Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Chicago White Sox.
78–84 (.481), fourth place in American League Central
RHP Matt Albers*, C Alex Avila, OF Adam Eaton, OF Austin Jackson, DH Justin Morneau*, LHP Chris Sale
LHP Derek Holland, RHP Lucas Giolito, RHP Michael Kopech, RHP Reynaldo Lopez, IF Yoan Moncada, C Geovany Soto
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
The great South Side teardown has begun. After four straight sub-.500 seasons and an off-season spending spree in 2014 that amounted to nothing, the White Sox have embarked upon a full-on rebuild this winter, punctuated by a pair of blockbuster trades involving Sale and Eaton. The result of those moves will be a 2017 team that should rank among the league’s worst, but in exchange, Chicago now boasts a loaded farm system, including the game’s No. 1 prospect and one of the minors' best pitchers.
The most notable name to go is Sale, the 27-year-old lefty and five-time All-Star. There's no questioning his resume: Since joining the rotation back in 2012, he’s posted a 3.04 ERA, 133 ERA+, 10.0 strikeout-per-nine rate and 27.6 WAR; among all starters with 1,000 or more innings pitched in that span, only Clayton Kershaw (34.7) and Max Scherzer (30.2) have been more valuable. Sale wasn’t his usual dominant self last season, finishing with a strikeout rate under 10.0 and an ERA+ of only 120. Those are still ace marks, however, and that (along with Sale’s absurdly team-friendly contract, which has $38 million and three years remaining) helped the White Sox land a gigantic prospect package from the Red Sox in their trade.
The headliner for Chicago was Moncada, a 21-year-old Cuban defector who signed a $63 million deal with Boston in the 2015 off-season. Ranked the No. 1 prospect in the game by Baseball America at midseason and by MLB.com this off-season, Moncada spent 2016 destroying two levels of the minor leagues, including a gaudy .277/.379/.531 showing in 45 games at Double A Portland. Moncada offers power from both sides of the plate, hits line drives to all fields, has a fantastic batting eye, is one of the minors’ fastest runners and best base stealers and is already adequate defensively at second base. His rough MLB debut notwithstanding (12 strikeouts in 20 plate appearances in August), he is a potential superstar franchise player, and exactly the kind of piece the White Sox needed to acquire.
Along with Moncada, the Sox also scored 20-year-old righthander Kopech in their deal with Boston. The 6'4" Kopech, a former first-round pick, is one of the minors’ hardest throwers, routinely hitting 100 mph on the gun and reaching as high as 105. He ranked No. 30 in MLB.com’s December prospect rankings, but he still needs to work on his secondary offerings. Off-the-field issues are a concern as well: Kopech was suspended for 50 games in 2015 after testing positive for a stimulant, and he broke his pitching hand in a fight with a teammate early last year. Luckily for Chicago, he’s got plenty of time to develop and mature.
The White Sox' other big trade landed them a trio of high-value minor league arms, as they picked up righthanders Giolito, Lopez and 2016 first-round pick Dane Dunning in exchange for sending Eaton to Washington. Eaton was an underrated asset atop Chicago's lineup for the last three years, offering a potent blend of power and speed. Last year, he hit .284/.362/.428 for a 119 OPS+ and 6.2 WAR, the 10th-highest mark among AL position players, though his defense in centerfield was a drop from his sterling work in right in years past. Just 28 and, like Sale, signed to a team-friendly deal ($18.4 million through 2019 with team options of $9.5 million and $10.5 million after that), it's not hard to see why he cost the Nationals a hefty amount.
Giolito, 22, came into the 2016 season ranked as BA’s No. 5 prospect and No. 3 by both Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com and split the year between Double and Triple A, striking out 112 in 118 1/3 innings. His calling card is his fastball, with which he can hit the upper 90s, and he also offers a devastating curveball, but his command is shaky at times, and his brief stay in the big leagues with Washington last year was unimpressive (16 earned runs, 12 walks and 11 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings). Nonetheless, he has as high a ceiling as any prospect in baseball. Lopez, 23, isn’t as big a name as Giolito, but the Dominican native rocketed through the minors last year and ended up making six starts for the Nationals, posting a 4.91 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 44 innings. Like Giolito, Lopez throws hard and has some command issues (he walked 22 in his time with Washington), but while he may end up a reliever in the end, he still offers plenty of upside.
Aside from those two deals, Chicago has been quiet. Holland helps fill out a rotation that will struggle without Sale, though the 30-year-old lefty is incapable of staying healthy and hasn’t been productive since 2013. Last year, he pitched just 107 1/3 innings, posting a 4.95 ERA and only 5.6 strikeouts per nine for Texas. Soto will take over behind the plate for Avila (who re-joined the Tigers in December) as a backup option for presumptive starter Omar Narvaez. Like Avila, Soto can hit when healthy (.269/.321/.487 for the Angels last year) but is injury prone and a poor defender to boot.
Gone along with Avila are Albers, Jackson and Morneau, none of whom contributed much in 2016. Albers was awful out of the bullpen, getting torched for a 6.31 ERA and 10 home runs in 51 1/3 innings. Jackson continued his plunge from top prospect to roster filler, hitting just .254/.318/.343 as a backup outfielder before going under the knife for season-ending knee surgery in early June; he joined the Indians on a minor league deal. Morneau’s days as a big leaguer appear done: The 35-year-old former MVP was limited to 218 plate appearances off the bench and hit a meager .261/.303/.429.
Unfinished Business: Continuing the rebuild
Aside from new staff ace Jose Quintana and 2014 top-five draft pick Carlos Rodon, the rest of Chicago's starting five consists of the washed-up James Shields, the mediocre Miguel Gonzalez and the perpetually hurt Holland, with little to no depth behind them. The White Sox also have less-than-inspiring options at second base, designated hitter and catcher, and the bullpen is shaky. But for a rebuilding team, there’s no point in papering over holes. The coming season shouldn’t be the focus for Chicago’s front office; instead, it should spend the rest of the winter and up through the trade deadline trying to move its veteran pieces.
Quintana has the most trade value of anyone on the roster, but at 27 and under team control through 2020, there's a strong argument for keeping him. Look for the team instead to shop third baseman Todd Frazier, closer David Robertson and leftfielder Melky Cabrera. Both Frazier and Cabrera will be free agents after the season, and Robertson has one year left on his contract after 2017; all three are also over 30. None will be part of the next contending White Sox team, and all should be dealt when possible. There are no half-measures in rebuilds, and Chicago can’t stop now.
Preliminary Grade: B+
The returns on the trades of Sale and Eaton were as good as you could get, and while there’s still work to be done on the South Side, general manager Rick Hahn and company have taken a strong first step in their long-overdue rebuild. The 2017 White Sox will be hard to watch, but the seeds for future success have already been planted.