"Whoever pitches the best in the second half, wins," White Sox general manager Ken Williams said. "And by pitching, I'm also talking about defense."
Of course, the White Sox will need to sustain the sort of improved offensive production on display from the middle of June moving forward, as opposed to their paltry output with the bat at the season's outset. Getting back an injured Carlos Quentin, inactive since May 25 due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot, could have the same sort of impact as a major position player acquisition without giving up a prospect or two.
Detroit holds a slim lead in the American League Central entering the 2009 intermission, and the White Sox have a brutal second-half schedule that includes 10 games with Detroit, eight games against Boston, seven against the Yankees, six against the Angels and just six apiece against Cleveland and Kansas City. For this competitive but less-than-stellar division, there's little doubt that the White Sox, Tigers and Twins will be battling down to the season's last week.
In possession of the division's deepest pitching, from 1 through 12, the White Sox just might hold a slight edge in this battle.
Club MVP: Scott Podsednik was sitting on his couch in Texas when the 2009 season began, as a man without a team. But he has changed the dynamic of the White Sox offense since coming to the Majors on May 1 and taking over as a true catalyst at the top of the lineup for 50 games. Podsednik is healthy, hitting above .300 and using his speed to pick up hits, as well as driving the baseball.
Call him "Ace": It simply has been another first half of extreme consistency for Mark Buehrle, although this particular first half has been more of the All-Star variety. Buehrle carries a 9-2 record and 3.14 ERA into the break, with 11 quality starts, and is on pace for his ninth straight season with at least 200 innings pitched. The left-hander's toughness, durability and fast-paced mound efforts set the tone for the rest of this talented rotation.
Greatest strength: Picking between the White Sox starters and bullpen is a tough choice to make, so let's go with overall pitching. The White Sox have four quality starters, in Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Jose Contreras, who are able to work deep into games. And with the addition of Tony Pena via a July 7 trade, the team can trot out five closer-like relievers in Pena, Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink, Matt Thornton and actual closer Bobby Jenks.
Biggest problem: Losing a bona fide 2008 Most Valuable Player candidate certainly wouldn't be beneficial to any team, yet the White Sox have survived with a 23-16 record in Quentin's absence. The All-Star left fielder should return to the lineup early in the second half, but with the nature of plantar fasciitis, he probably won't play at 100 percent for the remainder of the season.
Biggest surprise: Podsednik certainly deserves major consideration for this honor, but it's hard to overlook Contreras' dominance since his return from a stint in the Minors. Contreras made an unbelievably quick comeback from a ruptured left Achilles suffered last August, but admitted he might not have been mentally ready at the start of the current campaign. Contreras found that edge, along with control of his split-finger, and has posted a 4-2 mark with a 2.06 ERA in his six starts since being recalled from Triple-A Charlotte. It's no coincidence the White Sox took off as a team in conjunction with Contreras' return to prominence.
Team needs: If Williams makes any further additions after Pena, it probably will involve bringing on another starting pitcher. Clayton Richard has gone eight consecutive trips to the mound without a quality start. Bartolo Colon or Freddy Garcia could fill the void at fifth starter, but Aaron Poreda, the team's top pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, presents an interesting, high-octane possibility, moving up from the bullpen.
He said it: "The interesting thing about us is when I talk to our coaching staff, position by position, the only thing they want back is Carlos Quentin. You slide Pods to center and they don't want to change anything else. That has to be respected by the front office and management, not to disrupt that." -- Williams
Mark your calendar: For a good second-half barometer, take a look at a four-game set at Detroit (July 24-26), featuring four different start times and a split doubleheader. But one of the tougher stretches for any team in baseball comes at the end of August, when the White Sox have four games in Boston (Aug. 24-27), three at Yankee Stadium (Aug. 28-30), three at the Metrodome (Aug. 31 to Sept. 2) and a makeup game at Wrigley Field on Sept. 3. That 11-game stretch is followed by four games at home against Boston, from Sept. 4-7. They conclude 2009 with six of their final nine games against the Tigers.
Fearless second-half prediction: Minnesota has been a great second-half team during Ozzie Guillen's managerial tenure. But the best pitching staff in the AL Central carries the White Sox to their second straight division title, captured once again on the season's final day.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less