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Glimmers Of Hope

The r-words, rebuilding and reloading, are not being uttered as often this morning by those who still remain interested in the fortunes of the White Sox. More in vogue is the t-word - turnaround.

Regardless of the label, the recent nine wins in 14 games provide the sense that the situation may not be as hopeless as it seemed just before the current streak. You remember that. Ten straight losses and 13 setbacks in 14 games at the end of July into early August.

Maybe we lost more than a few devotees at that juncture, and you couldn't blame them. An 8-19 June already resulted in fans losing interest almost as quickly as the Bulls in the immediate post-Jordan era.

But hold on, folks. Memories tend to be short in the sporting world. Maybe we do have a few glimmering gems to clutch as the season begins to wind down.

Our shortstop Alexei Ramirez, he of the porous glove, appears to be quite content in the No. 3 spot in the batting order now that Alex Rios has taken his talents to Texas. Aside from all the errors, Ramirez had misplaced his pop, going 111 games without a home run before slugging three in his last 11. The third came Sunday in the Sox's 5-2 victory in Minnesota.

Ramirez now is hitting .289, just a tick lower than his career best. He's slugged 34 doubles while playing in every game. Unfortunately this is not the NFL. Alexei has to play both ways.

Adam Dunn continues to strike out, but not as often. In 30 games since the All-Star break, he's fanned 30 times while hitting at a .317 clip. OK, so he's hitting only .239 overall - right at his career mark - but that's an improvement over the .159 and .204 he averaged his first two years on the South Side.

Gordon Beckham, the team's best player, has recovered nicely from his hamate bone surgery and has been above .300 most of the season.

If Alejandro De Aza could walk a bit more and strike out a bit less, he would become one of the best leadoff men in baseball. As it is, he is more than adequate.

The arrival of Avisail Garcia is not the second coming of Yasiel Puig, but he sure does give the Sox a big, powerful, fast, and young outfielder with a huge upside. A couple of doubles yesterday left the kid with 11 hits in 37 at bats for a respectable .297 mark since he arrived. We shouldn't be turning cartwheels just yet, but we can prepare to take a running start.

Lest you think that I'm in dire need of a thorough psychological exam - you'd have to be nuts to mention the virtues of a last-place team 25 games below .500 - I have to admit that even in beating the Twins three of four over the weekend, the Sox looked unsteady and shaky. For instance, three errors yesterday blemished an otherwise efficient outing by Hector Santiago, who picked up his fourth win.

Two of those bobbles were committed by Jeff Keppinger, who was playing third base because Conor Gillaspie was nursing a sore hand. Keppinger tends to play the game in an upright rigid position, which must make it really tough to pick up a ground ball. He seems much better suited to catch a pop-up or line drive. The word "cat-like" doesn't come to mind when describing Keppinger's defense.

Manager Robin Ventura had Kepp at first base last Wednesday as the Sox tried to sweep the front-running Tigers at the Cell. With two outs in the top of the sixth, Gillaspie fielded Austin Jackson's grounder at third, a routine play. Keppinger started 21 games at first base for Tampa Bay a year ago, but on this play he was late covering the bag.

The unfolding events went like this: Gillaspie tried to hit a moving target, the throw was slightly behind Keppinger, whose feet became entwined with one another, the throw got away, and two runs scored. Those were the two runs that beat the Sox 6-4.

There were other defensive lapses last week, such as on Friday when Dayan Viciedo played Wilkin Ramirez's long fly ball into a triple. However, the Sox overcame this poor effort and beat the Twins 5-2.

Watching the Twins over the weekend, it was difficult to understand how they had beaten the Sox nine of 12 games going into this four-game series. Here is another team that needs help, and it isn't a recent phenomenon. This will be the third consecutive season Minnesota has finished under .500. The team that Ozzie Guillen tabbed "piranhas" plays more like goldfish.

However, it appears the Twins have a plan. Don't all crummy teams have one? Because they are a small-market team, Minnesota is building from within, so they have Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and a bunch of guys few fans outside of the Twin Cities have ever heard of. But some of them show promise.

Then the recent issue of Sports Illustrated arrived, and, lo and behold, there was an article teased on the cover about two outstanding young Twins' prospects, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Sano, 20, is a Dominican third baseman with Herculean power - he's hit 32 homers in the minors this season. He is the third best prospect in the game according to Baseball America.

Buxton, a 19-year-old outfielder from rural Georgia, currently occupies the No. 1 spot on the strength of amazing speed - 49 stolen bases so far this year - along with big numbers in batting average and on-base percentage. Buxton is the Twins' leadoff man of the future while Sano is slated as a power-hitting third or fourth batter.

Stay tuned for big improvement in, say, 2015.

Meanwhile, our Sox seem a lot closer to respectability because of the aforementioned factors which didn't even include the team's biggest strength - starting pitching.

In his last nine starts dating back to July 4, Jose Quintana is 4-2 with an ERA of 3.16. He's fanned 56 and walked only 15 in 57 innings.

Chris Sale has been even better since June 30, posting a 4-5 mark with an ERA of 2.82. Sale has pitched 67 innings in that period with 71 strikeouts and just 13 bases on balls.

Santiago has started only 22 games in his two-season career, and he's proving that he could become another dependable starting pitcher. A year older than Sale and Quintana, if the 25-year-old Santiago cuts down on his pitch count - helping him pitch into the seventh or eighth inning - by getting ahead of the hitters, he could be a consistent winner.

Just a little more than a year ago, doctors rummaged around in John Danks' left shoulder and bicep, so no one should be surprised that he has struggled this season over 16 starts. But he looks better than he did a couple of months ago in the sense that he's throwing harder and going deeper into games.

Then there's the new addition, Brazilian right-hander Andre Rienzo, who has pitched well in all four of his starts including last Thursday in Minnesota. Rienzo lasted six innings on a yield of one run as the Sox fell 4-3.

But if general manager Rick Hahn has a plan, he hasn't outlined it in any great detail. Quite simply, the present crew, most of whom will probably be around next April, need to play better.

At the same time, the team has shed salary with the departure of Rios, Jake Peavy, Matt Thornton, and the ailing Jesse Crain, who has yet to throw a pitch in Tampa Bay. The free agent class isn't as glamorous as in past years, but one player the Sox may look at is Atlanta catcher Brian McCann. Unless Josh Phegley shows that he can be a legitimate big-league hitter, the Sox are really weak behind the plate.

Finally, what if The Plan would include pursuing the newest Cuban sensation José Dariel Abreu? He is somewhere in the Caribbean attempting to establish residence after fleeing his home country. The 26-year-old first baseman posted huge numbers in Cuba's premier league - better than Puig, Viciedo and Yoenis Cespedes.

Puig signed for $42 million with the Dodgers. Abreu will command even more. Ask the Dodgers, who are on a 42-9 tear, if it was worth it.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Mike Knezovich:

Well, glad to know I'm not the only nut who thinks "turnaround" is the operative word. But really, it's not crazy. Alexei has years of being a very good defensive shortstop - this year is the aberration. And my theory about him is this: Earlier this year, I watched a game that marked the first time his parents had watched him play in MLB. That means they're here now. 'Nuff said.

They need to swap out two position players for more offense. It sort of doesn't matter which, except catcher is prime, and McCann would be great, with one of the current crop being the backup. (I wouldn't mind Jacoby Ellsbury, but that ain't happening.)

Anyway, that's for the best White Sox coverage in the city.

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