Commentary: Pieces in Place for First Place Finish

Well as the dust settles on spring training, now comes that window of time where predictions become heavy and expectations are still riding that positive spring training buzz.

Personally I hate predictions, but as a writer I am almost obligated to put my knowledge and beliefs on the line in predicting the most unpredictable sport where anything can happen. How many people last March predicted that the Anaheim Angels would have shrugged off their ghosts of the past to win a World Series? Not this fan but I was wrong, as are the many that take part in the endeavor of making predictions.

As a realistic White Sox fan, very few springs have I come out saying this team does not have a chance to win its division. Sometimes your yearning for baseball over a cold and bitter winter sets up unrealistic thought processes in your head. Your forget about the weaknesses of the last season saying things like the pitching "should" be better and the hitting "will come around." Then April comes and often times its proven you spoke with your heart instead of your head, as your team begins to position itself in a more realistic position then budding World Series Champ.

Well, I pride myself on being realistic and knowledgeable about the game, as most Sox fans do.

This being clear, let me put myself on the line and say the White Sox will win the central division in 2003. I made this clear in December when I said the Sox should pursue Bartolo Colon as the final piece, they did that and my prediction remains the same - they should win the division. If history plays a factor, the Sox have it on their side. They won the division in 1983, 1993, and now ten years later have set themselves to repeat the pattern.

This is a fine baseball team. The offense is solid and underrated. Consistency will be a key. Second half slumps like Konerko's last year cannot happen and more from Carlos Lee is essential. The young guys in the lineup have talent and need to show it. D'Angelo Jimenez has a great deal of pressure on him in the leadoff spot, but if his end of the year finish of 2002 is any indication, he could have a good year. I still think leadoff is a big question mark though.

The pitching staff has the chance to be as deep and as talented as the staff in '93. Colon is not only a workhorse but is also a dominating pitcher. What he did in two different leagues last year with two average teams (winning 20 games) cannot be underestimated. Buehrle quietly is becoming one of the best pitchers in the game. His mechanics and pitch variety is terrific and his maturity for his age is amazing. He is the real deal. Jon Garland needs to put it altogether. No one has ever questioned his ability to be very good, but he needs to prove he can stay away from the big inning and be a more consistent pitcher. He did show signs of that in the second half of last year, so hopefully with age -- he is still only 24 -- that will improve. The White Sox hope Esteban Loiaza can impact this team similar to how Cal Eldred stepped forward in 2000, while Josh Stewart will hold the number five spot until Danny Wright returns.

The Bullpen looks much improved although don't underestimate Antonio Osuna's loss. Next to Damaso Marte, he was the best performer out of that bullpen last year. Hopefully Gary Glover's return to the pen full time will settle him down and Kelly Wunsch stays tough on lefties. If Tom Gordon can stay healthy he can be a devastating eighth inning pitcher. Billy Koch throws harder and is more wild then Keith Foulke, but his demeanor and presence allows him to fail sometimes and comeback with vengeance. Long relief will be a question and Rick White has to be better then he showed in the spring.

The White Sox bench looks as strong as it has in years. Brian Daubach, Armando Rios and Tony Graffanino all bring experience and quality to the Sox' sub list. If Sandy Alomar is the starter, at least for Buehrle and Colon as it seems, then Miguel Olivo and Josh Paul have to perform the other three days of the week. A deep bench and three catchers at the start will allow the Sox to pinch hit for the catch spot without fear of running thin at the position.

I will conclude with the prediction of the White Sox having a finish of 93-69, good enough for first place in the American League Central. They will be six better then the Minnesota Twins who will challenge all season and end up at 87-75. This will be a tremendous rivalry all year, but I think the Sox have too much to not win this year. Josh Paul said this team has, "the best chemistry I've seen in spring training" and that bodes well. Last year the pieces looked in place but inner problems killed them and that can't happen again. If it does, Manuel will be replaced. A big start is key, although they did start strong last year, but for ticket sales and fan enthusiasm this ball needs to get rolling early. Add in to the equation an easy April schedule and the Sox may have 20 wins at the end of the month.

But remember the old baseball saying, take it one game at a time. This has proven so true. Baseball is a crazy game, you never know what can happen and change from one day to the next. It's very much like life, unpredictable. Making the unpredictable predictable is a daunting task, but if you have no hope in baseball you have no reason to care. The White Sox enter the season with high hopes and expectations, as they did the last two seasons. Clichés aren't my thing but because I can't think of anything more fitting hopefully the third time will be the charm.

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