February 13, 2013
GLENDALE, Ariz. — So, Rick Hahn, how do you like Jeff Keppinger now?
While the White Sox's rookie general manager eases into this extended spring training camp, his 13th with the organization, the bet on the American League Central table has grown, the latest raise coming about the time Hahn's flight was touching down Monday.
As Hahn and manager Robin Ventura were driving their rental cars to the Camelback Ranch complex, cellular phones and pocket calculators were humming away in nearby Goodyear, home to the Indians. After adding Yankee castoff Nick Swisher at the cost of $56 million, they found another $48 million to keep Michael Bourn from going on the side of a milk carton.
I guess someone still does care about baseball in Cleveland. Outside of new manager Terry Francona (who must have had a sneak preview of this strategy), who knew?
"Our division is going to be tough,'' Hahn said Tuesday after the first workout for the White Sox's pitchers and catchers. "Obviously Cleveland has improved from the 68-win team it was last year. Kansas City has improved from the 72-win team. It's going to be tough facing every team in the Central this year. I've got to give a lot of credit to (Indians general manager) Chris Antonetti and (President) Mark Shapiro.''
While the Blue Jays and Angels have grabbed the biggest headlines this offseason, ESPN's Keith Law calls the American League Central the most improved division in baseball.
The Tigers went to the World Series a year ago and look significantly stronger after adding Torii Hunter. regaining a healthy Victor Martinez and getting a full year from Anibal Sanchez, who signed a five-year $80-million deal. They will be a strong favorite but opinion figures to be split on who will give them the strongest chase, the rebuilt Indians and Royals or the White Sox, who used their resources to hang onto Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd.
With the White Sox having the division's second-best starting pitcher in Chris Sale — see Verlander, Justin — and hopeful that John Danks can fill the No. 4 spot, it's a mistake to look past them. Outside of Royals newcomer James Shields, there's no semi-sure thing in the Indians or Royals rotations.
Hahn no doubt has noticed this.
"We plan to compete with our pitching,'' he said. "We feel we can match up with anyone in our division one through 12 on our staff, and do pretty well.''
Hahn, who replaced Ken Williams as the general manager in a planned transition that was announced after a 2-10 stumble down the stretch allowed the Tigers to turn a three-game White Sox lead into a footnote, used his limited payroll flexibility on Peavy, Floyd and Keppinger (imported to be the third baseman) and then was left looking for bargains, like reliever Matt Lindstrom.
The impact of the Adam Dunn and Danks contracts, along with the lowest attendance since 2004, left Hahn with little leverage to add talent at a time when other teams in baseball — including all four Central rivals — were spending money and adding talent.
That's OK, he insists. And after talking to him and Ventura, and looking for dissenting voices in the clubhouse (and finding none), I'm willing to drink a little White Sox Coca-Cola, if not Kool-Aid.
Hahn has a very interesting theory about putting a team together at U.S. Cellular Field. He argues that its nature as one baseball's best hitter parks means that a team should do everything it can to stop the opponents from scoring runs, not merely trying to outslug them.
"It's a different ballpark than when I played,'' Ventura said Tuesday. "It was more of a pitcher's ballpark (when it opened), bigger.''
Yes, it was. Frank Thomas, in fact, once told me that the new Comiskey Park had cost him 100 home runs because of all the balls that died on its warning track. But since Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf agreed to move in (and lower) the outfield fences in 2000, it has been a summer-time launching pad.
And, as it turns out, when the White Sox won that World Series in 2005, they had the best pitching staff they have had in just about forever. They put together their 11-1 postseason run more by getting big outs than big hits (although Scott Podsednik, Geoff Blum, Joe Crede and Jermaine Dye got plenty of those too).
"I can see what (Hahn) is saying,'' Ventura said. "… If you don't pitch, you get out-scored anyway.''
Bourn is a tough out, like lots of guys already in the Indians batting order. The Tigers still have Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder as their 3-4 hitters, the Twins are hoping to have both Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau healthy this season and the Royals believe Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Sal Perez only have scratched the surface of their potential.
Can the White Sox consistently win 5-4 and 3-2 games against them? They think they can, and that's a start.
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