The White Sox would dare not string a "Mission Accomplished" banner across their Camelback Ranch spring-training headquarters in Glendale, Ariz.
Everyone knows the pitfalls of such a boast from a very premature sign displayed on an aircraft carrier behind a speech-making president in the spring of 2003. Yet there must be some degree of satisfaction from the so-far successful return of Jake Peavy to the mound, the absolute highlight of Sox spring training, heading into its final two weeks.
With the team virtually a set piece other than a backup outfielder or relief pitcher or two, Sox camp was destined to be boring other than the Peavy project. The Sox's would-be $16 million ace is to the re-attachment of "lat" muscles what Tommy John was to tendon transplants in elbows in 1975. Every inning he takes the mound, Peavy is a ground-breaker in a surgical procedure never done before on an active pitcher.
The comfort zone of the Sox's 2011 season hinges on Peavy's comeback, whether speeded-up or at a deliberate pace. And right now, it appears GM Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen won't have to fan out through the West Valley looking for a warm body to fill in for Peavy in the rotation. There are few obvious candidates within the Sox system or in camp who could take the No. 5 spot for a month or two if Peavy was set back in his recovery. Philip Humber? Probably not. No one at the level of a Carlos Silva, Casey Coleman, Braden Looper or Todd Wellemeyer -- the spillover candidates for a rotation spot in Cubs camp.
A trio of good-to-excellent outings in which Peavy goosed his fastball into the low 90s mph range while reporting only normal soreness afterward gives Sox brass cautious optimism the former Cy Young Award winner can return in April -- if not for his first scheduled start, but soon afterward.
Spring training was supposed to gauge whether Peavy would pitch in cold weather or wait until June or even later to return. Although he's an Alabama boy, Peavy is opting for long sleeves. He outworked his own rigorous standards all winter to be ready. Setbacks may still be in store, but Peavy has gone too far, so far, to muck up the most rosy scenario. Which is a five-man Sox rotation good enough to finally overcome the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central and rank among the best in the AL, if not the best, period.
The only other surprise in Glendale is the possibility Mark Teahen might reclaim his starting job at third base. Teahen hasn't shown the clunky glove of 2010, while displaying his old hitting style that made him a thorn in the Sox' side while a Royals mainstay. The Sox could have carried a quiet bat from rookie Brent Morel at third, batting him ninth in a strong lineup, just for his slick glove. But if Teahen doesn't embarrass himself in the field, he'd be a bonus in the lineup to boost the left-handed quotient beyond Adam Dunn, A.J. Pierzynski and Juan Pierre. The Sox would then have the luxury of letting Morel get another year of hitting development in at Triple-A Charlotte. Or, they can stick to the original plan to start Morel at third while Teahen plays the Tony Phillips/Mark DeRosa super-sub role.
Outfielder Lastings Milledge apparently has hit his way onto the roster. That is fortunate, given the extra speed he provides the Sox. Should MIlledge be reliable enough for an occasional start, Morel at least hits his weight and Teahen moves around the diamond for available at-bats, the Sox would offer up one of their deeper teams in memory.
In the end, these minor machinations all come back to Peavy's health. It's been in the mid-80s gorgeous in Arizona, and one pitcher's performance immediately transfers that sunny outlook to the South Side. But that "mission" sign should not be hung until Halloween at the earliest, no matter how many starts Peavy makes.