Mark Buehrle has never wanted to be the center of attention. Growing up in St. Charles, Mo., he was the kid in the back of the classroom who didn't raise his hand. After he was cut from his high school baseball team as a freshman and a sophomore, Buehrle just wanted to keep to himself and work his night job as a Pizza Hut delivery boy. But on the eve of tryouts in his junior year, Buehrle was persuaded by his father, John, to go out for the team one last time. Mark made it, and he played the next two years. At Jefferson (Mo.) College his coaches urged him to be more of a vocal team leader, but it wasn't in him. So it figures that when he heard in January that the White Sox had traded for the most prized pitcher on the market, Buehrle phoned manager Jerry Manuel to tell him how ecstatic he was. Buehrle, a 19-game winner last season, was no longer the staff ace. The 24-year-old lefthander would gladly step aside for Bartolo Colon.
"I've never seen myself as an ace," Buehrle says. "For me, it's big to be able to pitch behind a guy like Bartolo. Now he's an ace." This spring Buehrle and Colon have been greeting each other the same way every day: Gran Jefe (Big Chief). Buehrle's quiet rise into the ranks of the American League's best starters has been sudden. Over the past two years, his only full seasons in the majors, Buehrle ranked in the top three in the AL in wins (35), complete games (nine), shutouts (four) and innings pitched (460 1/3). His fastball tops out in the low 90s, but his command of four pitches--fastball, curve, slider and changeup--is beyond his years. "He's the most mature and poised young pitcher I've ever played with," says catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., a 13-year veteran. "He's got the confidence to throw any of his pitches for a strike in any count."
Likewise Colon, a 29-year-old righthander, has never been better. Though his strikeouts per nine innings have steadily declined over the last three years (from 10.1 to 8.1 to a career-low 5.8 last season), that trend is proof that he has become more than a one-dimensional power pitcher. "He's at a different level now," says pitching coach Don Cooper. "He's getting people out earlier in the count." Colon's pitches per inning dropped from 17.2 in 2000 to 16.4 in 2001 to a career-low 15.2 last year. Splitting the season between the Indians and the Expos last season, he had career bests in wins (20), ERA (2.93) and walks (70 in 233 1/3 innings, another career high). More bad news to opposing hitters: This spring Colon unveiled a wickedly deceptive cutter to complement his 100-mph heater.
But even with Colon and Buehrle at the top of the rotation, Chicago's weakness remains starting pitching. Whether the White Sox can catch the Twins will come down to this: How many quality innings will they get from the rest of the rotation? Promising righthanders Jon Garland and Dan Wright combined for a 4.88 ERA last season, and both have struggled with control. (Garland's 83 walks were the third most in the AL, and Wright's 3.3 walks per nine innings ranked sixth.) Righthander Esteban Loaiza is 20--21 with a 5.33 ERA over the past two years.
Scoring runs won't be a problem. Outfielder Magglio Ordonez, first baseman Paul Konerko and designated hitter Frank Thomas are all capable of batting .300, hitting 25 home runs and driving in 100 runs without breaking much of a sweat. In the off-season Ordonez spent six weeks working out with Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez. The two friends, with help from trainers from the University of Miami football team, focused on improving their agility by participating in grueling exercises. "In the past I worried about getting bigger," says Ordonez. "Now I have both power and quickness. I've never felt stronger."
The additions of closer Billy Koch and setup man Tom Gordon are a huge boost to the bullpen, but the best sign for the team may be the positive vibe in a clubhouse that was filled with bickering last year. "Everyone's in a great mood," says Konerko. "Sure, it's only spring training, but with the new guys we have, the makeup of the team seems better. With what we have on paper, this kind of clubhouse could make all the difference in the world for us." --A.C.