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WSI News - News Watch

Contreras, Williams on the bubble

March 29, By Phil Rogers; Chicago Tribune

The next-best thing to a great season is a great excuse, such as the one the White Sox had when injuries depleted the defending American League Central champions last season. Lacking that, you need a fall guy.

Here's a look at three Chicagoans under the gun in 2002:

NARDI CONTRERAS

White Sox pitching coach

Contreras, who is in his fifth season with the Sox, is the man most likely to fall between now and October. There's no guarantee he'll even make it to Memorial Day.

General manager Ken Williams has had minor-league pitching coordinator Don Cooper working with the major-league team all spring. That's not a good sign for Contreras, whose staff enters April shell-shocked from an Arizona stay in which the White Sox went 9-20 despite scoring almost eight runs per game.

Canning coaches, especially pitching coaches and hitting instructors, is a way of life in the Sox organization. Among those who have lost their jobs in midseason in recent years are Von Joshua (2001), Ron Jackson (1998), Mike Pazik (1998), Bill Buckner (1997) and Jackie Brown (1995).

Manager Jerry Manuel and Contreras are close but sources say Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has begun to ask tough questions about the development of young pitchers. With the notable exception of Mark Buehrle, the White Sox haven't gotten the returns they expected from a stable of pitching prospects.

Jon Garland, Dan Wright, Matt Ginter and the recently traded Kip Wells all had stretches where they dominated in the high minors. That foursome posted a 49-34 record with a 2.89 earned-run average in Double A and Triple A. But at the big-league level, the group of Wells, Garland, Wright and Ginter is 45-48 with a 5.21 ERA.

If Garland, Wright and 6-foot-11-inch Jon Rauch don't pitch decently in April, it could cost Contreras his job. Williams has at least two possible replacements in place in Cooper and Triple-A pitching coach Kirk Champion.

KENNY WILLIAMS

White Sox general manager

When Williams was promoted over Dan Evans to replace Ron Schueler after the 2000 season, we said he was taking on one of the toughest assignments possible-taking a contender with limited resources and getting it into the World Series.

He has made some bold trades in his short time on the job, but none has turned out as advertised. If the Sox's pitching staff disappoints while Pittsburgh improves on the strength of former Sox pitchers Wells, Sean Lowe and Josh Fogg, the heat will rise for the 37-year-old general manager.

Lacking flexibility to take on the salaries of the proven relievers who were available, Williams may have overpaid badly to get left-hander Damaso Marte from Pittsburgh. Marte, ridden hard in winter ball, comes to the Sox off an underwhelming spring but was outstanding at times in 2001. He showed a 97 m.p.h. fastball in his major-league debut.

Marte or 20-year-old infielder Edwin Yan will have to pay big dividends to justify sending Matt Guerrier to Pittsburgh. Pirates GM Dave Littlefield gushes about Guerrier in the same manner as the Sox's minor-league staffers, whose recommendations contributed to Baseball America rating him as the No. 4 prospect in the Sox system.

Both Sox staffers and Littlefield compare Guerrier to Greg Maddux.

"Matt has a very good idea of how to pitch," Littlefield says. "He's not going to light up any radar guns, but he has extremely good control. He moves the ball around and throws strikes. We feel good about being able to get him."

It's hard to see what the Sox didn't like about Guerrier, who is better than any of the prospects the Cubs sent to Florida in the deal for Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement. This deal speaks of the anxiety of a GM who needs to win but is boxed in salary-wise, with problems of his own making.

Proof of the Sox's financial pinch is their weekend odyssey from Tucson to Seattle. Before opening the season, they will have flown from Tucson to Milwaukee, then back west to San Francisco and finally to Seattle for the Monday afternoon opener. Traveling 4,994 miles to play four games in three times zones in a 74-hour period will leave players exhausted—not a good condition at the start of a nine-day road trip—but will generate revenue.



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