Focusing on outs could keep White Sox in it

Adam Dunn, of all people, contributed to the fine team defense on Tuesday.

The White Sox picked up their 11th win of the spring with a rock-solid 7-1 victory over Ubaldo Jimenez and the Cleveland Indians.

At one point in the spring, the Sox were 3-10 and scaring at least one scout into thinking they were the 100-loss kind of bad. But Robin Ventura's team has turned the tides. They've won eight of their last 11 including Tuesday's game, which gives Ventura as many spring victories in his first season as Ozzie Guillen won in 2011 (11-20) and 2008 (11-19), and more than Guillen won in 2006 (10-19) and 2007 (10-22).

As a result, Jake Peavy says the Sox won't even lose 95, so that scout can stick it!

Of course, spring standings might be even more meaningless than spring statistics. Two of those teams were disasters, but the 2008 team won the AL Central, and the 2006 team won 90 games. Good luck divining real significant from that.

Well, that's not entirely true this year. A commendable spring, or even a respectable one, would have symbolic significance for a new era that only has a spring training record to stand by. We've heard drips and drabs of ways Ventura's camp is different from Ozzie Guillen's -- earlier start times, more stringent standards for completing drills, and less overall noise to name a few -- but if anybody gets any more specific, it would invite direct comparisons with a man nobody wants to discuss anymore.

Basically, we're to work with the general grand idea that this spring is about getting down to business. If the results resembled the shabby records from the standings of yore, the only response would be, "Yeah, what of it?" However, should they continue their sound play through the end of the preseason, it supports the premise that there might be something to this newfangled professionalism after all.

I'll grant you that it's not the strongest of stakes, because it will only be as sturdy as the first two weeks of April. Hey, this is what the building of a track record looks like. It's all data-gathering, and sorting the good from the bad comes later.

If the White Sox are intent on distancing themselves from the silly stuff, then the front half of April should be fertile ground for establishing it.

The first 15 days (a.k.a. "baker's fortnight") of 2011 featured this game. And this game. And this game. And this game. And this game. After all that, the Sox were 7-6, but five of those losses were pretty dumb losses. They couldn't get out of their own way when things were going relatively well, so it didn't surprise when they proved ill-equipped to handle hardship.

Watching the Sox play over the past week-plus, I'm optimistic that they'll be able to tighten up their brand of baseball. Tuesday's game was a treat in this regard. Zach Stewart garnered headlines for allowing just one run on three hits over 5 1/3 innings, but he benefited from some terrific defensive efficiency. Alejandro De Aza ran down three long flies, Brent Lillibridge came up with a couple of catches near the line, Eduardo Escobar made another slick play, and even Adam Dunn snagged a hot shot for a 1-3 putout.

Sure, there are reasons to temper this enthusiasm -- the projections aren't optimistic, the outfield corners look shaky, and I think A.J. Pierzynski is beyond help when it comes to really stopping the running game, for starters. But those claims can be countered with some big gains on the margins. Escobar looks like the new utility infielder, and if so, that's a leaps-and-bounds improvement over Omar Vizquel, who was barely a second baseman last season. Likewise, Brent Lillibridge and Kosuke Fukudome offer good mix-and-match possibilities with Dayan Viciedo and Alex Rios in platoon and late-game situations.

Plus, I've said it before, but the difference in outfield defense with De Aza out there is immediately apparent, because the Sox finally have somebody who is willing to play traffic cop. Calling for the ball shouldn't be a big deal, but survivors of the Bermuda Triangle between Alex Rios, Juan Pierre and Alexei Ramirez would argue otherwise.

Star-divide

Stouter defense is only a minor part of the stew. The Sox still have to find ways to reliably score runs, which is going to be a pretty tall order. The rotation is in its shakiest state since the days of Fifth Starter Hell, and the bullpen might resemble 2007 a little more than anybody would care for.

So what, though? As the Sox learned last year, waiting for cure-all solutions just ends up wasting time, money and goodwill. Now it's about recognizing smaller avenues for improvement and looking for ways to connect them.

This particular facet might be more crucial than it looks, because the Sox were piss-poor when it came to managing outs. They were tied for third-worst in defensive efficiency, and on the other side of the ball, only the Kansas City Royals gave away more outs when adding times caught stealing, other baserunning outs and sac bunts.

The scope of the 2011 White Sox's fundamental flaws is pretty staggering. We're well-versed with the mismanagement of the roster and the games thrown away due to extracurricular drama, but when factoring it in with the imbalance of outs due to both personnel and philosophy ... man, they were basically built 500 feet below sea level.

That the Sox still won 79 games in spite of it all suggests they could weather a transitional period better than most expect. Being more assertive on defense is as good a place to start attacking the issue of outs. Whether that will be accompanied by fewer bunts and steal attempts is a mystery, but if the offense is still stuck in the past, solving one problem remains preferable to solving none.

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