At the All-Star break last season, the White Sox were actually in first place, a game and a half ahead of the Minnesota Twins.
In my fragmented recollection, the Sox seemed to be chasing the Twins all summer, culminating in that wild last week that saw the Sox win a handful of elimination games, including the 163rd game at the Cell that was as satisfying as any playoff game.
Just making the postseason last year was a victory in and of itself, especially without teeth-grinding slugger Carlos Quentin, who missed September with a self-inflicted injury.
It would be easy to say the stakes have been raised this season, but this year's team has been an enigma, impossible to define. You could say this is a middle stage in a salary-shedding rebuilding campaign, or you could say it's another October run for the remaining core of the World Series team.
When everyone thought the Sox were readying to enter a selling mode, news broke that general manager Kenny Williams had nearly reeled in the biggest fish on the market, San Diego pitcher Jake Peavy. When Peavy respectfully enacted his no-trade clause, the team moved on, and won eight of 10 games. And then promptly lost eight of 11.
Like I said, you can't pigeonhole this team.
But the team's lineup seems to have stabilized, with Chris Getz and Gordon Beckham providing a solid bridge to the top of the order, where Scott Podsednik and Alexei Ramirez are starring. The usual thumpers in the middle are
hitting above outside expectations, and the pitching, aside from Clayton Richard, is in place for a big run.
Williams insinuated the team might not have the financial backing to buy an impact player with money left on his contract because of poor
home attendance (26,132 per game, about 4,700 shy of last year's final average). Manager Ozzie Guillen credited the downturn not to a
sluggish economy, as Williams did, but rather colorfully to his fans' collective baseball intelligence.
"They know we're horse[expletive]," he told reporters during the Cubs' series.
He's not lying. The Sox are only 22-21 at the Cell, where they're hitting .237, the worst home average in baseball. Conversely, they're the best road hitting team in baseball at nearly .290.
Now, the Sox go into the break 3½ games back of Detroit and have ample opportunity to gain ground with 18 games in 17 days beginning Friday. Here are five players, or positions, that should have the biggest effect in the second half:
Carlos Quentin and Scott Podsednik: Can o' corn
I was recently in Las Vegas, where even the biggest degenerate sports gamblers wouldn't take the odds for Quentin and Podsednik both to contribute completely healthy second halves.
I'd give Podsednik much better odds of making it through the next 2½ months without incident, considering Quentin's spotty history. Not that he's milking it. A foot injury is tougher to shake than off than a Jose Contreras forkball, and Quentin's work habits are second to none.
The Sox haven't counted on him as they've fought back to relevancy, and they shouldn't start now. If he comes back healthy and hitting, it's a bonus.
You can put it on the board, yes!
Quentin's first-half absence has been allayed by the resurgent Podsednik, who was signed in April after being released at the end of spring training by Colorado (where he spent last season).
The 26-year-old Quentin (he turns 27 this summer) would've gotten serious MVP consideration last season if he didn't bust up his wrist in a fit of pique. While he was off to a slow start this season in terms of batting average, he did hit eight homers and drive in 20 runs this spring. Quentin played 38 games in the first half and has been on the DL since May 26 with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
Podsednik then took over in left, his old trotting grounds, and has given the Sox the leadoff hitter they've been missing since, well, Podsednik left after an injury-riddled 2007 campaign. Before Sunday's game, he was tied for second in the AL in infield hits, with 21.
When Quentin comes back, Pods will undoubtedly become the regular centerfielder, with Dewayne Wise and Brian Anderson serving as defensive replacements and spot starters. As long as Williams avoids the temptation to trade the highly valuable Jermaine Dye, the team's outfield will be as dangerous as any at the plate.
John Danks and Gavin Floyd: Can o' corn
The two pitchers, wildly different in their mindsets and approaches, will be lumped together as long as they're on the team because of their twin emergences last season. For the Sox to matter in the second half, both will need to outperform their first halves, at least in terms of consistency. Both ended the first half with 7-6 records.
The Phillies soured on Floyd after drafting him fourth overall in 2001, and during the first month this season, fans in Chicago did, too. The Sox didn't, because they could see Floyd's ability shining through. Everyone who knows Floyd talks about his tendency to overthink, and
despite winning 17 games last year, there still might be that inkling of self-doubt that creeps up again down the stretch.
Danks is the opposite, and teammates praise his stereotypically Texas approach to pitching. But his lack of consistency this season is certainly consistent, and there's no reason to think he will win three or four starts in a row all of a sudden.
You can put it on the board, yes!
Floyd, who signed a four-year, $15.5 million deal in the offseason, looked like he was one start from being exiled to the bullpen after taking an 8-2 loss in Toronto on May 17. The 26-year-old gave up six runs on seven hits in five innings, and had given up 20 earned runs in 15 innings over three starts, which ballooned his ERA to 7.71. Since then, he has turned it around, and not coincidentally, so have the Sox.
In his next eight starts, he went 4-1, lowering his ERA to 4.12. He's given up five runs in each of his two July starts, but he went 1-1 and gave up just 12 hits and three walks in 13 innings in those outings.
