After big start, Sox year took disappointing turn

After big start, Sox year took disappointing turn

CHICAGO -- Five innings were in the books for the White Sox 2011 season on April 1 in Cleveland. They held a 14-0 advantage at Progressive Field, and the team from the South Side of Chicago looked virtually unbeatable.

"I thought we'd win every game," said a smiling White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, who earned that victory over the Indians in an eventual 15-10 final. "That's why you play 162 games.

"Guys get injured. Guys go through struggles. Guys get hot."

All of the above happened to the White Sox, although not enough guys got hot and stayed hot from the last part of Buehrle's statement. And a seemingly uplifting campaign -- carrying the marketing moniker of "All In," with the payroll at a franchise-record $127 million -- suddenly turned into one of the greatest disappointments during the Ken Williams/Ozzie Guillen eight-year tenure.

The offense, which looked to be an elite force going into Spring Training, ended up being "below average" by hitting coach Greg Walker's estimation. The bullpen quickly became a strong suit for the White Sox, but late-inning struggles contributed to a deep April chasm from which the White Sox could not fight all the way back.

Adam Dunn -- signed to a four-year, $56-million free-agent deal, and one of the more potent sluggers in the game over the past decade coming into hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field -- had a historically bad season. It was so disastrous that Dunn quipped about not having the year as part of his next baseball card, but was serious on the topic of not speaking about his 2011 season ever again after the final out was made on Sept. 28.

Alex Rios' season-long struggles were almost as bad, leaving the White Sox without much besides All-Star captain Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin in the middle of their order. The team's fundamental base, which Guillen took so much pride in serving as a backbone for winning, wasn't consistently solid. The team was plagued by everything from bad reads in the outfield to mistakes on the basepaths.

Yet, despite injuries to catcher A.J. Pierzynski (fractured left wrist), Konerko (left knee/left calf) Quentin (sprained A/C joint in left shoulder), utility force Brent Lillibridge (fractured right hand), backup catcher Ramon Castro (broken right hand) and Jake Peavy's ongoing recovery from 2010 surgery to reattach his lat, the White Sox contended in the American League Central for much of the year. Those hopes for a division title eventually faded in September -- much like 2009 and 2010 -- to official "what-ifs?"

"I'm not saying embarrassing, but it makes you wonder if you are managing well, if my coaching staff did their job," said Guillen of the underachieving 2011 season. "You wonder about a lot of things: how we went through Spring Training, April, May.

"Was it the right thing to go with a six-man rotation? Did we do the right thing to keep Dunner and Rios in the lineup? All this stuff. It's so much tougher when you have a losing season. A lot of people suffered here from the top to the bottom, if we did the right thing with this ballclub this year.

"I'll take the blame," Guillen said. "I don't make excuses because they [gave] me a good ballclub. Why we don't play well is people's opinion. We [did] not play the way we should."

Young players such as Alejandro De Aza, Dayan Viciedo, Addison Reed and Tyler Flowers made positive contributions following their Minor League callups. They all could factor significantly into the future, which will feature a new manager and a new hitting coach, among other potential changes that could arise.

In the present, the White Sox are left to think about a rough finish, following an uneven middle and that memorable Opening Day.

"Look at the way Cleveland started," Buehrle said. "They looked like they were going to win the World Series, and they kind of struggled. That's why you play every game and can't go off the first couple weeks."

Record: 79-83, third place in the American League Central.

Defining moment: The White Sox entered Labor Day weekend at Comerica Park in need of, at the very least, a series win against the first-place Tigers, who held a 5 1/2-game lead. After losing to Justin Verlander in the opener, the White Sox grabbed an 8-1 lead in the fifth inning of a Sept. 3 contest that was whittled down to 8-6 in the ninth. Sergio Santos was called upon to protect the advantage, but gave up a game-tying, two-run homer to Ryan Raburn on a 1-2, one-out hanging slider. One out later, Miguel Cabrera deposited the same slider variety into the left-field stands for the walk-off winner. This was not an elimination shot for the White Sox, but it might as well have been. In the final six September games against the Tigers, the White Sox lost all six.

What went right: Konerko simply gets better with age. His return via a three-year, $37.5-million free-agent deal was punctuated by a fifth season with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs (and second straight), not to mention career hit No. 2,000. He played with pain and, as always, the captain led with class. ... Although he had a few September struggles, Santos provided a stabilizing force to the bullpen when moving to closer in late April. He holds the edge for that job entering 2012. ... Chris Sale formed a dominant one-two punch with Santos as the team's left-handed setup man, giving encouraging thoughts as to what he may be able to do with 100 pitches per game as a possible starter next season and beyond. ... Juan Pierre, the low-key and highly-respected veteran, became the source of controversy not of his own doing in late June, when the debate began as to whether Viciedo or the talented leadoff man could help the White Sox more in the outfield and the lineup. Guillen and Williams seemed to be in opposite camps on that particular idea, with Williams talking about Viciedo's Major League preparedness. But the hard-working Pierre simply focused on his game and hit .295 after the All-Star break, finishing with the second-highest single-season RBI total (50) of his career. He also picked up career hit No. 2,000. ... Peavy returned ahead of schedule from a first-of-its-kind 2010 surgery to re-attach his lat muscle, and showed some signs of the Cy Young-caliber Peavy of old. ... For the 11th straight season, Buehrle reached at least 200 innings pitched, at least 30 starts and double-digit victories. It was just business as usual for the southpaw free agent-to-be, who might have made his last start for the White Sox.

What went wrong: The offense struggled to consistently come up with big hits or to sustain rallies. A significant part of this problem centered on the extremely rough years with the bat for Dunn and Rios in the middle of the White Sox order. ... Gordon Beckham was unable to build on a strong 2010 finish offensively. His defense at second base was Gold Glove-caliber, but the talented Beckham already has talked about figuring out some things mentally with his approach during this upcoming offseason. ... John Danks had established himself as one of the game's elite left-handed starters entering 2011. His talent certainly didn't disappear, but the results just weren't there -- beginning with eight straight losses. ... Another slow start had the White Sox playing catch-up pretty much from early April. After a 4-18 losing skid, they sat at 11-22 and 11 games out of first place on May 6. ... Peavy volunteered for a four-inning relief outing on June 25 against the Nationals, after Danks left with an injury. Although Peavy struck out seven and gave up one hit, he was never really the same after that appearance, and was shut down shortly after a Sept. 6 victory over Minnesota. ... The White Sox issues within the AL Central were evidenced by a 5-13 mark against the Tigers.

Biggest surprise: On the positive side, it would be Philip Humber. The right-hander was picked up off of waivers from the A's in January, and was thought of as a long reliever or potential fill in for Peavy. He ended up as the team's most consistent first-half starter. But the negative surprise with Dunn far outweighed this Humber positive. Even factoring in Dunn's move to the AL, his move from first base to DH and his move to a bigger market with a team expected to contend, nobody -- including Dunn -- could have predicted this 2011 debacle.

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Being Ozzie Guillen, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.