White Sox doubters may be off base

Rebuilt young team could be real thing

May 03, 2000|By Simon Gonzalez | Simon Gonzalez,KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

CHICAGO -- We know that April showers bring the promise of future flowers, but there's no axiom to tell us what future harvest will be reaped from some of the bizarre statistics throughout baseball in the first month of the season.

Are they aberrations or indicators, trends or flukes?

It can be stated with some certainty that Jermaine Dye and Jose Cruz Jr. won't finish the season first and second in the American League in home runs, that Mike Bordick won't lead the AL in runs batted in, and that Mike Morgan won't have more saves than John Wetteland.

On the other hand, it's a pretty good bet that balls will continue to clear the fence at record paces, that Enron Field will continue to challenge Coors Field for the title of World's Best Launching Pad, and that John Rocker will continue to be booed every time the Braves leave Atlanta.

What to make, then, of the Chicago White Sox?

They were expected to be also-rans, but instead went 17-8 in April, the best record in the AL.

They scored 181 runs, a major-league record for April. They led the AL with a .304 average, 268 hits, 451 total bases, 11 triples, and 173 RBI, and were second with 35 home runs.

They spent 12 days alone in first place, 11 more than their combined total from 1994-99.

Trend, or fluke?

The White Sox, naturally, take the former view.

"There's no reason why we can't play like this every month of the year," first baseman Paul Konerko said.

A more realistic viewpoint, however, suggests that they won't continue to average 7.2 runs per game, that they won't continue on a 110-victory pace, and that they won't continue to need a rear-view mirror to watch the Cleveland Indians.

On the other hand, it's possible they just might be in contention for the long haul.

"We knew the White Sox were good going in," Indians GM John Hart said. "They're a lot like we were five or six years ago: young, but a very good offensive team just starting to come together."

The White Sox are coming together only three seasons after they were torn apart.

They thought they were contenders after signing free-agent slugger Albert Belle in 1997, and they indeed were in position to make a run in the final couple of months. They were 3 1/2 games out on July 31, and All-Star third baseman Robin Ventura was returning from an injury.

But instead of charging, they retreated. Sox management traded closer Roberto Hernandez and starting pitcher Wilson Alvarez to the San Francisco Giants for prospects.

Fans and media criticized the trade and with good reason. Teams in contention should not roll over and play dead.

In hindsight, though, the deal was the best thing to happen to baseball on the South Side since they put those horrible mid-'70s softball-style uniforms in mothballs.

The trade brought in Bobby Howry and Keith Foulke, who are key parts of a strong bullpen. Howry is the closer, and Foulke has become the best setup man in baseball.

More important, it signaled a commitment to rebuild with young players. That strategy is paying off now with Magglio Ordonez, Konerko, Carlos Lee and Chris Singleton, all key parts of the lineup. Those players were able to develop over the past couple of years in pressure-free environments.

"We have been consistent for a longer period of time, and that comes with experience," manager Jerry Manuel said.

Whether the White Sox remain contenders could depend a great deal on what the front office does in late July.

The White Sox have enough prospects in the system and there should be enough flexibility in a small, $30 million payroll, to allow a trade for a front-line starting pitcher that could make the difference in making the playoffs.

Until then, at least the White Sox have an intangible benefit from the April numbers.

"It's fun coming to the ballpark when you know you have a chance to win," reliever Bill Simas said.

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