If there's a Chicago baseball team in the playoffs again next season, then don't be surprised if it's the one that plays on the South Side of town.
The White Sox are the youngest team in the American League and the second youngest in the majors. However, unlike the youngest team, the Florida Marlins, the Sox have a strong core of veteran leadership featuring Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura and Albert Belle.
After hardly showing signs of a pulse, early in the season, the Sox surged back and compiled the American League's third-best record after the all-star break. They went 45-31 during the second-half.
Only the World Series champion Yankees and the Orioles, who had a payroll over $70 million, can claim better than that. Take out a disastrous 1-8 West Coast trip, in August, and their potential seems even more impressive. They still might be a year or two away, but the 1999 season sure looks promising.
In a year when the pro-Cubs and con-White Sox coverage reached an all-time disgusting low, the team's bright spots went virtually unnoticed. Belle had one of the best seasons any hitter has had in years. Despite a slow start he batted .328, with 49 Homers, 48 doubles, 152 RBI's, 200 hits and 399 total bases.
The only problem is that Belle, along with Ventura, is a free agent and free to leave. Belle, who has a reputation of doing what it takes on the field to warrant big money but not off, will more than likely be back and that's great news. Only the Yankees would have the guts and the financial resources to sign him.
Ventura, however, is a more complicated matter. The organization is mulling over whether or not to give Ventura big money, or just give the third-base job to Greg Norton, temporarily. Norton would play third until Carlos Lee, widely regarded as the organization's top prospect, is ready for the jump to the majors.
If Belle and Ventura do not return, it doesn't necessarily mean that the organization is going in the wrong direction, but things could get hairy. Having an entirely young team with only Frank Thomas to lead them is an "iffy" proposition at best. A further lowering of the payroll is almost certain to cause even more problems with fan backlash, as well.
This is a dangerous time for the White Sox, financially. The team's had star players and a brand-new stadium, yet fans have refused to show-up. Spending too much could produce problems, while spending too little might make them a doormat. The next five to ten years will be very telling as to whether or not the Sox can remain in Chicago and be competitive.
With the return of Belle, Ventura, the signing of a dependable starting pitcher and a good defensive catcher, the sky is the limit for the White Sox. We'll see what gets done. Good luck to the Sox and all of their fans.