Notes: Glovework will again be crucial
Tracey headed to Orioles; Hall to spell Pierzynski at times
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Talk of the White Sox shortcomings in 2006 usually centers on the pitchers not performing at the same elite level as the previous championship campaign or the team's inability to maintain its strength within the area of "Ozzie Ball" or small ball.
But airtight defense played an integral part in the franchise's first World Series crown in almost 90 years, and it will serve an important purpose if the White Sox want to reach that pinnacle in 2007. That support system in the field holds even greater significance when factoring in Jose Contreras and Javier Vazquez as the only White Sox starters who could be considered strikeout-type pitchers.
"Actually, Jose might be the one strikeout guy we have," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "That's why we need such good defense.
"Because of the defense [in 2005], our pitching staff was better. You make an error one inning, it means your starting pitcher can go another extra inning for no reason. If you play good defense for him, it makes the bullpen better. The more mistakes you make and the more errors your make, the more innings and pitches your starting pitchers are going to throw."
Comparing the raw defensive numbers from the past two years doesn't show a huge change. In 2005, the White Sox led the American League with 4,427 putouts and finished tied for third with 166 double plays. They also ranked fourth with an overall fielding percentage of .985, just one point off the American League-leading .986 posted by Oakland, Seattle and the Angels.
In 2006, only the Twins (135) turned fewer double plays than the White Sox total of 145, although their overall fielding percentage held at .985. But Tadahito Iguchi and Juan Uribe, arguably one of baseball's slickest double play combinations in 2005, seemed a step slow in 2006, and Scott Podsednik's defensive struggles in left were well-documented.
That extra out or two always seemed to come back to haunt the White Sox pitching staff, a unit that couldn't pitch around mistakes as it did the previous season. But a healthy Podsednik has looked more focused in the outfield during his first week back from injury, and a well-conditioned Uribe, through translator Ozzie Guillen Jr., expressed a strong belief that the White Sox will be very strong up the middle.
"Believe it or not, Iguchi and myself have great communication together due to the fact that this is our third year together," Uribe said. "It becomes second nature, and you really try to get better defensively as a combination every year."
It's an improved intangible Guillen understands could spell the difference between playing in the postseason or watching it once again on television.
"I'm one of the few guys who believe if you play good defense, you will win games," Guillen said. "People don't realize how important it is, and I really believe our defense is going to be better."
A new beginning: It was just two weeks ago when general manager Ken Williams had a heart-to-heart conversation with Sean Tracey in his golf cart on a back practice field at Kino Sports Complex during morning workouts. Williams had promised Tracey that the organization would not stand in his way if a Major League opportunity arose that clearly was not coming any time soon with the White Sox.
On Friday, Williams proved he was a man of his word as Tracey was claimed off waivers by the Baltimore Orioles. Tracey apparently will be thrown into the mix for the long-relief opening, under the watchful eye of pitching coach Leo Mazzone. In his first chat Friday with the Orioles, Tracey was told they planned to fly him out during the day and get him into split-squad action in Florida on Saturday.
"I think everyone is excited," said Tracey, after bidding farewell to his teammates in the White Sox clubhouse. "It's a good situation. It's a chance to get a window of opportunity. And it's going to open up a roster spot for this club."
That open 40-man spot could go to first baseman Eduardo Perez, left-hander John Danks or right-hander Adam Russell, all of whom are competing down to the wire to become the 25th man on the active roster. Tracey was reassigned to Triple-A Charlotte on Wednesday but might have been best known for being unable to hit Texas' Hank Blalock last year in retaliation for Vicente Padilla hitting A.J. Pierzynski twice, drawing Guillen's nationally discussed ensuing ire.
But Tracey wasn't concerned with the past. He simply was happy Williams followed through on his promise.
"Things happen for a reason. That's what I believe in. That's the truth," Tracey said. "[Williams] held true to his word as far as they weren't going to hold anyone back. Today I'm an Oriole. It's still shocking, but I'm excited."
Strong in reserve: Even before Toby Hall knocked out three hits during Friday's rain-shortened Cactus League game against Colorado, raising his spring average to .379, Guillen had every intention of using Hall in more than a true reserve role behind the plate. But Guillen reiterated Friday that Hall's extra at-bats won't come at the great expense of starting catcher Pierzynski.
"I'm not going to take at-bats away from A.J., but [Hall] will play a lot of games because we need A.J. to be fresh all year long," Guillen said. "We face a lot of tough lefties early in the season, and one of those games Toby has to play because I want to keep him sharp."
The White Sox start the 2007 regular season with three games at home against Cleveland, facing southpaws C.C. Sabathia and Jeremy Sowers in that opening mix.
Around the horn: As of Friday morning, the White Sox have gone over the 2 million mark in tickets sold. That total marks the eighth highest single-season total in franchise history and the ninth time in franchise history the organization has surpassed 2 million tickets sold. ... Perez remains day-to-day as he continues to recover from a strained right calf suffered while hitting a home run on March 14 against Chris Capuano of the Brewers. He is expected to return to action Sunday against the Rangers. ... The Rockies have won all six spring games with the White Sox, as the South Siders have a 2-19-1 mark when facing Colorado and Arizona in Tucson since 2006. ... Both Randy Johnson and Bobby Jenks will pitch in Saturday morning's Minor League game between the White Sox and the Diamondbacks.
Up next: Saturday marks the fifth of six spring contests between the Diamondbacks and White Sox, but the first since March 9. Jon Garland makes the start for Chicago, after pitching in a Minor League game Monday, while Doug Davis gets his second start against Guillen's crew. The game is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. CT.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.