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.

Clayton Kershaw might return to the Dodgers’ rotation next week

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Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw is nearing his return to the mound, according to club manager Dave Roberts. Both Kershaw (left biceps tendinitis) and fellow lefty Rich Hill (left middle finger blister) are scheduled to toss simulated games on Saturday; depending on the outcome, Roberts says Kershaw could forgo a minor league assignment and slot back into the rotation by Thursday.

Kershaw, 30, was diagnosed with biceps tendinitis as the team closed out their Mexico Series at the start of the month. He has not made a start in several weeks, but was finally able to resume throwing on Sunday and managed to get through two successful bullpen sessions. Though Dodgers’ ace hasn’t been completely injury-free over his 11-year career in the majors, this is the first significant issue he’s had with his pitching arm so far. The team is expected to take every precaution with the lefty, and will likely limit him to just four innings during Saturday’s simulated game.

Prior to his injury, Kershaw was working on another dominant run with the club, sporting a 2.86 ERA, 2.0 BB/9 and 9.8 SO/9 through his first 44 innings of the season. While Kershaw, Hill and left-handed starter Hyun-Jin Ryu served their respective terms on the disabled list this month, the Dodgers utilized a combination of relievers Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart, both of whom impressed during their limited time in the rotation.