- Phil Rogers
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Many possible pitfalls lie ahead for the White Sox, but one thing that shouldn't get in the way of a return to the playoffs is complacency.
Since the last five games of the regular season in 2005, they are 41-14, including the 11-1 run through the playoffs. After Tuesday's loss to the Devil Rays, the White Sox shared the majors' best record (25-13) with the Tigers. It's not, however, the best record in organized baseball.
Here's the kicker: That mark (30-8) belongs to the Charlotte Knights. They happen to be the Triple-A affiliate of the White Sox.
You want to talk about hot? Since a 6-5 start, the Knights have gone 24-3, reeling off winning streaks of 12 and six games, twice.
This run began on April 17. The parent White Sox have gone 18-8 in the same time frame, giving the organization's top two teams a combined 42-11 record over the last month. That's .792 baseball, or the equivalent of 128 wins over a 162-game season.
Given that Charlotte's roster is full of prospects ages 25 and under who in just about any other year would be pushing for jobs in Chicago, these numbers speak to the White Sox's chance to be a factor in the American League for the foreseeable future. That's the way general manager Ken Williams planned it.
"It wasn't just our goal to win the World Series," Williams said. "It was our goal to put together a team that could be in the playoffs on a regular basis. I've always worked with two- and three-year plans, not just considering the season we're in. That allows me to make moves when I have to. I've made some mistakes and I'm going to make some more, but things have fallen together nicely over the last couple of years."
Manager Razor Shines and many of Charlotte's players were on a Birmingham team that finished 25 games above .500 last season. That list includes third baseman Josh Fields, shortstop Pedro Lopez, first baseman Casey Rogowski, catcher Chris Stewart, outfielders Jerry Owens and Ryan Sweeney and pitchers Sean Tracey, Charlie Haeger, Heath Phillips and Paulino Reynoso.
This year's Birmingham team isn't as strong in the field but has some intriguing pitching prospects in right-hander Lance Broadway, a 2005 first-round pick from TCU, and left-handers Ray Liotta and Tyler Lumsden.
Some patience, it appears, will be required for all of these guys. Williams and his assistant, Rick Hahn, have done good work in securing long-term deals for the core of the big league team. The most important player eligible for free agency next winter is Cliff Politte, the setup man.
General managers all want options, and Williams should be in an enviable position at the trading deadline and into the next offseason. He's built his reputation trading prospects for established veterans but soon could find himself picking between veterans and prospects from his own organization.
"Having what is considered an excess is not necessarily a bad thing," Williams said after signing Contreras to his contract extension, which left no room in the organization for 6-foot-7 right-hander Brandon McCarthy, who shut down Texas, Boston and Cleveland in starts late last season. "I have no plans to move any of this starting pitching, no plan whatsoever. Fundamentally I don't think there's such thing as too much pitching."
No, but you can only use four starters in the playoffs. If the White Sox are sitting pretty on July 31, with all of their horses healthy (look for Contreras to spend the minimum 15 days in his current stay on the DL with back issues), another contender -- probably a National League contender -- could tempt Williams with an offer for one of his five.
Here's a look at some of the choices the White Sox are likely to face at some point in the next 18 months:
• McCarthy, Tracey, Haeger, Broadway, Lumsden or Liotta for Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland or Javier Vazquez: While Mark Buehrle and Garcia have the shortest contracts among the starters (Garcia is signed through 2007; the Sox have an '07 option on Buehrle), the only way Buehrle would be traded is if the club thinks his asking price on an extension is way too high. Contreras, who has carried the Sox to a 23-3 record in his last 26 starts, isn't going anywhere.
McCarthy, who got a spot start Tuesday in place of Contreras, has been important in a thin bullpen. But the bet here is somebody gets moved to open a spot for him in the rotation before next season.
A second trade next winter could create both payroll flexibility and hellish competition for the fifth starter's spot between the knuckleball-throwing Haeger (4-0, 0.59 ERA in seven starts at Charlotte), Tracey (4-0, 2.65 at Charlotte), Broadway (4-1, 1.42 at Birmingham), Lumsden (4-1, 2.91 at Birmingham) and Liotta (1-4, 3.59 at Birmingham). Phillips (3-2, 2.43 at Charlotte), like first baseman Rogowski -- who is buried behind Konerko and Jim Thome -- could be trade fodder as Williams seeks bullpen help for the stretch run.
• Fields vs. Joe Crede: More confident at the plate and spectacular in the field, Crede (who could have been the World Series MVP just as easily as Jermaine Dye) has turned into a rising star. He also represents a potential salary issue because he has two more years of arbitration remaining and Scott Boras as his agent.
The Sox could afford to pay Crede if they phased in one or two low-salaried pitchers in the rotation, but they have a potential replacement on his way in Fields. The former Oklahoma State quarterback was a first-round pick in 2004 and is sailing through the farm system. He's batting .345 and recently had five homers in a four-game stretch for Charlotte. He leads the International League in slugging and has shown marked improvement in his fielding after a 25-error season at Birmingham in 2005.
Fields once seemed to offer a bigger bat than Crede, but the five-year veteran was hitting .323-8-28 through the White Sox's first 37 games. Crede has also elevated his game under pressure. If the Sox can sign him to a long-term extension, Fields would become a valuable bargaining chip.
• Sweeney and Owens vs. Scott Podsednik and Brian Anderson: Anderson is hitting only .181 as the center field replacement for Aaron Rowand, and Podsednik started this season off slowly before reasserting himself in May.
Owens, a former UCLA wide receiver, and Sweeney, a 21-year-old with a sweet swing whom Roland Hemond has compared to Harold Baines, are different style players. Owens, the Southern League batting champ a year ago, is a slasher who can fly. Sweeney (currently disabled with a tight hamstring) stands 6-5 and could become a high-average hitter. Either could get a long look if the Sox have an injury or Anderson regresses. Both were behind Chris Young until he was traded to Arizona in the Vazquez deal.
• Stewart vs. Chris Widger: The experience Widger brings to his backup catcher's role has been invaluable, but Stewart is a solid all-around player who is coming fast. He and Rogowski had big winters in the Dominican Republic, demonstrating their passion for the game. Because Widger is productive and inexpensive, Stewart might be little more than insurance behind the A.J. Pierzynski-Widger tandem the next couple of seasons.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or direct order from Triumph Publishing (800-222-4657).
Thanks to some smart signings and a host of talented minor league prospects, the White Sox could be contenders for years to come.