White Sox have AL's best record, but are they ready to contend?
On Tuesday, the White Sox handed the defending American League East champion Blue Jays their most lopsided loss of the season, beating Toronto, 10–1 behind another dominant start from ace lefty Chris Sale, who became the first pitcher to reach five wins on the year. The win, Chicago’s fifth in a row, improved the team's record to 15–6 (.714), the best mark in the AL through the season’s first three weeks. After three straight losing seasons and two consecutive aggressive off-seasons, is this finally the year that the White Sox return to contention?
Despite that offensive outburst on Tuesday, Chicago has enjoyed its early success despite an underperforming offense. Through their first 21 games, the White Sox have averaged just 3.7 runs per game, 22nd in the majors. Jose Abreu is hitting .190/.275/.342, new third baseman Todd Frazier is at .222/.289/.444 (albeit with five home runs), Avisail Garcia has posted a .186/.269/.373 slash line, and Austin Jackson's is .219/.265/.281. Chicago's catchers as a group are hitting .194/.276/.313, and Alex Avila just went down with a hamstring injury.
The team's most productive bat has belonged to outfielder Melky Cabrera, who has rebounded from a lousy first year in Chicago to hit .320/.393/.453 through his first 21 games. That may be above his level, but those aren’t video-game numbers, and they’re not a far cry from the .309/.351/.458 line and 125 OPS+ he put up in the four seasons before he signed with the White Sox.
The secret to the Sox’ success, then, has been their pitching. Even there, however, the work of Chicago's starters has not been wildly out of character, with one glaring exception: Mat Latos. The veteran righty, who has been plagued by knee and arm injuries and a resulting decline in velocity in recent seasons, was released by the Dodgers last September and didn’t sign with the White Sox until Feb. 9, settling for a one-year, $3 million deal. Yet he is 4–0 with a 0.74 ERA through his first four starts this season. That’s a fluke: Latos’s velocity is down again, as is his strikeout rate, and his opponents have hit just .167 on balls in play. Given all of that, it’s not clear that he will continue to be a viable piece of the rotation for the remainder of the season, never mind being one of the stingiest pitchers in the majors.
The rest of the rotation, however, is right where it should be. Sale’s dominance (a 1.66 ERA and 222 ERA+ in an MLB-high 38 innings) is unsurprising, and Jose Quintana is not far removed from his usual excellence, particularly for a player who looked like he was due for a breakout last year. On the other side of the spectrum, John Danks, who is finally in the last year of his contract, is getting hit so hard (a 6.23 ERA in 17 1/3 innings) that the team is already contemplating removing him from the rotation. His potential replacement: former Orioles righty Miguel Gonzalez, who gave up five runs in 5 1/3 innings in his White Sox debut on Monday.
More difficult to figure is lefty Carlos Rodon, who has turned in three quality starts (totaling four runs allowed in 19 2/3 innings) and one disaster start in which he allowed five runs and recorded just one out. The key word for Rodon is inconsistency. He walked five men in six innings in one of those quality starts, and his season statistics line up with what he did as a rookie last year, when he struggled with his control and turned in middling results (9-6, 3.75 ERA). Stingy as he may have been in those three quality starts, he has given no indication that he is about to blossom into the pitcher his high draft position (No. 3 in 2014) and prospect status suggest he should be.
One area in which the White Sox are dramatically exceeding expectations is in the bullpen, which leads the majors with an absurd 1.39 ERA. Chicago's relievers have blown two saves, but the 'pen has yet to take a loss on the year. Closer David Robertson and the team's top two righthanded setup men, Nate Jones and Matt Albers, have combined to allow just two runs in 29 2/3 innings. In 58 1/3 total innings, the White Sox' relievers have allowed just one home run—a solo shot at that, coming off Zach Putnam in a game Chicago was already losing due to a poor start by Danks.
None of that is sustainable, but the White Sox do have a talented bullpen that could remain a strength as the season goes forward. Jones, the hardest-throwing member of the bullpen, is key to the team's postseason chances. He posted a 2.64 FIP in 2013 before losing most of the next two seasons to back and Tommy John surgeries, then returned last year to strike out 27 men in 19 innings. So far this year he's punched out nine batters in 9 2/3 frames. As for the rest of the bullpen, they would do well to return to their 2014 levels; Putnam (1.98 ERA in 54 2/3 innings) and then-rookie Jack Petricka (2.96 ERA in 73 innings) had strong seasons on the South Side, while lefties Zach Duke (2.54 ERA across 74 appearances for the Brewers) and Dan Jennings (1.34 ERA in 47 appearances with Miami) did the same elsewhere. While those performances were all fluky in their own way, they speak to the fact that this is a talented bullpen. It's also one that benefits greatly from having veteran pitching coach Don Cooper, and that group could very well put together a dominant season if everything breaks the right way.
Still, even if those relievers continue to excel, there is a regression coming for the White Sox, and quite possibly a complete course correction coming for Latos. That’s why it’s paradoxically encouraging that the offense has underperformed. Abreu, Frazier and Jackson are sure to improve as the season progresses, and if Garcia and the catchers can as well, Chicago will be able to balance out a significant amount of the regression among its pitchers and stay in contention—at least long enough to go shopping for a starting pitcher or another bat at July's trade deadline.
It's still too early to say that the White Sox are one of the best teams in the AL. But there is reason to believe that they will continue be relevant for the first time since 2012.