Springtime Storylines: Are the Chicago White Sox rebuilding or contending?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Chicago White Sox.

The Big Question: Are the Chicago White Sox rebuilding or contending?

After eight tumultuous but mostly successful seasons as manager Ozzie Guillen left for Miami and general manager Ken Williams shook things up even further by choosing someone with zero managerial experience to replace him in Robin Ventura. And then Williams made several big moves that seemingly put the White Sox squarely in rebuilding mode.

He traded 23-year-old closer Sergio Santos, setup man Jason Frasor, and starting right fielder Carlos Quentin while watching Mark Buehrle leave as a free agent, but Williams stopped just short of a total overhaul. Rumored trade bait like Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton, and John Danks remain, along with the untradeable contracts of Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, and Adam Dunn, and the team’s best hitter is still 35-year-old Paul Konerko.

Not exactly what full-on rebuilds are made of, and by promoting Chris Sale, Dayan Viciedo, and Addison Reed to bigger roles it’s more like the White Sox are retooling on the fly. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can actually contend in the process. Chicago went 79-83 last season and will need an awful lot of things to go right to climb much further than .500, although the weakness of the division beyond Detroit makes just about any decent team a quasi-contender in the AL Central.

What else is going on?

  • Dunn and Rios were amazingly awful last season, so simply being “really bad” this year would be a massive improvement. And if they each bounce back all the way to their 2010 levels the White Sox’s lineup should top last season’s measly 654 runs with ease. On the other hand, if that doesn’t happen then Konerko is the only real masher in a lineup that could get very ugly if Alejando De Aza fails to provide a spark at the top and Gordon Beckham continues to underwhelm.
  • Santos was dominant more often than not for the White Sox and should be very good as the Blue Jays’ long-term closer, but Chicago has another potentially dominant young right-hander in Addison Reed and along with Thornton and Crain form the makings of a good late-inning trio. That bullpen depth made dealing Santos easier to swallow and allows the White Sox to give formerly excellent setup man Chris Sale an opportunity in the rotation.
  • Sale was a starter in college, but the White Sox shifted him to the bullpen in the minors in an effort to speed up his arrival in the big leagues and it worked so well that they kept him there last season. Sale has a 2.58 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 94 innings as a reliever, so it’s tempting to keep him there, but at age 24 and with two good off-speed pitches to go with a plus fastball it makes sense to see if he can thrive in a 200-inning role before letting him settle into a 65-inning role for good.

How are they gonna do?

It’s hard to imagine the White Sox giving the Tigers serious competition for the division title, but like the other three teams in the AL Central they’re certainly capable of finishing in second place. Las Vegas pegs the over/under for their win total around 76 and after going 79-83 last season that seems about right. Chicago isn’t as bad as the “rebuilding” label might suggest, but it’s still a mediocre team and they figure to be sellers at the trade deadline.

Must-Click Link: Remembering Eddie Grant the first major leaguer to die in combat

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As you get ready for Memorial Day weekend and whatever it entails for you and yours, take some time to read an excellent article from Mike Bates over at The Hardball Times.

The article is about Eddie Grant. You probably never heard of him. He was a journeyman infielder — often a backup — from 1905 through 1915. If you have heard of him, it was likely not for his baseball exploits, however: it was because he was the first active baseball player to die in combat, killed in the Battle of the Argonne Forest in October 1915.

Michael tells us about more than Grant’s death, however. He provides a great overview of his life and career. And notes that Grant didn’t even have to go to war if he didn’t want to. He was 34, had the chance to coach or manage and had a law degree and the potential to make a lot of money following his baseball career. He volunteered, however, for both patriotic and personal reasons. And it cost him his life.

Must-read stuff indeed. Especially this weekend.

The Indians are unveiling a Frank Robinson statue on Sunday

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The Cleveland Indians will unveil a Frank Robinson statue at Progressive Field on Saturday.

Robinson’s tenure in Cleveland was not long, but it was historic. On April 8, 1975, he became the first African-American manager in Major League history. He was a player-manager. One of the last ones, in fact. He spent two years in that role and then a third year — a partial year anyway — as a manager only. Robinson would go on to manage the Giants, Orioles and the Expos/Nationals, compiling a career record of 1065-1176 in 16 seasons. He is now a top MLB executive.

Robinson was, of course, a Hall of Fame player as well, lodging 21 seasons for the Reds, Orioles, Dodgers, Angels and Indians. He won two MVP awards and hit for the Triple Crown in 1966. Overall he hit 586 home runs – 10th all time – and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. For an inner-circle Hall of Famer with that kind of resume he is still, strangely enough, underrated. I guess that happens when your contemporaries are Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.

Anyway, congrats to Frank Robinson for yet another well-deserved honor in a career full of them.