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Springtime Storylines: Can the White Sox slug their way to the AL Central title?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Ozzie Guillen and his always entertaining White Sox.

The Big Question: Can the White Sox slug their way to the AL Central title?

For a brief time the White Sox had it in their heads that they should intentionally remove power from the lineup and try to play small ball, thinking that was somehow the key to consistently beating the Twins.

Last season that involved letting Jim Thome walk as a free agent (and sign with the Twins) while replacing him with a revolving door of designated hitters led by Mark Kotsay. Chicago played plenty of small ball, stealing the second-most bases in the league, but the White Sox also hit their fewest homers since 1999 and finished six games behind the Twins, much of which can be attributed to Thome and his 1.039 OPS switching sides while the DHs replacing him ranked 10th in homers and 13th in RBIs.

General manager Kenny Williams learned his lesson, and while re-signing Thome wasn’t an option he did the next-best thing and signed the other king of lefty hitting power and patience, Adam Dunn, to a $56 million deal. Thome spent three-and-a-half seasons in Chicago, hitting .265 with a .391 on-base percentage and .542 slugging percentage while averaging 38 homers and 103 walks per 150 games. During the past four seasons Dunn has hit .257 with a .382 on-base percentage and .533 slugging percentage while averaging 37 homers and 101 walks per 150 games. It’s a year too late, but they essentially have Thome back in the lineup.

Along with adding Dunn’s big bat the White Sox also re-signed Paul Konerko to a $37.5 million deal and avoided the temptation to trade Carlos Quentin, building another lineup capable of bashing opponents into submission with the help of a power-boosting home ballpark. Juan Pierre and Alex Rios will still do plenty of running, but the White Sox once again look capable of topping 200 homers, which they did every season from 2000-2008 except 2007, when they went 72-90.

Obviously it’ll take more than 200 homers to win the division, but the White Sox’s lineup is very dangerous and features a pair of 40-homer threats (Dunn, Konerko), a pair of 30-homer threats (Quentin, Rios), and a pair of 20-homer threats (Alexei Ramirez, Gordon Beckham) in addition to Pierre’s small-balling ways.

So what else is going on?

  • In addition to restocking the lineup with a homers-and-walks monster the White Sox also rebuilt the bullpen after Bobby Jenks and J.J. Putz departed as free agents. Jesse Crain was lured away from the Twins with a $13 million deal and they promoted elite setup man Matt Thornton to the closer role while opting to keep stud rookie Chris Sale in the bullpen. Toss in Sergio Santos’ successful transition from light-hitting shortstop to flame-throwing setup man and it’s a very strong late-inning quartet.
  • Part of the reason for keeping Sale in the bullpen was the hope that Jake Peavy would be healthy enough to begin the season in the rotation, but now that plan is out the window and journeyman Philip Humber is penciled in as the No. 5 starter. Barring pitching coach Don Cooper pulling a miracle Humber and his 5.26 career ERA will struggle, but the front four of Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Edwin Jackson can carry the load and Peavy is currently hoping to return in late April.
  • Beckham bouncing back from a disappointing sophomore season is a big key for the White Sox and I like his chances. His star potential was likely overstated following a promising rookie year, but Beckham quietly recovered from an awful start to hit .310 with an .877 OPS after the All-Star break and is a good bet to improve his overall OPS from last season by at least 100 points.
  • Position player depth should be a major strength, as Ramon Castro is among the best backup catchers around, Teahen is a much better fit in a part-time role, Lastings Milledge was a strong low-cost pickup in the outfield, and Omar Vizquel has defied the odds by remaining productive into his 40s. Toss in Dayan Viciedo waiting in the wings at Triple-A as a power-hitting replacement should anything happen to one of the corner bats and Chicago has the depth to withstand some injuries.
  • You should follow Ozzie Guillen on Twitter. Just trust me.

So how are they gonna do?

This is going to sound like a broken record to anyone who also read my season previews of the Twins and Tigers, but the AL Central has three teams that look capable of winning 88-92 games and I fully expect the division race to go down to the wire. I’d peg Chicago as the division’s second-strongest team, but realistically it might as well be a three-way tie for co-favorites.

