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WSI News - News Watch

Big bats, young arms for ChiSox

By Jimmy Greenfield / MLB.com

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Wall Street, take notice. The White Sox have just put on a remarkable display of how to avoid panicking under dire circumstances.

But of course, these weren't dire circumstances. This was only Spring Training.

As baseballs started to fly past every fielder, soar over every fence and leave imprints on almost every bat, nobody would have blamed the White Sox for suddenly changing the plan.

But of course, there was no need to veer from the plan. This was only Spring Training.

Spring Training means nothing. All it did was provide the White Sox with their starting rotation.

Winning spots on the staff of the team favored by most to win the American League Central were 22-year-old Jon Garland (9.28 ERA this spring), 23-year-old Jon Rauch (9.82) and 24-year-old Dan Wright (7.79).

It's a good thing 23-year-old Mark Buehrle already pitches like a hard-nosed veteran and 30-year-old Todd Ritchie actually is a hard-nosed veteran.

With all their young starters, the fear is that the Sox may have moved directly from docile Cactus Leagues games to a more dangerous game: Rush In Roulette.

"When you have youth you don't know what you're going to get," Sox manager Jerry Manuel said. "There's going to be some inconsistencies. The whole key to the youth thing is that they don't lose confidence and we put them in a situation where we continue to keep a good taste in their mouths.

"That's going to be the trick of managing this team, really. Keep this young starting rotation confident enough that when they go out they have a chance to win."

All Manuel will have to do at the beginning is remind them that Kenny Lofton, Ray Durham, Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, Jose Valentin and Carlos Lee have their backs.

The 2000 White Sox scored 978 runs and allowed 839 as they won 95 games and the AL Central. Last year's squad, despite all the injuries to their pitchers, the loss of Thomas and a horrible offensive start, outscored their opponents 798-795.

The formula the Sox are adhering to is good old-fashioned American League baseball.

"We have great hitting," Thomas said. "If we get adequate pitching we should win a lot of ballgames."

When the Sox began stockpiling pitchers in 1997 with the mid-season deal that brought Keith Foulke, Bob Howry and Lorenzo Barcelo over from San Francisco, it wasn't to merely be adequate.

Most scouts and publications have ranked the Sox farm system among the best in baseball over the last few years, with the pitching prospects usually rated among the highest.

The idea was that you could never have enough good arms, and that proved to be true. The Sox have never had enough good arms. For every Mark Buehrle, there was a Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Kevin Beirne and Aaron Myette. It takes quite a bit of sifting to find gold.

This group of starters will reveal themselves in due time, though any growing pains in the first month could be alleviated by road games in larger ballparks in Seattle, Kansas City and Detroit.

"These are guys that have had a lot of success at the minor league level," Sox GM Ken Williams said. "If they start to believe in themselves as much as we believe in them, that's when they'll begin to take off."

Garland first joined the Sox in 2000 but really began to blossom last season when he went 6-6 with a 3.69 ERA in 35 appearances, including 16 starts. He produced a 3.34 ERA in 11 starts to end the season, a sign that this spring is an aberration.

The youngest pitcher in the Majors when he was called up in 2000 and still the youngest player on the Sox, Garland has a cocksure attitude that can be misconstrued if you dont know how laid back he really is.

"I dont look at my age," Garland said. "I can be 20, 21 or 22, or 30, 31 or 32. Your job is still the same. You have to go out on the field, you have to battle and you have to get outs."

Garland stands 6-foot-6, Rauch at 6-11 and, at 6-4, Wright is the shortest of the bunch. He had his first tour of duty last season when he was called up in July and went 5-3 with a 5.70 ERA in 12 starts.

Rauch is the only one yet to make his Major League debut and, in fact, has made only 14 starts above Class A, and eight of those came in 2000 when he was named Baseball Americas Minor League Player of the Year.

That season he combined to go 16-4 with a 2.66 ERA at Single-A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. For a while he became the best pitching prospect in baseball.

The acclaim died down soon after Rauch had surgery to repair a torn labrum last season. He wasn't expected to be ready until much later, but he convinced Manuel he was ready by his approach to pitching, if not his ability to get Cactus League batters out.

"I always thought I had it in myself that I could (get to the big leagues)," Rauch said. "Now that I have I've got to stay there. When I've been there 10 years that'll be a dream come true."

Ritchie might be the perfect veteran to put on display for these kids, especially in the wake of last year's David Wells disaster. If Williams intentionally went out and found the opposite of Wells, he couldn't have done a better job.

"I haven't been on a staff that has this much youth, but I think it's a good thing," Ritchie said. "They're young but they all have experience. It's not like they're all being thrown into the fire. They've been here a year or two, they know what they're doing.

"It's exciting. I dont think any of them have tapped into their potential yet. Hopefully they'll all take off this year."

And if not this year, there's always  well, this year still looks too promising to consider the 2003 season just yet.

"I do feel very good about the team despite what has happened in Spring Training," Manuel said. "I feel very confident in this team. I think we will be one of the better teams that I've had since I've been here  obviously we have to remain healthy and do some things, but I feel very good about the men that we'll be taking."

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