The White Sox's off-season shopping spree earns them high marks in our Winter Report Card, but is Chicago truly ready to contend?
With little less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014.
Chicago White Sox
2014 Results: 73-92 (.451), fourth place in AL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
Coming off 73 wins in 2014, the White Sox have been one of the biggest surprises of this offseason, establishing themselves as major players with the signings of Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera and David Robertson and the six-player trade that brought Jeff Samardzija over from the Athletics. Clearly, the team saw opportunity in its AL Central, with the Tigers potentially losing Max Scherzer, the Royals potentially losing James Shields, and every team in the division having out-played its run differential and third-order record in 2014 save for the last-place Twins.
The catch is that the White Sox are among the teams that overperformed in 2014. In fact, they had the second-worst run differential and third-order record in the AL, besting only the Rangers with a performance that was closer to 71 wins than their actual 73. Given that no team has made the playoffs with fewer than 88 wins in the last three years, the White Sox would have to improve by 17 wins to have any real hope of a postseason berth in 2015. The moves they have made have undoubtedly made them a better team, but I remain skeptical about their lasting impact.
The good news is that, for the most part, the only thing their aggressiveness has cost them is money. Robertson signed for $46 million over four years, Cabrera for $42 million over three years, LaRoche for $25 million over two years, lefty reliever Zach Duke for $15 million over three years, and speedy utility man Emilio Bonifacio for one year at $4 million plus a club option for 2016. Those aren't all wise investments, but they won't break the bank, either.
Robertson should continue to be an elite closer, even if Andrew Miller, who signed with the Yankees for $10 million less over the same four years and didn't require draft pick compensation, was the wiser investment. The 30-year-old Cabrera, having rebounded from his performance-enhancing drug suspension and having returned to his 2011-12 level of production, seems likely to earn his keep in leftfield and should be an easy upgrade over the .225/.297/.344 line Chicago's leftfielders compiled in 2014. Similarly, LaRoche should represent a marked improvement over the .215/.311/.391 line the now-retired Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn combined for last year as the non-Jose Abreu part of the team's first base/designated hitter combination.
Duke, who will turn 32 in April, is more of a gamble, albeit a low-level one, as there was no precedent for his excellent performance in the Brewers' bullpen last year. From the middle of the 2011 season through 2013, Duke posted a 4.01 ERA and 1.40 WHIP with just 4.4 strikeouts per nine innings and a 1.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 67 1/3 relief innings for the Diamondbacks, Nationals and Reds. Then last year, his strikeout rate suddenly jumped to 11.4 per nine innings, helping Duke to 2.45 ERA (and 2.14 FIP) in 58 2/3 innings in which he pitched almost as well against righties as his fellow lefties. The White Sox are gambling that the change in Duke's effectiveness is a legitimate result of his move to a side-arm delivery in 2013 and his use as a frequent match-up reliever rather than an infrequent long man, as had been his role in Arizona and Washington.
I quite like the Oakland side of the Samardzija deal. In 24-year-old Marcus Semien, who should be the Atheltics' Opening Day shortstop, Oakland acquired six team-controlled years of a legitimate middle-infield prospect, albeit one without a particularly high ceiling, along with three other young players (righty starter Chris Bassitt, minor league first baseman Rangel Ravelo and backup catcher Josh Phegley) for a rental (Samardzija is due to be a free agent in November) and what's left of former prospect Michael Ynoa, whose career was derailed by Tommy John surgery in his teens.
From Chicago's perspective, however, the White Sox didn't give up anything they couldn't afford, as they have organizational depth in the middle infield in prospects Carlos Sanchez, Micah Johnson and Tim Anderson, all of whom have reached Double A or above. Samardzija isn't an ace, but he rounds out an impressive top three in the Chicago rotation with lefties Chris Sale and Jose Quintana and, at worst, should net the Sox a compensation pick next winter.
Unfinished Business: Second base, another starting pitcher
With Semien in Oakland, the White Sox will fill second base with some combination of Bonifacio and the 22-year-old rookie Sanchez. That's not nothing, but it could easily result in a replacement-level performance at the position, a familiar condition for the White Sox. Meanwhile, despite the addition of Samardzija, the back of the Chicago rotation is still wanting. With prospect Erik Johnson coming off a brutal season, John Danks (who still has two years and $28.5 million left on his contract) and Hector Noesi are penciled in as the fourth and fifth starters. Last year, they combined for a Fielding Indpendent Pitching mark around 4.80 in 59 starts.
Preliminary Grade: A-
I remain pessimistic about the White Sox's chances of contending in 2015, but they deserve credit for making a run at it, and doing so in a way that hasn't set the team back in the big picture. Semien is the only significant prospect they gave up, and Robertson's four-year, $46 million contract was the largest they handed out in terms of both dollars and years. While they may have overpaid for him, he seems like a good bet to maintain his effectiveness throughout its length. The White Sox did a good job of targeting their needs and should unquestionably be a better team in the coming season. You can't ask for much more than that.