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Here we go…

It’s going to be a spring like no other in recent years. As opposed to the past few seasons when the conventional wisdom was that the White Sox were bonafide contenders, there is virtually no one on the outside that is predicting success for the Sox in 2012.

It all starts tomorrow as pitchers and catchers officially report with a group of position players who want to get a head start.

The good news is that there are surprise teams each year that fool the so-called experts. As I’ve stated in this space before, I have no idea how the Sox are going to fare, but they very well could have the makings of one of the teams that will fool the baseball world. If…

* Robin Ventura takes to this managing thing.

* Adam Dunn is the Adam Dunn of old.

* Gordon Beckham reverts to the success of his rookie season.

* Alex Rios plays like he did in 2010.

* Matt Thornton, Addison Reed or someone else becomes a competent closer

* Jake Peavy is close to his previous Cy Young form and he and his fellow starters–John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Phil Humber and newly-appointed rotation member Chris Sale–make up for the innings lost with Mark Buehrle‘s departure.

We’ll have to wait on these and other issues, but my gut tells me things aren’t going to be as dark as everyone is saying.

10 Days to Pitchers and Catchers

Scott Merkin whets our White Sox appetite today on whitesox.com with some facts, figures and projections to chew on:

* Pitchers and catchers report on February 23

* Full squad reports on February 28

* First Spring Training game, March 5, vs. the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch

* Opening Day, April 6, at Texas

Merkin’s Projected Batting Order:

Alejandro DeAza CF, Gordon Beckham 2B, Paul Konerko 1B, Adam Dunn DH, Alex Rios LF, A.J. Pierzynski C, Alexei Ramirez SS, Dayan Viciedo RF, Brent Morel 3B

Projected Rotation:

John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy, Chris Sale, Philip Humber

Projected Bullpen:

Matt Thornton Closer, Jesse Crain RH setup man, Will Ohman LH setup man (with all other spots up for grabs). Key bullpen prospect to watch is Addison Reed, who very well might be the closer (my two cents, not Merkin’s).

New Guys:

Nestor Molina RHP, Dan Johnson 1B, Ozzie Martinez IF and, of course, the skipper Robin Ventura

Key Losses:

Ozzie Guillen, Mark Buehrle, Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin, Juan Pierre, Omar Vizquel, Ramon Castro, Jason Frasor

Word from SoxFest…

As SoxFest is being celebrated this weekend at the Palmer House Hilton, bits of news are filtering out. Here are some of the things that caught my attention:

* Adam Dunn, who last year endured what was arguably the worst season ever for a major league position player, was in the house. A slimmed down Dunn (that’s not him above, but you get my point) said that all the Sox need is for last season’s two biggest disappointments–himself and Alex Rios–to rebound and that would prove to be, in essence, two major offseason moves. He also said he can’t wait for opening day and is putting the past behind him.

* Don Cooper, who Steve Stone called one of the Top 5 pitching coaches in the game, said he sees three openings in the bullpen with Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, Will Ohman and rookie Addison Reed as the staples going into spring training.

* Jeff Manto, who has replaced Greg Walker as the Pale Hose hitting coach, said  (and I’m paraphrasing) he would be nuts not to look to new skipper Robin Ventura and coach Harold Baines for help in dealing with the hitters.

* Speaking of the new manager, Ventura kiddingly said that Cooper is now his BFF as he approaches his rookie year at the helm of the ballclub.

* Kenny Williams put his cards on the table: If the Sox hit, they’ll contend. See Dunn, Rios and Gordon Beckham for details.

* Williams also said we should expect righthanded hurler Nestor Molina, acquired in the trade for Sergio Santos, to be in the majors as early as mid-season this year.

* Joe Crede got the biggest applause when members of the 2005 World Champs were announced. Among the others were Pablo Ozuna and Cliff Politte.

* Ventura said he wants Beckham to have as much confidence at the plate that he does at second base.

SoxFest runs through tomorrow…

Will Prince’s Move to Tigers be as Good as Advertised?

The Tigers certainly seem in it to win it. Victor Martinez out for the season? No problem, let’s spend $214 million on Prince Fielder to replace him.

With yesterday’s signing, Detroit should unquestionably be the heavy favorites to win the A.L. Central. But we all know that the winners in the offseason aren’t always the winners when all is said and done.