Danks, 24, has a 3.91 ERA, but he has yet to win more than two starts in a row. While the lefty is only 3-3 since the end of May, he's pitched at least seven innings in five of seven starts, giving up no runs twice. In a statistical quirk, he gave up one run, two runs, three runs, four runs and five
runs once apiece in his other starts in June and July.
You have to figure that Thome's production will drop in the second half with fatigue, right? I can't imagine there's another DH who puts in as much work to keep his body in baseball shape as Big Jim, who is at the park to work out his balky back hours before reporters get there. The affable slugger, now in his 18th season in the big leagues, could be in his last year with the Sox, unless they ink him to a one-year deal, perhaps with a club option, after the season. The Sox have 38 home games in the second half and Thome is hitting just .214 at home, albeit with a .400 on-base percentage and 7 homers.
The All-Star break couldn't have come at a worse time for Konerko: It's like a cooler's shuffle in the middle of a heater at the blackjack table. The 33-year-old slugger -- doesn't he seem older? -- can't be expected to duplicate his stellar first half.
You can put it on the board, yes!
Despite all predictions otherwise, the two middle-of-the-order boppers aren't showing any signs of slowing down, at least none that are outside the norm.
Thome, who turns 39 in August, is a .250 BA/30 HR/90 RBIs type of guy now and his numbers bear him out. Thome is hitting .255 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs through 72 games, with a .400 on-base percentage. This left-handed slugger has 555 homers to his credit and is still feared throughout baseball.
Konerko, whom his own manager calls "The King," is hitting .302 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs -- numbers that are far better than predicted. Slowed by injuries last season, Konerko hit just .240 with 22 homers and 62 RBIs in 122 games.
This year, he's been steady from the get-go and is in the midst of a hot July. He has six multi-hit games this month alone, including a three-homer,
seven RBI game on July 7 against Cleveland. He's hitting .326 with nine homers against divisional opponents, and with Thome hitting behind him, he'll continue to see fastballs throughout the second half. Konerko is also one of the few Sox hitters who have performed at home.
Gordon Beckham and Chris Getz: Can o' corn
One started the season in Chicago with expectations he could provide a workmanlike presence in the order while manning a palatable second base. The other started in the minors with the highest of expectations, which he quickly surpassed en route to an early summer call-up.
The more that pitchers see Beckham and Getz, the more ammo they'll have to get them out. The Sox have the luxury to stash them in the bottom
of the order and allow the two to build up their stats while opposing pitchers worry about the Sox's sluggers.
Beckham has faced growing pains at third -- he made two errors in the Sox's 13-7 loss to close the first half -- though most observers praise his quick study of the new position. I'd expect both players to battle slumps in the second half, but to come out relatively unscathed.
You can put it on the board, yes!
Getz and Beckham are the Butabi brothers of "Night at the Roxbury" fame of the South Side ("Are you guys brothers?" "No ... yes!"). The two sandy-haired 20-somethings will be able to get into any club they want, if they continue to stabilize the bottom of the Sox order.
Beckham, who turns 23 in September, is hitting .271 through 34 games, with an impressive 20 RBIs, which is among the AL rookie leaders. He's hitting .393 (11-for-28) with 17 RBIs with runners in scoring position. He's also 6-for-18 after an 0-2 count, another sign that the 2008 draft pick is
mature beyond his years at the plate.
Getz, who turns 26 in August, is hitting .256 with 22 RBIs and 13 stolen bases (in 14 attempts). He is the leader (or tied for the lead) among AL rookies with 19 multi-hit games, 62 hits and 18 extra-base hits.
He's not wowing anyone with his .314 on-base percentage, which is why he's not leading off, but he's hitting .308 with runners in scoring position and two outs, a situational statistic that can turn a bottom-of-the-order hitter into a big-money player. Getz has hit all over the order: .274 in 18 games leading off, .264 in 14 games batting seventh and .321 in 16 batting eighth.
Clayton Richard: Can o' corn
There's really no good news about the Sox's current fifth starter, aside from the fact he's a pretty nice, intelligent guy who should make a fine addition to the bullpen once Williams acquires another starter or gives Bartolo Colon a second shot to stay in the rotation when/if he returns from his minor league rehab.
This is the most glaring hole on the team. Williams needs to add a starter, something I'm sure he's well aware of. It was fortunate that Peavy
rejected the trade: He's on the DL with an ankle injury. I wouldn't expect the Sox to land Roy Halladay, but there will be plenty of other pitchers on the market.
Greenberg's prediction: Despite their unimpressive 45-43 record (one game over .500 at home and away), I think the Sox have a fighter's chance at winning the Central, especially with the 43-31 record I predict in the second half. The prognosticating stats guys at coolstandings.com give the Sox only a 16.7 percent chance of winning the division, well below the Tigers and Twins. But the Sox have a more fluid lineup now, even without Quentin, and with the continued success of their four starting pitchers and a healthy bullpen, this team
could be headed for a second straight division title.
Like Guillen said earlier this year, the Sox don't have to wrestle with outside expectations, as the Cubs do. This is a team picked by Baseball Prospectus to finish under .500 and the team's brass uses cynical odds as inspiration. This isn't a World Series team, but it should prove worthy of watching come September.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.