THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
---- — CHICAGO (AP) — From rock bottom last season to contention this year? The Chicago White Sox see no reason why it can't happen.
They're ready to put last season's 99-loss wreck behind them and make a jump at least back to respectability, if not a run at the AL Central title.
They see a team with solid pitching, a new slugger in Jose Abreu and renewed vigor. Now, all they have to do is back it up.
"You have to pitch, you have to hit, you have to score," said manager Robin Ventura, entering his third season. "You have to play defense. You have to do all of them in our division. Detroit has won it the last few years. They have a combination of everything. Unless you do that, you're not going to be close. We proved that last year."
They had the pitching part down last season. The rest? Well, that's where things got dicey.
Here are five things to look for heading into the season, which opens at home against Minnesota on Monday:
POWER BOOST: The White Sox signed Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract hoping the Cuban slugger would jolt a lineup that saw a steep drop in production.
He looked the part in Cactus League play, and Ventura is leaning toward having him bat third, a sign that the White Sox believe he is for real and will not be rattled by high expectations. Abreu dominated in Cuba and excelled at the World Baseball Classic a year ago before defecting last summer. He joins a team that batted .249 with 148 homers after hitting 211 the previous year.
Clearly, the White Sox needed a spark. They're banking on Abreu to provide one.
ARMED AND READY: Even though they would have liked to sign Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, the White Sox believe they have enough arms. With an All-Star in Chris Sale and a solid second starter in Jose Quintana, they're strong at the top of the rotation. After those two, it gets a little sketchy. If John Danks can regain the form that made him a 15-game winner in 2010, that would solidify the third spot and give the White Sox a big boost. But he's coming off a season in which he started late following shoulder surgery and never really got on track, finishing with a 4.75 ERA in 22 starts. Behind him are Erik Johnson and Felipe Paulino, and the starters will be turning the ball over to a bullpen with a new look, with several additions and closer Addison Reed being traded to Arizona for third-base prospect Matt Davidson
STEPPING UP: Yes, the White Sox made a splash when they signed Abreu. But they also believe other moves they made could also pay dividends. They have a new leadoff man and center fielder in Adam Eaton after acquiring him from Arizona in a three-team trade that included the Los Angeles Angels, and a promising talent in Davidson. They get a full season with outfielder Avisail Garcia after acquiring him from Detroit in the midseason trade that sent Jake Peavy to Boston. The 22-year-old batted .304 in 42 games with Chicago. It's also an important season for second baseman Gordon Beckham, who has shown star potential at times since he debuted in 2009 but was slowed by a broken left wrist last year.
NO DEFENSE: The White Sox's defense was as spotty as their hitting last season. Chicago went from first to 29th in the majors in fielding percentage a year ago and committed more errors than all but one team — Houston.
SAYING GOODBYE: Paul Konerko didn't want things to end on a sour note, so the veteran slugger re-signed for one season rather than retire or play elsewhere. Consider this a season-long victory lap. The White Sox are not banking on him putting up the sort of numbers that made him one of the most successful hitters in franchise history. Instead, they see him as a mentor for the younger players who will also fill in at first base and designated hitter when needed.
"I'm very blessed and gifted for him to come back in my first year here," Eaton said. "I'm going to soak it up like a sponge and hopefully learn as much as I can."
For Konerko, it's a chance to go out on a better note after a season in which the team struggled in a big way and so did he, batting .244 with 12 homers as he struggled through a back issue.
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