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  • Chicago White Sox

    The precipitous decline continued for the White Sox in 2007.

    Just two years removed from a World Series championship, they managed their worst winning percentage (.444) in 18 seasons. Strangely enough, though they continued to dismantle the rotation that was largely responsible for earning them that title -- they shipped off Freddy Garcia before the season -- the White Sox's biggest problem a year ago was actually their hitting, in spite of little personnel change since 2005. As a team, the Sox ranked last in the American League in runs (693), batting average (.246) and on-base percentage (.318) in 2007, but they finished second in homers (190), proving an all-or-nothing offense.

    As a result, the White Sox spent the winter bulking up the lineup, adding a shortstop and top-of-the-lineup hitter in Orlando Cabrera and an on-base specialist with power in Nick Swisher. The price, though, was steep: another member of the 2005 championship rotation (Jon Garland) and the team's top pitching prospect (Gio Gonzalez), among others.

    with a retooled lineup, one markedly better than its poor rankings of 2007. It also left the team with a somewhat inexperienced rotation that is precariously thin on depth. The Sox did address the bullpen, whipping out the checkbook to spend $30 million combined on Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink, but it's hard to see the team handing the bullpen a lot of late leads given the instability of the rotation. In a hitting-friendly environment like U.S. Cellular Field, expect to see a lot of 10-6 or 8-7 types of scores from this year's White Sox. You might like the hitting numbers in Chicago, but you'll probably dread them on the pitching side.

    Ballpark: A notoriously homer-friendly ballpark, U.S. Cellular Field has ranked among the four most favorable home run parks in baseball in each of the past five seasons, and in the top 10 every year since 2001. That, incidentally, was the season in which the ballpark endured significant renovations, including adding three rows of seats down the outfield lines, somewhat shortening the foul territory, and lopping off 17 feet from the distance to the left-field foul pole, 12 feet from the one in right, each to accommodate the shifting of bullpens. The impact on home run numbers has been astounding. Since 2001, U.S. Cellular has seen an average of 228 home runs hit per year, and one per 24.35 at-bats (according to Baseball Musings' Day-by-Day Database). By comparison, in the park's first 10 seasons of existence (1991-2000), those numbers were 159 and 33.33.

    Right-handed sluggers get an ever-so-slight advantage, with the left-field foul pole being 5 feet closer to home plate than the one in right field, but suffice to say, every slugger benefits in games at U.S. Cellular. Fly-ball pitchers suffer most, which is partially why John Danks struggled so much as a rookie. In other words, take extreme caution with your homer-prone pitchers when they're slated to pitch here.

    Projected platoon
    Top sleeper: I'm not about to forecast him in the Opening Day lineup, and there's a chance we might not see him at all this season, but Alexei Ramirez deserves mention somewhere here, and "sleeper" is an ideal way to describe him. He's capable of slotting in anywhere from second base to shortstop to center field, and note that second base is currently a position manned by the inexperienced Danny Richar and the strikeout-prone Juan Uribe. In other words, Ramirez certainly could be a factor by midseason, and at 26, he's already entering what should be the prime of his career.

    Of course, I'll throw the name Kendry Morales, a fellow Cuban defector who has failed to break through with the Angels, at you as an example to caution against overrating Ramirez, but this is a kid worth monitoring in spring games and stashing on an AL-only reserve list if you like what you see. After all, remember that the true definition of "sleeper" isn't far removed from "long shot," so Ramirez certainly fits the bill.

    Intriguing spring battles: How the White Sox handle the third-base and left-field situations will be key, as there are two viable candidates for both spots, all of whom could be fantasy-worthy. At third base, Joe Crede might be coming off a dreadful 2007 shortened by back surgery, but he's two years removed from a 30-homer, 94-RBI campaign and is easily the better defender of the two choices. Josh Fields, meanwhile, swatted 23 homers with 67 RBIs after Crede went down last season and is a bona fide 30-homer candidate if you can deal with his streaky ways and mediocre batting average. Crede's health will probably decide matters at the hot corner; if he's healthy, he might be traded, perhaps to the Giants. If he's not, no doubt it's Fields' job. Be aware, though, that in both of those scenarios, Fields looks more likely to start on Opening Day.

    In left field, newly acquired Carlos Quentin will get a long look, though two things could hinder his chances at earning the everyday role. One, he's coming off surgery on his nonthrowing shoulder, so he'll need to prove healthy this spring, and two, the acquisition of Swisher presumably bumps speedster Jerry Owens to left field, where he'll be in the mix for at-bats. Manager Ozzie Guillen did bat Owens leadoff 83 times in 2007, including 70 times in the team's final 80 games, so be prepared for the possibility that Guillen will shoehorn Owens into the lineup, thinking the speedster is an ideal table setter (which he's not).

