This Friday, the Chicago White Sox begin a new chapter in team history with first-year manager Robin Ventura at the helm. While expectations may be low on the South Side, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this team can sneak up on the American League Central and make a run at the division title—but there are just as many reasons to believe otherwise.
Ventura takes the reins of a team that enters the 2012 Major League Baseball season with seven rookies on its roster. For the first time in five years and for just the second time since 2001, the Sox will have an Opening Day starter that isn't named Mark Buehrle.
Before plunging into the details, remember this fact: in Sports Illustrated's 2005 Spring Training Preview, the Sox were predicted to finish third in the division and were pinned as the 17th overall team in MLB. They finished that season dousing each other in champagne and hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy.
You can put that on the board, SI.
If the stars align and the baseball gods bless Adam Dunn with a clone of Roy Hobbs' Wonderboy bat, perhaps Chicago will be partying in the streets like it's 2005 again.
Best-Case Scenario: 94-68, First in AL Central
For Chicago to capture the division crown, a lot of things have to go right, and it starts with the starting pitching.
The staff's success will hinge on health. The farm system is limited with viable replacement options if one of the starters suffer a major injury.
Where will the White Sox finish in the American League Central?
Lefty John Danks has done enough to earn the Opening Day nod, but if he is the ace of the staff, then the White Sox aren't going anywhere. That's not intended to be a knock on Danks' talent; it's a reminder that Chicago still has a Cy Young Award winner on its roster.
That player is Jake Peavy, and he should beg Father Time to turn to clock back to 2007 when he won the Cy Young with the San Diego Padres in an unanimous vote. Before reaching that level, however, Peavy has to stay healthy for the entire season. He is in the final year of his contract and has vastly underperformed since Chicago traded for him in a 2009 deadline deal.
This year is Peavy's final chance to prove to Chicago, and to the rest of the MLB, that his days as an elite pitcher aren't over.
The offense is centered around first baseman Paul Konerko, and he needs to continue to post MVP-like numbers. If he can continue to do so, and if Dunn and Alex Rios both return to form, then the White Sox could have an above-average lineup.
The wild card of the Sox's position players is outfielder Dayan Viciedo. The Cuban prospect hit 20 home runs in three-and-a-half months during the 2010 campaign, but he controversially spent most of last season in Triple-A.
When the Sox traded Carlos Quentin in the offseason, they filled the void with "The Tank." He is loaded with offensive potential, and if he realizes that potential this season, then the above average Sox offense becomes an elite one.
The best case scenario for the Sox starts with the dominant one-two punch of Peavy and Danks. Gavin Floyd, Phil Humber and Chris Sale—who is moving from the bullpen to the rotation—each pitch at least 180 innings and has a sub-4.25 ERA. Konerko finishes in the top five in MVP voting while Dunn and Viciedo have 25 home runs apiece. Rios bounces back and puts himself in the All-Star conversation.
Chicago wins the division over the Detroit Tigers by six games, and the Sox roll into the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario: 66-96, 5th in AL Central
Four of the White Sox rookies—Addison Reed, Nate Jones, Hector Santiago and Zach Stewart—join veterans Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman in the bullpen. Much of Chicago's success will hinge on whether or not these rookies can handle big league pressure.
Stewart saw some action in the rotation last year, and he will be an emergency option if any of the starters experience injuries. The Sox expect Reed to win the closer's role at some point during the season.
If the bullpen struggles to hold onto leads early in the season, the White Sox could shift into full-blown rebuilding mode quickly.
Second baseman Gordon Beckham has regressed in his development after a stellar rookie campaign in 2009. If he fails to make improvements, don't be surprised to see his name on the trading block.
If Peavy's injury problems continue, and if any other White Sox starter misses significant time, then Chicago will fall out of the race faster than a Devin Hester punt return.
Assuming that Dunn and Rios will produce after season-long slumps is no guarantee either. Sox fans will be calling for both of their heads if each starts the season slowly.
The worst-case scenario for the Sox could become a reality if Dunn and Rios hit sub-.200 in April. Peavy goes down in one of his first five starts with a season-ending injury. Danks has another slow start, and Viciedo and rookie Alejandro De Aza fail to produce in their promotions to the starting lineup.
The Sox sit in last place at the All-Star break and start trading away their assets. Peavy, Floyd, Ohman, Humber and catcher A.J. Pierzynski all reach the end of their deals at the end of the season and are prime candidates to be moved elsewhere. Chicago trades these players and finishes the year with Minor League talent filling the holes in the lineup.
The Sox conclude the campaign in last place and fall to 30 games under .500.
If this scenario plays out, hopefully general manager Kenny Williams can still "appreciate the game."