Who would replace the power of Carlos Lee and Magglio Ordonez? How would new players such as second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, left fielder Scott Podsednik and reliever Dustin Hermanson fit into the overall scheme? Could a small ball team work at homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field?
The revamped White Sox, now a team based on pitching, defense and smart baseball, would finish no higher than third or fourth in the American League Central, according to the experts. Some even had the Minnesota Twins winning the World Series.
But, when the final regular-season out was recorded, the Twins, Indians, Tigers and Royals all were left looking up at the South Siders. Even with their "Win. Or die trying." mentality, knowing they would be far better than most people thought, some of the White Sox expressed slight surprise in their season-long dominance.
"I didn't expect to have the best record in Major League Baseball as long as we did," said Hermanson, who played a starring role as the unexpected closer. "But, I knew we had a good chance of being like this. I planned on us being in this until the end."
"People said we were going to be in last place -- the people who don't know about baseball," added right-handed hurler Freddy Garcia with a wry smile. "I heard talk of last place and [finishing] way behind Minnesota. But I knew if it all worked, we would be pretty good."
To understand the White Sox success, the small parts adding up to the total sum of greatness, look no further than the first two games of 2005 at home against Cleveland. The White Sox won the season opener, 1-0, scoring in the seventh inning on Paul Konerko's double, Jermaine Dye's fly out to right, advancing Konerko to third, and Aaron Rowand's hard-hit, run-scoring grounder that ricocheted off the body of shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
Mark Buehrle's eight innings of two-hit pitching certainly didn't hurt the cause. Kevin Millwood dominated the White Sox for eight innings two days later, carrying a 3-0 lead into the ninth, only to have the White Sox rally for four against Bob Wickman. The Cleveland closer blew only three saves through August, and two came against the White Sox.
This particular ninth-inning rally was courtesy of home runs from Konerko and Dye and Joe Crede's walk-off sacrifice fly. Yes, this version of the White Sox still could feature the long ball, but they also could steal bases and score runs the old-fashioned way. With solid pitching from Nos. 1 through 12 on the staff and their cardiac comeback capabilities, the South Siders became a team that could win in a large variety of ways.
"The difference offensively now is that they do the little things," said Kansas City infielder Denny Hocking, who was a key utility player for Minnesota during two of their three consecutive Central crowns prior to this season. "They will manufacture runs with anyone in the league now. That's a credit to their front office, to go out and get those types of players."
"There's not an unbelievable anything on this team," Hermanson continued. "When I looked around the team [in the spring] though, it seemed like we were pretty solid everywhere."
"We always make the best with the talent we have," Garcia added. "And we have five guys in the rotation who are pitching great."
Guillen likes to say that in 2004, the White Sox had 1 1/2 starting pitchers for most of the season. So, the quintet of Buehrle, Garcia, Jon Garland, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez served as a mammoth upgrade. The same could be said for bullpen additions such as Hermanson, Luis Vizcaino, hard-throwing rookie Bobby Jenks and the return of a healthy and dominant Cliff Politte.
But to complete a masterpiece, or in this case, a division title, you have to brush over a few flaws. Shingo Takatsu, the tremendous White Sox closer and cult hero from 2004, lost control of the strike zone and eventually lost his roster spot. Enter Hermanson and Jenks.
Frank Thomas returned with a powerful bang, only to be lost for the season in late July with another fracture of his left navicular. Carl Everett was in place, though, to pick up the run production at designated hitter.
U.S. Cellular Field
For most of the 2005 season, the focus in regard to U.S. Cellular Field has been placed on the fans who did and the fans who didn't show up during the White Sox American League Central championship campaign.
But even during a recent significant home series against Cleveland, when the crowds ranged from 26,000 to 36,000, the stadium was as loud as any in baseball. Sellout crowds clearly are expected for the playoff contests, starting Tuesday in Chicago.
U.S. Cellular Field has been known more as a hitter's park of late, giving up more home runs than any other stadium in 2004. With the weather being cooler in October, though, and the White Sox pitching staff decidedly better, the baseballs shouldn't be traveling out quite as much.
Make sure to check out the "Fundamentals Deck" out in left field, a new addition to U.S. Cellular in 2005. Kids can enjoy playing the actual game of baseball, while their parents can keep an eye on the White Sox quest for the World Series.
There also was a seven-game losing streak in mid-August, a run in the wrong direction reducing a 15-game division lead to 6 1/2 games over Cleveland on Aug. 30. The White Sox responded by winning seven straight to open September. That lead dropped to 1 1/2 games during the second-to-last weekend, and more than a bit of panic crept up amongst White Sox fans.
That panic was not evident in the clubhouse. The belief that was there in Spring Training stayed firmly in place.
"They said we weren't good enough to compete in the Central Division. We were going to finish fourth," general manager Ken Williams said. "All through the year, we weren't good enough to keep up the pace we had. We weren't good enough to get to the All-Star break in the same fashion and we weren't good enough to carry it through the rest of the year. Now, we're not good enough, supposedly, for the playoffs.
"When it's all said and done and October turns around and you're one of four teams [in the league] that has a chance to go to the World Series, that's what you play for," Williams added. "That's what we're here for. We've got just as good a shot as anybody, as far as I'm concerned."
Williams is not alone in his opinion. Truth be told, there is no clearly dominant team in the American League. The White Sox, with their supreme pitching, can win the pennant as easily as the defending World Champions from Boston, with their high-octane offense.
But the White Sox feature something not every title contender can claim. Despite having a roster looking more like the United Nations, with Iguchi from Japan, Contreras and Hernandez from Cuba, Juan Uribe and Timo Perez from the Dominican Republic and Guillen and Garcia from Venezuela, to name a few, they all speak the same language on the field.
It was a sense of White Sox pride, noticeable from those first few days of Spring Training, with former White Sox players such as Greg Walker, Harold Baines, Joey Cora and Tim Raines joining Guillen on his coaching staff and running the show. Even with seven or eight new faces on the roster, the White Sox immediately came together with one common goal.
As for the doubters and skeptics, they can sit back and watch the White Sox during the playoffs.
"I don't care what other people think," Garcia said. "I care what the 25 guys here think and want to do."
"This is a very good team," Thomas continued. "Ozzie has kept this team together with his approach and his plan all year, and guys have stayed with it."
"There was a different unity or chemistry or camaraderie with this group, one that was not here in the past," center fielder Aaron Rowand said. "I knew we had a good team, but I wasn't sure how we would do. At the very least, I knew we would have a good time because we have a lot of good guys who enjoy being around each other."
The White Sox hope to continue that fun on the field throughout the entire month of October.