Chicago White Sox: 6 Reasons They Will Win the AL Central
If preseason rankings are to be believed, then I have no business writing this column. The White Sox were picked by almost anyone with a column, blog or microphone to finish towards the bottom of the AL Central, Sports Illustrated had them losing 90 games, and the thinking in their own city was that they would be lucky to finish .500.
But here we are in the last week of May and the White Sox are sitting half a game on top of the division after winning their seventh straight game Tuesday night. They are starting to find their identity as a team and have exhibited a quiet confidence over the last two weeks. Simply put, they have shown signs of being able to contend for an entire season.
Paul Konerko is putting up ridiculous numbers, Jake Peavy is throwing like it's 2007, and Adam Dunn has appeared to find his home run swing again. Throw in an improved bullpen, the maturation of Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham, and something special just might happen on the south side of Chicago this year.
Want a few more reasons on how and why the White Sox could win the AL Central? Lucky for you I have six of them right here.
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There's No Pressure on Them to Win
When the marketing campaign going into the season is "Appreciate the Game" you know expectations aren't high. The White Sox went "All In" in 2011, fell all the way out of playoff contention by August and fired their manager, hitting coach and almost everyone else involved with making in-game decisions.
They have a rookie manager with no managing experience, a very well-paid DH that had a historically bad season in 2011, and questions about whether their future phenom, Gordon Beckham, will ever learn how to hit major league pitching.
The White Sox weren't expected to be anything better than .500 this year. Kenny Williams traded Sergio Santos, the team's closer, and didn't re-sign Mark Buehrle, the anchor of the starting rotation for 11 seasons. He even uttered the most dreaded word in sports: rebuilding.
Sometimes it's better to not have the bulls-eye right on you. For a team like the White Sox, one that needs time to figure out who they are as a team, not being in the spotlight can be a good thing. Last year they were picked to win the AL Central after coming off an 88 win season and signing the prized free agent of the offseason in Adam Dunn.
This year the pressure is off the Sox to do anything but go out and compete every day. The more they can play without stressing and trying too hard, the more wins they pile up.
The Veterans Have Bought into Ventura's Message
Robin Ventura was named the manager of the Chicago White Sox without ever interviewing for the position. In one of the strangest hirings in recent Chicago sports history, general manager Kenny Williams went in the polar opposite direction in finding Ozzie Guillen's replacement as skipper of the big club.
The move was met with a lot of skepticism throughout Chicago. How could a guy with zero experience as a manager in any level of baseball step in and lead a major market team without embarrassing himself and the city? So far, Ventura has done it by being confident in himself and sticking to the message he laid out to the team on the first day of spring training.
Ventura has preached from day one that he wants his guys to play hard every day. Show up and do your job and don't worry about stats or what anyone is saying about you.
In order for this message to hit home he needed the veterans in the clubhouse to step up. Guys like Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski, Adam Dunn, Jake Peavy and Matt Thornton needed to show Ventura the respect a manager deserves and do the work he asks.
The leaders of the team have done just that and the rest of the team has followed suit. This is a team whose players understand their roles and play within themselves. They play hard for Ventura and are becoming a team that is fun to watch and easy to cheer for.
Adam Dunn Is Hitting Like Adam Dunn
No one in baseball wanted the 2011 season to end more than Adam Dunn. He had not only his worst statistical season in his professional career, but it was one of the worst in the history of the game!
Dunn had just signed a four-year, $56 million contract with the White Sox and was projected to hit close to 50 home runs in the hitter-friendly US Cellular Field and drive in over 100 RBI. Instead he produced (if you want to call it that) a meager stat line of .159/11/42.
With a new season comes new hope. Dunn has returned to his old self, already surpassing his entire home run total from last year with 16 and is closing in on his RBI total as well. His batting average, slugging and on-base percentages are all back to normal and the White Sox are reaping the benefits.
Dunn is on pace to hit what was expected of him last season. He has provided the much needed left-handed power bat to compliment the right-handed Paul Konerko. Together they make up one of the best 3-4 combinations in the American League.
