CHICAGO -- The White Sox find themselves in pretty good position as the 2012 free-agency period gets set to begin.
Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko and Alex Rios return as a highly productive middle of the order. Four apparently talented starting pitchers are in place, assuming John Danks comes back healthy from season-ending surgery on his left shoulder, and the back end of the bullpen is loaded with talent in Addison Reed, Nate Jones, Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain. Let's not forgot one of the game's best double-play combinations in shortstop Alexei Ramirez and second baseman Gordon Beckham.
Good position doesn't necessarily mean perfect, though.
And with the payroll not figuring to go much above last year's mark of between $97 million and $98 million, if at all, the White Sox will have to prioritize which of their own key free agents to target among a list that could number six or seven players after club options are declined. That decision-making process already has started, and will continue to be discussed and dissected at upcoming White Sox organizational meetings, the first ones with new general manager Rick Hahn in charge.
"You have to look at not only the cost on the option, which you were alluding to of bringing him back, but also get a sense of trade or other free-agent options, what will be the marginal cost of replacing this guy," said Hahn, following a news conference to announce his promotion to GM, when asked about offseason moves. "You prefer to be in the position that the option is at reasonable price and you can exercise it and it fits nicely. It's going to be a good value.
"That's not necessarily the case with all of these [that the White Sox have]. We are going to have to see, as we have over the last couple of weeks. Is there a way to come up with an alternative deal or is this going to play out through free agency?"
Hahn was not "overly optimistic" that the White Sox would become major players in the free-agent market. That sentiment won't stop the White Sox from adding on needed pieces, but those additions might end up coming through trade or might fall in the category of a notch below front-line free agents.
For 117 days during the 2012 season, the White Sox sat atop the American League Central before fading late and finishing second to the World Series-bound Tigers. They have a solid core group returning to make another challenge against a Detroit squad only figuring to get stronger with Victor Martinez returning, but depending on the decisions they make with players such as A.J. Pierzynski (free agent), Jake Peavy (club option) and Kevin Youkilis (club option) to name a few, there still should be plenty of questions needing to be answered.
"It doesn't drive the specific decision, but you have to be cognizant of what you are competing against and the level that we need to aspire to in terms of projected wins for next year," said Hahn of the AL Central's toughness. "Detroit is a World Series club right now. Kansas City will get better. They've shown they play us tough. It will continue as young position players get older.
"Cleveland and Minnesota have two of the best front offices in baseball, is the consensus. You can't count them out either. It's going to be a battle in the division, just like it was this year. Our intent is to be in it until the end."
Players can start signing with other clubs after 11 p.m. CT on Friday.
Free agents: C Pierzynski, LHP Francisco Liriano, OF Dewayne Wise, INF Orlando Hudson, INF Jose Lopez.
Club options: RHP Peavy ($22 million, $4 million buyout); RHP Brett Myers ($10 million, $3 million buyout); 3B Youkilis ($13 million, $1 million buyout); RHP Gavin Floyd ($9.5 million).
Player options: None.
Arbitration eligible: 2B Beckham, OF Alejandro De Aza, RHP Philip Humber, IF Dan Johnson.
Areas of need
Third base: If Youkilis does not return, Brent Morel would be the clubhouse leader at this particular position. But Morel missed most of last season due to back problems and would have to prove his health in Spring Training before being given such consideration. This could be a spot for an addition by trade.
Starting pitching: The White Sox seem in good rotation shape with Chris Sale, Hector Santiago, Jose Quintana and the hopeful return of a healthy Danks, but they could use a right-handed starter to complement these four southpaws. That righty could come from potential free agents such as Peavy, Floyd or even Myers, who only would return as a starter, or could be someone from outside the organization. The team also has Minor League options, such as Simon Castro, Nestor Molina or Andre Rienzo, but not any who appear to be ready for the season's outset.
Left-handed hitting: Pierzynski's return, added in with Dunn and De Aza, gives the lineup needed balance from the left side of the plate. Without Pierzynski's valuable presence, the White Sox might have to bring in a left-handed hitter at third base as one of the few open position player spots.
Middle infield: Beckham and Ramirez form one of the best double-play combinations in baseball. But the White Sox have little depth in these spots at the Major League level and just as little at the lower levels. Hudson could come back to help fill this void, if he doesn't look for a full-time job elsewhere.
Catcher: This starting job appears to belong to Tyler Flowers if Pierzynski departs. But when Pierzynski appeared ready to sign with the Dodgers prior to the 2010 season, the White Sox were ready to bring in Miguel Olivo on a two-year deal. Confidence has grown in Flowers, especially defensively and as a game-caller, but the White Sox probably will look for veteran support.
The franchise-record payroll of $127 million in 2011 was cut to $97 million in '12. The White Sox already are committed to just above $74 million for '13 in just seven players, prior to buyouts, and Hahn said that while a payroll limit has not been set, he expects it to be in the same range as last year.