Going into the 2008 season, the common belief was that my beloved White Sox would finish in fourth place in the AL Central. The general consensus was that the aging offense was in decline and that the rotation had too many question marks.
A year later, the Sox are the defending AL Central champs after numerous surprising performances from their young players. After losing veterans Orlando Cabrera, Joe Crede, Juan Uribe, Javier Vazquez and Nick Swisher, the team has a somewhat similar appearance this year.
Barring a move in Spring Training, the Sox will start an unproven youngster at third base, second base, and CF as well as in the fifth slot in the rotation.
How those players perform could have a major impact on the season. Sox fans saw how ugly things can get when they were forced to go young in the second half of 2007, as well as how big a boost it can be when they perform like they did last year.
The third base job will likely go to either Josh Fields or Cuban import Dayan Viciedo, with the other player ending up at AAA. Both have significant raw power, but it is unknown if they will bring anything else to the table.
Wilson Betemit, acquired in the Nick Swisher deal, could be a factor at 3B as well as second. However, it appears that the Sox will likely go with young slap-hitter Chris Getz or 26-year-old free agent acquisition Jason Nix at the latter position.
Whoever wins the second base job may not be a long term fix anyways, as recent first round pick Gordon Beckham appears to be on the fast track.
Center field will likely be a three way battle between Jerry Owens, Brian Anderson, and DeWayne Wise. Brent Lillibridge could be a factor in CF or at 2B, though given his perfomance last year he seems more likely to start in Charlotte.
Anderson is the most talented of the group as well as the best fielder, but he has been in Ozzie Guillen's doghouse for a few years now.
Jerry Owens may be the favorite because of his elite speed, but he is highly suspect at the plate.
DeWayne Wise is more likely to be the fourth outfielder, much like his role last season.
Numerous starters could make their way into the back end of the rotation by the end of the season. Bartolo Colon will start the season as the fourth starter, but with his health and inconsistent performance the last few years he may finish the season in that role.
Jose Contreras will make an appearance once he recovers from a knee injury, but he probably won't be seen until after the All-Star break.
A collection of prospects will likely vie for the fifth spot in the rotation. Clayton Richard is considered the favorite since he held that role last season.
Recent acquisition Jeff Marquez is another candidate, and top pitching prospect Aaron Poreda, will also have a chance to win the spot. If they do not win the rotation spot, Richard or Poreda could also end up in the bullpen.
One thing we do know is that the offense will provide plenty of fireworks. The Sox have lead the majors in homeruns in three of the last five seasons and have significant power in the middle of their lineup. Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome all hit more than 30 homers, and Paul Konerko and Alexei Ramirez each surpassed 20 homeruns.
The questions on offense revolve around their non-homerun production, as the team finished in the middle of the pack in batting average and on base percentage.
The team lacks a proven top of the order hitter, so the sluggers in the middle have to carry the load. This could be especially troublesome if they don't get the desired performance from third base, second base, and centerfield. However, their power production will be strong enough to carry them in many of their games.
The bullpen is another area where the Sox have considerable talent and depth. Even if his strikeout rate has dropped, Bobby Jenks has been a highly dependable closer over the last three seasons, converting 89 percent of his save chances.
With Matt Thornton, Octavio Dotel, and Scott Linebrink as their trio of setup men, the Sox have solid options late in games. The previously mentioned Richard and Poreda could give the pen even more punch with left-handed strikeout potential.
The Sox appear to be a potential contender in the AL Central, though they do have some potential issues. Besides the previously mentioned question marks, much of their success depends on the continued solid play of players like Carlos Quentin, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Alexei Ramirez.
They all have considerable talent and appear to be decent bets to continue to play well, but one can't totally rule out the potential that they underachieve. If that does happen, the Sox will struggle. That said, I'm fairly confident that they'll be in contention into September with a chance to take home another AL Central crown.