Guillen hoping for rebound in '08
White Sox manager looks to veterans for on-field leadership
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It was just two years ago that Ozzie Guillen showed up at the annual Winter Meetings in Dallas as Major League Baseball's conquering hero.
The White Sox were coming off their first World Series championship in nearly nine decades, and media outlets from all over the country clamored around Guillen's table during his requisite managerial interview session to hear what he had to say. Much has changed during that short time span.
Guillen arrived at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center this week as the manager of one of baseball's worst teams from the 2007 season. His interview session Tuesday still was somewhat well attended, basically because of the White Sox interest in Miguel Cabrera, one of Guillen's close friends, and because the White Sox manager remains one of the best quotes in the game.
As first-year manager Cecil Cooper spoke about Houston's optimistic outlook for 2008 at a corresponding talk across the room, Guillen was forced to re-live one of the most painful years from his long life in baseball. For example, Guillen was quizzed about the struggles endured by relievers Mike MacDougal and Matt Thornton, who were penciled in as the team's right-handed and left-handed setup men, respectively, before the trying season began.
"I don't think those guys will be worse than they were last year," Guillen said. "No way. It's impossible."
There was a question delivered concerning the bounce-back ability of Jose Contreras, the team's current No. 3 starter, who finished a miserable 2007 campaign with a solid effort in September.
"He doesn't want to go through the season he had last year," said Guillen of Contreras, who the White Sox skipper admitted went through off-the-field issues in 2007, but also exhibited great stuff following a few adjustments made to his delivery while working out of the bullpen. "I don't think Jose wants to be embarrassed."
This inquisition included topics wide-ranging from Danny Richar handling the second base job, the new utility role for Juan Uribe and concerns for backup catcher Toby Hall, whose 2007 campaign was short-circuited by a shoulder injury in Spring Training. For the record, Guillen insisted Richar had a strong start last season and should improve, called Uribe underrated, and said he wasn't concerned about Hall's right shoulder bouncing back in 2008.
"I don't worry about Toby's shoulder. I worry about Toby's weight," said Guillen of Hall. "Unfortunately, he got hurt last year, but Toby knows the club better."
Much of Tuesday's focus for Guillen centered on last year's on-field leadership shortage and one major offseason step taken by the White Sox to improve the issue. Guillen pointed out how Orlando Cabrera was not acquired from the Angels because the White Sox needed a shortstop, but instead because the White Sox wanted a complete ballplayer, one who could make sure the team was loose and having fun, while increasing the group's overall baseball IQ.
Cabrera could hit leadoff or second in the White Sox order, depending on the given pitching matchups and the team's continued pursuit of an outfield upgrade. But his mere presence solves a number of intangible issues in the mind of both Guillen and general manager Ken Williams.
"Kenny knows I don't need leaders in the clubhouse," Guillen said. "I need leaders on the field. That's more important to us. That's what we missed the last couple of years."
"If you spend five minutes talking to Orlando Cabrera, you realize this guy is a cut above," Williams added. "You put someone like that in the middle part of your field and next to a guy like Richar, who has that look in his eyes as well, and you only can get a positive situation."
Williams has spoken to veterans such as Mark Buehrle, Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome during the offseason, while trading text messages with Paul Konerko. Williams termed his group as determined, adding he likes the edge they currently possess.
Leadership questions for the big picture did not include any sort of connection to Konerko, who has been Guillen's team captain for the past two seasons. Guillen explained how Konerko earned the captain's title for his exceptional on-field play and the immense respect he commands from his White Sox teammates.
"Having the C or a title, you don't have to be the rah-rah, woo-woo guy," said Guillen of Konerko, adding examples of other low-key leaders such as Robin Ventura and Harold Baines. "You have to do your job, take care of yourself and be who you are. When I named him captain of the team, I [didn't] name him the leader of the team. Everyone leads in their own way."
Each player has an individual presence or leadership potential to lend to the team, and Guillen simply wants each player to step up and show those qualities in 2008. Even with the loss of a durable starter such as Jon Garland, Guillen seems satisfied with an altered roster now including Cabrera and right-handed reliever Scott Linebrink.
Satisfied, but apparently not completely sold on 2008 success. Yet, Guillen realizes there's plenty of time for Williams to fine-tune the White Sox attack and help his manager avoid talk of a 2008 letdown during next year's Winter Meetings in Las Vegas.
"If the season starts tomorrow, I will be worried," Guillen said. "But the season doesn't start tomorrow. I don't think Kenny is going to sit here and bang his head against the wall.
"He's going to look for the best deals out there, the best players still out there, and try to make a team that we can compete. Now, we got to get better. I think we have a good club. It's up to the players to play the way they should be playing."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.