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Pitching depth fuels White Sox hopes for 2013

Pitching depth fuels White Sox hopes for 2013

Pitching depth fuels White Sox hopes for 2013 play video for Pitching depth fuels White Sox hopes for 2013
CHICAGO -- Don't try to get Rick Hahn to list his White Sox as the 2013 favorite in the American League Central.

He's highly optimistic in his team's chances to win, bordering on downright confident. But the team's new general manager also is a realist.

"The American League champs are in our division and they've added Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez," said Hahn, speaking about the Tigers before they also re-signed pitcher Anibal Sanchez. "We're still trying to catch them.

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"Until you dethrone the king, he's the king. You will absolutely not hear me say until ideally we clinch the 2013 Central division that we're the best team in the division."

Hahn has a pretty good team in place, pushed by a pitching staff rich in talent. But as a new season approaches, he's not done trying to improve the White Sox for 2013.

There's reason to believe the White Sox are in a better position than they were last year, according to Hahn. That idea will become a bit sharper as the questions below are answered.

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10. Can a healthy John Danks return to form? The southpaw was the Opening Day starter in 2012 but later admitted that he never felt 100 percent from the season's outset. Danks wouldn't use the injury as an excuse for his 5.70 ERA over nine starts, but rehab-wise he is on his way back from season-ending arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder on Aug. 6.

Pitchers often perform better their second year removed from surgery, with Jake Peavy's '11 and '12 efforts as a solid comparative example. If nothing else, the White Sox will have to be cognizant of Danks' workload after he started throwing far earlier in the offseason than most pitchers as part of his rehab.

9. Where will Gavin Floyd be pitching come March? How about June? Floyd has made at least 29 starts in each of his last five seasons, reached double digits in wins all five seasons and worked less than 187 innings in just one of those years. He's a starter that gives the White Sox a tremendous one-through-four in the rotation, assuming Danks comes back strong. Floyd also is a veteran pitcher earning a manageable $9.5 million in 2013, which could bring valuable returns for the White Sox in a trade.

Hahn doesn't want to trade Floyd. He understands the value of deep pitching in contending for a division title and the postseason. If there's an enticing enough return, Hahn might have no choice.

8. Will this team be driven by the long ball? To paint the White Sox offense as go deep or nothing in '12 would be describing this unit in rather broad strokes. Yes, the White Sox hit 211 homers, but they were one of the top teams in baseball hitting with runners in scoring position until a costly late-season funk.

To not have home run hitters such as Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko and Alex Rios in the lineup, for example, would be to miss taking advantage of the White Sox home ballpark. But the addition of Jeff Keppinger via free agency shows Hahn is in search of a more balanced attack, with contact hitters who not only can get runners over but also can get them in from third with less than two outs.

7. Is this Konerko's swan song? Simply put, the White Sox captain and first baseman is one of the greatest players in franchise history and one of the game's most consistent players over the past 14 years. Konerko also starts this season at 37 years old in the finale of a three-year, $37.5 million extension.

There's no question Konerko could play past this upcoming campaign, with 96 homers in his last three years, not to mention 291 RBIs and a low average of .298 to go with two years at .300 or above. He's a tireless worker who understands his swing better than ever, but there is a possibility that 2013 could be his last.

One thing is certain: Konerko might talk about his future at SoxFest and during Spring Training, but the focus will be all baseball and the White Sox once the season begins.

6. Does Addison Reed remain closer? Reed's 29 saves shattered the previous White Sox rookie record of 21 set by Salome Barojas in 1982. He pitched fearlessly with the game on the line, even as the closer for a first-place team trying to hold off the favored Tigers in the AL Central.

His season was not without hiccups, as Cody Ross' walk-off, three-run homer on July 19 or Reed's 6.20 ERA in non-save situations would suggest. Reed certainly wouldn't lose the job for lack of quality work: He converted 29 of 33 opportunities as a rookie. But Nate Jones' breakout season and high-octane stuff will give Reed a challenge for the ninth-inning role or at least another viable option for manager Robin Ventura.

5. Who's on third base? As of late December, Keppinger is the White Sox man at the hot corner. He is an adept bat handler, a career .288 hitter and a perfect fit in the lineup's two-spot. On the flip side, Keppinger has recorded more than 500 plate appearances just twice in a single season and is better suited to the White Sox as a part-time infielder who can play third, second and first. The White Sox are comfortable with Keppinger at third but continue to look at that position in their search for an additional left-handed bat.

4. Can Tyler Flowers replace a White Sox icon? This offseason's most-asked question in relation to the White Sox didn't deal with catching the Tigers or the third-base vacancy. Instead, it focused on the return of free agent A.J. Pierzynski, who spent the last eight years as a daily contributor and fan favorite on the South Side of Chicago. The White Sox are moving in a different direction behind the plate, meaning Flowers will move into the starter's job with Hector Gimenez backing him up.

White Sox pitchers enjoy throwing to Flowers, just as they did with Pierzynski, so there shouldn't be a drop off in game-calling or defense. The real task for Flowers will be to produce with the bat. He enters the season with a career .205 mark but in only 273 at-bats overall, so it's unfair to judge his abilities. Flowers will be able to add power and on-base potential to the lineup, at the very least.

3. Will Rios break his pattern of one year off, one year on? In 2009, Rios hit .199 over 41 games after joining the White Sox. In 2010, Rios came within nine homers of becoming the first 30-30 player in franchise history and raised his average to .284. Rios dropped back to .227 in 2011 but put together his best season as a pro in 2012, with career-bests in average (.304), homers (25) and RBIs (91).

A slight change in his stance and a focus on making solid contact has Rios and hitting coach Jeff Manto confident that they have found a permanent change for the better. His move to right field has Rios more confident overall.

2. Has Cy Peavy truly returned? When pitching for the Padres in 2007, Jake Peavy won the National League Cy Young and the Triple Crown of pitching in victories, ERA and strikeouts. White Sox fans didn't see that similar level of dominance until 2012, when Peavy hurled 219 innings, limited opposing hitters to a .234 average and fanned 194.

Peavy is more than two years removed from surgery to reattach his lat, and the White Sox reaffirmed their commitment to the right-hander as a staff leader both on the field and in the clubhouse via a two-year, $29 million extension.

1. Do the White Sox have a legitimate chance to catch the Tigers? There didn't seem like much hope for the White Sox at this point of the offseason last year, so projecting the team currently as a distant second is not a point of concern. Not after they topped the division for 117 days last year. The Royals have improved as well, putting three teams in a division fight. Then again, the Royals won 12 of 18 from the White Sox last year, so they are not new on the White Sox radar.

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.

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