For Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, the time has come to pay the piper.
Recent spending sprees have ravaged the front office's financial flexibility. Left in the wake is a team that has missed out on three consecutive postseasons and is coming off a sub-.500 campaign. In fact, the White Sox have not won a playoff series since their World Series run in 2005.
Last year, Chicago entered the season with a $128 million payroll, its highest ever. Still, the Detroit Tigers took the division and ran with it, finishing 15 games over the second-place Cleveland Indians, who finished below .500. And so, all of that past spending has seemingly caught up with Williams and the White Sox this year.
Starting pitcher Jake Peavy is in the final year of his three-year, $52 million contract that will see him make a team-high $17 million this season. Peavy's career has been sidetracked by injuries, and over the last two seasons he has gone just 14-13 with a 4.77 ERA across 35 starts for the South Siders. But while Peavy's contract includes a club option for 2013, there is nowhere for the front office to run and hide when it comes to the four-year, $56 million contract doled out to sign designated hitter Adam Dunn last winter, or the $38.5 million still owed to wildly inconsistent outfielder Alex Rios through 2014.
Dunn finished his first year in Chicago with a .159 batting average and set the club record for most strikeouts in a season (177) despite reduced playing time as the year progressed. Not only was it by far the worst season of Dunn's career, but had he logged enough at-bats to qualify, it would have also been the worst offensive season by anyone in the majors.
The tone for the offseason was set when manager Ozzie Guillen asked out of the final year of his contract in order to manage the Miami Marlins. In his place steps Robin Ventura, a former perennial Gold Glover who spent the better part of a decade with the organization as a player from 1989-98. As far as coaching, however, this marks Ventura's first stop.
Among his most pressing tasks will be to try and replace the team's former ace pitcher, who was not re-signed in part due to the exorbitant sums of money already committed to a small handful of players on the roster.
Mark Buehrle followed Guillen to Miami after headlining Chicago's rotation for the last 10 seasons. The team also parted ways with veterans Omar Vizquel and Juan Pierre, in addition to trading oft-injured outfielder Carlos Quentin to San Diego for pitching prospects Simon Castro and Pedro Hernandez.
Williams went all in to acquire Quentin a few years ago, but his departure over the winter made it pretty clear the organization would not be spending another offseason handing out high-dollar contracts to veteran players.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the White Sox, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (79-83) - Third Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Kosuke Fukudome (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Mark Buehrle (SP), Juan Pierre (OF), Carlos Quentin (OF), Omar Vizquel (IF), Sergio Santos (RP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Alejandro De Aza (CF), Alexei Ramirez (SS), Paul Konerko (1B), Adam Dunn (DH), Dayan Viciedo (LF), Alex Rios (RF), A.J. Pierzynski (C), Brent Morel (3B), Gordon Beckham (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: John Danks (LHP), Jake Peavy (RHP), Gavin Floyd (RHP), Chris Sale (LHP), Philip Humber (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Matt Thornton (LHP)
MANAGER: Robin Ventura
WHO ARE THE OUTFIELDERS?
When Quentin was traded, Williams said that rookie Dayan Viciedo was the favorite to be the opening day starter in right field. Instead, Rios has slid over from center field to right, where he has played for the majority of his career.
Ventura hopes Rios finds a better comfort level in right field and can parlay that to the batter's box. Rios hit just .227 last year with only 13 home runs, his fewest since 2005. He switched up his batting stance more times than he could count, and as a result spent the spring trying to get comfortable with a single stance, one that he used in 2010 when his hands were lower and he was crouched a bit more. The 31-year-old also struggled in the field last season, prompting the move over to right. Whether Rios can ever live up to his hefty contract, or at least take a step in the right direction, will be one of the team's key storylines for 2012.
While Viciedo has some pop, it remains to be seen whether he can be successful against big league pitching. The 23-year-old is trying to learn his third position since joining the Pale Hose, a domino effect of Rios' switch to right field. That adjustment perhaps aided in Viciedo's poor offensive showing during spring training. Should he continue to struggle early in the season, Ventura could turn to former Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who was signed to a one-year deal in February to provide some depth.
Alejandro De Aza was the team's fourth outfielder last year. This year, he'll play center field and likely bat leadoff. In 73 games across the past two seasons for the White Sox, De Aza has hit a healthy .324. If he continues to get on base regularly, his speed could be a nice fit for the top of the lineup.
HOW FAR CAN THE ROTATION CARRY THE TEAM?
While starting pitching has long been regarded as the great equalizer, Chicago has some questions there, too.
Southpaw Chris Sale, a first-round pick in 2010, is sliding from the bullpen into the starting rotation. Phil Humber seemed to put it all together in the first half of last season before posting a 5.01 ERA in 10 second-half starts. Gavin Floyd has been unable to get back to his 2008 form when he won 17 games, and lately he has been the subject of trade rumors.
