White Sox, Ventura set solid foundation in 2012
Season highlighted by manager's steady first year, rise of young pitchers
CHICAGO -- Success was not supposed to be a defining theme for the 2012 White Sox under first-year manager Robin Ventura -- or at least not "success" in the classic, division-title sense of the word.
It was a team undergoing a "modified rebuild," according to then-general manager Ken Williams, developing young, Major League-ready talent while waiting for top-notch veterans to return to past levels of greatness -- and hoping to contend while working through that combination. But the prevailing thought was the South Siders didn't have a chance to take the American League Central from the Tigers, who added slugger Prince Fielder in the offseason to an already top-notch core.
The White Sox apparently didn't listen too closely to those pundits, putting together a run that left them approximately 2½ weeks short of the postseason.
Young talent matured quickly, such as Chris Sale. The southpaw handled his first year as part of the starting rotation with relatively few hiccups, posting 17 victories, a 3.05 ERA and 192 strikeouts over 192 innings.
Addison Reed, one of 10 rookie pitchers to take the mound for the White Sox, set a franchise record for first-year pitchers with 29 saves. Nate Jones, who pitched his way on to the roster during Spring Training, positioned himself as one of the top late-inning relievers in the AL throughout the '12 campaign and put himself in the 2013 closer's battle. Hector Santiago and Jose Quintana, two more rookie hurlers, have become prime rotation candidates for next season, thanks to their stellar performances last season.
Meanwhile, outfielder Alex Rios, designated hitter Adam Dunn and right-hander Jake Peavy each put together efforts worthy of Comeback Player of the Year consideration coming off dismal 2011 showings. This group returns in 2013, after Peavy and the White Sox agreed upon a two-year, $29 million extension this offseason.
With his team leading the division for 117 days, Ventura showed the same quiet poise and confidence from his All-Star playing career and looked nothing like a man coaching at the professional level for the first time. All of these young players, and even Ventura, will be better from the experience gained and lessons learned in their inaugural campaign. Combine that rising young talent with established veterans, not to mention Opening Day starter John Danks' return from season-ending August surgery, and the White Sox enter 2013 as apparent challengers to the Tigers' throne.
Ultimately, though, the White Sox lost a three-game division lead on Sept. 18 with 15 games to play. The Tigers added Torii Hunter through free agency, as well as getting back healthy leader Victor Martinez and right-handed starter Anibal Sanchez, while the Royals upgraded the weakest part of a strong young team by bringing in James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis for the starting rotation.
General manager Rick Hahn, promoted to the position at the end of October when Williams was promoted to executive vice president, understands his team could be picked third in the AL Central going into 2013. Those picks don't really matter to the White Sox view of success, as some of the top storylines from 2012 illustrate.
5. Humber achieves perfection
On April 21, a beautiful spring day in Seattle, Philip Humber reached perfection for just the 21st time in Major League history in just his second start of the season.
The third pick overall by the Mets in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft resurrected his baseball career with the White Sox, but even his impressive first-half performances in 2011 didn't portend signs of this history-making perfecto. Humber fanned nine, including Brendan Ryan for the game's final out on a checked swing full-count offering called a swing by home-plate umpire Brian Runge. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski retrieved the final pitch that got away, threw a strike to first baseman Paul Konerko, and the celebration had begun in the 4-0 victory.
Humber's ERA rose to a season-ending 6.44 and he was buried in the bullpen by September, making just two appearances during the month. He was claimed off waivers by the Astros and will compete for a spot in their 2013 rotation after handling his place in history with dignity and doing the same during his remaining struggles.
4. Three Comebacks and a Breakout
Dunn returned to his perennial form with 41 homers, 105 walks and 96 RBIs. Rios put together his most complete Major League season, which translates into great numbers for a player of the right fielder's immense talent. And two years removed from surgery to reattach his lat muscle, Peavy proved to be a top-notch starter not only in ability but also in leadership for the younger hurlers.
As those players fought back to their productive career mean, Sale, at 23, established his place as a frontline starter for years to come. The southpaw fell one strikeout short of matching a single-game franchise record when he fanned 15 Rays on May 28. He hit a bit of a wall in September, when his single-season innings greatly surpassed anything previously, but the All-Star was even better than expected.
Reed, Jones and Santiago also turned in great debuts, giving the White Sox a young pitching base to build from in the future.
3. Help wanted? Help found
Getting to first place and holding the top spot for 117 days was not accomplished without a little self-improvement along the way.
Brent Morel was ineffective and injured, eventually sidelined at third base by back problems, leading to Orlando Hudson coming in to a position he never had previously played at the big league level. Eventually the White Sox acquired Kevin Youkilis from Boston, with Youkilis giving the team an immediate boost.
Williams also picked up outfielder Dewayne Wise, who had a major impact over the final two months. Williams traded for Brett Myers to add another veteran presence to a young bullpen, while also shortening the game for the somewhat inexperienced parts of the starting rotation. The trade for Francisco Liriano had the same basic focus and was designed to improve the White Sox postseason lot, with championships usually won behind great pitching.
Liriano came up short during his time on the South Side of Chicago. But Williams and his staff didn't move any integral parts from their three-year plan in these moves, aside from utility infielder Eduardo Escobar. Look for Hahn to operate under the same aggressive approach.
2. Robin runs the show
Nobody doubted the baseball acumen possessed by Ventura when he became the surprise hire to replace Ozzie Guillen as White Sox manager. The only question was how Ventura would adjust to a position he had never held at any level of the game.
That was answered in a highly positive manner from basically the first day of Spring Training, if not earlier. Ventura's quiet cool and even-tempered approach certainly was a different style from his successful predecessor, but it was leadership to which the team responded. Ventura's first year shaped up as a storybook run, right up until 10 losses in 12 late September games helped the Tigers claim the AL Central.
1. Then there was one
Pierzynski's apparent departure from the White Sox left Paul Konerko as the only remaining member of the 2005 World Series champions. His walkaway showing was one of the free agent's best, knocking out a career-high 27 homers and matching a career high with 77 RBIs. The durable Pierzynski, who is a career .284 hitter, caught at least 1,000 innings for the 11th straight season to extend his streak.
Known as an agitator by the opposition, Pierzynski provided a needed infusion of attitude to the White Sox. He is a competitor willing to play every day at a taxing position. Tyler Flowers is set to replace Pierzynski, who exits with a .295 average, 18 homers and 47 RBIs at U.S. Cellular Field in his last season as his home ballpark.