AL Central: Chicago

The White Sox were fairly quiet this off-season, at least compared with Ken Williams' typical winter. That is not necessarily a bad thing. My feeling about Williams is he often gives up too much young talent to get guys who are on the bad side of the age/performance bell curve. We need look no further than last winter for good examples of this. The White Sox won 99 games and the World Series in 2005. In 2006, they failed to make the playoffs as a result of Williams' deals.

Last year, the White Sox made a big splash by trading their very popular and solid center fielder Aaron Rowand, along with two top pitching prospects, to the Phillies for Jim Thome. I was alone in saying it was not a very good deal for the Pale Hosers. Though I expected it to create more runs for the Sox, I predicted that the Sox would be weak in outfield defense and would give up more runs. I expected their Pythagorean to actually go down as a result of the deal.

Not to gloat, but I was right. Though Brian Anderson was better defensively than I expected, his awful bat early forced Ozzie Guillen to play Rob Machowiak in center more often than he should have. He should not have played him at all out there, really. To put it in perspective, imagine going from Torii Hunter to Nick Punto in center field. In the two games in which the Twins used Punto in center in 2005, it resulted in five runs allowed more than it would have with a good glove man out there, such as Lew Ford. Anyway, the trade was a net loss for the Whities in the short term, and the two prospects they lost caused ripple effects into this offseason that we will talk about below.

The other trade I was fond of as a Twins fan but my White Sox-loving friends hated was the Javier Vazquez trade. The White Sox had a pitcher in Brandon McCarthy who was ready to take the next step. Instead of trusting his young arm, Williams sent a lot of talent to Arizona for a guy with a checkered past and a questionable future. To compound the loss of Rowand, he sent the best center field prospect in the game in Chris Young along with a couple of pitchers to get Vazquez.

Vazquez actually pitched better than I expected, with more than 200 innings. But he had trouble getting out of the sixth in almost every game and ended with an 11-12 record and a 4.84 ERA. Those numbers don't mean much I know, but for a ground ball pitcher who gave up a respectable 23 HRs and 56 walks while striking out 184 batters on a team that scored a lot, the won-loss and ERA numbers are actually better than they would be for most other pitchers.

To compound things, Williams actually signed Vazquez to a three-year extension this offseason. And he traded McCarthy and his best starter from last year--Freddy Garcia. Still, he bucked the trends somewhat from past offseasons by acquiring young arms in the process. Some of that was necessary because, after giving up 20 top prospects for aging veterans since 2000, Williams needed to replenish his system. But it doesn't help the team in 2007 to lose Garcia's 216 quality innings without a known entity to replace him.

Williams did fix the center field problem, to some extent, by signing Derin Erstad to platoon with Anderson. Erstad will not hit like Machowiack, but he will catch the ball. The big rumor now is that Williams will go out and re-acquire Rowand. To me, all the deals Williams has done this winter are an acknowledgment that last winter was not good. The result is a White Sox team that looks much like last year's model without its best starter. So I don't expect great things from it. They will be dangerous and fun to boo as usual. But I predict they finish fourth in the division.

The White Sox rotation is aging and vulnerable. Mark Buehrle is a shell of the pitcher he once was. He's never been a big strikeout pitcher, but prior to last year, he kept the ball in the park. The 36 HRs allowed help to explain his 4.99 ERA. Jose Contreras, is probably the ace of this staff. But his numbers are nothing to write home about either, and he is not getting any younger. John Garland is a solid pitcher who is one of four pitchers to give the White Sox 200 innings. But none of them will have an ERA under 4. The fourth is Vazquez. The fifth starter will likely be lefty John Danks, whom Williams acquired from the Rangers for McCarthy. He actually could be the X factor for the Hosers. But he will likely have his share of adjustments as a rookie.

Williams added some depth to the bullpen with the likes of Andy Sisco. But the closer position is a big question mark with the injury to Bobby Jenks. The two guys who will likely share the closer role until Jenks comes back are hard throwers Mike McDougal and Matt Thornton. Other arms are David Riske and Dustin Hermanson. I see more question marks out in the bullpen in Chicago than any other year since the early oughts.

For all the talk of manufacturing runs, the White Sox are the same as they ever were: swing for the fences and hope for the best. Still, they do have guys who can hit it over the fence (Dye, Thome, Konerko, and Crede) so they are always dangerous. But if your pitcher can keep it in the park, the Hosers will not score all that often. Even AJ Pierzinski, who epitomized the Twins' high-contact philosophy when he played for the good guys, has turned into the all-or-nothing hitter he was in batting practice in the Dome.

The key to consistent run scoring in Chicago will rest with the table setters: Scott Podsednik and Tad Iguchi. Podsednik seems to alternate good years with bad, so he's due for a down year. But Iguchi is solid. If Ozzie uses Erstad often at the top of the order, I don't like the White Sox chances.

All in all, I project the Whities to have a respectable but slightly worse season this year. Something like 86-76 should be good for fourth place in the division.