Rebuilt staff drives White Sox's hopes

12/30/2004 - Chicago White Sox

The White Sox pretty much know what to expect from Jon Garland: 12 victories, 32 or 33 starts and an ERA between 4.50 and 4.90 over at least 190 innings. He's done that in each of his three full big-league seasons.

In the modern game, with so many teams featuring three- or four-man rotations, a pitcher who is that consistently average has value. When Garland first won 12 games back in 2002, he was earning $275,000 and the Sox could project that he would grow into a front-of-the-rotation starter.

While that never happened, service time allowed Garland's salary to grow. He earned $2.3 million last season and is in line for a raise to about $3.5 million this season.

As his pay has jumped, the club has reduced the expectations it puts on him.

At the winter meetings, manager Ozzie Guillen said he was hoping that Garland would "go from third starter, fourth starter to fifth starter.''

Someone asked if Garland might thrive with less pressure on him.

Guillen practically laughed.

"No,'' he blurted out. "I just want better pitchers.''

In that regard, this has quietly been a successful offseason -- and a successful year, for that matter -- for the White Sox. With midseason trades in 2004 and offseason signings, general manager Ken Williams has significantly upgraded both the quality and experience of his pitching staff. He no longer counts on homegrown arms, such as Garland's, to carry the day.

With a chance to land Javier Vazquez for brokering a Randy Johnson trade, or more likely to add another arm or two off the bargain table between now and spring training, it's possible the Sox staff is a work in progress. But consider how it has changed since the start of the '04 season:

Garcia, Hernandez, Contreras, Takatsu, Hermanson and Vizcaino are a combined 258-195 over 29 seasons in the big leagues (42 if you count Takatsu's years in Japan, where he's the all-time saves leader). That's an especially impressive record given the inconsistencies that have plagued the two Cubans, El Duque and Contreras.

Neither Garland (12-11, 4.89 over 217 innings) nor Politte (0-3, 4.38 in 54 games) had an especially disappointing season in 2004. Politte's ERA was a big improvement from his work in Toronto the year before, and Garland's ERA was only slighter higher than in previous seasons.

As Guillen had hoped, Garland has been shuffled from No. 3 to No. 5 in the projected rotation while Politte has dropped from second right-handed option in the bullpen to fourth. That suggests a bounce back for a pitching staff that ranked 12th in the AL in ERA in 2004 after having been fourth the year before (when Loaiza won 21 games and it had Bartolo Colon and Tom Gordon).

Garcia and Buehrle are enviable staff cornerstones, and both are under the White Sox's control through 2007.

At only 25, Garcia was the ace of Seattle's 116-win team in 2001. He led the AL in innings that year and has worked at least 200 for four years in a row. In that run, he has gone 59-41 with a 3.91 ERA, ranking fourth among AL pitchers in quality starts and innings.

Buehrle, you might be surprised to learn, has worked 936 innings the past four years, the most of any big-leaguer. In those four seasons, Buehrle has a .596 winning percentage; the Sox are at .497 otherwise.

Williams took a risk by giving the fragile Hernandez a two-year deal. It was a risk worth taking.

Hernandez, who will be in his eighth season since fleeing a life as a custodian in a Havana mental hospital, gives the White Sox a second big-game pitcher, which should come in handy against the Minnesota Twins.

When the Sox and Twins have met late in the season, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has been able to count on strong efforts from Johan Santana and Brad Radke.

He knows that under pressure White Sox hitters will chase Radke's changeups until they're silly. Heck, Bad Rad hasn't walked a single hitter in his last nine starts against the Sox, a 63-inning span that dates to Aug. 19, 2002.

The White Sox managers -- first Jerry Manuel, now Guillen -- have felt good about Buehrle (13-7 all-time against Minnesota), but haven't gotten consistent work from anyone else. Hernandez should change that.

He is a show pony conditioned for the big game, not the long haul. It is his 10-3 record and 2.65 ERA over 102 postseason innings that speaks to his talent, not the 61 wins it has taken seven regular seasons to compile.

No, Williams didn't get Mark Mulder or Vazquez (not yet, anyway). But you have to give him credit for bringing a veteran touch to a pitching staff that had a magical run with homegrown talent in 2000, but since hasn't been deep enough to win.

The potential 2005 staff includes six veterans who combined for 163 starts (including Hermanson, who split 2004 between San Francisco's rotation and bullpen) and six relievers who appeared in at least 50 games last season.

This depth won't keep the Twins from being the AL Central favorites, but it is reason to give White Sox fans their annual shot of hope.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.