Veterans to take youth under wing in '09
Movement to get younger can't succeed without elder statesmen
PHOENIX -- The word "youth" has been brought up quite frequently during the White Sox current version of Spring Training, basically because players without a great deal of experience will be counted on to be a big part of this team's 2009 success.
That particular group includes third baseman Josh Fields, second baseman Chris Getz and pitcher Clayton Richard, to name a few. There also been a confident look to the White Sox's future in Arizona, thanks in part to the Cactus League showings of top prospects such as Gordon Beckham and Dayan Viciedo.
For the White Sox to reach their true goals in 2009, though, starting with winning the American League Central, it will be a group of venerable leaders who ultimately will make the difference. The lockers of Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle, Scott Linebrink and Bobby Jenks are clustered together in the back of the Camelback Ranch home locker room, which seems only fitting, since these men are part of the group that the team can't win without.
"Those guys we have, we all have proven track records," said Dye, a Most Valuable Player candidate in 2006 and an underrated performer during the team's AL Central title run in 2008. "When healthy, we've all proven we can go out and carry a team for a long time."
Nobody really stands out as indispensable on the White Sox roster because of the largest base of Major League-ready young talent in recent memory for this organization. But some players would be missed more than others, not just due to their skill level, but because of the intangibles they provide.
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Take last year's up-and-down campaign, as an example. Juan Uribe did a solid job defensively as Joe Crede's replacement at third base, but the White Sox would have been positioned to possibly go further into the postseason with one of baseball's top clutch hitters standing as healthy and active. The same could have been said about Jose Contreras, who missed the postseason.
When Konerko injured his right knee during a forgettable home doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays on Sept. 9, the White Sox knew they could temporarily fill the void left by the first baseman. They couldn't come close to replacing the contributions from their team captain, as might be the case with a less-established player.
Their presence provides a balance, both through their impressive on-field accomplishments and their clubhouse contributions. It's a fact not lost on at least one up-and-coming White Sox starter.
"You know, they are the team's go-to guys, our clutch guys, the guys you want up to bat in certain situations. That's what they get paid for," said Fields with a smile. "They take a lot of pressure off of young guys coming up like myself, because basically we don't have to come in and do more then what's needed -- just do our part of the job.
"We have to perform and make plays, too. But those are the guys everyone leans on and they definitely have to stay healthy."
Fields pointed out the instruction these players provide, and not just as leaders by example, when speaking of Thome's ability to talk about pitchers on any given night to young guys. Staying healthy is an issue for any team, and it holds especially true when focusing on the players considered superstars or top-notch performers.
Thome already has missed Spring Training time due to back tightness, while Buehrle had a start skipped last Thursday. Neither instance has become much of an issue, with Thome having dealt with a back issue before during his White Sox tenure and having looked strong in his return to the lineup. The White Sox simply are trying to manage Buehrle's Cactus League innings to keep him strong for the season's second half.
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski, another member of this key veteran core, could be the most important of the entire group. While there are capable backups behind Pierzynski in Corky Miller and Donny Lucy, there's no one who is Major League ready to assume Pierzynski's immense workload. And there's nobody equipped to take on the extra media focus, as Pierzynski often does, moving the bright spotlight off the team and temporarily alleviating some pressure.
Basically, a healthy and productive group of veterans should make for a successful White Sox season.
"I don't care if you have a team of all young guys or old guys," Buehrle said. "You have to stay healthy."
When the 2009 regular season begins, much of the focus will fall on the White Sox's new starting additions such as Fields, Getz and whoever wins the job in center field. But don't forget about Dye, who has the most home runs and RBIs among AL outfielders since 2005.
Don't forget about Thome, who has launched at least 34 home runs and driven in at least 90 runs in each of his three seasons with the White Sox. It's these veterans who let young accomplished standouts such as Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez continue to develop.
"There's no doubt we still need those surrounding guys to do the little things to help us win," Dye said. "But I think we have the right mix of guys in this room to contend for another championship."
"I've always said that good teams have to have good veteran leaders and good young players," Thome said. "That's the unique thing about our club. As you look around, we have the veterans, we have the young guys and we have the guys with one or two years in who are becoming really good players."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.