Pitching remains focus for White Sox

Pitching remains focus for White Sox

CHICAGO -- During one of the three, hour-long question-and-answer sessions involving Ken Williams and Ozzie Guillen at SoxFest, one particular fan started his inquiry for Williams by singing the praises of the White Sox general manager's offseason moves.

With the exploding market rewarding mediocre pitching through wild contracts, this fan truly appreciated Williams' work to stockpile the organization with high-quality young arms -- nine, to be exact -- during offseason maneuvers. But there was a slight catch to the kudos being thrown toward Williams.

This fan wanted to know how Williams had improved the team for the upcoming 2007 season and why should the White Sox fan base hold out hope for a run at another World Series title. After all, in the process of setting himself up nicely for 2008 and 2009, Williams traded away a 17-game winner in Freddy Garcia, as well as traded away Brandon McCarthy, a talented young starting pitcher who was to replace Garcia in the rotation.

But actually it's this change in pitching depth and the overall look of the rotation that seems to have Williams as upbeat in the present as he is excited for the future. For starters, Williams turned a bullpen perceived to be a 2006 liability into what he views as a group of six power arms that can have an immediate impact and grow into one of baseball's best relief crews over the years.

Closer Bobby Jenks leads the way with his 100-mph fastball, sharp-breaking curve and 41 saves from 2006, but in Mike MacDougal, Matt Thornton, David Aardsma, Andrew Sisco and Nick Masset, the White Sox have five relievers with closer-type stuff setting up Jenks. In studying pitching at U.S. Cellular Field, one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in all of baseball, Williams found that raw talent and solid movement on pitches seem to be the avenue to travel.

Boone Logan was the surprise story of Spring Training last year, moving from an unknown at Minor League camp to the Opening Day roster. That saga speaks to Logan's impressive work but also a lack of healthy relief choices for the White Sox. With the lively arms they have in place this year, the opposing hitters probably should be more worried than Guillen when he walks to the mound and signals for a pitching change.

"We have guys who can throw the ball hard and that's something I always liked," said White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, in assessing the new-look bullpen. "As a hitter, when you have a bullpen with guys throwing hard, you are thinking, 'I'm getting two at-bats against a starter I feel pretty good against. But if I don't do well there, I'm going to get this hard-throwing guy and this guy and that's not fun.'

"Our park is really good to hit in, and if you rely on being on the corners and perfect every night, when that goes bad, it gets ugly. We have guys who can challenge on the white part [of the plate] and get away with it."

Building a bridge to Jenks was Williams' primary target amongst his offseason goals. He also entered the Hot Stove period with six starters and a need to open up a spot for McCarthy, who was a dominant part of the rotation during September 2005. At least that's what people thought after Garcia was shipped out.

Instead, the Rangers made Williams an offer for McCarthy he couldn't refuse, in the form of Masset and left-hander John Danks. So, where does that move leave the rotation? Should there be concerns of a return to 2004, when the White Sox used nine pitchers to fill the void at fifth starter and nine pitchers were unable to get the job done?

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Williams believes quite the contrary will take place, and he is the architect who has had his eye on some of these building blocks for as long as the past two years. Gavin Floyd appears to have the early edge at fifth starter, especially after the positive impression he left on Williams while pitching in the Arizona Fall League. Danks, Charlie Haeger, Lance Broadway and even Heath Phillips and Sean Tracey also could make a run at the rotation's final slot.

In contrast to 2004, the White Sox have four solid starters in place ahead of the vacancy at No. 5. With veterans such as Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez shouldering a little bit more of the burden, looking rested and ready, it's easier to take one chance on young talent.

"If the four of us pitch up to our capabilities, it takes some of the pressure off that fifth spot," Garland said. "From what I hear, and I don't know them, but they all are legit arms. They will get a chance to prove themselves, which might be a good thing, but there will always be doubters."

"All of a sudden, I was worried where we were heading pitching-wise," Williams added. "I thought if we didn't aggressively address that, we were going to be a 90-loss team sooner rather than later because of how the pitching market is evolving and where our guys were with their service time. The next couple of years we were going to be left with a void."

For now, the only void to be filled sits at fifth starter. Of course, those White Sox fans whose cups aren't half full would question how young hurlers such as Masset or Danks will adjust to full-time life in the big leagues, without much prior experience. Those same naysayers might wonder how the White Sox will turn around Floyd and Sisco from big recent disappointments to viable Major League contributors.

They are risks Williams is willing to take. He always has followed a practice of scouting talent and not numbers, and with a strong offense intact, Williams believes the new mound look could make the difference for his team in the always-tough AL Central and beyond.

"The division, I think it's the same answer this year as it was last year," Williams said. "Whoever pitches the best wins. Whoever pitches the best, plays fundamentally the best."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.