White Sox looking to turn off-season success into on-field results
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 13: the Chicago White Sox.
2014 Record and Finish: 73–89 (.451), fourth place in AL Central (22nd overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 83–79 (.512), third place in AL Central (tied for 13th overall)
The Case For
If the Padres won the winter, the White Sox were at least the AL’s representative in the winter’s World Series, as boring and low-rated as that theoretical event would have been. General manager Rick Hahn committed some $132 million to five free agents—outfielder Melky Cabrera, first baseman Adam LaRoche, utilityman Emilio Bonifacio, closer David Robertson and lefty reliever Zach Duke—and in December, he traded for starter Jeff Samardzija. The champions of the winter often do not win when the weather warms—see the Marlins and Blue Jays of recent vintage—but Chicago could be different for a couple of reasons.
One is that it did not totally overhaul things, but merely supplemented what is really a stellar nucleus of first baseman/designated hitter Jose Abreu and lefty ace Chris Sale. The former is arguably a top-three hitter, the latter arguably a top-three starter and both are, inarguably, severely underpaid, at least relative to their respective market values. Another reason is that even though the White Sox added a lot of bodies, they should retain flexibility to make further improvements. Only Robertson is signed for as long as the next four years (the contract will end when he’s just 33), and none of the contracts is likely to become an albatross.
The Case Against
Sale suffered an avulsion fracture in his right foot and a sprained ankle when he reportedly was getting out of his truck early this spring. Though he might miss only a handful of regular-season starts, the Sox should be careful with him. Foot and ankle injuries can lead to mechanical changes and then arm injuries if a pitcher rushes back too fast, and Chicago will need Sale for the long haul to have any shot at contention.
More concerning is that even with all their additions, the roster retains clear holes. One scout calls Tyler Flowers, who struck out a whopping 149 times in 442 plate appearances last year, a “two-thirds” guy at catcher: He’s not an everyday player, but that’s what he’ll be expected to be. Carlos Sanchez, the likely second baseman, is a reasonably solid fielder but has very little power, with just five extra-base hits, all of them doubles, in 104 big-league plate appearances last year. It’s hard to excel in the AL with a pair of dead spots in your lineup, and, unfortunately, the offense is deeper than the pitching staff.
Sale and Samardzija can match any rotation’s top two members, but the guys rounding out the staff out are cause for concern. John Danks had a 4.47 ERA last season, and his fastball has slowed by one mph every year since 2011 (to 88.5 in '14). Hector Noesi was cut by two teams (the Mariners and Rangers) last April alone, and while he had a 4.39 ERA in 27 starts with the White Sox, his extreme fly ball tendencies are almost certain to catch up with him in homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.
Lefty Carlos Rodon, the No. 3 pick in last year’s draft out of N.C. State, is often mentioned as a savior, but scouts say that he has just two developed pitches at this point (a fastball and a lethal slider). He could use some work on his changeup, as a spring in which he had a 6.14 ERA after his first three outings suggests. The real key to the rotation should be the 26-year-old southpaw Quintana, a legitimate No. 3 who has solved his minor league control issues—he walked 3.9 batters per nine on the farm and just 2.5 in three major league seasons—and who has actually moderately improved his average velocity each year. In fact, Quintana might wind up being Chicago’s second-best starter.
Number To Know: 32
That’s the MLB-high number of losses with which the White Sox’ bullpen was saddled last year. Combine that with its 28th-ranked ERA of 4.38, and it's easy to see why one scout deems Robertson “probably the most important guy they got” over the winter. Part of the idea is that Robertson, the 29-year-old who saved 39 games in 44 tries as Mariano Rivera’s successor with the Yankees last year, will stabilize the 'pen with his performance, and the club as a whole, too. “I can’t tell you how demoralizing it is, especially for a younger team, to lose a game you’re winning the whole time,” the scout said. But Robertson’s also been brought in to influence younger relievers like setup men Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka. He’ll be expected to pass a little Mariano on to them.
Most Overrated: Jeff Samardzija
“He doesn’t have quite the command you’d like from an ace. To me, he gets more recognition than what he’s accomplished, and often he pitches just well enough to lose. There are days he struggles, and he just doesn’t look comfortable throwing a lot of the time. He’s not an ace and a savior; those are guys like Jon Lester and Clayton Kershaw. He’s a solid No. 2, but no better.”
Most Underrated: Avisail Garcia
“We haven’t seen a whole bunch of him because he’s been hurt, but he’s an impressive looking young athlete and he’s got a lot of ability. He looks like Miguel Cabrera, and they’re from the same town in Venezuela. But he can run and he can throw. He can’t hit like Cabrera—nobody can—but he’s got all the tools, and he’s been especially good this spring. If it all clicks, he’s going to be a star.”