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White Sox need mending

Unraveling team suddenly full of holes

Rain was pelting down on the steps of the White Sox dugout at US Cellular Field, and there was Kenny Williams, the affable general manager, sitting on the bench nattily attired in a gray suit and black shirt, sipping black coffee and holding a handful of Ritz crackers.

"Lunch," he cracked. "Been in meetings all day. Haven't had a chance to eat."

Make that breathe.

Williams was doing his best mea culpa concerning the woes of his team, particularly a bullpen and an offense he thought he'd taken care of in the offseason. Mired in mediocrity, the White Sox optioned out three relievers to the minors last week (Mike MacDougal, David Aardsma, and Andrew Sisco) and replaced them with fresher faces from the farm system -- but with no appreciable improvement. The Yankees were in town, and made the new fellows pay.

"If you need to point fingers," Williams said, "point them at me. I put the team together. If we're not performing, that's my fault."

While it was noble of Williams to take the hit, the bullpen hasn't done the job and two of the team's best hitters, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye, are hitting around .230.

"No doubt players have to hold up their end," said Williams. "But before I point fingers at the manager, the players, or the coaches and before the heat comes down on them, it's my responsibility to put the right combination of talent on the field."

Williams has been burning up the phone lines, and even took a call from Yankees GM Brian Cashman last week on a possible Bobby Abreu-Dye swap, which Williams felt wouldn't do anything for his offense.

Not so sure about that. Abreu has started to heat up. And Dye picked a terrible time to have a poor season -- in the final year of his contract. On this day, Dye read a newspaper account of a possible swap to the Yankees in the locker room and immediately sought out manager Ozzie Guillen to see if it was true. Guillen informed him he wasn't going anywhere.

Williams spoke about the importance of having a Plan B if Plan A doesn't work, but so far his Plan B's haven't worked, either. He said no GM works the phone lines more than he does, and with Cleveland, Detroit, and Minnesota all ahead of him, he'd better do something fast.

It's particularly frustrating because these are many of the same players who won a World Series in 2005.

He also knows about the volatility of his team. He has an outspoken manager in Guillen, and outspoken players like Mark Buehrle and catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

"Don't listen to Ozzie, AJ, or Mark about anything other than baseball," Williams kidded.

But it's clear that if things go bad, they'll go very bad.

Konerko holds out hope that the White Sox will put it together, but he warned, "We have to get going right now. Given the caliber of teams in our division, if we let this slip away too far, it's just going to get away from us. We have to turn it around right now.

"It's frustrating because I don't feel any different now than I did the past couple of years. Other than the actual result. That's the difference.

"We haven't hit our stride, and that's an understatement. There's no point analyzing it because it doesn't make sense. We didn't have Jim [Thome] for a while, but I can't blame it on that because I didn't detect that anyone was pitching me any differently."

Guillen does his best to keep his players loose, but there's an uptight feeling to this team, a feeling Williams knows has to change.

"Until you have guys going out playing carefree baseball, having a good time, then it's going to be hard to play your best," he said. "Our team has always been at its best when we just let it hang out and play hard every day."

Asked if he regrets not doing more with the offense in the offseason, he mentioned something his wife told him recently.

"She told me I should get a license plate that says, 'One More Move,' because that's how I've always felt. I've always thought if I could have made one more move in July of 2005, then maybe we would have had an easier time winning it all."

Easier than a sweep of the World Series?

"Well, that part was good," said Williams. "I just mean getting there might have been easier."

Williams is hoping for a find, something like the emergence of Bobby Jenks as closer in '05.

"That's part of what we do," said Williams. "We look at those six-year minor league free agents and try to identify a guy or two that we feel can help us. That's what we have to keep doing. Because the other 29 teams, they're all looking for the same things we are."

Vis-a-vis Vizquel

A few questions for 40-year-old Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel, an 11-time Gold Glove winner:

Tell me about the Manny Ramírez you knew when you were teammates in Cleveland. OV: "He was like talking to a 12-year-old boy, but then he'd pick up that bat and go out to hit and you were watching the best righthanded hitter in the game. We all knew he was going to be a great hitter, and it was great to see him as a young guy developing as a hitter. But none of us knew whether he was going to stick around because of his way of approaching the game. He can just be careless sometimes. And that's the way I see it when I see the games in Boston, wandering around in left field, talking to fans, doing all of these silly things."

Do you think his fielding has gotten better?

OV: "It seems he's taking an interest in improving. His fielding was always marginal. He always had a bat in his hands. An hour or two before batting practice, he was in the batting cage swinging and swinging and swinging, but you never saw him working extra on fielding. But in Cleveland, we'd score 10 runs every day and the fielding was overlooked."

How do Manny and Barry Bonds compare? OV: "Manny is just gifted. He's got this awesome talent of hitting the ball no matter what. If you sat down and talked to Manny about hitting, I don't know that he would have too much to say. Bonds is different because he really studies. He'll talk to you about the pitchers, how they work him, and how he's going to approach each and every at-bat."

How much longer might you play, and will you leave the game if you can't play shortstop? OV: "I don't know. I feel pretty good. I guess you have to listen to your body and see how you feel. You prepare for 162 and maybe more, and that's hard for a 40-year-old body to react to different challenges. Second base might be an option for me, but after playing all those great years at short, I don't know if I see it happening."

Do you think about the Hall of Fame? OV: "I don't, but people keep reminding me about all the achievements and the comparisons with the other shortstops, and the games played, the hits, and everything else. Maybe there's a possibility, but it's not something I'm really thinking about."

Uncertainties of draft compounded by new rules this season

On the surface, it seems crazy for the Cubs to pass on Seton Hall Prep (N.J.) righthander Rick Porcello and draft Cypress (Calif.) High School third baseman Josh Vitters. But who knows?

