To date, our Spring Training Spotlights have generally focused on teams on the coasts: only 1 of our 11 pieces to have profiled a team in the Central Division of either league. That's why we thought it was important to show the Midwest some love, finally, and we're going to spotlight a team that I think could be a sleeper in the American League: the Chicago White Sox. With everybody's attention focused on the Red Sox's big pickups and Cliff Lee's decision to return to Philadelphia, the South Siders have generally flown under the radar. This has been a big offseason for them, too. Hit the jump to find out why.
The big move made by GM Ken Williams this winter was signing former Nationals slugger Adam Dunn to a 4-year, $56 million contract. Because he's played for a bunch of bad Reds teams and then for the Nationals for the past 2 season, Dunn's production has flown under the radar while fans and the media focus on the Pujolses and Longorias of the world. However, the new White Sox masher can put up some pretty impressive power stats. His best season was in 2007, when he hit 40 home runs, collected 106 RBIs, and had a .940 OPS. Last season, his numbers were almost as good, at 38-103-.892, meaning Dunn shows little sign of declining anytime soon. He put up those numbers (and similar ones in 2009) playing in a putrid Nationals lineup that--even with Dunn's big contribution--was only 24th in runs scored in 2010. The White Sox are going to pair Dunn with veteran Paul Konerko, who put up a 39-111-.977 line last season, putting him among the league leaders in all 3 categories. Having those two run producers in the middle of their lineup should make the White Sox lineup a formidable task for opposing pitchers all year long.
The Sox's big (and acrimonious) departure this offseason was that of closer Bobby Jenks, leaving no heir apparent to take over the 9th inning for Manager Ozzie Guillen. After a short spring audition, Guillen named South Side veteran Matt Thornton (see right) the Opening Day closer for his club, after five seasons in middle relief for the White Sox. Though he is only coming to closing at age 34, Thornton's past numbers compare favorably to players who have successfully moved from middle relief to the closer's spot. In his last season before becoming a full-time closer, Francisco Rodriguez (now of the Mets, then of the Angels) had a 1.82 ERA, with a WHIP of 1.00 and a 73:3 K/BB ratio. Furthermore, Mariano Rivera had numbers of 2.09-0.994-3.82 in 1996 for the Yankees, while setting up closer John Wetteland. Thornton's 2010 numbers while setting up for Jenks were comparable to these two All-Stars: 2.67 ERA, 1.005 WHIP, and 4.05 K/BB. He also had 8 saves last season (Rivera had 5, Rodriguez had 12) in emergency situations for the White Sox. He has proven himself capable of handling late inning situations, and his numbers match up favorably with other pitchers who have transitioned from middle relief to the 9th inning. Though it was still a gamble for Ken Williams to not go out and sign a closer, it seems like his in-house option of Matt Thornton could be a really successful closer on the South Side for at least 2011.