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WSI News - News Watch

Offense strong; Solid pitching will be the key

March 31st, from the Daily Herald; Scot Gregor

Over the next six months, maybe seven, the White Sox' performance on the field will provide answers.

But with the 2002 regular season set to open in Seattle on Monday, there are plenty of questions. Here are 10:

1. Can the Sox win the AL Central with offense and little else?

Manager Jerry Manuel seems to think so.

With an imposing lineup featuring three-time all-star Magglio Ordonez, the return of two-time MVP Frank Thomas and the addition of dangerous leadoff man Kenny Lofton, the White Sox could match - or better - their production from 2000.

That's the year the Sox led the majors with 978 runs while winning a league-high 95 games.

"I think we can do better this year,'' said Thomas, who played in only 20 games last season before tearing his right triceps. "Kenny is going to take a lot of pressure off Ray (Durham). Now, he doesn't have to worry about getting on base. He can swing away, and you know Ray has the ability to put up some big numbers.''

In assessing the strength of the batting order, simply look at Carlos Lee's status.

Lee, averaging 24 home runs and 88 RBI over the last two seasons, is scheduled to hit seventh.

2. What's the deal with the pitching?

The Sox' dismal performance has been the focal point all spring, and with good reason.

Blame the rash of shoulder injuries from last season or point a finger at the poor pitching conditions in Tucson, Ariz., the White Sox' spring home.

Excuses can be made, but when play starts for real, the staff has to step up and give the offense a chance.

Manuel feels good about the 1-2 punch of Mark Buehrle and Todd Ritchie at the top of the rotation, and closer Keith Foulke is near the head of his class.

After that, the White Sox are still looking for answers.

3. When will Jim Parque return to the rotation?

Parque is on the 15-day disabled list as he continues to build up arm strength. The left-hander reluctantly agreed to a rehabilitation assignment with Class AAA Charlotte, and he is eligible to return to the 25-man roster April 10.

By late April, look for Parque to replace one of the three young starters (Dan Wright, Jon Garland, Jon Rauch) at the bottom of the rotation.

4. If the pitching staff doesn't bounce back from a shaky spring, what's going to happen?

When the offense limped out of the gate last season, hitting coach Von Joshua was fired May 19.

Pitching coach Nardi Contreras is Manuel's close friend, but he'll face a similar fate if his pupils are still struggling once May rolls around.

5. Why doesn't general manager Kenny Williams trade for more pitching help?

The Sox' second-year GM did acquire left-handed reliever Damaso Marte from the Pirates last week, and that should fill a big hole in the bullpen.

Williams also landed Ritchie from Pittsburgh over the winter, but he can't afford to go out and get another high-priced veteran such as David Wells.

6. Why not?

Because the White Sox claim they lost $10 million last season and money is very tight.

When they won the division in 2000, the Sox' payroll barely topped $30 million. It doubled last year and should be around $57 million this season.

If the White Sox put it all together and are serious contenders in July, Williams might be able to go out and make a deal before the deadline. But, again, the Sox have to put people in the seats at Comiskey Park before any major moves can be made.

7. What happens if the White Sox are out of the running when the July 31 trade deadline approaches?

Say goodbye to Durham, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. Ditto to shortstop Royce Clayton.

And if the Sox really flop, Thomas could also be moved.

8. Who was the biggest surprise this spring?

Willie Harris got much more ink, but Tim Hummel showed why he should be considered the White Sox' second baseman of the future.

While drawing some comparison to a young Ryne Sandberg, Hummel batted .372 in the Cactus League before being optioned to Class AAA Charlotte.

Hummel, who committed 5 errors in 22 exhibition games, obviously needs more defensive polish. But the converted shortstop should be ready for full-time duty in 2003.

9. Who was the biggest disappointment?

Bob Howry. Expected to be back at full strength after having shoulder surgery following the 2000 season, Howry took a big step back this spring.

While seeing the velocity on his fastball dip to 88-89 mph, Howry gave up 17 runs on 27 hits over 15 innings.

The reliever lost his setup job in the process.

10. Can the White Sox make it to the playoffs?

Considering they're competing in one of the weakest divisions in baseball, without a doubt.

But getting to the postseason is one thing. Making a run toward the World Series is quite another.

Two years ago, the Sox' high-powered offense was easily tamed by the Mariners, who won the series in a three-game sweep.

Don't be surprised if history repeats itself this year.


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