Building a perennial contender

When the White Sox won the World Series, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for every Chicago baseball fan under the age of 88. Ken Williams wants to change that.

Williams, the general manager who brashly made winning the World Series his goal when the Sox were having trouble making the playoffs, now envisions such a run of success that they regain equality with the heavily entrenched Cubs, who outdrew them by more than 700,000 fans during the championship season.

"The defeatist attitude that we always will be Chicago's second team just doesn't fly with me," Williams said. "And we all accept the challenge that we must win again and probably again after that to change the culture. More winning will result in the changing of that culture. I hope I'm right, because if not, I'm going to have a lot of answering to do."

Williams was referring to how much of owner Jerry Reinsdorf's money he has committed in the hopes of sustaining the magic that carried the White Sox through a historic 11-1 postseason run to finish 2005.

The Sox won their championship with a payroll of about $76 million, which ranked 13th in the major leagues. They figure to open 2006 somewhere above $90 million, which could rank as the third highest in the American League, behind only the Yankees and Red Sox, and in the same neighborhood as the Cubs, who in recent years outspent them by at least $25 million per season.

Spending money doesn't guarantee success. But the White Sox also have a history of spending wisely, which should worry the traditional powerhouses in the AL, who appear to be in decline.

Reasons the White Sox could become the third AL team in 13 years to repeat as World Series champs (a feat last done in the National League by Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in 1975-76):

Return Of The Captain

When the public last saw the White Sox together, riding through downtown streets aboard double-decker buses, there was a fear this would be the last fans would see of Paul Konerko. This was no minor concern as, along with lefty Mark Buehrle, he is one of the club's two cornerstone players.

Konerko had established his value locally long before his World Series grand slam and 15 RBI in the team's 12 postseason games. He has produced back-to-back 40-homer seasons and driven in 97-plus runs in five of the last six seasons. But by coming through when it mattered most, he put his name alongside the biggest run producers in the majors.

Had Williams been more serious about signing Konerko to an extension before 2005, he could have gotten him cheaper. But he did the right thing by matching the Los Angeles Angels' offer of $60 million over five years, stepping in at the last moment to keep his cleanup hitter. Even that might not have been enough to keep Konerko had Williams not made an even bolder move by trading for Jim Thome, who brings a big left-handed bat to hit behind Konerko.

An Improved Lineup

Improving the lineup was a must given an average of 4.6 runs per game (two-tenths of a run under the AL average) in the regular season, and Williams has done it. No team had won a World Series with such subpar scoring since the 1985 Kansas City Royals, and that team would win only 76 games the next season, largely because its lineup was even less effective.

That's unlikely to happen to the '06 Sox. They look improved with a healthy Thome in the designated hitter slot, filled last season by Carl Everett and a limping Frank Thomas. The championship team was at its regular-season best when Thomas was in the lineup alongside Konerko. Thome, who has worked hard to rehab from the back and elbow problems that limited him to 59 games for Philadelphia, brings even more of a presence than Thomas.

Aaron Rowand played an excellent center and was a clubhouse leader, but the postseason exposed his limitations as a hitter. Brian Anderson, a first-round draft pick in 2003, hit .295 with an .829 OPS in Triple-A and will be able to ease into the lineup as a No. 8 or even No. 9 hitter. Rob Mackowiak, a left-hitting 10th man acquired from Pittsburgh, adds depth. Also, look for bigger contributions from Joe Crede, Tadahito Iguchi (who will drop in the order in the hope he resembles the guy who hit .337-26-99 in 2003-04 in Japan) and Juan Uribe.

Even More Starting Pitching

Javier Vazquez Vazquez

With Williams trading for Javier Vazquez while retaining the four horses the White Sox rode through the postseason -- Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland -- the starting rotation again should be one of the league's best. Only Oakland approaches the Sox's depth.

Including Vazquez and 22-year-old Brandon McCarthy, the rotation is six deep. That group combined to go 77-50 with a 3.72 earned run average in 1,173 innings last season, making 173 starts. This is called being loaded.

Williams signed Garland to a three-year extension, giving him control over all his starters (except second-half ace Contreras) through the 2007 season. He could deal Contreras to open a spot for McCarthy but isn't averse to having a surplus.

The Secret Weapon

McCarthy is capable of a rookie of the year performance, although he won't be eligible for the award because he worked 67 innings last year, 17 more than the cutoff. He is not as spectacular as Seattle's Felix Hernandez, but it won't be a huge surprise if he outperforms Hernandez and all the other top pitching prospects this seasons -- guys like Minnesota's Francisco Liriano and San Francisco's Matt Cain.

