Wait 'Til Next Year: Superstars Abreu, Sale weren't enough for White Sox
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 69-82 (.457, fourth in the AL Central)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 15
What went right in 2014: The White Sox took a big chance on Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu last October, signing him to a six-year, $56 million deal that was, at the time, the richest contract given to an international free agent in major league history. Abreu has since made it look like a bargain, hitting .321/.383/.597 with 35 home runs and 103 RBIs, leading the majors in slugging, OPS (.980) and OPS+ (173).
In Abreu and Chris Sale, the 2014 White Sox had one of the best hitters and best pitchers in baseball and could brag of having signed both to team-friendly deals (Sale is in the second year of a five-year, $32.5 million contract that includes two team options, the latter of which is for just $13.5 million in 2019). All Sale has done heading into his start Wednesday night is go 12-3 with a 1.99 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 5.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio, leading the American League in ERA, ERA+ (195), strikeouts per nine innings (10.6) and winning percentage (.800), the last despite pitching for the team with the fifth-worst record in the league.
Centerfielder Adam Eaton, acquired for starter Hector Santiago and minor league outfielder Brandon Jacobs in December's three-team Mark Trumbo trade, had a strong age-25 season, playing outstanding defense on top of a .303/.367/.403 line at the plate. That performance has been worth 5.0 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, making him Chicago's third-best player.
Elsewhere, the team's seemingly misplaced faith in third baseman Conor Gillaspie was rewarded. The 27-year-old hit .293/.345/.433, a significant improvement over his .245/.305/.390 performance in 2013 despite a drop in home runs (from 13 to seven) and the fact that he has yet to successfully steal a base in five major league attempts. The White Sox also got a solid rookie season out of righty reliever Jake Petricka, who ascended to the closer's role after the All-Star break and finished July with a 1.99 ERA, though it is now up to 2.83.
What went wrong in 2014: Despite boasting Abreu, Sale and Eaton, the White Sox are not a good team, so not much had to go wrong for them to sink toward the bottom of the standings. It didn't help that both of their superstars lost a month to injury early in the season — Sale to a strained flexor tendon in his pitching elbow in late April, and Abreu to ankle tendinitis starting mere days before Sale's return from his injury in late May.
It also didn't help that Avisail Garcia, expected to be the club's rightfielder of the present and future after coming over in last year's three-team Jake Peavy trade, tore the labrum in his left shoulder in the ninth game of the season and didn't return until mid-August. Meanwhile, righty reliever Nate Jones, who was among those being considered as the closer in March, failed to get an out in two regular-season appearances before going under the knife in May for back surgery and in late July for Tommy John surgery, which will wipe out most of his 2015 season.
The team's other issues were largely performance based. Second baseman Gordon Beckham, the team's eighth overall pick in the 2008 draft, had long been a disappointment, but his bat up and died this year. His .221/.263/.336 line with Chicago translated to a mere 63 OPS+, prompting the White Sox to ship him to the Angels for the proverbial bag of balls (officially a player to be named later or cash) in late August despite the fact that he has another year of team control remaining before free agency.
Lefty John Danks — the team's second-highest-paid player (behind the since-traded Adam Dunn), who is pitching in the third year of a five-year contract that will pay him $14.25 million annually through 2016 — had his first healthy season since 2010. However, his walk rate has nearly doubled from a year ago, his WHIP has increased to 1.48 and his ERA+ has tumbled to 80 on a raw mark of 4.88. Since returning from surgery to repair a torn capsule in his pitching shoulder last year, Danks has gone 13-25 with a 4.82 ERA (83 ERA+), 1.40 WHIP and a Fielding Independent Pitching ERA of 4.92. Though he won't be 30 until April, it's difficult to see him as anything other than a sunk cost at this point. With Danks failing to return to form and Santiago having been dealt to the Angels in that Eaton trade, what had looked like an emerging young rotation a year ago has been reduced to Sale and Jose Quintana (the latter of whom did pitch well in the first year of his new five-year extension).
The team's farm system of was of little help. Third baseman Matt Davidson, a consensus top-100 prospect coming into the season, hit .199/.283/.362 for Triple A Charlotte and didn't even earn a September call-up despite being on the 40-man roster. Infielder Marcus Semien had a far more productive season in the minors, but only after hitting his way out of Chicago's lineup and eventually off the team after starting in place of the injured Beckham on Opening Day. Righty starter Erik Johnson, the team's top non-Abreu prospect coming into the season, started the season in the starting rotation only to end up at Triple A by the end of April, after which he posted a 6.75 ERA and walked just nine fewer men than he struck out.
Meanwhile, the White Sox spent $1.75 million on Felipe Paulino in December despite the fact that he was a pitcher with a career 84 ERA+ who hadn't pitched since June 2012 due to a pair of shoulder surgeries. Chicago got just four starts and an 11.29 ERA out of Paulino before his season was ended by inflammation in his surgically repaired rotator cuff. Veteran lefty reliever Scott Downs, signed for $4 million in January, posted a 6.08 ERA in 38 appearances before being released in early July.
The ultimate slap in the face for White Sox fans, however, may prove to be the fractured left hand Paul Konerko suffered on Sept. 2 with less than a month remaining in his big league career. The 38-year-old Konerko — who is second in franchise history in home runs with 432, a six-time All-Star and the last remaining member of the team's 2005 world championship club — accepted a reserve role in order to come back for one final season, his 16th in Chicago, but he has already missed half of his last month in the major leagues. Konerko said he is ready to return to action as early as Wednesday, but the White Sox have just four home games remaining in which to say goodbye.
Overall outlook: The word I used to assess their short-term prospects when they were eliminated last year was "bleak," and despite the additions of Abreu and Eaton, there isn't much reason to adjust that forecast this year. The farm system is still lacking in future impact talent, and while the team is finally out from under Dunn's contract, it saves just $15 million a year there, a pittance given the number of holes on the roster. With Kansas City and Cleveland both proving last year's late contention was not a fluke, the White Sox don't seem to have a clear path back to relevance in the AL Central in the near-term.