Cockcroft: Chicago White Sox preview

Sometimes, the magic simply runs out. Coming off their first World Series title in 88 years, the White Sox seemed primed for another run at a championship during the first half of 2006. A 57-31 team at the break, only two losses worse than their mark at the 2005 break, Chicago held a six-game lead on the New York Yankees for the wild card. But, like in 2005, the White Sox's second-half performance declined. The difference, of course, was that in 2005, they were able to preserve a six-game Central lead with an 8-3 finish, while their 33-41 second-half record a year ago dropped them five games out of the playoff hunt.

Now, the question becomes, which White Sox team does this year's model resemble, the one that appeared fit to defend its World Championship in the first half, or the aging, sluggish team that finished out the season? Chicago returns virtually the same team it fielded in 2006, adding only bit parts in Darin Erstad, who has batted .272 and averaged six homers the past six seasons, and Toby Hall, he of the career .685 OPS. Gone, however, are Freddy Garcia, a 17-game winner in 2006, and Brandon McCarthy, once considered the team's future ace.

That leaves the White Sox with four talented starters, but four who also come with question marks. Projected opening-day starter Jose Contreras is now 35 and had a 4-9 record and 5.40 ERA in 14 second-half starts. No. 2 man Mark Buehrle is coming off a career-worst year in which opposing hitters batted .303 with 36 homers against him. No. 3 man Jon Garland has back-to-back 18-win seasons, but he also has never topped 115 strikeouts in a single season and allowed a career-worst .294 BAA in 2006. No. 4 man Javier Vazquez's history of inconsistency is well documented, and he finished 4-9 with a 5.24 ERA in his final 21 games (20 starts). Also, closer Bobby Jenks, who managed a 5.72 ERA and .295 BAA after the All-Star break, has drawn criticism for his conditioning (or lack thereof).