After the '82 season, when his own leftfielder, Steve Kemp, and Seattle Pitcher Floyd Bannister became free agents, Manager Tony LaRussa was asked which one he'd prefer.
"Both," said LaRussa, "but if I had to choose, I'd take Bannister. It's important for a team to be best in one category. We finished third in pitching and fifth in hitting. With Kemp we still wouldn't be first in hitting, but if we add Bannister, we could have the league's best pitching staff." And make a serious challenge for their first title since 1959. Last year the White Sox finished third, just six games out.
So Chicago reluctantly parted with Kemp and joyfully signed Bannister to a five-year, $4.5 million contract. Is he worth it? In six seasons with Houston and Seattle, Bannister had a 51-68 record and a lower winning percentage than the modest teams he played on. In 1982, however, he led the American League with 209 strikeouts, had the lowest ERA (3.43) of any league lefthander and was effective with four different pitches. In capacious Comiskey Park he could be better yet.
Bannister joins a strong rotation that has another good southpaw (Britt Burns) and two righthanders (LaMarr Hoyt and Rich Dotson). And among the short relief candidates at the Sox camp were Salome Barojas, Dick Tidrow, Al Hrabosky and Jim Kern, each of whom at one time or another has been a bullpen ace. LaRussa is inclined to use the righthanded Kern as his stopper because he throws the hardest.
Elsewhere there are shortages of personnel. Says LaRussa, "We're not set in leftfield or at first or third. Our shortstop [Vance Law] and centerfielder [Rudy Law] haven't played full seasons."
The White Sox finished 13th in the AL in team defense and are particularly concerned about the left side of the infield. "I believe we'll get a positive answer to the shortstop question," says LaRussa. Last year Law stepped in at midseason, played every day and hit well, but had an erratic glove. However, in defense of his defense, he says, "Positioning's the important thing, and I do that as well as a lot of shortstops. I'm a little weak going to my left, but I'm working on it. My arm's as good as any shortstop's. In fact, I'd be happy to throw with any outfielder."
There were no such glossy predictions for third base, where youngsters Pat Tabler and Lorenzo Gray are the only candidates. The situation in left (Ron LeFlore and Tom Paciorek) and first (Paciorek and Mike Squires) is unsettled, though two rookies, Outfielder Ron Kittle (.345, 50 homers and 144 RBIs in Triple A) and First Baseman Greg Walker (.350), could straighten matters out by forcing their way into the lineup.
But pitching's the key. If LaRussa's choice does well, the White Sox should climb the division stairs; if he fails, they could slide down the bannister.
According to last year's figures, the centerfield fence in Comiskey Park was 402 feet from home plate. This year it's listed at 401 feet, though it's actually eight feet closer to home. It was really 409 feet in '82, but the mistake wasn't found until home plate was moved. The White Sox outhomered opponents 136 to 99, but they also had more balls caught on the warning track, 51 to 34.