The combination of Fielder and Miguel Cabrera hitting back to back in scary. And add Justin Verlander heading up a solid pitching staff, it’s pretty hard to think the Sox, Indians, Royals or Twins could outlast the rivals from Motown.

That said, stranger things have happened and it would be foolish to just give up and hand over the division title to Detroit. From a White Sox perspective, let’s just hope Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham rebound and our newly-formed pitching staff delivers. If they do, the South Siders certainly could be as big a pleasant surprise as we were a disappointing one a year ago.

When I heard the Fielder announcement, all I could think of was that the Sox once had Frank Thomas and Albert Belle hitting back to back–a duo even more formidable than the Fielder/Cabrera duo. And the record shows that it didn’t produce a championship team. In fact, the Sox finished around .500 in both seasons Thomas and Belle played together.

So, keep the faith.

The White Sox in 2012: Nobody Knows for Sure

In a few weeks the White Sox will be firmly embedded in spring training mode trying to assemble a team that’s ready to contend in the A.L. Central.

Conventional wisdom says it’s going to be a difficult task with the Tigers showing no signs of fading and the Royals and Indians seemingly poised to reach the next level.

You really can’t blame the skeptics. As names like Pujols, Fielder, Buehrle, DarvishWilson and others have been the talk of the hot stove period, the White Sox made “headlines” with the acquisition of minor league pitchers Nestor Molina, Simon Castro, Pedro Hernandez, Myles Jaye and Daniel Webb while losing known quantities Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin and Jason Frasor in the process. The only major news was the signing of John Danks, who we all thought was destined to be traded.

It’s really easy to look at all this and come to the conclusion that bad things are in store for the 2012 club. But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.  With myriad questions, the truth is that we just don’t know how the season will manifest.

How will the Ozzie-less Sox be with Robin Ventura at the helm?

Will the Sox survive without Buehrle?

Will Danks pick up where Buehrle left off?

Will an effective closer be found to replace Santos?

Will Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham rebound?

Will Alejandro De Aza be a competent major league leadoff hitter?

Will Paul Konerko be Paul Konerko?

Will Jake Peavy be the Cy Young Peavy?

Will Dayan Viciedo live up to the hype and make us forget Quentin?

Will Chris Sale make a successful switch to the starting rotation?

Will Kenny Williams make any more significant deals to upgrade the big league roster?

More than any other year I can remember, it’s hard to predict what’s in store for all of us this season.  We’re just going to have to wait and see.

A John Danks Christmas

The news this morning that the White Sox have signed John Danks to a five-year, $65 million contract took me–and I’m sure many Sox fans–by surprise.

All we’ve been hearing during this offseason is that Danks, Carlos Quentin, Gavin Floyd and Matt Thornton were likely to be dealt to lower the payroll. So, Danks’ return to the South Side, as pleasant a surprise as it was, came out of nowhere.

The Danks signing signals a positive step in a hot stove period that has been confusing to Sox fans. Let’s face it, none of the three main Sox moves made–this one, the naming of Robin Ventura as manager and the trade of Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays for hot pitching prospect Nestor Molina–were expected. Now, at least, with Mark Buehrle gone, Danks will anchor a rotation that  currently includes Floyd, Jake Peavy, Chris Sale and Philip Humber/Zach Stewart. Certainly talented enough to compete in the A.L. Central.

There’s undoubtedly more on Kenny Williams‘ “To Do” list. Floyd, Quentin and Thornton still could be moved. And based on what we’ve seen so far, key trades and signings could continue to come out of nowhere.

So, fellow Sox rooters, when you least expect it, expect it.

Mark Buehrle: A Player for the Ages

Mark Buehrle, one of the great White Sox of all-time, leaves us with a treasure trove of memories gathered over his 12 seasons on the South Side. There’s the perfect game, the no-hitter, the Gold Gloves, the World Series save, the All-Star Game nods, the record Opening Day starts, his outstanding winning percentage and all those innings pitched. And I haven’t even mentioned the unbelievable between the legs throw on Opening Day 2010 (see below).

There are also the things that were more under the radar: his sense of humor, his leadership, the humility that was evidenced by him catching ceremonial first pitches (except on the days he pitched) through his Sox career and, of course, how beautifully he represented the franchise. Simply a class act.

