This is my 20th year on the White Sox beat, which leads to the obvious question:
Whatever happened to Norberto "Paco" Martin?
On a serious note, I think there only has been a handful of times I've predicted the Sox to win the AL Central. And I'm pretty sure I had the White Sox finishing third in 2005, when they won the World Series.
As the Sox prepare to open the 2013 season Monday against the Kansas City Royals at U.S. Cellular Field (3:10 p.m., Comcast SportsNet, WSCR 670-AM), I'm picking them to not finish first, again.
Let's be honest … unless Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera collide chasing an infield popup and are lost for the season with injuries, and Max Scherzer and Prince Fielder suffer the same fate, the Detroit Tigers are going to be awfully tough to catch in the Central.
Still, I think the White Sox are going to be a tick better than last year, when they surprised everybody with an 85-77 record.
And while the Tigers are clearly the class of the division, I also think the Sox have as good of a shot as anybody to claim one of the two wild-card spots, especially since it looks like two AL powerhouses -- the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers -- are headed for down seasons.
Let's try to support the hunches with three explanations:
Five key pitchers were more or less thrown into the fire last season, and they all survived and often thrived.
It took Chris Sale less than two months to establish himself as the White Sox' top starter, and rookie left-hander Jose Quintana (6-6, 3.76 ERA) also held his own in the rotation.
Three more rookies -- Addison Reed, Nate Jones and Hector Santiago -- stepped up and competed out of the bullpen, although Santiago finished the year in the rotation.
Common sense says Sale, Quintana, Reed, Jones and Santiago are going to be better with experience, and they're not going to run out of gas down the stretch.
"Last year they got valuable experience of being up here and also doing well," manager Robin Ventura said before Sunday morning's workout at the Cell. "Those were very important things, not only being up here but having the confidence (they) can pitch and do well and are bona fide major-leaguers.
"We had guys who did that last year."
We featured new third baseman Jeff Keppinger in Sunday's Daily Herald, explaining why he is so important to the overall success of the team.
For years, Keppinger has been one of the toughest hitters to strike out in the major leagues, and he is just what the Sox need in a No. 2 hitter.
I asked Ventura for a Keppinger comparison and he came up with Brian Harper, who had his best years with the Minnesota Twins from 1998-93.
"(Harper) was a catcher, but you just didn't like him coming up because you knew he wasn't going to strike out, you knew he was going to put it in play," Ventura said.
"He was a smart hitter, he would go the other way, and it always seemed like he extended innings for them to get to a (Kirby) Puckett or (Kent) Hrbek. The other guy might have been the one to hurt you, but in the end (Harper) was the guy that got it to that spot."
Heart of the matter:
Ventura and the Sox are making a lineup adjustment this season and, quite frankly, it should have been done last year.
Alex Rios moves up to No. 3 in the batting order, followed by Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. When a left-hander starts against the White Sox, Konerko will bat fourth and Dunn fifth.
Even though he bounced back big last season with 41 home runs and 96 RBI, Dunn batted just .204 and led the majors with 222 strikeouts. That's not what you're looking for out of a No. 3 hitter, and Rios is best qualified to handle the role.
As for Dunn, he was looking to make contact earlier in the count, and he hit the ball the opposite throughout much of spring training. If all goes well, Dunn will hit about .250 this year without having his power numbers fall too far.
"I don't think anybody's really satisfied with what they did last year, and Adam's no exception," Ventura said. "He hit home runs, but would he like to raise his average? Of course he would.
"You continue to work at it and do different things to become better and make us better."
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