CHICAGO -- List the biggest surprises for the first half of the 2012 Major League Baseball season and the White Sox would be found right near the top.
Even some White Sox players and coaches, the same ones who departed Arizona back in late March with the idea they could shock the world as a group, wouldn't have predicted leading the American League Central at the All-Star break.
"Yeah, it has surprised me a bit," said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper of his team that leads the Indians by three games and the Tigers by 3 1/2 games. "A lot of the people we needed to come back and have good seasons are doing it. On top of it, what has surprised me is our rookies, our young guys. We got eight of them [pitching] and they are coming through for us."
"We had ifs, a lot of ifs," White Sox reliever Matt Thornton said. "For the most part, those ifs have been answered with 'Yes.'"
Thornton and Cooper weren't joking when talking about the long line of White Sox ifs entering the 2012 campaign.
If ... Adam Dunn could bounce back from a dismal 2011 campaign and return to his stellar career numbers.
If ... the ultra-talented Alex Rios could improve from a severe drop-off last season.
If ... a healthy Jake Peavy could return to the top of the White Sox rotation and pitch like a frontline hurler.
MVP: A.J. PIERZYNSKI Paul Konerko, Alex Rios, Jake Peavy and Chris Sale also should be in this discussion. But Pierzynski's explosive offense, along with expertly handling a young staff, makes him the choice.
Cy Young: CHRIS SALE He was as good as any starter in baseball during the first half -- and proved to have pretty solid argumentative skills as well.
Rookie: JOSE QUINTANA The left-hander quickly moved from fill-in to immovable piece in the rotation.
Top reliever: ADDISON REED His elevation to closer gave the bullpen perfect alignment. The rookie thrives on the pressure.
If ... Chris Sale could successfully make the transition from the back end of the bullpen to the front of the starting five.
If ... a relatively untested bullpen could consistently hold leads late.
If ... Dayan Viciedo could effectively replace Carlos Quentin in the lineup and hit consistently.
Somehow, every one of those uncertainties has turned into a positive. As for one of the most important question marks -- whether or not first-year manager Robin Ventura and his talented staff could return the White Sox focus to the field -- it has been answered with a major affirmative. The South Siders are one of baseball's best defensive teams, consistently executing the game's fundamentals, and simply don't defeat themselves.
It's nothing more than keeping the focus on the game at hand under Ventura that has set the team up as an unexpected division front-runner.
"What we need to focus on, on a continuous basis, is winning the series, each and every series," White Sox general manager Ken Williams said. "It will all take care of itself at the end if we just do that and not take anything for granted."
"We've said it from the day that we left Spring Training," Peavy said. "We believe on any given day that we can play with any team in baseball. We showed that in Yankee Stadium. We showed that down in Texas to start the season. We believe we have enough here to get it done, and get in the playoffs and win 11 games. That's a great feeling to have."
Players to watch in second half
JOHN DANKS Adding the healthy southpaw from the disabled list could serve as the team's big second-half acquisition. But when will he return?
CHRIS SALE He was first-half dominant, but also has never topped 140 innings in a single season. White Sox will watch him carefully.
KEVIN YOUKILIS In just two weeks since coming over from Boston, Youkilis became a fan favorite. His presence over the final 77 games should be a major boost.
One good half does not a season make, though. Nobody knows that fact to be true better than the White Sox, who play 16 of their first 19 second-half games on the road.
As for those ifs, that long preseason list has been replaced by a more manageable but still significant group of lingering questions.
If ... Danks (left shoulder), Philip Humber (right elbow) and Jesse Crain (right shoulder) can come back from prolonged injury absences to contribute as they have in the past.
If ... major rookie producers such as Quintana, Reed, Nate Jones and Hector Santiago can hold up under the added strain and pressure of August and September.
If ... the White Sox, as the hunted division leader, can handle a second-half run from consensus preseason division favorite Detroit.
Actually, Ventura's crew has been solely focused on their plight as opposed to any other team, so the Tigers don't belong on that list. If the rest of those questions are answered in their favor, then the White Sox will be playing in October.
And that first-half surprise status will be elevated to a full-season stunner.
"Something that Robin and [bench coach] Mark [Parent] and Coop and Kenny have kind of instilled in us a little bit, is the fact that it's a daily grind," Thornton said. "No matter what happened yesterday, come in and fight and battle.
"Play the game the right way, and that's what we are doing. When you truly commit to that and go out there and continue to get after it like that, yeah, we'll have more three-or-four-game losing streaks. But for the long haul, we expect to be in it to the end."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.