On top of the numbers he is putting up, Dunn has taken pressure off of guys like Alex Rios and A.J. Pierzynski. They don't have to worry about putting up big power numbers to compensate for Dunn. They can take the approach to each at-bat that best suits them, and both are off to great first halves as well.
Paul Konerko Is Having an MVP Season
Paul Konerko is playing so ridiculously well this season, not even a Jeff Samardzija splitter to the head could slow him down. The White Sox captain is hitting a major league best .386 and is in the top ten in the American League in home runs and RBI. He was just named the AL Player of the Week for the second time this season and just had a 14-game hitting streak snapped on Tuesday.
In order for the White Sox to stay in contention and win the AL Central, they will need an MVP performance from someone in their lineup. Konerko is the most likely candidate and has responded by by getting off to the best start of his career.
Konerko sets the example in the clubhouse of how to approach every game, both mentally and physically. He is the quiet leader of the team and a model of consistency on the field.
Even if Konerko doesn't win an MVP, having a season that puts him in the discussion is what the Sox will need to help them navigate their division. He will alleviate some of the pressure on Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham after their disastrous 2011 campaigns and can be counted on by the rest of the team to come up with the clutch hit when it is needed.
They Have the Best Pitching Staff in the Division
The White Sox have a lot of young arms on the roster, but don't tell them that. Currently, the White Sox post a team ERA of 3.87, good for sixth in the American League and number one in the AL Central.
Their starting pitching was key to them staying close in the division until the bats came around. Leading the way for the starters are a healthy Jake Peavy (6-1, 3.07 ERA) and a surging Chris Sale (6-2, 2.34 ERA).
Even with John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Philip Humber being a bit inconsistent, the Sox still have the best man-for-man starting five in the AL Central. Sure, Detroit has Justin Verlander but once you get past him there isn't much to make you worry. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are both carrying ERAs north of five and Porcello doesn't seem to be figuring it out any time soon.
Derek Lowe has been unpredictably productive for Cleveland and Jeanmar Gomez has looked promising, but if they are your two best starters then you don't belong in the discussion of teams that could make the playoffs.
The White Sox have a decent advantage in the back end of games, too. The combination of Jessie Crain, Matt Thornton and Addison Reed can make games really short for the opposition. Both Crain and Thronton have proved themselves to be two of the better set up men in baseball, and the rookie Reed is absolutely filthy.
The later you get into the season the more important the bullpen becomes. The White Sox have a lot of good, young arms that are eager to show they belong and some solid veterans to show them how to survive at the major league level.
Less Than 90 Wins Could Get the Job Done
Let's face it... As good as the White Sox are playing right now, they benefit from playing in one of the two worst divisions in all of baseball. In fact, the only other division their 28-22 record would lead is the other albatross in the National League, the Central division.
Detroit was supposed to run away with the AL Central by posting triple-digit victories and leaving the next closest competitor at least 10 games behind. But that's not what is going to happen this year. The division is weak and will not have one team run away and hide from the others. You won't see anyone with a double digit lead all season, which will leave the door open for the White Sox and Tigers, the two classes of the bunch, to battle it out all year.
Every team has their flaws. The White Sox are relying on Jake Peavy to stay healthy and Chris Sale to not get burned out in his first year as a starter. They also have a rookie closing out games, a question of how to fix third base and a second baseman that might never realize his offensive potential.
The Tigers and Indians are flawed as well. Detroit has a hard time catching the ball and doesn't have anyone who is reliable the other four games Justin Verlander isn't pitching.
Cleveland has injury issues, pitching issues and the problem of not being talented enough to sustain a run at a division crown all season. Much to my amusement, the Twins are god-awful and, really, did anyone really think the Royals were going to make a run this year?
The White Sox have probably the most complete team of any in the AL Central, but they are not world beaters. That is why they will only need 88 wins to make the postseason, a number they are very capable of reaching.
Some people say it's better to be lucky than good. For the White Sox, it might be more appropriate to say that it's better to be in a division of mediocrity than be good.