Even though he was left off the White Sox's playoff roster, he pitched as well as any pitcher in baseball after the All-Star break. He was 7-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 16 starts between Triple-A and the big leagues after July 4, holding Texas and Boston scoreless for 14 2/3 innings in big wins on the road, then knocking Cleveland out of the playoffs with a win the last day of the season. He stands 6-foot-7 and has the stuff to be the second coming of Jack McDowell -- maybe even Mark Prior without the hype and the monster calves.

He's A Natural

This is Ozzie Guillen's team, and he might be the best manager in baseball. In two years on the job, Guillen has a World Series ring and a 67-38 record in one-run games. He handles his pitching staff extremely well -- almost never allowing a starter to throw 120 pitches, defining roles in the bullpen and challenging pitchers to succeed after they've failed -- and is smart enough to manufacture runs rather than wait for home runs.

Guillen's leadership was evident when the Sox kept themselves together last season after losing all but 1 1/2 games of the 15-game lead they held Aug. 1. He has tried to keep his intelligence a secret throughout his baseball career, but sorry, Ozzie, it's showing.

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If the White Sox don't go deep in the playoffs next fall, it will be because:

Chem-Lab Explosion
This was an extremely tight-knit team that won together and lost together last season. Many general managers would have done everything they could to keep it together, but Williams traded in eight of the 25 guys from the World Series roster, including Rowand -- a clubhouse leader. Of particular interest will be the pitching of Contreras without his mentor, Orlando Hernandez, sitting beside him on the bench and working with him in the bullpen. Vazquez, going to his fourth team in four years, will be watched closely, both on the mound and in the clubhouse.

High-Mileage Arms

Pitching injuries are always a concern, but you wonder what kind of a toll carrying the 2005 team took on the staff, especially the starters. Buehrle, who ranks behind only Livan Hernandez in innings since 2001, threw 268 innings overall and was unusually sore after his 14th-inning relief stint in Game 3 of the World Series. Contreras (237), Garcia (249) and Garland (237) also are coming back after unusually high workloads.

Relievers won't be immune from injury, either. In his first season as a reliever, Bobby Jenks was used 73 times between Double-A and the big leagues. Neal Cotts, an invaluable set-up man who could morph into a starter if needed, made 75 appearances. Dustin Hermanson, the veteran, is an unknown commodity because of a back condition that is being treated conservatively.

Two factors suggest the staff ERA is going to climb from last year's 3.61, which just missed leading the league (Cleveland had a lower 3.61). The White Sox's ERA was 4.91 in 2004, with many of the same pitchers in the equation, and U.S. Cellular is a pitcher's nightmare.

You can't give Buehrle and Co. enough credit for the way they pitched at a ballpark where Bill James' formula set the home run index at 139 in 2005, making it the best park in the majors for home run hitters. That figure is 135 over a three-year span, showing that last season was no real fluke. The White Sox compensate by having ground-ball pitchers on their staff, but it will be almost impossible for them to be as precise in 2006 as they were in '05.

Rolling Snake Eyes With Thome
Maybe there's a good reason the Phillies sent the Sox $22 million to help pay the last three years of Thome's contract. After all, he's 35 and declining physically. Another injury, especially a recurrence of his back or elbow problems, would not be a surprise. Plus, there's the drop of his batting average from .274 in 2004 to .207. He has some confidence to regain, along with his health. If he struggles, he could drain energy from his teammates.

Bullpen Vulnerability

Entering his first full season as a big-leaguer, Jenks should still be considered an X-factor. He harnessed his control problems for a wire-to-wire solid performance in 2005, but he'll need a fast start to get a carryover to 2006.

Jenks is remembered for nailing down the 1-0 victory in Game 4 of the World Series and the clinching victory against Boston in the first round. But he blew a World Series save for Buehrle and failed to convert saves in back-to-back games against Cleveland in a key September series. He converted only seven of his last 10 overall, which isn't a great ratio.

Hermanson's health is a question entering spring training. The unsung Luis Vizcaino and lightning-rod Damaso Marte must be replaced. Set-up men Cliff Politte and Neal Cotts should be solid once again, but relief pitching is less predictable than any other facet of the game.

The Land Of Great Pitching

Long known as the Comedy Central, the AL Central quietly has become a deep division populated by teams with some of the best arms -- especially young arms -- in the major leagues. Minnesota's Johan Santana is probably the best pitcher in the majors, and Cleveland has a great young mix behind C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

The Indians looked like the AL's best team in mid-September and should benefit from the experience gained in 2005. Minnesota, which had won the division three years in a row before '05, is capable of challenging the White Sox.

The start of the season could be crucial. After the White Sox won 95 games and a division title in 2000, they were swept twice by the Twins in three-game series within the first 17 games of the next season. They never really recovered and spent the next three seasons chasing the Twins.

The 2006 White Sox should be better than they were in 2001, but they face a similar early test, with 12 of the first 38 games against Cleveland and Minnesota. Those games won't decide anything but should show whether the defending champs face an easy summer or a tense one.

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