    Trainer's room: The aforementioned Crede and Quentin warrant your closest attention entering camp, as both are recovering from major surgery. Virtually every report out of Chicago has Crede destined for a trade elsewhere if he proves healthy enough by the middle of spring training, but to date, there's no concrete evidence he will be healthy. His back surgery was a serious one from which to recover, so monitor him closely and be prepared to pounce with a late-round AL-only (or NL-only, if he lands there) pick should he look strong enough to land a gig on another team. Quentin, meanwhile, said in late January that he expects to be 100 percent to begin camp, though even a minor setback could cost him a chance at the starting role in left field.

    Platoons: A straight platoon between left-field candidates Owens and Quentin seems somewhat realistic at the onset of spring training, as Guillen is clearly a fan of Owens and might prefer him for the leadoff spot. With a .232 batting average and .312 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers for his career, though, Owens surely doesn't belong in the lineup on those days, which could provide the kind of opening Quentin needs to overtake him. Even if Quentin kicks off the year starting only against lefties, he has the upside to overtake Owens over time, so don't take it as a condemnation of his talent should he begin the season in such a limited role.

    Schedule preview: White Sox players might rate as sell-high candidates not long after the All-Star break, as their schedule rates as fairly treacherous in the latter stages, especially in the final month. From Aug. 29 forward, they play 16 of 29 games on the road, and check out their opponents: Indians six games; Blue Jays and Yankees four apiece; Angels, Red Sox and Tigers three apiece. They also play three games apiece against the Royals and Twins during that span, but all six come on the road.

    Games plateau: He's not expected to kick off the season as a regular, but Uribe might add second-base eligibility depending on how a possible battle with Richar pans out in the spring. Unfortunately, that might not amount to anything more than position flexibility. For all his power potential, Uribe nevertheless is a .254 lifetime hitter who averages a strikeout per 5.17 at-bats for his career. In other words, he's a one-category player, and those guys aren't exactly appealing when they're not playing every day.

    "Fill-in" closer: Not that you should worry much about Bobby Jenks losing the job, but if he gets hurt, Dotel, a former closer, would probably be next in line for saves. He has 82 for his career, 11 of them in 2007 alone, and has a 2.98 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in his career as a reliever, putting him a step ahead of Linebrink in the pecking order. Of course, Dotel actually brings more injury risk than Jenks, considerably much more, so the point could be moot, at least for 2008.

    Prospects to watch for 2008: The glaring lack of depth in the starting rotation could cause the White Sox to rush Lance Broadway and/or Jack Egbert to the show this season. You might remember Broadway as the guy who tossed six scoreless innings to beat the Royals in his first big league start last Sept. 27. He's also the guy who allowed 78 free passes in 155 Triple-A innings in 2007. Inconsistent command like that could make him a shaky fantasy choice. Broadway will be in the mix for the fifth-starter role this spring, though he'd likely slot in as a matchups type this year, nothing more.

    Egbert, meanwhile, might actually stand a better chance at a quick adjustment to life in Chicago after allowing a mere 44 walks and three home runs in 161.2 innings for Double-A Birmingham last season. He's a command specialist who induces a good share of ground balls, though he's a little farther from being big league ready than Broadway. Egbert might make it to Chicago by midseason, though, so keep tabs on him in Triple-A.

    Prospect(s) to watch for the future: Aaron Poreda is the clear-cut top prospect in the White Sox's system, and scouts say he has elite closer potential long term even if he doesn't pan out as a starter. He'll be on the fast track if he shifts to the bullpen, but after being picked 25th overall last June, he'll kick off 2007 as a starter in Class A ball. Monitor his role, though, as we might see him by mid-2009 if he's converted to relief.

    Fearless prediction: For all their offseason additions on offense, the White Sox left themselves too thin on the mound, and as a result, they'll essentially spin their wheels, recordwise, in 2008. Yet again, fantasy value can be found in the individuals on their roster, most notably Jermaine Dye, Jenks, Paul Konerko, Swisher, Jim Thome and Vazquez, but as a cohesive unit they leave a lot to be desired. The lack of overall improvement eventually costs Guillen his job, but for fantasy, that might be a good thing; fresh blood could help inspire some smarter decisions. It could lead to Cabrera and Swisher more regularly occupying the top two spots in the lineup, as they should, and it'd purge the team of unnecessary distractions, which have become somewhat commonplace during the Guillen regime.
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