CHICAGO -- The White Sox begin the 2013 season as a playoff contender in the minds of really and truly one group of people.
And that's the White Sox themselves.
It's not that the team has been classified as second tier. It's more about the 2013 White Sox flying under the radar, a place they seemingly stand at this time every year aside from the 2006 Spring Training following their 2005 World Series title.
"We know collectively as a group in here we got a team that can make a push for it," said White Sox pitcher Chris Sale, who makes his first career Opening Day start on April 1 at home against the Royals after a 17-win, 192-strikeout starting debut in 2012. "We believe in ourselves, and we really don't need anyone else."
"Same thing every year," said White Sox starting pitcher John Danks of the mid-level expectations surrounding his team. "I don't want to say we prefer one way or the other, but we kind of like the underdog role, I guess. It takes some pressure off of us and allows us to go play ball."
For the White Sox to push themselves above the radar in terms of American League Central title contention, a healthy Danks will be crucial to that endeavor. Danks is coming off of Aug. 6 arthroscopic season-ending surgery on his left shoulder but had hoped to be part of the starting rotation from the outset after a long and successful rehab process.
Danks feels fine, which is the major positive out of this situation. He just isn't ready, as White Sox manager Robin Ventura explained, with Danks' velocity and command not in the needed area to compete. So Danks starts on the disabled list, with Dylan Axelrod assuming the fifth starter's spot for potentially the season's first month.
Hector Santiago begins in the bullpen but also could be a spot-starter option in the interim. Danks becomes important because one of the moves the White Sox made this offseason, without really making a move, was the planned addition of their healthy Opening Day starter from 2012. It's an addition somewhat akin to Victor Martinez's return in Detroit.
Pitching serves as the driving force for the 2013 White Sox, a fact which actually seems to ring true for every top-flight White Sox team and every playoff contender overall. Jake Peavy stayed in Chicago via a two-year, $29 million deal and not only feels good but has been throwing with more velocity this spring. He's the leader of a staff that could be as good as any in the division, from one through 12, when all of the hurlers are healthy.
Jesse Crain has been limited to three Cactus League appearances due to a strained right adductor, although he still holds out hope of breaking camp with the team. Crain has the ability to neutralize both right-handed hitters (13-for-101 against in 2012) and left-handed hitters (.232 average against), so his presence means a great deal to the late-inning hurlers.
Much like last year, the White Sox have the players to make a run: even without A.J. Pierzynski. But much like last year, their margin for error is slim. The national prognostications seem to disagree with the White Sox over their ability to manage such margin.
"This team is solid," White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham said. "That's all you can ask for. Go out there and play great defense. Get good pitching and hopefully score enough runs. And you just have to give yourself a chance. I think we are doing that. I like who we got. We can win games."
"I honestly don't worry too much about whatever publications put out, whatever projections are out there for this year," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "We care a little more about what we see and what we project in terms of our performance and how we match up. We fully intend and believe we're capable of making the postseason regardless of what any projections have."
Hahn readily acknowledges that Detroit is the "cream of the crop" in the division and the team everyone is hunting. He also believes the division is more competitive this year, with Kansas City and Cleveland potentially moving into contention, so nobody will run away and hide.
"Frankly I prefer to kind of surprise people than have these expectations that we're the team to beat," Hahn said. "It's just a matter of keeping the 25 guys in the clubhouse focused day in and day out. Robin and his staff are really good at that."
That focus and feeling of camaraderie fostered by Ventura and his staff stand almost as important as the addition of Jeff Keppinger at third and his adept bat-handling to the batting order. It was that one-day-at-a-time approach in 2012 pushing the White Sox atop the division for 117 of those days.
Now, the goal for the White Sox is to finish the job.
When asked for a one key factor to help the White Sox accomplish said feat, the answers varied.
"Timely hitting," Beckham said. "Timely hitting and good pitching."
"If we play up to our capabilities," new White Sox starting catcher Tyler Flowers said. "And you can't have a championship team with a bunch of individuals. We have a very team-oriented group here. That's been a big part."
It's a team with many similarities to 2012, i.e. Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Alex Rios. It's a team believing it can do more, where others aren't necessarily as convinced.
"I'm excited about the season," White Sox reliever Matt Thornton said. "We have a pretty solid team overlooked because we didn't make many moves. Our front office didn't feel they were needed, and I agree with them."