Where the 2011 White Sox are concerned, though, Williams might be dealing with the top winning combination of a royal flush. Actually, the hand played by Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen won't truly be known until mid to late July, but when you add left-handed slugger Adam Dunn and right-hander reliever Jesse Crain and bring back Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, this leadership duo has to be confident banking on an American League Central title even in early January.
Questions still exist for the White Sox to answer on this hopeful road to the postseason, and the Twins and Tigers will provide more than an ample division challenge -- let alone getting through the Red Sox and Yankees. But as January begins, the White Sox feel as if they are in position to take the entire AL pot, despite some of these ongoing issues.
1. Will Gordon Beckham become an AL Most Valuable Player candidate?
Suggesting in this same forum last year how the second baseman could go from 2009 AL Rookie of the Year, as voted on by his peers, to a '10 MVP possibility in just his first full big league season might have been a little much. But Beckham, being the ultimate competitor, had his expectations set at that sort of lofty level. Yes, Beckham had a miserable start to 2010, but he'll be a stronger player moving forward for getting through that slump and salvaging his season. With Dunn in the fold and Konerko and Pierzynski returning, an upbeat and now healthy Beckham understands the spotlight won't be primarily upon him, and he simply can focus on playing baseball.
2. What role will Jake Peavy play?
Reports from pitching coach Don Cooper have Peavy looking great during a recent rehab workout session. But as Cooper pointed out, Peavy has a number of physical and mental barriers to hurdle in coming back from a 2010 season-ending detached latissimus dorsi muscle in his right posterior shoulder. Peavy might not be ready until mid-April or possibly even mid-May, but even with the unknown nature of this particular injury, it's a safe bet to pencil in Peavy contributing significantly at some level to the team's playoff push. Peavy understands the importance of his presence to the rotation and to the pitching staff alignment.
3. Are the White Sox taking a major chance with a payroll in the $120 million range?
This is not a misprint. With the raises factored in for arbitration-eligible performers such as John Danks, Carlos Quentin and Tony Pena, the new franchise record payroll total could surpass that $120 million mark. Basically, Williams presented White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf with two options for 2011: go young or go all-in. As mentioned above, the club went all-in and then some and has positioned itself as one of the AL's best teams, at least on paper. If the Sox struggle at the outset like 2010 and fans lose that buzz, then the team could have some issues.
4. Is this Ozzie Guillen's last year as White Sox manager?
Here's the easy answer: If the club wins the AL Central, then Guillen returns. His 2012 team option automatically kicks in with a division crown. Of course, Guillen wants and deserves an extension as one of the top managers in the game and the entertaining face of the franchise. It looks as if Guillen and Williams have found a peaceful middle ground after a turbulent 2010, focused on the present championship-caliber team assembled. And a successful, calm season should lead to Guillen being on the South Side of Chicago well past the upcoming campaign.
5. Does Williams have another roster addition up his sleeve?
What's the next level coming after going "all-in?" Beyond all-in? Whatever it is called, the White Sox figure to go there as long as the cost isn't too prohibitive. The 2011 roster needs one more pitcher to complete the near-perfect picture. They could add a starter who could fill in until Peavy is healthy, at which point that new starter potentially moves to the bullpen, leaving Pena and Sale in relief. Williams also could add a reliever, allowing Pena or Sale to temporarily move to the rotation. Unless the White Sox decide to spend big money on closer Rafael Soriano or pursue left-hander Hideki Okajima, there seems to be more options in the starting venue.
6. What impact young player is this year's Sale, Beckham or even Sergio Santos?
How about Sale himself? After all, Sale only worked 21 games and 23 1/3 innings last year, and despite the consistent compliments from opposing hitters, the southpaw is far from an established commodity. He should quickly hit that level of notice in 2011 as a prominent piece on the White Sox staff. Brent Morel is another rookie to watch. His slick glove work at third base has him as the early favorite as that position's starter, and much like Sale, Morel has shown no fear adjusting to big league life -- even facing tough opposing hurlers. Don't forget Jordan Danks, who is the best defensive outfielder the White Sox have, and infielder Eduardo Escobar, who is the next player ready to contribute at the Minor League level.
7. Who will serve as the White Sox closer?
If this answer had to be given today, it probably would be Sale. There's no question Matt Thornton not only capably can handle the closer's job, but also would emerge as one of the AL's elite last lines of pitching defense. But unless the White Sox add another left-hander, Thornton has made himself All-Star valuable as a pitcher who can work the seventh or eighth or both, on more than a few occasions. Giving the early nod to Sale doesn't mean Thornton won't have save opportunities and the same can be said for Crain and Santos from the right side. There will be a go-to guy coming out of Spring Training, but it could be a fluid position.
8. Can the White Sox topple the Twins?
As the great pro wrestler Ric Flair often said, "To be the man, you have to beat the man." In this case, the White Sox have to beat a team holding a 13-5 head-to-head edge in 2010. This division is far from a two-team race. It's a three-team race. Adding Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit and bringing back Magglio Ordonez puts the Tigers right at the top with the Twins and the White Sox, making the division not too different from the bulk of the 2010 season. The only difference might be the division winner standing as built to advance further in the postseason.
9. Is this Mark Buehrle's last year in Major League Baseball?
The more obvious question would be: Is this Buehrle's last year with the White Sox, being the 2010 season marks the fourth and final one of his present $56 million deal? But the ace left-hander, who has worked at least 200 innings, made at least 30 starts and won in double-digits during all 10 seasons as a starter, has hinted over the last three or four years how the end of his contract might be the end of his big league career. Although Buehrle doesn't want to miss important family time with his wife and two kids, the guess here is that 2011 will not be the end for a valuable commodity such as Buehrle and might not even be the end for him with the White Sox.
10. Do White Sox fans believe in this team?
White Sox fans always have depicted themselves as the more discerning group among Chicago baseball's support groups, meaning they go to games when the product is worthwhile to watch. Well, this team certainly looks competitive at the absolute least, and the White Sox support group already has responded with a spike in ticket sales. That continued increase will give Williams more room to work in the offseason, not to mention adding an important piece at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, as he has been known to do.