This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 20: the Chicago White Sox.
2015 Record and Finish:
76–86 (.469), fourth place in American League Central (21st overall)
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
77–85 (.475), fourth place in AL Central
The Case For
The White Sox have been aggressive the last two off-seasons, clearly laboring under the illusion that they were just a few key players away from a return to contention. I haven’t shared that optimism, but I understand its source. They do indeed possess a trio of elite players in key roles—Chris Sale as The Ace, Jose Abreu as The Bat, David Robertson as The Closer—and have some valuable complementary pieces in centerfielder Adam Eaton and No. 2 starter Jose Quintana. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about Chicago’s addition of righthander Jeff Samardzija (since departed as a free agent), outfielder Melky Cabrera and Robertson (whom I saw as lipstick on a pig) last winter. But this off-season’s new additions—third baseman Todd Frazier and second baseman Brett Lawrie—represent more essential and significant upgrades (as detailed below).
With those two in place, you can follow the train of logic that might lead the White Sox to believe they can contend this season. If Cabrera, who hit .309/.351/.458 (125 OPS+) from 2011 to '14, can bounce back from his lousy South Side debut, that should boost the offense. Avisail Garcia taking that long-awaited big step forward in his age-25 season would help even more. Chicago's new catching tandem of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro must make up with its bats what it will take away with its gloves. Adam LaRoche’s surprise retirement, meanwhile, could prove to be a blessing in disguise if it allows the White Sox to upgrade their outfield defense by using Austin Jackson with regularity in the corners.
In the rotation and bullpen, more optimism is required. Carlos Rodon must fix his control problems and pitch like the front-of-the rotation horse his draft position in 2014 (No. 3 overall) suggests he should be. Chicago also needs to hope that Erik Johnson really did fix his mechanics; that John Danks or Mat Latos can turn back the clock; that righty setup man Nate Jones can stay healthy; and that the rest of the bullpen can pitch more like they did in 2014 than in '15.
If all of that happens, everyone stays healthy, and the other teams in the division match the White Sox’s stunning good fortune with an equal measure of misfortune, then yes, Chicago could be a surprise playoff team this year. But what are the chances of so much going right for one team in a single season?
The Case Against
If none of those “ifs” is answered affirmatively and at least one key player (Sale, Abreu, or Frazier) suffers a major injury, the White Sox will likely remain stuck at the bottom of the division.
Ross D. Franklin/AP
X-Factor: The catchers
The White Sox overhauled their catching situation this off-season, non-tendering Tyler Flowers, allowing Geovany Soto to depart as a free agent and signing Navarro and Avila to take their places. The hope is that they will get more production at the plate from their new tandem, but I think they should have paid more attention to the performances they were likely to get behind the dish. Flowers was the best pitch framer in the AL last year according to Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, saving 16.7 runs with his framing alone—a contribution worth nearly two full wins—and Soto was close to average at -0.6 framing runs. Navarro and Avila, however, were a combined 12.1 framing runs below average in 1,463 fewer chances than Flowers had on his own. That’s more than a three-win swing in the wrong direction, and that doesn’t factor in the injury risk associated with Avila, who has a history of concussions (including three in the 2013 and ’14 seasons combined) and arguably shouldn’t be catching any more for his own good.
As for their hitting: Over the last two years, Navarro and Avila combined to hit .240/.323/.365, and Flowers, who is a year older than Avila but two years younger than Navarro, hit .240/.296/.378. It’s difficult to see how making an unnecessary change in personnel behind the plate won’t undermine the team’s attempts to improve elsewhere, not least of all when it comes to Rodon’s attempts to find the strike zone more often.
Number To Know: .222/.276/.326
That’s the combined line for Chicago’s second and third basemen in 2015. Over 162 games, every player the White Sox ran out at those two positions combined for 371 total bases last year. Meanwhile, in 157 games last year, Frazier collected 308 total bases on his own. He and Lawrie combined to hit .257/.304/.455 last year, and a simple average of their career lines produces a .260/.319/.442 line. On their own, those Frazier/Lawrie lines may not look terrible impressive, but compared to what the White Sox got at second and third base last year, they represent a massive upgrade at two spots in the lineup.
Most Overrated: Carlos Rodon, SP
"This guy made some nice strides last year and has some big upside. But let's calm down anointing him as a future No. 1. Let's see him do it first. He had so much fanfare around him in college, was going to be the top overall pick out of college, but he struggled his junior year for one reason or another. In college, we were concerned there was a problem with his back—he’s not an overly athletic guy, his delivery is not strong and loose, and I still have concerns that he just can't have great command with it. No doubt, his pure stuff is so good that he can get away with it at times—but not at this level. He needs to make more adjustments to reach that upper echelon people think he'll get to. I have my doubts."
Most Underrated: Jose Quintana, SP
"This guy is Mr. Underrated. And he is Exhibit A why wins don’t tell the whole story—he hasn’t won more than 10 games but has three straight 200-inning seasons with an ERA that’s around 3.40. I’ll take that any day. He gets lost in the shuffle behind Chris Sale and now Rodon, too. His fastball doesn't exactly capture your imagination. And he's not going to be on billboards in your city. But he is a No. 2 on most teams. He's done this at one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. He's signed to one of the better contracts out there, too."