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.

Brewers hold off the Dodgers to force Game 7 of the NLCS

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Down 3-2 in the NLCS, the Brewers faced a must-win situation during Game 6 on Friday. Any residual uncertainty they might have felt about their chances of extending the series was all but resolved in the first inning, however, when Jesús Aguilar, Mike Moustakas, and Erik Kratz combined for a four-run spread to take an early lead. Powered by those early-game RBI, as well as masterful performances from Wade Miley, Corey Knebel, and Corbin Burnes, the club surged to a 7-2 win to pull even with the Dodgers and force a Game 7 tiebreaker.

Left-hander Wade Miley trounced the Dodgers in 4 1/3 innings of two-run, four-strikeout ball. He was bested by David Freese in the very first at-bat of the night, which culminated with a 402-footer to right field to put Los Angeles on the board, 1-0. After a few scoreless innings from the Dodgers, Freese returned to torment Miley in the top of the fifth, this time with an RBI double that narrowed the Brewers’ advantage from four runs to three.

Things didn’t go nearly as smoothly for opposing lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu. In the bottom of the first inning, Ryu allowed a leadoff single to Lorenzo Cain, followed by a four-pitch walk to Ryan Braun. Jesús Aguilar came up to bat with two out and two on, then smacked a two-RBI line drive double to right field. Moustakas and Kratz went back-to-back-to-back with Aguilar, putting up another three runs on an RBI double and single, respectively.

The Brewers kept rolling in the second inning. Christian Yelich and Braun each collected a double off of Ryu, bringing Milwaukee’s lead to 5-1 over Los Angeles. Braun advanced to third on a Travis Shaw groundout, but with Aguilar up to bat, Ryu wasn’t going to chance a repeat of the Dodgers’ first-inning debacle. He intentionally walked Aguilar, then whiffed Moustakas on three straight fastballs to cap the inning.

By the time both Miley and Ryu were forced from the mound, the Brewers stood 5-2 above their opponents. Right-hander Corey Knebel worked a scoreless 1 2/3 innings, striking out Manny Machado to eliminate another potential rally from the Dodgers in the fifth inning and retiring all four batters in the sixth (save for Joc Pederson, who reached base after taking a 96.3-MPH fastball to the wrist). The righty received another significant opportunity to do some damage against the Dodgers in the bottom of the fifth, when he came up to bat for the first time in his professional career with the bases loaded and two outs… but saw just four pitches before swinging at a 1-2 pitch to end the inning.

After Ryu’s unexpected departure in the third, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts cycled through five pitchers — Julio Urías, Alex Wood, Dylan Floro, Caleb Ferguson, and Kenta Maeda — in an attempt to squelch the Brewers’ comeback. The bullpen combined for four consecutive scoreless frames, but was ultimately foiled in the seventh, when, with runners on second and third and two outs, a wild pitch from Maeda ricocheted off the front of home plate and allowed Aguilar to plate yet another insurance run. Still not content with a two-hit, two-RBI performance, Aguilar came back in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single — only moments after a failed double play that would have ended the inning — to bring the Brewers to a cushy 7-2 advantage as they entered the ninth.

No similar last-minute rallies awaited the Dodgers there. Rookie right-hander Corbin Burnes orchestrated another flawless 1-2-3 inning in the ninth, retiring Pederson and Puig with consecutive strikeouts and inducing a game-inning, series-extending pop-up from Matt Kemp to wrap the win.

Game 7 is set for 8:09 PM EDT on Saturday. The starters for both clubs have yet to be announced.