2/12/2013 5:25 P.M. ET
In tough Central, White Sox trust their pitching
Division foes had splashy winters, but South Siders built on strong foundation
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Business certainly has picked up for the 2013 American League Central.
With the free-agent addition of outfielder and leadoff man Michael Bourn made by the Indians on Monday, there appears to be four teams with a viable -- if not slam-dunk certain shot -- at playoff contention. Sure, the Indians' lack starting pitching and the rebuilt Royals staff must match its top-notch youthful hitting and hard-throwing bullpen, but both teams significantly improved in chasing down the defending AL champs from Detroit.
In listening Tuesday to general manager Rick Hahn, who addressed the media after White Sox pitchers and catchers reported for the first Spring Training workout, these divisional changes haven't lessened his belief that the South Siders can challenge for the top spot. And the men on the mound shall lead the way.
"From our standpoint, it doesn't change the fact that we are going to plan to compete with pitching," Hahn said. "We still feel like we can measure up with anyone in the division, [Nos.] 1-12, on our staff, and that will be key to our success going forward this year.
"The division is going to be tough. I think obviously Cleveland has improved over the 68-win team they were last year. And Kansas City has improved over the 72-win team they were last year as well. It's going to be tough for any one team to run away with it in the Central this year. I think it's going to be a fun summer."
One question Hahn didn't necessarily answer centers on whether the White Sox improved over their 85-win, second-place finish from Robin Ventura's 2012 managerial debut. He didn't need to provide specifics on this cool afternoon at Camelback Ranch, being that he's been addressing these points for optimism all offseason.
Bringing back Jake Peavy through a two-year, $29-million deal ranks as significant as any free-agent move the team could have made. The White Sox also picked up the $9.5 million option on Gavin Floyd, added infielder Jeff Keppinger for a little offensive diversity, brought back outfielder Dewayne Wise to strengthen the bench and then capped things off with free-agent reliever Matt Lindstrom.
Do these moves have the same big-name pull as Nick Swisher joining the Indians' outfield, the Royals trading for staff ace James Shields or even the Tigers adding Torii Hunter to their outfield? Not quite. Then again, the White Sox didn't have a lot of open spots to fill, barring a complete revamping of the roster.
"Really, where were we going to plug these free agents everyone wanted us to go get?" White Sox reliever Matt Thornton said. "I don't know where these great pieces were going to go on our team. Everyone wants the $100 million guys, but I don't think we need that."
Thornton went on to break down his confidence behind the current White Sox roster.
"You expect everyone to improve on what they did last year," Thornton said. "You expect guys to stay consistent and with [Adam] Dunn and [Alex] Rios, they bounced back nicely last year. You expect them to do what they did last year.
"A guy in [Jeff] Keppinger who can put the bat on the ball at all times and make things happen and be a pest at the plate. And adding Matt to the bullpen, another veteran arm, everyone has a little more experience. We were young last year, and we are ready to go.
"We have [Dayan] Viciedo in left, coming off of his first full season. He had a streaky year, but at times carried the team," Thornton said. "You have [Alejandro] De Aza in the leadoff spot and [Alex] Rios in right. Our infield is set. The rotation, we actually have some depth. You have Johnny [Danks] coming back from injury and some guys that helped us out in a pennant chase, and they might not make the team."
A.J. Pierzynski's departure to Texas becomes the one glaring opening that many fans believe the White Sox didn't address. But Thornton, like the rest of his teammates, feel that Tyler Flowers will do the job behind the plate and produce at the plate with consistent at-bats.
No, the White Sox didn't make much front-page news after Halloween, when Peavy officially returned. Their internal belief, even against the AL Central foes' overall improvement, has them hoping those big headlines arrive in September and October.
"Detroit didn't have much improvement needed, and they still get better," Danks said. "You look at Cleveland and look at Kansas City, and they have all gotten better. It didn't get any easier for us but I feel good about things here. If this is it, we are happy with where we are and just go out there and play, as cliché as that sounds."
"Last year, we were supposed to finish fourth or fifth, too," Thornton said. "We were in contention all the way to the end. We plan on doing the same thing this year, except for ending up on top of the division. It's about coming together as a team and going out and working toward one common goal and winning as many ballgames as possible."