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WSI News - News Watch

Experts still predict Sox to win Central

March 25, By Paul Sullivan; Chicago Tribune

TUCSON, Ariz. - The preseason prognosticators are starting to weigh in on the 2002 season, and the White Sox look like the consensus favorites to win the Central Division.

Forget about their 8-17 Cactus League record, an earned-run average above 8.00, one starter with only 12 major-league starts and another starter with none. Sports Illustrated, Baseball America and other national publications have decided the Sox are the best team in an allegedly weak division.

Frank Thomas said Sunday he'd rather "lay in the weeds" and surprise people like the Sox did in 2000, but he doesn't mind being the favorite.

"You never know how it's going to work out," Thomas said. "I'm sure with this offense, we're going to be picked as the favorites. But it all comes down to pitching, every year. I don't care how good you swing the bats. We saw it with those great Cleveland teams. They scored runs, but hey, their pitching staff gave it up and they lost a lot of ballgames. We've just got to make sure we keep everybody together. We can win a lot of ballgames."

The poor Sox record this spring hasn't put a damper on the team's attitude with one week to go before Opening Day in Seattle.

The players are healthy and staying loose. No one seems overly concerned about the alarming pitching stats or the lack of experience of three Sox starters.

When the Sox went into the 2000 season, they had a young rotation headed by Mike Sirotka, followed by Kip Wells, Cal Eldred, Jim Parque and James Baldwin. Wells struggled early and lost his spot, but the other four helped carry the team into the postseason for the first time since 1993.

Now the Sox will sink or swim on general manager Ken Williams' revamped rotation of Mark Buehrle, Todd Ritchie, Dan Wright, Jon Garland and Jon Rauch. Since taking over as general manager on Oct. 24, 2000, Williams has traded Sirotka, Baldwin and Wells and tried to deal Garland to Anaheim for Darin Erstad before Disney Co. nixed the deal because Garland wasn't "marketable." Eldred retired when he couldn't return from elbow surgery, and Parque is slated to start in Triple A after a slow recovery from labrum surgery.

At 30, Ritchie is the old man of the staff, taking on Eldred's role in 2000. The other four have been knocked around at times this spring, though not enough for most of the experts to downgrade the Sox's chances in the Central.

"I think things are going to even out," Thomas said of the pitching woes. "I think if we get adequate pitching, we'll be just fine. I'm sure there's a possibility we may still make a [trade]."

It's no secret the team could use some pitching help, though Williams has yet to pull the trigger on a deal, and no one is expecting a blockbuster move.

"Everybody needs pitching," manager Jerry Manuel said after Sunday's loss to Arizona. "We feel we have good young pitchers. We just need them earlier than we anticipated."

Look for Manuel to baby his starters in the early going, letting them go four or five innings a start before turning to his bullpen.

When Wright makes his final exhibition start Friday at Milwaukee's Miller Park, he's scheduled to go only four innings. Garland is scheduled for five innings in San Francisco two days later, while Rauch will pitch only two innings Saturday in Milwaukee, though he'll be used in a middle-relief role before his April 9 debut in Detroit.

The key to the success of the young starters may hinge on the defensive support they get from the veteran fielders. The Sox lead the American League with 40 errors, though the starting infield has committed only five.

"We have a young pitching staff I know is going to need a lot of support out there," shortstop Royce Clayton said. "I look at it as a challenge. I look forward to helping them as much as possible.

"I think we've got a team that will do a lot of positive things. If you win once, like the Diamondbacks, you want to win again. I believe we're going to win this year, so I definitely want to come back and win again [in 2003]."

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