The bartender at my favorite local watering hole had one question for me at the end of April: "Who goes first?" he asked. "Kenny Williams or Ozzie Guillen?"
His question didn't come as much of a surprise. The White Sox looked old and washed up throughout the first part of the season. The team lacked energy and couldn't hit or pitch with any consistency. In the past three weeks, though, the White Sox have made the type of turn that you don't usually see from a struggling ballclub: They've gone from sellers to buyers -- by using a trade that never happened as motivation.
Let's take a closer look at some of the other events and people who have shaped the first two months of the White Sox's season:
The turning point: If you're looking for the exact moment in time when the White Sox turned the sinking ship around, consider May 21 as the starting point. In the span of about six hours, the Sox got crushed 20-1 by the Twins and received word that Jake Peavy had nixed a trade to the South Side. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the team has gone on to win eight of its past 10 games and climb back to around .500 (25-26, entering Wednesday's game against the A's).
"I've always told this to anybody who will listen," Williams said before Monday night's game against the A's. "Sometimes the best deals that you make are the ones that you don't make."
Podsednik -- The Return: When the White Sox re-signed Scott Podsednik on April 14, most people, myself included, viewed the reunion as a desperation act. Podsednik had been released by the Rockies and appeared to be on his last legs. Williams was convinced that DeWayne Wise could hit on the major league level. He wasn't hitting, though, and then he got hurt, leaving the Sox's GM with an even larger hole to fill in the outfield. Not only has Podsednik filled it, he has also given the White Sox a boost at the top of the order -- but the question remains: Will he be able to stay healthy the entire season and continue to play at the same level?
Buehrle and everybody else: Mark Buehrle is 6-1 with a 2.77 ERA. He is one of the top pitchers in the AL right now and there's no reason to think he can't keep pitching the same way. The left-hander gives Guillen a solid start almost every time out, but the same cannot be said about the rest of the rotation. John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Bartolo Colon have been up-and-down all season and can't seem to stay on track. Just when you think they're going to get it together, inevitably one of them gets roughed up and loses confidence for a while. (We won't even go into Jose Contreras' performance so far this year -- let's just try to forget his 0-5 record and 8.19 ERA didn't exist -- trust me, you'll feel better.) As a whole, the rotation has been pitching much better over the past two weeks, but Williams is going to have to keep a close eye on them as we get closer to August.
Clayton Richard -- and the deal that didn't go down: What has gotten lost in the hoopla surrounding "The Peavy Deal That Never Was" is the fact that Richard has pitched lights-out baseball since Williams tried to trade him to San Diego. The left-hander is 2-0 over his past three starts, working 20 innings and striking out 18 batters during that time. Williams admitted before Monday's game that the trade speculation has really helped Richard's development, in particular.
"[Clayton and I] had a conversation after the fact," Williams said, "[Clayton] said, "No, I'm going to show you [what I can do], and he stepped up and he's done some things that we always thought he could do; he had to take it to the next level and he's done that."
If he continues to, he'll probably stay in the Sox's rotation for a long time to come.
Thome has 550 home runs for a reason: The whispers were getting much louder around U.S. Cellular Field in the early part of May: Can Jim Thome still play? The veteran slugger was hovering around the Mendoza line while battling several nagging injuries, and he looked like a shell of his former self. Over the past few weeks, though, the Sox's designated hitter has raised his batting average more than 70 points and appears to be headed toward another productive season.
The old guys still have it: Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko continue to prove they are one of the most underrated power-hitting combos in the league. They have combined to hit 20 home runs and remain a force in the middle of the lineup. If Podsednik and Alexei Ramirez can continue to get on base at the top of the order, there are going to be a lot of three-run homers flying out of the Cell this summer.
A.J. is still being A.J. -- and that's a good thing: Over the years, A.J. Pierzynski has developed a reputation for being a pain in the butt -- he can get under just about anyone's skin, it seems. This year, he is letting his bat do most of the talking. The 32-year-old was hitting .305 with five home runs and 12 RBIs heading into Tuesday night's game, and he is well on his way to another All-Star selection in July.
The rest of the infielders may finally be maturing: Chris Getz, Josh Fields and Ramirez have all found themselves in Guillen's doghouse at various points this year because of prolonged hitting slumps. Getz struggled to hit in the leadoff spot for a while until Podsednik came back into the fold and Getz could slide down in the order. Ramirez was benched for a few games in favor of Jayson Nix, a demotion which seems to have allowed him to refocus and find his swing. The threat of losing playing time has re-energized Fields, as well. After hearing the news that super-prospect Gordon Beckham could be on the way to the big leagues to take his job, Fields has responded by going 10 for his last 28 with seven RBIs coming into Tuesday night's game.
Where have you gone Carlos Quentin?: If Quentin hadn't gotten hurt toward the end of last season, he might have been the AL MVP. Just a year later, he is fighting off talk that he was just a one-hit wonder. The Sox's left fielder is hitting just .228 with eight home runs and 20 RBIs. Granted, he's battled injuries throughout much of the first two months (in fact, he's on the DL right now because of plantar fasciitis), but he still hasn't looked anything like the player he was last season. If he can come back and hit for power in the middle of Guillen's lineup, it would give the team the type of emotional lift that Podsednik has provided.
The bullpen is the best: If the White Sox go on to win the AL Central again this season, a lot of the credit has to go to the bullpen. Octavio Dotel, Matt Thornton and Scott Linebrink all have ERAs under 2.00. D.J. Carrasco has a 2.56 ERA, and Bobby Jenks has 12 saves and a 3.00 ERA. Williams has quietly constructed one of the best bullpens in baseball.
"They've stepped up and done the job," Thome said of the bullpen recently. "It's up to our offense and our starting pitching to get them the ball, and they've done [the job]; credit them a lot."
The wild card: Over the next month and a half, we're probably going to read a lot of stories about how Williams is thinking about making this deal or that deal. I have no doubt that the Sox's GM has one or two more big trades up his sleeve, but when you break down the individual parts of this team, it's easier to understand why both he and Guillen don't seem to be in a rush to make a foolish move, just for the sake of making one.
The Sox's bullpen is superb and the lineup is starting to heat up. Beckham is waiting in the wings in Triple-A, in case Fields doesn't hit, and Quentin still has the ability to hit 30 home runs. In my mind, the biggest question on this team remains the starting rotation. Despite the talk that Roy Oswalt wouldn't play at the Cell, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Williams try to swing a deal for him later this month. In the meantime, Sox fans can take solace in the fact that despite what the public perception is at the moment, their team has a lot fewer questions to answer than their counterparts on the North Side.