Left-hander John Danks has been a front-line starter for the White Sox, although he is coming off his worst season (8-12, 4.33 ERA) since breaking into the majors in 2007. Moreover, Danks battled command problems throughout spring training. Should his struggles continue, it would put more pressure on the already heavy shoulders of Jake Peavy, who is trying to battle his own demons.
A pitcher like Daniel Hudson would have certainly helped round out the rotation, but he got caught up in the flurry of Williams' wheeling and dealing. Hudson was part of the 2010 deal with Arizona that landed Edwin Jackson, who has since bounced around to Toronto, St. Louis and Washington. Meanwhile, Hudson has gone on to post a 23-13 record in 44 starts with the Diamondbacks.
HOW WILL THE PLAYERS ADAPT TO VENTURA?
Former manager Ozzie Guillen was never one to mince words. His brutally honest assessments seldom spared a player who wasn't performing up to par, and he even got into it with the general manager on a few occasions. After eight seasons at the helm, including his second World Series title as a manager in 2005, Guillen had worn out his welcome.
His replacement, former fan favorite Robin Ventura, is not likely to invite as much drama. Ventura is MLB's only current skipper to be drafted and play with the club he now manages. But it also marks Ventura's first coaching gig at any level, and he was out of baseball altogether from his retirement in 2004 until last summer when he took an advisory job with the club. While he will carry some clout as a former big leaguer, so too did Guillen.
In his playing days, Ventura was highly respected and carried a reputation as a team leader. Coming off such a disappointing season, the White Sox will lean on that leadership. Guillen had a tendency to tweak his lineup regularly, and he relied heavily on his bench on Sundays and getaway days. It will be interesting to see how Ventura handles the lineup, particularly one with so many question marks.
X-FACTOR: Jake Peavy, starting pitcher
This nod could have easily gone to Dunn, but pitching is more likely to dictate Chicago's success in 2012. And when you consider the team must somehow replace the 327 innings it got last year from Buehrle and Jackson, the pressure placed on a former Cy Young winner like Jake Peavy becomes magnified.
While Peavy's Cy Young days are likely behind him, even he isn't so sure what exactly he'll be able to deliver. For what it's worth, Peavy claims he is as healthy as he has been since coming to Chicago at the 2009 trade deadline. For a guy who is less than two years removed from experimental surgery to reattach the lat muscle to his shoulder, that itself is a significant statement. He even dropped 10 pounds this offseason in order to take some weight off a bothersome ankle that he injured in 2009 while with the Padres.
Still, pitching nearly 1,600 innings in 10 big league seasons has taken its toll on Peavy's right shoulder, and he admits spending the last three years wondering before each start how he'd be able to tolerate the pain to get through it. While Peavy hopes those days are finally behind him, he also left the door open for the possibility of someday moving to closer, a la Dennis Eckersley or John Smoltz. That scenario came about in a discussion with former teammate and legendary closer Trevor Hoffman.
But as long as he is able to stay healthy enough to pitch some 200 innings over the course of a season, those plans will remain on the backburner.
Given the way the last few seasons have gone, and how the offseason played out, this isn't looking like a very promising year for the White Sox. And if they are not in contention come mid-summer, look for Williams to try and unload some veteran contracts.
First baseman Paul Konerko continues to be the team's lifeline in the middle of the lineup, having put together a dozen 20-plus homer seasons to break Frank Thomas' club record. However, Konerko isn't getting any younger (36) and Dunn's disastrous 2011 season left the veteran leader without protection in the middle of the lineup, as opposing pitchers had little reason to fear Dunn. The lack of a proven leadoff hitter will present another challenge for the offense.
While fans may be less than thrilled with the quiet offseason, the fact is the front office has little choice but to hold out hope for some of its past moves to pan out. At the end of the day, Peavy, Dunn and Rios represent the club's top three earners, accounting for a whopping $43.5 million of Chicago's payroll for this year alone. It would also help matters if second baseman Gordon Beckham, who was the key holdup in a potential deal for Adrian Gonzalez in 2010, finally builds on his promising rookie season of 2009.
At the very least, Dunn needs to show some ability to hit left-handed pitching (6-for-94 in 2011). He was supposed to bring some pop to the middle of the lineup last year, but instead the White Sox notched their lowest home run total (154) in a season since 1992. As for Peavy, he simply needs to find a way to stay healthy, while Rios looks to rediscover his 2010 form.
Even if all three bounce back, Chicago is not likely to catch the Detroit Tigers, who won the division by 15 games a year ago and re-upped in the offseason by adding slugger Prince Fielder to the mix. Looking ahead, it's tough to project exactly when and how the White Sox will get things turned around, considering their bloated payroll and depleted farm system.