With all the negativity surrounding the 2011 White Sox, who have definitely underperformed so far, I thought I'd focus on the positive and build the case that the 2011 White Sox will go forward from today (August 14) and win the AL Central. This requires that the future be better than the past but I believe it will be, for a variety of reasons.1. Starting pitching now reaping the benefits of the six man rotation. The six man rotation has undoubtedly helped Mark Buehrle, who is having one of the best seasons of his career (18 consecutive starts with three earned runs or less), and Jake Peavy, who has pitched more innings (and reasonably effective ones) than almost anyone would have projected at the beginning of the year. The other benefit was supposed to be better overall health and performance down the stretch as compared to other team's staffs, and the Sox are indeed posting one of the lowest starter's ERAs in the league recently. Phil Humber may be fading, but Zach Stewart has stepped in admirably so far and Edwin Jackson has not been missed. While the Tigers and Indians attempted to patch the holes in their staffs with major trade deadline acquisitions, the White Sox staff keeps on rolling, posting quality starts.
2. Bullpen has settled into a good groove, and now has two "lights out" closers. After a rough start and a juggling of roles, the bullpen has become one of the best in the league. Sergio Santos and Chris Sale make hitters look absolutely foolish. Crain has been consistently good all year, and Ohman has actually been more than just a LOOGY. The league may finally have caught up somewhat to Matt Thornton, but he can still be effective in small doses. Frasor looks to be a decent addition, and the Sox actually felt confident enough to drop a reliever and use the roster position to bring up De Aza. With the starters going deep into starts the bullpen is not overused, and should outperform other teams' pens down the stretch.
3. Konerko will continue to carry the offense, even if he has to crawl around the bases to do so. After getting his well-deserved new three year contract this past winter, Paulie is having a second consecutive "contract year". His ability to hit to all fields and drive in runs has never been better or more consistent. Having to play on just one good leg hasn't hindered his production and it has inspired his teammates. Paulie obviously wants to win, and I expect the Captain will do everything he can down the stretch to help the Sox win.
4. Ozzie and Kenny are *finally* managing like they want to win every game. One of the hardest things for fans to accept is that Sox management has not been managing every single game as though it is a must-win Game 163. That mentality wouldn't work over the course of a 162 game season for many reasons, one of them being that few star players can play 162 consecutive games. But now that the Sox are into the home stretch of the season, with ground to be made up, both Kenny and Ozzie are focused on winning each and every game. Kenny brought up De Aza and Ozzie has played him to put pressure on Rios, and Rios is responding (I believe). Dunn is becoming the Invisible Man (see below), and Lillibridge has become the World's Tiniest First Baseman (who would have predicted this at the beginning of the year?). Whatever it takes to win, it now appears that Ozzie and Kenny will do it. Maybe it's my imagination, but I think the Sox have been playing with more intensity over the past week (especially on defense, but also on offense), so I think it is showing up in both the effort and the results.
5. Dunn is done. Or, more accurately, the Sox's attempt to get Adam Dunn going by relentlessly inserting him into the lineup in the 3-4-5 position and suffering the consequences appears to be over. Dunn has been sitting versus lefties and now some righties, and batting 7th when he does make an appearance. Ozzie has a history of forgetting about players whom he doesn't think can help win high pressure games in the pennant drive (think Nick Swisher in 2008, or Javier Vazquez), and it looks like Dunn may finally have earned his way into that particular doghouse of Ozzie's. Ozzie's final message to Dunn for the 2011 season might have been the one voiced this week when Ozzie told Dunn to show up in better shape for Spring Training 2012. Any replacement-level substitute for Dunn in the lineup is an improvement, and the Sox are getting that and more from Lillibridge and De Aza. And the Tank should be here on September 1.
6. The Sox can indeed go 4-2 versus the Tigers. The Sox sit four games behind the Tigers, with six head-to-head games left. If the Sox go 5-1 versus the Tigers, they'll make up the four game deficit right there. I think 4-2 is more realistic, which would leave the Sox two games behind the Tigers. The Sox would only need to pick up two (to tie) or three (to win) other games across the other 36 non-Tigers games left on their schedule, which is doable. How do I know the Sox can go 4-2 versus the Tigers? It's exactly what the Sox's record is in the last six games versus the Tigers. The Sox aren't scared of Justin Verlander - he's no Bruce Chen.
7. The rest of the schedule is favorable. After the miserable 4-18 stretch that left them with a 11-22 record at the beginning of the season, the Sox are 49-38 since, a decent .563 winning percentage. Continuing at that .563 clip over the remaining 42 games would leave the Sox with a 84-78 record. I think the Sox can do better than .563 down the stretch because of the reasons mentioned above. The Sox have lots of games left against the Indians (6-1 record so far this season) and the Twins, whose mystery they may finally have solved (3-0 sweep in Minneapolis a week ago). The Sox have one more west coast road trip, but with only two games against the Angels and three in Seattle, that projects as a winnable trip for our road warriors. If the Sox can finally do well in front of the home crowd (2-1 on this homestand so far), the Sox should gain the ground that they need to overtake first the Indians (this week) and eventually the Tigers.
I won't guarantee the Sox will win the AL Central this year, but I think there is a very strong case that they will. The Sox are still the last team from the AL Central to win a playoff game (in 2008 versus the Rays), and they definitely have a strong chance to do so again in 2011.