giving the shortstop a four-year, $32.5 million extension. He remains one of the more athletically-gifted infielders in the AL and has middle-of-the-order type ability in terms of run production.
Morel won the starting third-base job with his defense, and he certainly didn't disappoint in that area over the course of the season. But with seven September homers, Morel also proved that he could be somewhat of a factor with the bat. The White Sox see him more as a hitter with higher-average potential who possesses some pop.
There's little doubt Juan Pierre received and earned the utmost respect from former manager Ozzie Guillen, the coaching staff and his teammates during two years with the White Sox. But with the White Sox having converted Viciedo to the outfield and ready to give this force on offense a starting nod, Pierre seems to be the odd man out through free agency. Alejandro De Aza ignited the White Sox offense during his two months with the big league squad and could be a viable leadoff replacement candidate, as could Brent Lillibridge, who might be the team's best defensive outfielder. But in Rios, De Aza, Viciedo, Lillibridge and Carlos Quentin, the White Sox have five players for three spots. They could move Quentin, who enters his final year of arbitration, or go with De Aza as a fourth outfielder and use a power setup with someone else assuming the leadoff role.
When Mark Buehrle took the mound on September 27 against the Blue Jays, it quite possibly could have marked the end of an era in Chicago. The veteran southpaw has proven to one of the game's most successful pitchers. Buehrle might be looking for a change of scenery in his first real foray into free agency, but has not ruled out a White Sox return. Peavy, Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Philip Humber and Zach Stewart stand as rotation possibilities, but Sale becomes the real wild card. Sale was dominant as a late-inning reliever, but the White Sox are anxious to see him throw 100 pitches an outing and see where he can go. The surplus of starters could lead to another trade, even if Buehrle doesn't return.
Sergio Santos stabilized a bullpen looking for an identity when he moved into the closer's role in late April. The hard-throwing right-hander struggled in September, but the 2011 campaign marks just his third year as a full-time pitcher. Matt Thornton will handle the left-handed setup role if Sale moves to the rotation, with right-handed setup man Jesse Crain coming off of a White Sox debut in which he set a personal-high for holds. Addison Reed showed enough during a September callup to receive 2011 Major League consideration, while Will Ohman will also be back as a left-handed specialist/middle reliever. The White Sox have a $3.75 million option on Jason Frasor, but the local product didn't perform with the effectiveness he wanted after coming over from Toronto.