Look out, below.
In the second season after they won a World Series, and one year after completing their first back-to-back 90-win seasons since the mid-1960s, the Chicago White Sox received an unexpected slap in the face, barely avoiding last place in the American League Central.
Injuries, a combustible bullpen and a woeful lack of run production from an offense built around sluggers Paul Konerko, Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye combined to leave the White Sox at 72-90 -- and it took an 11-6 race to the finish to produce that record.
Third baseman Joe Crede, left fielder Scott Podsednik, center fielder Darin Erstad and valued utility man Pablo Ozuna all missed significant time, exposing the lack of depth behind them. With almost one-quarter of the season's at-bats going to a group of unproven players, the Sox hit .246 as a team and scored only 4.3 runs per game, the third-worst average in the majors and almost one run a game less than Cleveland, which won the Central.
"No excuses, but if all those guys were healthy, it would have been different," Thome said. "Things have just not gone our way."
From the start of 2005 through July 6, 2006, the White Sox went 166-93, including an 11-1 waltz through the '05 playoffs. That's a .641 winning percentage, which would drop to .447 over the next 237 games, including the 34-41 finish that kept the Sox from returning to the playoffs in '06. Thome blamed injuries, but there was no single development that marked the line of demarcation between the winning White Sox and the losing White Sox.
1. A center fielder or left fielder to hit at the top of the order. Podsednik, a major disappointment since 2005, figures to be nontendered before the Dec. 12 deadline. Jerry Owens, who hit .267 with 32 stolen bases, might be able fill one of the two holes but not both.
2. A reliable shortstop. Juan Uribe can be a great player, hitting home runs and making big plays in the field, but his refusal to improve his plate discipline has resulted in on-base percentages of .284 in 2007 and .257 in '06. He ranked second among big league shortstops in homers but still falls into the category of automatic out.
3. Relievers in front of Bobby Jenks. While Jenks pitched well, the bullpen went 19-25 with a 5.47 ERA, ranking 12th in the AL. That performance could have been worse, but Guillen used his bullpen less than any other AL manager, getting 1,016 innings from a veteran rotation.
Center fielder/first baseman Darin Erstad and left-handed reliever Mike Myers became free agents when their options weren't picked up. Shortstop Juan Uribe could still join them.
This is a good year to be in the market for center fielders. Aaron Rowand, Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones (especially on a short contract) are guys who intrigue White Sox officials. Mike Cameron is also in the picture. The Sox tried to sign Omar Vizquel three years ago and could renew their interest in him if they discard Uribe. They like the big splash, too, which means they could kick the Alex Rodriguez tires.
For the second winter in a row, the White Sox are one of the few teams with pitching to deal. They traded Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy a year ago and will almost certainly trade one starter, maybe two, this winter. Jon Garland will be eligible for free agency after the season, and the Sox don't seem to have the flexibility to sign him to an extension with Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras already signed to big contracts.
Contreras has two years left on his deal. His 2007 performance (10-17, 5.57) damaged his marketability, but he finished strong, going 4-1 in his last seven starts.
The White Sox appear to have a surplus at third base, as Josh Fields used Joe Crede's absence to hit 23 home runs as a rookie. But it doesn't seem that the Sox can trade either of them until they know how Crede (a free agent after 2008) has responded to back surgery. The forecast for a complete recovery is good.
Heath Phillips, the International League Pitcher of the Year in 2006, turned in a second straight strong season in Triple-A but awaits his first big league start. He's a soft-tossing lefty who is on the 40-man roster but seems lost in the organization's pack of pitching prospects.
Left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who was traded to Philadelphia in the Thome deal and reacquired in the Garcia trade, has spent the past two seasons in Double-A and could be ready to contend for a spot in the rotation.
Selected in the first round of the 2005 draft (eight picks ahead of Jacoby Ellsbury), right-hander Lance Broadway joins Gonzalez in being on the verge of serious big league consideration. He threw six shutout innings against Kansas City in a late September start.
A former second-round pick with a sweet swing, Ryan Sweeney should have been ready to step into a corner outfield spot. His stunted development contributed to the decision to extend Dye's contract, however, and he needs to pick up the pace to get back in the picture.
Given that they have seven players earning more than $10 million, the White Sox seem more likely to fill their needs through payroll flexibility than through a major free-agent acquisition. But if they are bold enough to deal Garland and Contreras (giving them a rotation of Mark Buehrle, Vazquez and three from a group including Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Nick Masset, knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, Gonzalez and Broadway), they might be able to make a blockbuster-type move. They definitely seem likely to introduce a couple players from outside the organization to the lineup that disappointed them so badly the past two 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 by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).