White Sox Opening Day Outlook

White Sox Opening Day Outlook

TUCSON, Ariz. -- On paper, the 2006 White Sox looked to be a better team than the 2005 White Sox. And the 2005 White Sox certainly were far from slouches.

All Ozzie Guillen's crew accomplished in that particular year was a 99-win regular season, an 11-1 record in the postseason and picking up its first World Series title in almost nine decades, setting off a one-of-a-kind, city-wide celebration. The White Sox ultimate inability to not only repeat this title effort in 2006 but also the team coming up short of the playoffs all together once again proves the old adage of how the season is never played on paper.

But general manager Ken Williams, Guillen and the White Sox returning veterans are confident the 2007 squad breaking camp from Tucson has a strong chance to repeat the organization's 2005 baseball euphoria. Somewhat significant changes have been made, with staples such as Freddy Garcia, Neal Cotts, Brandon McCarthy and Ross Gload gone via the trade route, replaced by talented young players such as pitchers John Danks, Nick Masset and Andrew Sisco.

Williams has assembled a skilled and confident team amongst the 25-man active roster. But he also has added depth to be picked from at the Minor League level if or when the White Sox are in need of a boost during their season-long postseason drive.

Of course, the team still has to deal with baseball's best division, with the Indians, Tigers and Twins joining the White Sox as viable playoff contenders in the American League Central, and the Royals steadily improving. Ultimately, it was two teams within the Central playing slightly better than the White Sox in 2006 that cost them a chance to repeat.

BATTING ORDER
1. Scott Podsednik, LF:
After late-January surgery to repair a sports hernia, it was doubtful whether the fleet-footed Podsednik would be ready for Opening Day. But he came back to the field well ahead of schedule during Spring Training and is focused on returning to his All-Star leadoff form from the first half of 2005, when his primary goal simply was to get on base any way possible and score runs.

2. Darin Erstad, CF:
Erstad hit just .221 over 95 at-bats for the Angels last season, but has been performing impressively at full strength during Spring Training following offseason surgery to remove a bone spur from his right ankle. Erstad featured the "grinder" style of intense play on the field before the White Sox made the word popular.

3. Jim Thome, DH:
How does the prolific slugger follow up winning the American League Comeback Player of the Year award in 2006, after knocking out 42 home runs and driving in 109? Producing 28 home runs to reach 500 for his career will be high on the list of individual goals for Thome to accomplish in 2007. But Thome's ultimate target is to return to the World Series and win a championship.

4. Paul Konerko, 1B:
Over the past three seasons, Konerko has become one of the steadiest run producers in the game. He ranks seventh in all of baseball with 116 home runs since 2004 and is coming off his third straight season with at least 100 RBIs. The team's clubhouse leader also set a career high with a .313 average in 2006.

opening day 2007

5. Jermaine Dye, RF:
If the White Sox could have found a way to reach the playoffs last year, Jermaine Dye would have emerged as a prime AL Most Valuable Player candidate. Dye hit .315 and set a career high with 44 home runs and 120 RBIs, not to mention posting a .351 average with runners in scoring position. His confidence and vast knowledge of his swing indicate those numbers should not drop off much, if at all, in 2007.

6. Joe Crede, 3B:
He once was considered a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player but an offensive liability. Now, Crede has become one of the most complete third baseman in the game, with career highs set for a full season last year in batting average (.283), home runs (30) and RBIs (94). Crede also appears healthy where his balky back is concerned.

7. Tadahito Iguchi, 2B:
For two years, the Japanese import has given up part of his game as the team's No. 2 hitter to focus on situational hitting behind Podsednik or Pablo Ozuna and simply trying to use his bat to set up the White Sox potent middle. But with a chance to hit lower in the order at times in 2007, Iguchi will be able to take better advantage of his power and speed. Iguchi, who hit 30 home runs and swiped 40 bases in the same season while playing in Japan, has been the picture of consistency with the White Sox, finishing second overall in RBIs and runs scored among AL second basemen during the past two years.

8. A.J. Pierzynski, C:
Pierzynski caught 132 games in 2006 and is prepared for an equally heavy workload in 2007, especially after Toby Hall's recent shoulder injury. Even with a rough August, in which he hit .228, Pierzynski showed improvement in batting average (from .257 to .295) and RBIs (56 to 64). The left-handed hitter also batted .270 against southpaws.

