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10/02/05 11:00 PM ET

Red Sox-White Sox: Position analysis

A.J. Pierzynski has been considered an offense-first catcher for some time. But unlike his reputation at his last stop, San Francisco, he has worked very effectively with the White Sox staff. He remains a productive hitter for his position, and was even pressed into the No. 3 spot in the order in some late-season games. Only the third team captain in Boston history, the first in 16 years, Jason Varitek is an island of sobriety in a sea of eccentrics. He commands respect in the clubhouse and on the field. He doesn't call a game as much as orchestrate it. Offensively, put up his typical cookie-cutter season.

Paul Konerko became the second White Sox player to hit 40 home runs in back-to-back seasons, the other being Frank Thomas. And Konerko is an intangibles guy, a source of clubhouse stability in a roller-coaster second half. John Olerud jumped into the AL East frying pan out of "retirement" for the second straight year, this time on the Boston side. He was born to hit line drives and carries a smooth glove. Since joining the Sox at the end of May, has played 75 games to incumbent Kevin Millar's 62.

Tadahito Iguchi quietly became a steadying influence on the Sox defense, as well as being a valuable No. 2 hitter. Acquired from Kansas City in an emergency a day after Mark Bellhorn went out with a sprained thumb, Tony Graffanino quickly blew away the Red Sox with his skills set. He has less power than the man he replaced, but also a smaller hole with his bat. He has been deadly in the clutch. Iguchi's game has more dimensions.

For most of his career, Joe Crede had been better defensively than offensively, but this season he delivered some very crucial hits. He's an improved player, part of the improved White Sox defense. Bill Mueller has survived well on a twice-operated right knee, but the switch-hitter has lost most of his power from the right side. He is lightning quick at the hot corner but doesn't have much range to his left, making the gap between him and Edgar Renteria a little too inviting for batters.

Juan Uribe turned out to be another defensive upgrade for the White Sox. They had been shaky at short for some time, but Uribe has helped to solidify the defense at this crucial position, and like almost everybody else on this team, has enough pop to worry the opposition. After a slow start, Edgar Renteria has given the Red Sox exactly what they expected with the bat. But his defense has been a shocking disappointment. Not only does he have more errors than the last two seasons combined, but he has not exhibited the kind of range that he has demonstrated throughout his career. Still, in this setting, he's been a big-time player for a long time.

Scott Podsednik was the missing link for the White Sox as they changed to an offense that had the potential to manufacture runs. His speed at the top of the lineup gave the White Sox the element they needed to kick-start their offense. The Manny Ramirez package never changes. You get thunder at the plate, adventure on the bases, occasional amusement in the field. Despite a reputation as a defensive misfit, he was the AL's runaway leader in outfield assists, but that's owed at least in part to left field's close quarters at Fenway Park.

Aaron Rowand is another White Sox player who has grown into his job. He's had some dazzling defensive stretches this season, particularly against the Yankees in New York. And although this was not his best offensive season, he gives the Sox another hitter who can produce in the bottom half of the lineup. At times, it has been painful to watch Johnny Damon persevere with a seriously damaged left shoulder, which he has carried since early June. At bat, however, he continues to inflict pain. He's done an even better job of setting the table than last year, though his run production is understandably off. His arm was never a particular strength, but he can still cover ground.

Jermaine Dye has been a major factor in the White Sox success this season. He is still a quality run producer. He is another positive factor in the clubhouse, a steadying influence, a pro who has been down this road before. After missing much of last season's fun, Trot Nixon has been along for the full ride. Although his bat is only a splinter of its former self, he is a cold-blooded guy who is very dangerous in the clutch. It's difficult to take the extra base on plays in front of him.

Carl Everett was a solid run producer over most of the season, one of the reasons that this club could withstand the loss of Frank Thomas. But late in the year, at the very time the Sox were scuffling, he went into a pronounced slump. And then, when he was dropped from his usual third spot in the lineup to sixth, he went public with his displeasure. It was an ugly, but not atypical, episode. He may be "only" a DH, but David Ortiz might be the best DH the game has ever seen. For the fourth straight season, he has improved his numbers across the board. Reggie can keep Mr. October but, one more postseason like the last one and Big Papi becomes Sir October.

The relief corps has been a major strength of the White Sox run to a division title. Dustin Hermanson took over the closer's role, which was unsettled coming into the season, and was terrific until he was slowed by back problems. Setup men Neal Cotts from the left side and right-hander Cliff Politte had superb seasons as well. Lefty Damaso Marte had a few hiccups late in the season, but generally also performed well. The closer's role went late in the season to Bobby Jenks, a massive rookie with a fastball that can touch three figures. He was not infallible, but he was on the mound when the Sox clinched the division and that says something. If Terry Francona managed in roller skates, he'd considerably cut down on the time of games. He's been in matchup heaven since an influx of midseason changes redid his pen. Mike Timlin has done solid work inheriting closing duties, and Jonathan Papelbon is secure as the eighth-inning guy. Otherwise, it's the left-right shuttle with Mike Myers, Chad Bradford, Lenny DiNardo and Jeremi Gonzalez.

The Sox have some serviceable Major Leaguers to pick from, including Timo Perez, Geoff Blum, Ross Gload, Willie Harris and Pablo Ozuna, most of whom had stretches of regular work due to injuries among starters and all of whom helped the cause. Except for Kevin Millar, who invariably ends up with an integral role even when Olerud starts, for the Red Sox this is strictly a "break glass in case of emergency" group. Catcher Doug Mirabelli sits in Tim Wakefield's caddy bag, outfielder Adam Stern is a late-game defensive sub and infielder Alex Cora is a veteran who can provide defensive help. As for helping in a pinch, Jay Payton still leads with three pinch-hits, and he's been in Oakland since July.

Ozzie Guillen is probably the leading candidate for AL manager of the year, and why not? He infuses his team with nonstop enthusiasm. He is unconventional. He is candid, probably to a fault. He has offended more than a few people with more than a few comments. But it is hard to argue how far the Sox have come under his leadership. He has a vision of what kind of ballclub he wants and he works on getting from here to there every day. Terry Francona is a big risk taker, and as long as he has the right personnel and uses them in the right spots, he'll keep landing on his feet. He is willing to roll the dice, taking a counter-character approach if the situation warrants. Just think of that legendary Dave Roberts steal in Game 4 of last year's ALCS. How many managers would have risked losing an elimination game on that play? Guillen is this year's probable AL manager of the year. Francona won a World Series with the Red Sox. The competition is too keen to award an advantage.

The White Sox were the darlings of the first half. Then, when their 15-game lead shrunk to almost nothing, their critics were calling them "chokers." But they are probably better off for having had some adversity and then succeeding, rather than coasting home with a huge lead. What you can't know about the White Sox is how many of their postseason first-timers will react under this pressure. The Red Sox will never give in to circumstances. They're immune to pressure or bad breaks. Of course, they learned that by fire, coming back last October from the direst situation possible. So you can never count them out. In something as emotion-driven as the playoffs, that's a huge asset.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.