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Matthew Leach

White Sox a contender with few weaknesses

Leach: White Sox a legitimate contender

White Sox a contender with few weaknesses
NEW YORK -- If the rest of baseball isn't quite sure what to make of the 2012 White Sox, general manager Kenny Williams left no doubt over the weekend. He sees a team with a chance to win.

Williams made the first significant trade of the 2012 season on Sunday, acquiring Kevin Youkilis from the Red Sox. Youkilis fills what was one of few major holes on a division-leading team, making a good team better even if he doesn't find the elite-level form he showed earlier in his career.

Following a strange winter in which the Sox at times appeared to be rebuilding, Chicago is one of the more intriguing stories in baseball. Nearly all of the club's major offseason changes were losses rather than additions, and yet a team that stumbled to a 79-83 record in 2011 is six games over .500 as the midway point of 2012 approaches.

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They got to 41-35 with a 4-3 win over the Yankees on Thursday night that showcased what the team does well. The Sox hit a pair of home runs, played some slick defense and got just enough from rookie starter Dylan Axelrod. They lead the Indians by 2 1/2 games, the Tigers by four and the Royals by 5 1/2 in the American League Central, a year after finishing in third.

The actual improvement may be greater than the record indicates. Last year's Sox were outscored by 52 runs, while this year's edition has outscored opponents by 41. They don't do any one thing brilliantly, so it can be easy to miss how solid they are. But neither do they do any one thing horribly, and that may be the greatest asset of the '12 White Sox.

The offense is plenty effective, if not dominant (fifth in runs in the American League), with some home run power, decent on-base ability and more than a bit of speed. The starting rotation, fronted by brilliant youngster Chris Sale, goes solidly five-deep when it's healthy -- though health is a big issue right now. The Sox are down two starters, Phil Humber and John Danks, which makes this a period of some peril.

The bullpen has been in flux, but rookie righty Addison Reed is starting to make the ninth inning less stressful. Still, the 'pen is one area where rookie manager Robin Ventura's team could use some help. The White Sox entered Thursday's game with the third-worst bullpen ERA in the American League.

"We're just trying to find guys that are pitchers," Ventura said. "I don't care if they're young, old, whatever. We have issues with guys getting hurt, and these are the guys that we have. So we have to find a way to get through it."

One way they can do that is by hitting the ball. Perhaps the single biggest improvement from the 2011 Sox to 2012 has come from players who were already on the roster. Adam Dunn and Alex Rios stumbled through almost unbelievably bad '11 seasons, bringing down an offense that was supposed to be part of a contender.

In '12, they've both bounced back in a big way. Rios is hitting .305 with a .342 on-base percentage and a .496 slugging percentage, up from .227/.265/.348 last year. Dunn is at .214/.359/.523, an enormous improvement from .159/.292/.277. With the ageless Paul Konerko between them, it's a very effective lineup core.

"It's real big," Ventura said. "I think all of them. You get Alex and Adam, what Paul's doing, it's a big deal. Everybody has to pull their weight for you to be in it for a long season, and they're all doing it."

And now they've fixed what was one of their few actual holes. Third base had been an absolute mess until the weekend, when Williams added Youkilis for what was mostly a set of spare parts. Youkilis is having a down season, but even at .241/.315/.377 he's a major improvement. And the Sox believe there's a lot more in him than that line indicates.

Youkilis refuses to make excuses, but acknowledges he's enjoying coming to the park a lot more than he was in Boston. Assuming he's healthy, and the White Sox believe he is, it's not unreasonable to expect a change-of-scenery bounce from a player who was a star as recently as 2010.

"It's definitely [true that] I'm in a better place ... enjoying myself," Youkilis said. "That's the best part about it. My wife called me and said, 'You look so happy out there.'"

Now the only real hole in the lineup is at shortstop, where Alexei Ramirez is having the kind of baffling down year that Dunn and Rios endured a year ago. But Ramirez plays absolutely top-flight defense, making it much easier to carry his bat even when he struggles.

They're not entirely flawless, but there's more to like about this White Sox team than may be evident at first glance. The six-month season does nothing so much as expose weaknesses, and so far it's having a hard time finding too many of them on the South Side of Chicago.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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