9. Juan Uribe, SS:
With his legal woes apparently behind him, a leaner Uribe seems poised for a vastly improved season both in the field and at the plate. Uribe needs to show better patience, after hitting .235 in 2006 with 13 walks in a shade under 500 plate appearances.

ROTATION
1. Jose Contreras, RHP:
Contreras was as dominant as any pitcher in the game during the first half of 2006, extending his franchise record streak of consecutive winning decisions to 17. Hamstring and back injuries hampered his second half, with the right-hander dipping to 4-9 with a 5.40 ERA, but Contreras appears healthy and ready for his first career Opening Day start.

2. Jon Garland, RHP:
Who has the most victories in baseball over the last two years? If Chris Carpenter was the guess, then the answer is only half right. Garland has won 18 games in each of the last two seasons to match the St. Louis ace with 36 wins. He moves up to the second slot in this balanced rotation, featuring one of the AL's best sinkers.

3. Mark Buehrle, LHP:
While Buehrle remains focused on helping the team, this season could be the most important from a personal standpoint for the crafty left-hander. Buehrle is coming off the worst half of his career, a 3-7 run with a 6.44 ERA after the All-Star break, leading to a 12-13 record and 4.99 ERA overall. With free agency looming after this season, Buehrle needs to return to the form that has produced 97 victories over six full seasons as a starter.

4. Javier Vazquez, RHP:
For the first time since 2002 and 2003 with Montreal, Vazquez begins a second straight season with the same team after enduring three straight trades. Vazquez just might have the best stuff on the staff, leading the team with 184 strikeouts in 202 2/3 innings last year, but also is being counted on to soar above being a .500 pitcher, where he has hovered for most of the past five years.

5. John Danks, LHP:
The final slot in the rotation went to the 21-year-old left-hander after a very impressive spring performance. Danks, who was part of the McCarthy Christmas trade with Texas, needs to show the same aggressiveness and fearlessness as he did during Cactus League action and continue attacking the strike zone.

BULLPEN
Youth and power seem to be the watchwords for the revamped relief crew of 2007, a priority set by Williams and Guillen as they put together the team in the offseason. Bobby Jenks became the third closer in White Sox history to record at least 40 saves in a single season and, if he stays healthy and his velocity continues to rise, the right-hander has the potential to be one of the best closers in the game. But he should have plenty of support from right-handed setup man Mike MacDougal and left-handed setup man Matt Thornton, who both can throw the ball nearly 100 mph. Add in the electric stuff possessed by Nick Masset, another integral part of the McCarthy trade, and the White Sox head into Chicago with four relievers featuring closer-type stuff, who can basically finish games from the sixth inning moving forward. Guillen also doesn't have to worry about using one pitcher for particular hitters, as his relievers have the ability to retire left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters alike.

OPENING DELAYED
Signing Hall to a two-year deal with an option for 2009 didn't seem like front-page news coming from a busy offseason. But adding a quality right-handed bat against the tough southpaws in the AL Central, as well as keeping Pierzynski fresh down the stretch, made Hall a very important addition. The torn labrum he suffered in his right throwing shoulder while playing first base in the ninth inning of a game during the last week of Spring Training will be a big loss to the team, with rookie Gustavo Molina apparently taking over behind Pierzynski.

BURNING QUESTION
Can the White Sox stellar starting rotation recover from the 2005 World Series championship hangover? Actually, Buehrle, Garland and Contreras were the only three who had to deal with the after-effects of throwing those high-pressure innings and now they have returned to the rotation in 2007. The offense just might be one of the most complete attacks in baseball, especially with the addition of a healthy Podsednik and Erstad and Uribe's apparent rejuvenation. But this team will go as far as its 11-man staff can take it.

ON THE RECORD
"We felt like we worked extremely hard to put this club in place. Obviously injuries are part of the game, and it's hard to exclude what happened with Toby. But with that being said, yeah, I'm happy with what we have here. I think our big boys are primed for good years and I think the guys that are responsible for the small ball part of our lineup are going to have good years as well, both offensively and defensively." -- Williams

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.