Dallas Keuchel, Astros did talk long-term contract

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Dallas Keuchel‘s agent Darek Braunecker told MLB Network Radio in early January that he had not engaged in any long-term contract negotiations with the Astros’ front office. Two weeks later, the sides reached a one-year, $7.25 million agreement, avoiding a salary arbitration hearing. So was a bigger financial commitment ever discussed?

Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle has the answer, writing in his offseason review that the “Astros and Keuchel have had substantial talks about extensions [this winter] … but to no avail.”

Keuchel carries all the leverage in the world after winning the 2015 American League Cy Young Award with a 2.48 ERA, 1.017 WHIP, and 216/51 K/BB ratio in 232 innings. He also made three appearances in the postseason to a 2.57 ERA in 14 frames.

Keuchel’s $7.25 million salary for 2016 will be a record for a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Locking up some of his free agent years (2019, 2020, 2021, etc.) would likely take a commitment of $120 million or more.

Houston has the 28-year-old left-hander under contractual control through 2018, and it sounds like the plan is to go season-to-season with his salaries.

He’ll remain a huge value to a good-looking Astros team.

Yadier Molina gets cast removed from surgically-repaired thumb

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Yadier Molina underwent surgery to repair a ligament tear in his right thumb shortly after the Cardinals were eliminated from the NLDS by the Cubs, and then he needed a followup procedure two months later.

It’s been an offseason of rest and rehab for the seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glover, though he’s about ready to ramp up the intensity of workouts with the beginning of spring training approaching …

Brayan Pena was signed to a two-year, $5 million free agent contract this winter to provide more reliable depth behind the plate. He’ll be the Cardinals’ starter at catcher come Opening Day if Yadi isn’t quite ready.

Molina started a whopping 131 games behind the plate in 2015.

Jose Fernandez wants $30 million a year, Marlins don’t plan on paying

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You’ve heard the stories by now. Jose Fernandez does not get along with Marlins management and is doubtful to sign a long-term contract with the team.

There’s still time for those relationships to be repaired — Fernandez can’t become a free agent until after the 2018 season — but we also have a monetary issue at play.

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald writes Sunday that the Marlins are “under the impression” Fernandez and his representatives want $30 million per year on a long-term deal, a figure the Marlins “have no plans to meet.”

If the Marlins won’t pay, Fernandez and his reps will seek that number when the ace right-hander reaches free agency. That could be the same offseason Bryce Harper tries for $500 million.

A friend of Fernandez told Jackson that the 23-year-old native of Cuba was upset about some of the trades the Marlins made last summer and the removal of pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. You probably heard talk of Miami shopping Fernandez this winter, but the asking price was predictably sky-high.

Fernandez has been limited to 19 starts over the last two years because of Tommy John surgery and a biceps injury, but he boasts a stellar 2.40 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 10.5 K/9 in 289 career major league frames. He will make $2.8 million in 2016 and carries two more years of arbitration eligibility.

If he can put together a run of 30-start, 200-inning seasons, Fernandez will get that $30 million per year and probably much more.

Michael Brantley’s timetable off shoulder surgery is “hazy”

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Paul Hoynes at the Cleveland Plain Dealer has an in-depth look at how the Indians will manage their outfield during the early part of the 2016 season, in the absence of star Michael Brantley.

Brantley underwent labrum surgery on his right shoulder this past November and has not picked up a bat all winter. “In the off-season people know I love to hit,” Brantley acknowledged to Hoynes late last week. ”I hit a lot. It’s just been a change in my timetable.”

Hoynes says the projected date for Brantley’s 2016 debut is “hazy,” guessing that it might happen around late April or early May if everything continues to go smoothly. Shoulders can be tricky, for hitters and pitchers.

Rajai Davis, Abraham Almonte, and Lonnie Chisenhall figure to make up Cleveland’s primary starting outfield while Brantley is finishing his rehabilitation. Collin Cowgill and Joey Butler could also be in the mix. It’s a lacking group, tasked with replacing one of the most productive players in baseball.

Brantley, 28, has slashed .319/.382/.494 over the last two seasons, tallying 35 home runs, 90 doubles, 181 RBI, and 38 stolen bases in 293 games.

Could the talented Tribe be in for another slow start?

Shouldn’t this club be spending more money?