Restructuring gives White Sox shot to improve

Restructuring gives White Sox shot to improve

Restructuring gives White Sox shot to improve

CHICAGO -- The White Sox will be an improved team in 2014.

After losing 99 games in '13, marking just the fourth time since 2000 they've finished below .500, it only stands to reason that the White Sox will bounce back. But the moves made by general manager Rick Hahn since last July weren't designed simply to give the South Siders a slight record correction next year.

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They were executed with strengthening the team's core in mind, meaning Chicago can contend immediately, but more importantly have the base to do so consistently in the immediate future. The trades pulled off by Hahn also should make this group infinitely more watchable than it was in '13, a welcome byproduct of the plan.

"There's going to be some growing pains along the way, whether its playing in a new country or playing in a new league or getting your first extended taste of a big league opportunity: the development path is not going to be linear," Hahn said. "But when this thing gets right, when the development is complete and we have these players coming along the same path, it's really what we have been striving toward for a while.

"We want to have a young core that plays the game the way that we want it played. We want them to grow together into a championship group."

Even impressive changes made by Hahn as part of his plan come with a few questions. Here are 10 of them to be answered throughout the 2014 campaign, with one bonus question involving a former White Sox great and the Hall of Fame.

10. How will Paul Konerko handle a part-time role? The White Sox captain has just one year of fewer than 500 plate appearances since 1999, and that was 495 plate appearances in 2003. Former teammate Frank Thomas recently questioned whether Konerko's timing would be affected by assuming a bench role, and it's seemingly a valid concern. But Konerko, one of the more cerebral players in the game, had been factoring in such a chance since midway through the 2013 season. His leadership role will be as crucial as his on-field contributions.

9. Who's next in Hahn's continued reshaping? Jake Peavy, Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, Alex Rios, Hector Santiago and Addison Reed make up the list of players traded by the White Sox general manager since just before the 2013 All-Star break. And Hahn is not done. Basically any player aside from Chris Sale, Avisail Garcia and Jose Abreu are trade candidates. Alejandro De Aza, Dayan Viciedo, Jeff Keppinger and even Adam Dunn seem to be more front and center in those various Hot Stove rumors.

8. Does a healthy Gordon Beckham hit full stride on offense? Beckham finds himself in the best place offensively since his breakout rookie campaign of 2009. He found an approach at the plate, stuck with it and was starting to see consistent results. It's hard to find that consistency, though, when dealing with three separate injuries as the second baseman did, including a fractured left hamate bone in early April. Beckham is being counted on as a team leader, but with middle-infield prospects such as Micah Johnson, Carlos Sanchez and Marcus Semien coming up fast, the White Sox are hoping for numbers with the bat to match his elite defense.

7. How close is Johnson? While he might not be as Major League polished as Semien or even Sanchez -- who has found an offensive resurgence in Venezuelan Winter League action -- there were some with the White Sox who thought Johnson could challenge for an Opening Day roster spot. That challenge temporarily has been put on hold by his offseason surgery to reposition a nerve in his right elbow, but the Minor League leader in stolen bases could soon add to that young core. And Johnson certainly provides energy.

6. Is the pitching as deep as expected? Whenever talk arises of the White Sox contending in 2014, the immediate focus draws to the mound as a reason for optimism. Sale has proven two years in a row to be one of the game's top starters, and Jose Quintana is solid enough as a two or three that he moved close to untouchable status. The White Sox lost Peavy from the rotation, and dependable arms such as Crain, Thornton and Reed from relief. They added relievers Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs, pending a physical, but they still have to answer questions such as how will John Danks respond in his first fully healthy year after shoulder surgery in August 2012, or will a touted rookie such as Erik Johnson be able to take that next step from a great '13 Minor League effort? Pitching should drive this team again, even with a few uncertainties.

5. Can Nate Jones close? Put Jones in the questions to be answered category among the pitchers. Yes, the hard-throwing right-hander has proven to be a solid setup man over the past two years, and with a fastball that touches 100 mph, he could be a more dynamic last-inning presence than Reed. But Reed almost felt if he was born to close, and he had the perfect short memory to handle that spot. Jones admitted to MLB.com that getting the last three outs will be a little different from working in the sixth, seventh or eighth, but assuming he gets the job, he'll have Matt Lindstrom, Daniel Webb, Downs and Belisario behind him in case of trouble.

4. Can Sale win the AL Cy Young Award? Some people would argue that the White Sox left-hander made a pretty good case to be mentioned with Max Scherzer for the ultimate pitching award last season. His 11-14 record might have hurt Sale's cause, even with the won-loss mark being somewhat statistically devalued. Sale has grown each year as part of the rotation, and he is the type of ace-hurler most other teams covet.

3. Will the White Sox have a changed clubhouse? Something was missing from the White Sox clubhouse last year. Call it "Chicago tough," a phrase Williams has used countless times before, or as bench coach Mark Parent told MLB.com, that competitive edge. Losing 99 games saps even the most cohesive group, but Hahn seems to have added players who not only will energize the team on the field, but off the field as well.

2. Is this Robin Ventura's last year? Ventura enters the third year of his three-year managerial deal, having turned down a one-year extension prior to the start of the 2013 campaign. Ventura certainly doesn't regret that move, and when asked at the Winter Meetings, both Ventura and Hahn played down the contractual situation as anything close to foremost on their minds right now. Ventura seems to be content to play out this season and see where it goes, but it seems more about Ventura wanting to come back than the White Sox wanting him.

1. Will Abreu's results match the hype? Hype actually is an unfair word to use in conjunction with the first baseman/DH, considering he's never played in a Minor League or Major League game. But there's no question agreeing to the six-year, $68 million deal with Abreu was the cornerstone of Hahn's reshaping process. Williams said Abreu's workout was the first one where he wanted to give a standing ovation after it was done, but the slugger will need time to develop and adjust to life in the United States.

1a. Will Thomas get the Hall call? A special moment such as this one deserves a special question to be added to the year outlook. Thomas numbers' speak for themselves: 521 homers, .301 average, 1,704 RBIs, 1,494 runs scored. And the list goes on and on. In a brief interview with MLB.com, Thomas felt that he was deserving of first-ballot election. He also knew that it's the voters who decide. Being superstitious, Thomas isn't saying much more until results are announced on Jan. 8.

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.