CHICAGO -- Don't expect much talk concerning the White Sox going "all-in" leading up to pitchers and catchers reporting to Arizona in mid-February.
That 2011 marketing campaign, although accurate in spirit based on the White Sox aggressiveness in the free-agent market last year, didn't exactly pan out with the team's disappointing 79-83 finish. The third-place result in the American League Central, coupled with the payroll elevation to a franchise-record $127 million and a 2011 attendance of just over 2,000,000 that didn't balance out this commitment, means the White Sox probably won't be hitting the free-agent market over the next three months for any big-ticket players. The free agency period begins tonight at 11:01 p.m. CT.
Of course, the only thing certain about the White Sox yearly quest for a championship is that the unexpected needs to be expected.
Take last offseason as an example. For a short but significant time, the White Sox looked as if they were going young. It wasn't a look as much as one of the two plans general manager Ken Williams presented to chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for the 2011 season and beyond.
Then, the White Sox agreed to terms with free-agent designated hitter Adam Dunn on a four-year, $56 million deal, and Chicago toned down that plan to let the kids play. Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski returned. Jesse Crain and Will Ohman also were brought in. It was a free-agent bonanza for the South Siders.
It was a bonanza that reaped few rewards. Dunn, in particular from the 2011 class, had a historically bad season that he planned to forget as soon as the final pitch of the year was thrown. His debacle, along with struggles from Alex Rios and Jake Peavy, who was working his way back from 2010 surgery to reattach a detached right lat, has Williams in a little bit of a holding pattern moving forward.
"This was the most difficult season and we are still feeling some of the residual effects of it," said Williams at the press conference to announce Robin Ventura as the team's new manager. "At this point and time, we've got to take a step back and really allow ourselves to see the entire picture.
"I can't reasonably expect to project what some of the guys that struggled last year are going to do. I would be blowing smoke somewhere."
Williams' step back means the White Sox don't figure to sign Mark Buehrle, one of four of their own free agents and the top priority of this small group, in their five-day exclusive negotiating window after the World Series. In fact, Buehrle's case appears much like Konerko's last year, in that the White Sox might not be able to make a final call on the ace until the Winter Meetings in Dallas.
Younger players such as outfielders Dayan Viciedo, Alejandro De Aza and relief pitcher Addison Reed will get increased chances to contribute. Chris Sale, Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham will hold increased importance on what looks like a youth-based team.
Call it retooling, more so than rebuilding. But unlike last offseason, the White Sox payroll seems headed for a decrease, and the organization will not be a major free-agent player.
Free agents: Buehrle, LHP; Juan Pierre, OF, Omar Vizquel, IF, Ramon Castro C.
Eligible for arbitration: John Danks, LHP; Carlos Quentin, OF.
Team options: Jason Frasor, RHP, $3.75 million (picked up).
Non-tender possibilities: None.
Areas of need
Leadoff hitter: With Pierre apparently not in the plans for a return, the leadoff spot could be handled by De Aza, who was very impressive with his .329 average, 12 stolen bases and stellar defense over 54 games last season. The White Sox might decide to go without a traditional leadoff type, but they are more likely to fill this void through a trade.
Bullpen help: The White Sox have Sergio Santos under control in his second year at closer, with veterans Crain, Matt Thornton and Ohman in front of him. Williams and pitching coach Don Cooper understand the importance of a deep bullpen, so the White Sox might spend for one more experienced, late-inning arm. They picked up Frasor's $3.75 million team option and could fill in with talented youths such as Reed, Hector Santiago and/or Gregory Infante.
Starting pitching: Williams has assembled a deep enough core in Peavy, Danks, Gavin Floyd and Philip Humber where the team doesn't have to overpay to fill out the rotation. Moving Sale from the bullpen fills out that front five, and bringing back Buehrle gives the White Sox a potentially tradable excess in a highly coveted area. Zach Stewart and Dylan Axelrod made their starting debuts with the White Sox late last year, but figure more to be long relievers/spot starters in the current alignment.
The White Sox already have 12 players under contract at approximately $90 million, not to mention arbitration raises coming for Danks ($6 million in 2011) and outfielder Carlos Quentin ($5.05 million in 2011). On the heels of their $127 payroll, the White Sox biggest additions just might be getting last year's additions such as Dunn to perform up to expected standards.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.