Look at the Mariners a year ago. They bypassed lefty phenom Andrew Miller of North Carolina and righty phenom Tim Lincecum of the University of Washington so they could pick California reliever Brandon Morrow. OK, Lincecum has been superb in his short career with the Giants, and Miller is ready to assume his spot in the Tigers' rotation.

But Morrow hasn't done bad, either. He's been part of a very solid Mariner bullpen, striking out 24 batters in 21 2/3 innings, with a 1.66 ERA.

Getting Porcello at No. 27 in the first round may have been a coup for the Tigers. It's a classic case of a Scott Boras client falling to a contending team, the way Craig Hansen fell to the Red Sox.

Porcello, who looks like a younger version of Justin Verlander, signed a letter of intent with North Carolina. So the hard part is signability. Boras won't have the luxury of holding the player out until classes start. Under the new rules, draftees must sign by Aug. 15. This is going to be tough for both sides.

An agent who represents high draft picks said, "Bud Selig is going to be watching these teams and particularly this rule. This is what MLB wanted so the process wouldn't drag out.

"Because of it, I think you're going to see teams with a hard approach. If they can't get a deal done, they'll move on. I think you'll see a lot of deals on Aug. 14, and you'll see high school kids going off to classes.

"I just think, for agents, there's going to be less leeway. We're going to have to settle for a little bit less to get our kid on the team, playing.

"I might be wrong, and I'm sure every team will be different, but I think the teams have more of the hammer now."

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Found out last week that Derek Jeter and Tom Brady are good friends. Why am I not surprised?; 2. Miguel Tejada's consecutive-game streak will reach 1,143 today. He DH'd one day last week because his legs were a little wobbly; 3. National League hitters are figuring out Bronson Arroyo (2-7, 5.01); 4. Nomar Garciaparra has one home run; 5. Good Story Dept.: Washington's Dmitri Young. After a battle with alcohol, and a release by the Tigers, he is one of the top hitters in the NL so far.

Appearances count
George Mitchell has some tough work to do in the upcoming weeks. While the majority of players have not cooperated with his steroids investigation, Mitchell seems to have a high regard for players in general. Last weekend, he showed up at Fenway with his 9-year-old son and a school buddy, and stood in the dugout while the kids got autographs from Red Sox and Yankee players. Mitchell has to be careful about a perceived conflict of interest as a member of the Red Sox board of directors. Will anything he does on Jason Giambi be seen as a Red Sox guy sticking it to the Yankees? Such things are already being heard out there. Though Mitchell is an honorable man, these are legitimate concerns.

Trade bait
Akinori Otsuka and Brad Lidge are names you'll hear more as the trading deadline nears. The relievers will be highly sought by a host of teams seeking to strengthen their set up roles, including the Red Sox. Otsuka's two worst outings for the Rangers this season came against Boston May 27 and Seattle May 31. Otherwise, he's been very effective. The Rangers are likely to hold a fire sale to retool. Eric Gagne also could be a target. As for Lidge, he has come back strong after losing his closer role at the start of the season. Only once in his last 17 appearances has he allowed an earned run. Other names to watch for: Colorado closer Brian Fuentes and Washington closer Chad Cordero.

Looking left to make it right
Look for the Tigers to dangle lefty starter Mike Maroth as a means to an end. They need a top reliever to give the bullpen another shot in the arm. With lefty Andrew Miller almost ready to take a spot in the rotation, with veteran Kenny Rogers on the road back from shoulder surgery, and with Chad Durbin 5-0, 3.06, in his last eight starts, the Tigers, in the estimation of one American League GM, "could be the most dangerous team in the league again before too long." Not to mention how hot Gary Sheffield is at the moment.

Calling for a changeup
The Devil Rays would consider moving troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes just to get him out of the Tampa environment. Dukes has made threats against the mother of his children, who now has a restraining order against him. His agents won't comment for the record, but it's common sense that Dukes would be better off away from the biggest distractions. He grew up in Tampa, where there seem to be many influences tugging at him. Dukes is very talented and the Devil Rays aren't going to give him away; they hope to get a serviceable pitcher for him.

Lofty position
Ex-Red Sox Orlando Cabrera (.333) and Edgar Renteria (.319, tied with Cristian Guzman) have the highest batting averages among shortstops in their leagues. Hanley Ramirez is down to .307 after being in the .340s just two weeks ago. Cabrera finally might make an All-Star team. It's interesting that he and Renteria are the only Colombian-born players in the majors, and that Cabrera's father signed Renteria for the Marlins. Did we mention David Eckstein is up to .295?

Trouble on tap
Bill Liederman, proprietor of Mickey Mantle's sports bar in New York City, has a new book: "Mickey Mantle's: Behind the Scenes at America's Most Famous Sports Bar." Liederman writes that he changed the name of the place to "Ted Williams's" after the Sox came back from a 0-3 deficit to beat the Yanks in 2004 and soon was threatened with a lawsuit by the Mantle family. He also received death threats. "The Yankee fans acted like rabid dogs," Liederman said. "After that display of poor sportsmanship. I am no longer rooting for the Yankees; I am now a Red Sox fan."

Sorry, Charlie
A priceless scene last week was Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis, a huge Yankees fan, dropping by the clubhouse in Chicago when the team was in town to play the White Sox. Joe Torre brought Weis around to meet the players, including Hideki Matsui. "Hideki, Hideki, come over here," said Torre. "I want you to meet someone." Matsui came over and Torre said, "Charlie Weis. Notre Dame football coach." Matsui had a puzzled look on his face. "Notre Dame football," Torre repeated. "Charlie Weis." Matsui had no idea. He politely shook Weis's hand, bowed, and smiled.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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