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The Tribune's White Sox beat writer answers reader questions throughout the season. This week, finishing better than the Cubs, hiring Steve Stone permanently and a whole bunch about the farm system.

Mark, I hate myself for even considering this, but a look at the A L Central schedule coupled with the Tigers and Indians' poor play makes me stupidly consider that the Sox could still win the division. Should any of us dare to let this cross our minds? --Dan Bowman, Marlette, Mich.

Dan, it crossed the minds of the Sox's coaching staff to push Jose Contreras' next start to Seattle, so don't feel so crazy about your thoughts.

Here is my annual question. Is there any possibility that the White Sox will move the fences further back for next year? The pitchers could give up a few more fly ball outs and the Sox might take advantage of the improved team speed next year. I think doubles and triples are a lot more exciting than cheap home runs. Just a thought. --Tom McLean, Ft. Myers, Fla.

I can see the fences moved back only in a few spots, but not far enough to make a significant difference.

Hey Mark, I hear all these names bandied about and none of them can compare with the All-Star outfield the Sox managed to lose. --Cliff Zeider, Port St. Joe, Fla.

Cliff, true. But the combined salaries of Carlos Lee and Magglio Ordonez would burden the rest of the Sox's payroll.

Why can't Jack Egbert be more than a No. 5 starter? I am sure Buehrle wasn't projected to be more than a No. 5 based on his stuff, but as Glavine showed winning 300 games in his career, is that it's knowing how to pitch that counts. Egbert's stats are just as good as Gio Gonzalez's and Egbert is just 24. Why can't he be a No. 1 or 2 starter? --Grant, Warrenville

Grant, I guess Egbert could be another John Burkett, who never threw over 91 mph but found a way to win 22 games in 1993.

Mark, my thanks for being a consistent calming influence on my tendency to get "fed up" with this 2007 season. Many of us have been disappointed with the list of injured over the past two years that prevents the team from reaching its potential. Pods, Thome and Erstad are only the top of this list. What, if any, changes in off-season conditioning do you anticipate the front-office insisting upon? --Hank Balikov, Moorestown, N.J.

It's become a young man's game around the majors, and teams hate paying players on the DL, especially those with a history of injuries. The Sox had good fortune with health the previous two seasons, which is why trainer Herm Schneider won an award from Baseball Prospectus. I don't think the injuries have anything to do with the training staff's methods. But you can guarantee there will be more scrutiny on off-season maintenance and conditioning, as well as identifying players in free agency and trades with no health issues.

Now that JD has finally hit his stride, will Ozzie ever make the wise decision to move Thome down in the order? Thome is not a very good No. 3 hitter and is viewed by this non-bandwagon Sox fan as a rally-killer. --C.J., Chicago

It might be time, given that Jermaine's average and production is rising and Jim's batting average is sinking.

I just read the D-Backs signed Eric Byrnes to a 3 year, $30 million extension. What a shame. I really would have loved to see him in a Sox uniform next year, and that isn't a terrible price for someone with his numbers. I honestly don't want to see Dye back too terribly bad, but do you have any thoughts on a plan B as his replacement now that Byrnes isn't up for grabs? --Tyson Shroyer, Peoria

I think the Sox will take a long look at re-signing Jermaine, given how the market exploded last winter and how Jermaine expressed a desire to stay and take a hometown discount.

Do you think it's possible that the Sox will finish with a better record than the Cubs? --Bill B., Bensenville

It's possible but highly improbable.

Mark, I think people need to relearn the basics of trading. It has changed so much. One writer to your mailbag asks if the Sox got enough for Iguchi. Another complains that we should have traded Dye and asks what good are prospects who are three years out. That's a good question I guess, but the real question is what Kenny does with the Dye money, assuming that he is not resigned. You alluded to that in Iguchi's case. People want instant gratfication. So do I, but in today's environment, you have to wait until the dust clears. A trade might look terrible in isolation, but result in a stronger club due to a related deal (think Pods for Lee). It's frustrating to a fan, but that's reality these days. It's not just player for player. Length and amount of contracts, structure of the lineup and club overall, free agent market, the club's short and long term needs. All of these things play a part. Does that make sense? --Greg, Chicago

Yes.

What's your best guess for shortstop in 2008? Tell me the Sox aren't serious about getting into the A-Rod derby. Doug, Westwood, Kan.

If A-Rod becomes a free agent, I wouldn't think the Sox would get involved in a bidding war, only because Alex is represented by Scott Boras, and y'all know the history between the Sox and many amateur players who were advised by Scott and drafted by the Sox.

What is the Sox biggest weakness? I think I have to go with shortstop. Juan Uribe is horrible, the worst offensive shortstop in the game by far. He has no business being in the everyday lineup. I think we should go after Jack Wilson from the Pirates, maybe send them someone like Haeger, or another idea would be to try and make a trade like we made with Richar, someone like Ryan Sweeney for Eric Aybar of the Angels. Please tell me the Sox have zero intentions of bring Juan Uribe back. --John, Iowa

I'd like to see more production at the top of the order, which is why the team is taking a long look at Jerry Owens. For the past two years, the Sox have given up too many outs at the top of the order. It's not just Scott Podsednik who absorbs the responsibility for this.

As for Uribe, he's a bottom-of-the order hitter, so people shouldn't expect Cal Ripken-like results from him.

And the addition of a veteran reliever wouldn't hurt. With the team virtually out of contention, the only pressure the pitchers have is placed on themselves.

