By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) The White Sox are no longer a cute little story, and that's a good thing.
It's August, now, far removed from a deflating offseason of departures, recrimination and resignation to a fate less than this. The Ozzie Guillen thunderstorm blew south, and he was replaced by a reluctant managerial neophyte. Mark Buehrle was encouraged to find greener pastures, so he shrugged, smiled and left. Slugger Carlos Quentin and young closer Sergio Santos were traded for middling prospects.
It was a tear-down, with the word "rebuilding" used unapologetically. Team Albatross – Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy – would take the field against the intimidatingly-fortified Tigers.
When Baseball Prospectus released its 2012 projections, nobody was surprised to see that the most likely win total for them was somewhere around 75. It made sense.
I was among those having a difficult time envisioning anything other than an aimless season of transition, even with the rosiest of scenarios. Any pleasant surprises would be offset by disappointments, and the combination of tapped-out cash resources and barren minor-league system would quell efforts at forced optimism.
Then baseball happened. And Ken Williams happened.
Dunn has returned to the three-true-outcome form that has defined his career. Rios is standing tall in the batter's box and in every statistical category on offense, while finding a comfortable, regular spot in right field. Peavy has been healthy and reliable.
The advanced numbers illustrate further, putting real value on what was so improbable months ago. Dunn's historically-bad 2011 was worth -2.9 Wins Above Replacement, per Fangraphs. This year he's already at 1.8 to the plus side. Rios was -0.7 in 2011, and 3.3 so far for 2012. Peavy has been worth 3.6, and last year 2.9. So those three alone have accounted for a difference of 9.4 wins.
A black hole of a third base position created headwinds this year, with Brent Morel's 2012 WAR at -0.7. Orlando Hudson was signed off waivers to replace him, but he too performed below water at -0.6. Williams moved decisively to acquire Kevin Youkilis from Boston for spare parts Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart, and all Youkilis has done is produce at a 1.2 WAR in 33 games, effectively erasing the compiled deficit at the position, while solidifying the #2 spot in the batting order.
Williams has been able to bolster the pitching staff as well, despite having far less to offer in deals than his counterparts. He grabbed execrable dirtbag Brett Myers as closer insurance in case rookie Addison Reed falters or wilts, parting with three no-names. The season-ending surgery for John Danks conspired with concurrent drops in effectiveness for both Jose Quintana and Chris Sale to create a need for a starter, so Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez were transformed into Francisco Liriano.
Almost as if planned, attendance at US Cellular Field showed a marked uptick starting on July 23rd, upon the team's return from a ten-game road trip. The average of 33,000 in the games since is evidence that a notoriously finicky fanbase may be awakening from its dormant state.
Those preseason assessments by Baseball Prospectus algorithms have been long forgotten, replaced now by hopeful glances at the daily updates to their playoff odds report, which gives the White Sox an 86% chance of making the postseason. Detroit lurks at 69.5%.
It's not early, anymore. Even those of us who rely on probability and regression to the mean to inform our baseball sensibilities have to admit that the Sox are better than we thought, and the Tigers may be less than their spending spree portended. The overachievement of Robin Ventura's team means the first-year skipper gets no honeymoon, with pressure already on in games that are starting to feel bigger with each passing day.
Few saw this coming, but it's here. Once the Olympics conclude, Chicago's media will focus increasingly on the White Sox as the Cubs let the kids play and the Bears slog through camp.
Out of nowhere, the 2012 White Sox mean something. They will now be treated by fans, critics, and opponents as they deserve to be, like a team with something at stake.
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