CHICAGO -- Ken Williams is one of only three current general managers who played in the major leagues. He knows the insecurity that comes with the big paychecks, the family stress that lies behind the lack of control that most players accept as part of their job description.
You'd figure he might be unusually sensitive to his players' need for some peace of mind. But if you did, you'd underestimate the degree of his loyalty to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, not to mention his raging competitiveness.
Nothing trumps Williams' ongoing need to improve the product on the field, which carries his personal stamp.
That's why he so frequently clashed with franchise icon Frank Thomas before letting him walk away. It's why he was able to trade one of his most popular players, Aaron Rowand, only one month after Rowand helped win a World Series, and why it gnawed at him when Magglio Ordonez and Joe Crede wouldn't risk upcoming shots at free agency to try to play through knee and back injuries, respectively.
Would Williams actually trade Dye, who has averaged 34 homers and 95 RBIs in his four seasons with Barack Obama's favorite team? Or how about Jenks, who is only 27 and has converted 88 percent of his career save chances?
The genius of Williams is that he just might.
"The easiest thing to do is put the White Sox in a rumor, because nothing but curiosity comes into play," Williams said at the general managers' meetings earlier this month. "I'm going to ask about this guy, I'm going to ask about that guy. Why not?"
Including the playoffs, the White Sox have averaged 90-plus wins the past four seasons. Team revenues and payrolls have skyrocketed during this era, the latter climbing from $65 million in 2004 to more than $121 million in '08 -- although under Williams the Sox have often found ways to get other franchises to partially subsidize the payroll, with money coming in the trades that sent Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez, Jim Thome and Orlando Cabrera to Chicago.
Here's an amazing fact about Barack's Sox: It's been 12 years since they signed a free agent from another team by offering more than $20 million (Albert Belle and Jaime Navarro, after the 1996 season). Williams, who has logged eight seasons on the job, has had to be creative to compete, putting teams together by trading prospects for veterans (he's traded more than 30 minor leaguers ranked among the organization's better prospects by Baseball America) and picking through lesser-priced free agents.
While the White Sox won three consecutive elimination games to wrest the Central from Minnesota in 2008, Williams never considered bringing back that team intact.
Cabrera, a good player who clashed with management, and Crede were going to leave as free agents. Center field has remained a revolving door since the Rowand trade (seven different players have had 20-plus starts there the past three seasons, including Ken Griffey Jr., Nick Swisher and Brian Anderson in 2008). And despite significant investments in veterans Scott Linebrink, Octavio Dotel and Mike MacDougal, the bullpen had been a mess down the stretch.
Williams planned to move Alexei Ramirez from second base to shortstop, filling the Cabrera hole. But that left questions at second base, third base and in center field at the start of the winter.
He has already been busy -- dealing Swisher to the Yankees for utility man Wilson Betemit and two pitching prospects, reaching an agreement with 19-year-old Cuban third baseman Dayan Viciedo (no small deal given Viciedo's potential as an elite power hitter) and signing Jayson Nix as a possible alternative at second.
None of those moves definitely filled holes, however. That might not be surprising, because Williams never promised proven solutions.
He started the offseason saying he felt he had a choice between "developing a young core" or piecing things together with veterans. But lately he's spent a lot of time talking up the potential of organizational players Josh Fields at third, Chris Getz at second and Jerry Owens and Anderson in center field.
Fields led AL rookies with 23 home runs in 2007, playing 100 games in place of the injured Crede, but seemingly went backward after Crede's return shoved him back to Triple-A this season. He gritted his teeth to play through hip and knee injuries, however, and many in the organization expect him to get back on track after his October knee surgery. Owens, who stole 32 bases for the Sox in '07, lost his roster spot to Ramirez in spring training and turned in a down year at Triple-A.
Getz, on the other hand, hit .302 in Triple-A and might have made the Sox's playoff roster if not for getting his wrist broken by a fastball in September. He established a reputation as the kind of nuisance who could be playing for the Minnesota Twins, one of the highest compliments the envious White Sox ever hand out.
Manager Ozzie Guillen, who long has craved a speedier, more athletic team, says it's time the Sox get younger.
"I love it," Guillen said of the possible youth movement. "For two reasons: I think we have the people and we can still compete; and we have to say to the minor league coaches, instructors and scouts [that] those kids deserve it. They have enough credentials to play here."
That's been an often-repeated theme since the recent organizational meetings. It follows a period in which Williams has been unusually willing to trade top prospects, dealing outfielder Aaron Cunningham, first baseman Chris Carter, outfielder Ryan Sweeney and pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Fautino de los Santos either during or just after the 2007 season.
While there has been no public talk of trimming the payroll, this is a team that historically has done a good job of balancing the books. It has a commitment of $93.825 million to 12 signed players for 2009, and could cut that further by trading veterans.
The possibility of dealing Swisher (due $20.05 million over three years) and Vazquez, a disappointment down the stretch in 2008, was floated during the GM meeting. Dye and Jenks surfaced in rumors making the rounds in recent weeks.
The New York Mets, looking for starters and a closer, have an interest in both Vazquez and the 27-year-old Jenks, who is arbitration-eligible for the first time after earning only a combined $1.5 million for his first 117 career saves. Williams and some of his top scouts were watching Mets pitching prospects Bobby Parnell and Eddie Kunz closely in the Arizona Fall League.
Guillen says he is planning to have Mark Buehrle and Vazquez working alongside young starters John Danks, Gavin Floyd and the unknown fifth man (most likely Clayton Richard, Lance Broadway or the recently acquired Jeff Marquez) next season. But he knows that could change with one phone call.
Vazquez, 32, hasn't developed into a big winner but is second in the majors in innings and strikeouts since 2000. He has made 32-plus starts in nine consecutive seasons, including three in Chicago. That's why Williams says he'll deal him only if someone pays heavily to get him.
The same holds true for Jenks. His velocity dipped significantly in 2008 but he still converted 31 of 35 save chances, including the only one he had in the division series against Tampa Bay.
The Sox could try Linebrink, Dotel or lefty Matt Thornton in the closer's role if they trade Jenks. But some in the farm system believe the long-term answer is 24-year-old right-hander Jon Link, who led the Southern League with 35 saves last season. He throws in the low 90s with a power slider that has been a strikeout pitch in the minors, and could help him make a smooth transition to the big leagues.
There's no in-house option to take Dye's spot in the lineup, however. Williams could move Carlos Quentin from left field to right field, where Dye's range has become an issue (he ranked 27th among regulars in range factor last season), but would probably need to add a left fielder -- possibly a leadoff hitter -- to complete the outfield.
Williams has had his eye on Colorado's Willy Taveras, and might even give Juan Pierre a shot (especially if the Los Angeles Dodgers paid much of the $28.5 million left on his contract). Both the Dodgers and Rockies are teams that could be interested in Dye, who is owed $12.5 million for the one year and option year left on his contract.
But make no mistake: Williams feels like he's in a position of strength, with his payroll in shape and just enough intriguing in-house options to keep him from having to go out and openly beat the bushes for players.
He nicely retooled on the fly by getting major contributions from guys like Danks, Floyd, Quentin and Ramirez while winning the Central last season. His organization restocked the cupboard with the addition of Viciedo, shortstop Gordon Beckham and left-hander Aaron Poreda, along with the development of Richard and power hitter Brandon Allen (a possible 2010 replacement for Thome or Paul Konerko), the past two years.
It won't be a surprise if Williams makes some more moves this winter. But you can bet they'll be done on his terms, and at his pace.
You want Vazquez, Dye or Jenks?
The message Williams is sending is this: Come and get 'em, but they won't be cheap.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).