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For starters, Sox are thinking big

The Chicago White Sox have what may be the most offensive club in the American League. Speed at the top of the order. Frank Thomas and Albert Belle in the middle. Harold Baines and _ when he returns from injury _ Robin Ventura behind them. Experience at the bottom.

They can play good _ if not at least occasionally great _ defense. Their bullpen is strong, anchored by closer Roberto Hernandez and soon to be fortified by the healthy return of veteran setup man Roger McDowell.

But if the White Sox are going to knock the Cleveland Indians from atop the Central Division, their starting pitching is going to have to be a integral part of their pitch.

"Regardless of how good our offense is going to be, if we can't stop the opposition we aren't going to go very far," Hernandez said. "There have been plenty of teams in history that have had great offenses and no staff, and those teams don't usually win. Right now, the burden is on our staff."

With all the money the White Sox spent to sign Belle over the winter and all the attention their offense has gotten during the spring, they made some curious roster decisions about their pitching, at least for starters.

They allowed ace Alex Fernandez, who led the team in wins (16) and innings (258) and had the lowest ERA (3.45) among the starters, to leave as a free agent. They did the same with Kevin Tapani, who won 13 games and threw 225 innings.

In their place, the Sox brought in Jaime Navarro, who won 29 games in the past two seasons for the crosstown Cubs; and 34-year-old Doug Drabek, who was 7-9 last season for Houston and hasn't won more than 12 games in a season since 1992.

Holding over are left-hander Wilson Alvarez, who won 15 games last year but just 20 in the two prior seasons; and right-hander James Baldwin, who won 11 games last season and finished second in the AL rookie of the year balloting.

Veteran Danny Darwin, 41, and lefty Mike Bertotti, 27, are competing for the fifth spot. Jason Bere, sidelined most of last season with elbow problems, is expected back at some point near mid-season.

"Everybody says we're going to have to score a lot of runs to win, that our pitching will hold us back, but I feel we have a good staff," Sox general manager Ron Schueler said. "It may not be a great staff _ how many great staffs are there besides Atlanta's? But I think we'll be very competitive because of pitching, not in spite of it."

To understand why the Sox feel that way, you have to share their vision. In their view (and one that is not universal), the loss of Fernandez and the acquisition of Navarro essentially is a swap. "I think we got an even trade," catcher Ron Karkovice said.

Statistically, they were similar last year _ Fernandez was 16-10 with a 3.48 ERA, Navarro 15-12, 3.92 ERA.

But that doesn't mean they are essentially the same pitcher. Fernandez is younger (27 to almost 29), has a lower career ERA (3.78 to 4.10), less wear on his arm (1,450 professional innings to about 1,900), and a taste of post-season experience (two starts in the 1993 playoffs) while Navarro has pitched on only one team that finished higher than third.

Yet Sox manager Terry Bevington says his team actually is improved overall. "We're in a better position this year than we were last year," he said. "We got caught a little short last year. We don't think that will happen this year.

"We feel Navarro is a legitimate No. 1 guy. And, really, Wilson Alvarez, in today's game, is a legitimate No. 1 guy. We have two guys you'd have to say, based on their careers, they have the potential they could win 20."

Schueler, like every GM, says he's looking to add pitching if the deal makes sense. But the need to find a temporary replacement for Ventura, who will be out until the All-Star break after breaking his right ankle Friday night, may limit his options.

"It would be nice if he did (acquire another pitcher)," Karkovice said. "If our pitchers throw like they can, we're going to win a lot of games. If only a couple guys throw well, we might struggle a little bit. We need four starters to have a good year."

The Sox, however, figure _ and configure _ their pitching staff, they can't escape the shadow of their offensive potential. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"I think our offense takes a lot of the pressure off our pitchers," Karkovice said. "They don't have to throw a shutout. They can make a mistake and give up a run with the offense we have."

Even deal?

The White Sox say newly acquired pitcher Jaime Navarro is as good as departed Alex Fernandez. What do you think?

Navarro Fernandez

Age 29 next week 27

1996 W-L, ERA 15-12, 3.92 16-10, 3.45

1996 OBA .269 .253

Last 5 years OBA .271 .253

Career W-L, ERA 91-77, 4.10 79-63, 3.78

ML seasons 8 7

Post-season exp. 0 2 games 1993