02/05/2003 12:00 pm ET
White Sox Spring Training preview
Improved White Sox poised to challenge Twins
By Damon P. Young / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
Colon an ace for Chicago
MLB Radio preview
Tucson Electric Park
CHICAGO -- If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again. It's a time-worn cliché, but one the White Sox continue to follow. For the third straight year, general manager Ken Williams went shopping for a starting pitcher, somehow trying to put the White Sox over the top.
And, for the third straight year, Williams succeeded in making a deal. He just hopes the third time is the charm.
In 2001, Williams snatched David Wells out of the free agent market and Wells landed on the disabled list for 84 games. Last year, it was Todd Ritchie, who went 5-15 with a 6.06 ERA and was subsequently non-tendered after the season.
Despite the unrealized expectations, Williams didn't shy away from pursuing another difference-maker this year, snagging Bartolo Colon in Montreal's salary dump.
Now, it becomes manager Jerry Manuel's job to put the players in a position to succeed in what projects to be a two-team battle in the AL Central.
"With the squad we've assembled over the winter, the biggest issue is to come to Spring Training in shape and stay healthy," Manuel says.
But, as with any team that's chasing the top spot, there are question marks with the White Sox.
Despite the dynamic duo of Colon and Mark Buehrle firmly planted at the top, the White Sox face uncertainty with the rest of the rotation. The success of Jon Garland and Danny Wright in the No. 3 and 4 spots will likely prove to be the deciding factor in the division race against the Twins.
And just who will be the fifth starter? Leading candidates are Jon Rauch and veterans Gil Heredia and Esteban Loaiza, who will be in camp as non-roster invites. While the fifth starter may not be important early because of scheduling, one of those three will have to step up to the challenge of the role.
"Their chances are very good," Manuel says of Heredia and Loaiza. "They're veteran pitchers who might have a slight advantage pitching on extended rest out of the fifth spot early in the season. But, Jon also showed us last year he was capable of making spot starts here and there."
Williams' other winter acquisitions reshaped the bullpen, fortifying what was already one of the club's strengths. In came Billy Koch, Tom Gordon and Rick White. Out went Keith Foulke, Antonio Osuna and Rocky Biddle. Despite questions about Koch's control and Gordon's health, the bullpen remains one of the strongest in the league.
Offensively, the White Sox ranked third out of the 30 teams last year in runs scored (856), trailing only AL East rivals New York (897) and Boston (859), but because of inconsistent pitching and defense, ranked only 11th in run differential (+58).
"We have to catch the ball defensively," Manuel acknowledges. "We have a pitching staff that's going to put the ball in play and we're going to have to catch the ball. I want guys to play free, not fearful. Play the game to win, not to not make errors."
With the heart of the explosive offense, led by Jose Valentin, Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordoñez, Paul Konerko, and Carlos Lee returning in the Nos. 2-6 slots, scoring runs should not be a problem.
Although the White Sox boast of a powerful lineup, the club is relying on youngsters like second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez, third baseman Joe Crede and catcher Miguel Olivo to fill prominent roles. How they perform over a full season remains an area of concern. All three are projected Opening Day starters for the first time and will be counted on to play at a high level all season.
"I think anytime you have young players getting adjusting to the length of the season for the first time, you're always somewhat concerned about longevity, and it's something we'll navigate through," Manuel says.
The fact that the youngsters performed well last season after being called up after the All-Star break and helped reshape the clubhouse atmosphere should lessen the adjustment period in 2003.
"Our chemistry won't be as much of a question because we have some younger guys that can play," insists Konerko. "That's the thing, they can play."
Olivo has the toughest job, having caught just six big-league games, but the Sox love his combination of offensive and defensive prowess. The key will be not having one suffer in spite of the other. Olivo will receive plenty of advice, with Alomar as his backup and several former big-league catchers, including Manuel, on the staff.
A more pressing issue with the catching situation is whether or not to open the season with three catchers. With Olivo and Alomar locked in, Manuel will have to decide whether or not to keep Josh Paul on the 25-man roster.
Keeping a third catcher may take up a valuable bench spot that could go to Brian Daubach, who recently signed a minor-league contract and could provide a powerful left-handed bat. With Tony Graffanino, Willie Harris, Armando Rios and Alomar already positioned on the bench, the last spot could come down to Paul or Daubach.
While it would appear that the White Sox enter Spring Training having addressed their biggest deficiency --- starting pitching -- they still have to go out and prove it on the field. That's where they can erase two years of disappointment.
Damon P. Young is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
"We have to catch the ball defensively. We have a pitching staff that's going to put the ball in play and we're going to have to catch the ball. I want guys to play free, not fearful. Play the game to win, not to not make errors."
-- Jerry Manuel
White Sox manager