Mark, is it safe to say Pods is a gonner after this season? --Isaiah, Ft. Wayne, Ind.

I think so, but I thought the same thing in 2006 until late September after hearing Kenny Williams talk about the price of leadoff batters and the Sox's belief that players can rebound after poor years.

In a couple of recent chats on ESPN, Jim Callis of Baseball America termed the White Sox farm system as "thin" and "in the running for one of the worst systems in terms of talent." I was kind of shocked by these revelations until I did a thorough look at each of the Sox's minor league teams. Class-AAA Charlotte has four or five guys who have played with the Sox and could help out next year, but they're not rookies. Class-AA Birmingham has 2 pitchers, Gio Gonzalez and Jack Egbert, who are doing well and Gonzales is being mentioned as one of the top pitching prospects in all of the minors. High A and Low A have only a few possible future talents, but they are years away from benefiting the Sox. First baseman Chris Carter and pitchers Fautino De Los Santos and Aaron Poreda look like future hopefuls. Do the Sox even have enough guys to make up a top ten future prospect list? Have you done any analysis of the Sox minor league organization? --Jim Kessler, Tampa

Jim, thanks for your question. First, I've known Jim Callis since he was an intern at Baseball America in the summer of 1988, and Jim does his homework on the draft and player development side as well as anyone. I take exception to those who knocked his work during ESPN's coverage of the 2007 draft.

The Sox have a lot of work ahead of them in the player development department, but it's fixable. Unfortunately, it's hard to find young catching. They also need some help in the middle infield.

Please keep this in mind - the Sox have rarely "overpaid" for a high draft pick since Joe Borchard. They also tend not to draft amateur players advised by Scott Boras, which eliminates them from about 20 percent of the draft's elite players. Very rarely have they tried to entice some lower-round picks to sign for above-round money, such as John Danks' younger brother who is excelling at the University of Texas.

It's axiomatic that the Sox, who could finish with a high first-round pick in the 2008 draft, better land a high-impact player.

Hi Mark, I may be dreaming, but do you think there's any chance at all that Steve Stone could become a White Sox broadcaster next year or in the near future? --Drew, Chicago

Talk about an impressive week. I wish Steve could have done as well during his 1971 rookie season with the San Francisco Giants as he did filling in for Darrin Jackson.

Steve's performance was the best job of pinch-hitting since Manny Mota played for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Someone should hire him soon.

Do you think it is possible that they can turn the PA system down a little at U.S. Cellular? In some parts of the stadium it is as loud as being at a concert. I think some of the things they have done to make it a family friendly experience are great, but when they play the music as loud as they play it, I can’t have a conversation or watch the game comfortably. Every time I come home to Chicago I go to a game with my family, I am so impressed with the progress around the park and in the park, it makes me proud to be a Sox fan. Maybe it is where I am seated, but it seems the PA system is turned up really high. What do you think? --Jason Kohler, San Francisco

Jason, I'm sorry, but the volume isn't a problem where I sit. I understand that the volume may be louder where you sit. I've found this to be the case at Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium. The PA system is too loud at AT&T Park in San Francisco, but I have no problems with Gene Honda at U.S. Cellular Field.

Hey Mark, with the way the season has gone, off-season changes are expected. What changes are being talked about or do you expect at the coaching positions? --Scott Weber, Peoria

I think the only changes that will be made on the staff will be those made by the coaches. They have the support of the manager and GM, and recent progress by the hitters and selected relievers suggest that the coaching staff isn't the problem for the early rut.

Mark, Please consider voting for Andre Dawson in the next baseball hall of fame election. Every vote counts. If you have already voted for him in the past, thank you. --Moe, Wakefield, Mass.

Speaking of which, what about Tim Raines? His numbers deserve some strong consideration for next year's ballot, don't you think?

Mark, I just watched Josh Fields give away two runs by not telling Uribe to throw to the plate and then messing up a grounder. The other day, he got doubled up because he didn't know how many outs there were. My question: Would the sox consider trading Crede and pinning their hopes on this guy? --Norm Cohen, Kings Park, N.Y.

Norm, I think the Sox need assurances that Joe Crede will return healthy next season before they plot any changes or trades involving him. I think Fields is such a good athlete (without the muscle-bound stiffness of Joe Borchard, another ex-college quarterback) that he could move to the outfield with Crede returning to third.

Josh is a work in progress, no doubt. I think Sox fans and observers are watching the growing pains and progress of a potential star.

Mark, sorry to burden you with so many questions about the youngsters. Have the promotions for Jack Egbert and Gio Gonzalez to Triple-A not occurred because the Sox want to wait or because Nick Masset and Andy Sisco took their spots in the rotation at Charlotte? Will any non-pitcher at Birmingham this year, other than Donny Lucy, get a promotion to Triple-A next year (Getz turns 24 later this month and Nanita is even older)? What happened to Justin Cassel, who started the year so promisingly at Winston-Salem? Will the Sox keep Wes Whisler as a pitcher after his disappointing year at Double-A, or will they allow him to try to become the next Rick Ankiel since he was such a good hitter in college? --Andrew, St. Louis

Masset needs the work since he wasn't used enough with the Sox. I wouldn't be surprised to see Sisco in another uniform next year. Getz needs to stay healthy but is deserving of a promotion.

Whisler was a very good hitter in college, but most teams are patient with left-handed pitchers, so I believe Wes will get a long look there.

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