Koch Becoming Very Important To Sox

Right-handed reliever Billy Koch has become very important to the White Sox all of a sudden. If the Sox are not able to make a deal for Koch, which has been rumored the last several weeks, then they have to hope that the one-time closer regains what he was missing from this season.

Koch never displayed the 98-99 mph velocity that he showed with Oakland and Toronto in the previous three seasons. As a matter of fact, his velocity was all the way down to 94 mph at best in most games. He also battled with tendinitis, which put him on the shelf for more than a month.

Damaso Marte and Tom Gordon became the primary closers down the stretch, but it's now unlikely that Gordon will be back.

A month after contract talks with Sox right-handed starter Bartolo Colon broke down, general manager Ken Williams said last week that Gordon also will not be back with the team.

"I don't see how it can work at this point," Williams said of contract negotiations with Gordon.

The club was thought to have offered Gordon between $2.5 million and $3 million for next season, while the pitcher reportedly was seeking something in the $5 million-per-season range. Koch will make over $6 million next season, and that didn't go unnoticed by Gordon, who said he wants to be paid like a closer.

The Sox are trying to keep payroll in the $60 million range and already will pay nearly $50 million to seven players in 2004 (Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, Carlos Lee, Billy Koch, Esteban Loaiza and Mark Buehrle). At least four of the seven (Ordonez, Konerko, Lee and Koch) have been involved in trade rumors.

Gordon was one of several Sox comeback stories of the 2003 season, coming back from elbow, triceps and shoulder injuries that plagued him during the previous four seasons and limited him to 105 2/3 innings in that time with the Boston Red Sox, Cubs and Houston Astros.

Last season, Gordon pitched 74 innings for the Sox, taking over the closer role from Koch in midseason and finishing with a team-leading 12 saves. His 91 strikeouts were second among American League relievers, behind the 94 by the Anaheim Angels' Francisco Rodriguez.

If the Sox don't move Koch, then he will be the frontrunner entering spring training if he shows some zip has returned to his fastball.

"I don't ever think we have enough, [but] we have more than most," Williams said of his closer situation. "It's as comfortable as you can be sitting in this chair. Again, I'm always looking to make us better."

Koch finished 2003 with a 5.77 ERA and gave up 28 walks and 59 hits in 53 innings.

"Billy is still a guy that nobody has saved more games in the big leagues in his first four seasons," Williams said. "We're hoping this is an aberration. He's feeling good, and his mind-set has improved."

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