Was there a more underappreciated team in baseball last year than the White Sox?
Widely written off as a contender heading into the season, the Sox treaded water in April and vaulted into first place in the AL Central while going 18-11 in May.
Under rookie manager Robin Ventura’s calming influence, the White Sox maintained a grip on the division’s top spot until it slipped away in mid-September amid a 4-11 finish.
But even while running first for 117 days of the season, the Sox never seemed to be viewed as a bona fide playoff team. Even the fan base seemed skeptical, and the White Sox failed to draw 2 million for the first time since 2004.
As pitchers and catchers report to Glendale, Ariz., Tuesday for the first day of spring training, the Sox are once again projected to finish behind the Tigers and Royals in the Central. Here are five keys to getting over the hump:
The starting rotation
This has been the White Sox’ strength for years, and 2013 is no different.
Simply put, if the Sox hope to finish off what they nearly accomplished last season, the starting five (or six) has to come through.
“I think the rotation should be our strength this year, no doubt about it,” left-hander John Danks said. “Getting Jake (Peavy) back was huge, and Chris (Sale) showed everybody what he can do last year. Same thing with (Jose) Quintana. I feel great, and I can’t wait to get back out there on the mound and do my part.”
Sale (17-8, 3.05 ERA) quickly established himself as an ace last season after making the transition from the bullpen, and Peavy (11-12, 3.37) had his best year since 2007.
Quintana and Gavin Floyd also return, and Danks said he’s feeling great following shoulder surgery in early August. Hector Santiago, who was 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA in 4 starts late last season, is a solid insurance policy if Danks has any setbacks.
A.J. Pierzynski lashed out a few times last season about the White Sox being picked to finish at or near the bottom of the AL Central.
Other than that, the Sox seemed to internalize the lack of respect and let their play on the field do the talking.
Expect more of the same this year, especially with Pierzynski now playing for Texas.
“I think we’ll have the same attitude as last year,” closer Addison Reed said. “People had us picked to finish last last year and none of us believed it at all. We believe we can win every game so we are going to go out there and play as hard as we can and hopefully the result is a win.”
On the plus side, Dunn rebounded from a miserable 2012 by hitting 41 homers, driving in 96 runs and leading the American League with 105 walks last season.
Dunn led the majors with 222 strikeouts, batted .204 and his on-base percentage (.333) was far from ideal for a No. 3 hitter.
Look for Dunn to continue his career trend and either hit the ball over the fence or strike out this season.
And look for Ventura to drop him to the No. 5 spot in the lineup, with Alex Rios moving up to No. 3.
Right … or wrong?
New general manager Rick Hahn said he can always make a move “on the fly,” but the White Sox head into training camp with only two left-handed hitters in the regular lineup — leadoff man Alejandro De Aza and Dunn.
Considering nasty right-handed starters Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Justin Masterson pitch in the AL Central, you have to wonder how long Hahn is going to wait until adding another left-handed bat.
Like Hahn and Ventura, Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto is not worried about being too right-handed at this early stage.
“I know there has been some discussion and debate about the left-handed hitter and what it means to the lineup,” Manto said.
“But I agree with Robin when he says, ‘Hey, we’re not going to get a left-hander just to have one,’ because there are a lot of guys who hit right-handers betters than left-handers anyway, and vice versa. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.
“Once in a while it may show up, but I don’t think it’s an issue to say that’s why we won or lost a game, because we didn’t have that lefty.”
The former utility man had a big season for Tampa Bay last year, putting up a .325/.367/.439 hitting line.
Keppinger cashed in on the free-agent market, signing a three-year, $12 million contract with the White Sox.
For now, he replaces Kevin Youkilis as the starting third baseman. And on a team that relies so heavily on the home run, Keppinger should be a welcome addition as the No. 2 hitter.
“I think Keppinger is probably the most versatile hitter we have,” Manto said. “He can do a lot of things. He can move the ball, he can pull the ball, he can bunt, he can drive the ball. And you can’t strike him out.”
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