It’s no surprise that Mark opted to play for Ozzie in Miami. He couldn’t resist the four-year, $58 million deal and the lure of playing in the National League, which he has dominated in interleague play. And the Sox apparently felt that at this stage of his career and the fact that they are in a rebuilding phase, it wasn’t feasible to match the offer as much as they wanted to keep him.

This week certainly hasn’t been a great one for the Sox. On Monday, Minnie Minoso was once again denied his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame and yesterday another one of the club’s most popular players chose to take his talents to South Beach.

It won’t be the same on the South Side without No. 56, who very well might be the last Sox player to wear that number. But we’ll surivive, just as we did when the likes of Minoso, Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, Billy Pierce, Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura changed uniforms.

And remember, you can go home again. Just ask Minnie, Billy, Frank, Robin and the others.

Minnie Transcends Cooperstown

As a youngster, I was mesmerized by the electrifying talent of Minnie Minoso. So, when I was asked to be part of the White Sox team to make the case for Minnie’s Hall of Fame candidacy, it was one of the joys of my professional life.

As word came today that Minoso was three votes shy of the 75 percent needed for election, it hurt.  It hurts because it would have meant so much to Minnie, who has said, “My last dream is to be in Cooperstown–to be with those guys. I want to be there. This is my life’s dream.”

Minoso’s candidacy doesn’t come up again for another three years and who knows what will happen then.  As disappointed as we are right now, the truth is that while the Hall of Fame is the ultimate for a ballplayer it’s not the only thing that measures a major leaguer. If the love and respect from fellow Latino players, teammates and the city of Chicago mean anything, Minnie is in a shrine all of his own.

A Special Day For Me as Former Major Leaguers and Historians Make Minnie Minoso’s Case for the Hall of Fame

Growing up in the 1950s, I lived and breathed the White Sox and their stars Nellie Fox, Billy Pierce, Luis Aparicio and, of course, Minnie Minoso.

So, it was an honor for me to participate in last week’s “Minnie Minoso Hall of Fame Forum” at the Cell as historians and former major leaguers alike made the case for Minnie’s Hall of Fame candidacy. The group of advocates included former teammates Pierce, Jim Landis and Jungle Jim Rivera plus Hall of Famer Tony Perez and Luis Tiant, who like Minoso will be considered for Hall of Fame election the first week in December by the 16-member Golden Era (1947-72) committee. Both Perez and Tiant, like Minoso natives of Cuba, grew up idolizing the man who would become the firat Black Latino in the major leagues.

Having grown up revering Minoso and now at a point in my life where I can play a small part in trying to help him reach baseball’s highest plateau is very special to me. And it’ll even be more special if I’m in Cooperstown next July celebrating Minnie’s well-deserved induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Note: The photo above shows Minnie and me after the Forum. We are standing in front of the spectacular display of memorabilia the White Sox put together for the event.

Is Minnie Cooperstown Bound?

For all of us who grew up watching him play, there was no doubt in our minds that Minnie Minoso was of Hall of Fame caliber.

Today, it was announced that Minnie is one of 10 prominent baseball figures from the Golden Era (1947-72) who have been placed on the ballot for Hall of Fame consideration. The others are players Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Allie Reynolds, Ron Santo, Luis Tiant and executives Charlie Finley and Buzzie Bavasi.  The results will be revealed at the Baseball Winter Meetings on December 5.

The White Sox have put together a wonderful website making Minnie’s case in words, photos and video. Go to whitesox.com/minnie. You’ll really enjoy it–and for those of you who saw Minnie play, it’ll bring back some great memories.

Here is my favorite description of Minnie, which is on the site. It was written by authors Brendan C. Boyd and Fred Harris. It’s really all you need to know about Minoso:

“Minnie Minoso played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He did not have the power of a (Mickey) Mantle or the overall talent of a (Willie) Mays, but he sprayed hits to all fields, never swung at a bad pitch, crowded the plate, bunted, stole bases, broke up double plays, made diving catches, and always, but always, hit the cut-off man. He loved to play baseball, was in every minute of every game he ever played and never let up, no matter how one-sided the score. He was what baseball is all about…”

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