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Chisox get back to basics

By Phil Rogers
November 15, 2002

CHICAGO–It’s tempting to claim the White Sox have developed organizational tendinitis. But the diagnosis wouldn’t be fair.

They have sent way too much talent to the big leagues in recent years to be accused of losing their fastball. The farm system has fallen back to the middle of the pack, though that may only be to catch its breath for another push toward the top.

Two years after being named Baseball America’s Organization of the Year, the Sox had one prospect ranked among the top five when BA polled managers for the Top 10 Prospects in each minor league. But that is in part the result of the number of players who have graduated to the big leagues in recent years.

It was yet another infusion of talent through the farm system, this one including contributions from third baseman Joe Crede, center fielder Aaron Rowand, outfielder Joe Borchard and catcher Miguel Olivo, that allowed the White Sox to finish a devastatingly disappointing 2002 season in strong fashion.

"I like the energy level," general manager Ken Williams said. "I like the commitment to playing the game fundamentally sound and unselfish . . . These guys have some intangibles and they fit together nicely."

Jerry Reinsdorf’s commitment to the minor leagues remains strong. There is proof of the effectiveness of the scouting and farm systems, overseen by the trio of Duane Shaffer, Doug Laumann and Bob Fontaine, in both the number of homegrown players on the big league team and the amount of talent rising from the lower minors.

At the end of the 2002 season, Chicago manager Jerry Manuel’s lineup included six regulars who began their careers in the organization, including three who had reached the big leagues in the last four years–left fielder Carlos Lee, Rowand and Crede. Borchard, who has a higher ceiling than any of them, got his first taste of Comiskey Park.

Manuel’s rotation at the end of the season included three pitchers–lefthander Mark Buehrle and righthanders Danny Wright and Jon Rauch–the Sox drafted. All reached the big leagues in the last three years. Three other homegrown starters–Jim Parque, Mike Sirotka and Kip Wells–have come and gone because of injuries or trades.

The Sox would not have won their Central Division title in 2000 without the commitment to young players. But Williams, who was the farm director before inheriting Ron Schueler’s job before the 2001 season, took the focus off kids by importing veterans such as Royce Clayton, Sandy Alomar, Kenny Lofton, David Wells and Todd Ritchie.

Not only did the White Sox fail to win, but they also lost the spirit they had shown while rolling to 95 wins in 2000. It appeared to return after a midseason purge of veterans in 2002.

After Williams traded Ray Durham, Bobby Howry, Lofton and Alomar–and first benched and then released Clayton–the Sox put together a 28-17 stretch that helped them finish 81-81. It marked the fourth time in Manuel’s five seasons they played better after Aug. 15, the only exception coming in 2000.

"Maybe it just takes me that long to figure things out," Manuel said.

With Magglio Ordonez positioned to supplant Frank Thomas as the foundation of the franchise, Williams is prepared to sink or swim with young players. He is eying only one significant offseason move, the addition of a frontline starter to augment a rotation that includes Buehrle (23), Wright (24), Jon Garland (23) and possibly Rauch (24).

Buehrle, who was never rated as highly as a prospect as Garland and others, is the only one who established himself immediately in the big leagues and has won 35 games the last two seasons. The others have taken their lumps, as young pitchers usually do. The next wave of pitching, which figures to be led by lefty Corwin Malone, has not been as hyped.

While White Sox pitchers have not justified their advance billing, position players like Crede, Rowand and Olivo, picked up from the Athletics, could prove better than advertised. Crede finally burst through in the big leagues in his seventh pro season, hitting .285 with 12 homers in 200 at-bats.

Borchard has the greatest potential of any Sox hitter since Thomas. If he delivers as a switch-hitting power plant–and there are doubts after he struck out 139 times in 117 games for Triple-A Charlotte–it will go a long way in repairing the organization’s image.

With players like center fielder Anthony Webster, shortstop Andy Gonzalez, third baseman Micah Schnurstein and pitchers Kris Honel, Ryan Wing and Brian Miller in the low minors, the Sox may be only a year or two away from another golden age.

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