Chicago White Sox Season Preview: Stuck in 2005
It's the fall of 2005. Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are coming off of spectacular seasons in which they both had 40 home runs and a wOBA of at least .386. Konerko won a World Series with his Chicago White Sox. Dunn was just entering his prime at the age of 26 with the Cincinnati Reds. Life was great for the sluggers.
Fast forward to 2013. Neither Dunn nor Konerko posted a positive WAR, with Dunn at -0.2 and Konerko -1.8. Dunn finished with a strikeout percentage above 30 for the fourth consecutive season. Konerko had the worst wOBA (.298). And the worst slugging percentage (.355). And the worst isolated power (.111) of any qualified first baseman. Yet, both logged over 500 plate appearances. As a result, the White Sox lost 99 games and finished last in the AL Central.
But times, they are a-changing in the South Side. An active offseason has completely reshaped this squad (for the better), and may actually make them *gasp* watchable this season.
Out With the Old, In With the...Well, Less Old
There are a ton of unknowns on this 2014 White Sox squad. Will they try to hit the small white ball with their sticks? Will Chris Sale begin intentionally throwing at his own players out of frustration? Will Gordon Beckham's neck return from its life-long hiatus?
But even more perplexing than any of these questions is how will Jose Abreu produce in the majors? The dude put up some stupid numbers in the Cuban National Series. In the 2010-2011 season, he had a slash of .453/.597/.986. That's MVP Baseball 2005 good (where even Lew Ford can hit .320!). That doesn't mean that production will translate directly to the big leagues.
One of Abreu's top competitors in the Cuban National League was none other than Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes has put up a .342 composite wOBA over his first two seasons while dealing with a laundry list of injuries. The power has been real for Cespedes, too, having belted 23 and 26 home runs respectively in 2012 and 2013.
Abreu is a year younger than Cespedes and will be entering his age-27 season. If he out-produces Cespedes (as he did in the Cuban National League), Abreu will be the perfect way for the Sox to limit the at-bats of Old and Older (Dunn and Konerko). If not, then, well, let's just not go there.
Last year, the Sox had seven pitchers record a WAR higher than 1.0 in their time with the team. Four of those seven are no longer on the roster. Jake Peavy built up a 1.5 WAR with Chicago before being traded to those other Sox and winning a World Series. Hector Santiago and Addison Reed were both traded within the span of a week, with Santiago going to the Angels and Reed the Diamondbacks. And Jesse Crain basically forfeited all happiness by signing with the Astros as a free agent.
The good news (yes, it exists!) is that the top three pitchers in WAR are all back this year. At the top of that list is none other than the aforementioned Mr. Sale.
If you ever need to win an argument about how utterly useless a pitcher's win-loss record is, bring up 2013 Chris Sale. He was bizarro world Max Scherzer. Sale had a 3.07 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 9.49 K/9 and a 1.93 BB/9, but finished with an 11-14 record. Scherzer averaged 5.59 runs of support per start. Sale, on the other hand, only got 3.20. That's 2.39 runs per game that poor Mr. Sale is not getting. Darn you, cruel world. Darn you to heck.
Jose Quintana didn't post numbers that challenged Sale's, but he was a solid number two starter. From his rookie season (2012) to last year, he posted improvements in his ERA, FIP, K/9 and BB/9. Quintana is only 25 and entering his third season, so those improvements should continue into 2014.
The only minor point of concern for Quintana is the low BABIP against last year. He had the 28th-lowest BABIP against of qualified pitchers last year at .283. That number will most likely go back to around .290 or so, but it shouldn't be enough to drastically curtail his shot at further improvement.
The other pitcher with a WAR above one for the White Sox was Nate Jones. Jones's stats, like Sale's, are sad to look at. The reliever may have walked just a few too many (a respectable 3.00 BB/9), but he excelled everywhere else. His 10.27 K/9 helped him post a 2.64 FIP.
Now, if you were given a player's 2.64 FIP and forced to guess his ERA, you'd probably say something between 2.50 and 3.00, right? Well, not with Jones. He had a 4.15 FIP. How does that happen? His 62.9 percent strand rate was the third lowest of any pitcher that threw at least 70 innings last year. Basically, the dude had the luck of a person that ran over a black cat while head-butting a mirror on Friday the 13th. Jones should put up solid (and more realistic) numbers out of the pen this year.
The three most notable additions (outside of Abreu) for the White Sox since the middle portion of last year are all 25 or younger. You certainly can't accuse the team of not trying to change things up.
The first of those was Avisail Garcia, who came from Detroit in the three-team Peavy trade at the deadline in July. Garcia's .283 batting average wasn't bad last year, but his 3.5 walk percentage basically nullified all of that. And it's not like that walk percentage was an outlier; it was actually higher than his walk percentage in his 226 AA plate appearances in 2012.
The plus side of Garcia is that he's only entering his age-23 season. The numberFire projections have him at a .328 wOBA, which seems like a reasonable improvement from last year. He'll at the very least get steady at-bats in right field, so it should be interesting to see how he progresses in 2014.
The man to his right, Adam Eaton, is also a newbie in the Chi-Town. He came over from Arizona as part of the trade that sent Santiago to the Angels.
Eaton struggled both offensively and defensively in his first full season in the majors, resulting in a -1.6 WAR. His wOBA fell from .355 in 102 plate MLB plate appearances in 2012 to .301 last year in 277 plate appearances. And the projections aren't too kind to him in that department, either. His wOBA projection ranges from .299 (numberFire) to .329 (Steamer). If he's in the lower end of that range, the White Sox are going to have some serious trouble in center. But, again, Eaton is only 25, so this is a critical year for his development.
The new guy with the most lick in his stick is Matt Davidson, another former D'Back acquired via trade in December. The soon-to-be-23-year-old third baseman had 23 home runs at AA in 2012 and 20 between AAA and the majors last year. The numberFire projections have him at 11 home runs this year in 400 plate appearances, and a lot of that depends on how much time he gets relative to incumbent starter Conor Gillaspie. Regardless of how he does this year, Davidson is just another intriguing, young player that Rick Hahn and Robin Ventura have brought in recently.
With Alexei Ramirez, you know what you're getting. Over the last five years, he hasn't had a WAR lower than 1.9 or higher than 4.3. Over the last four years, he has played 156, 158, 158 and 158 games respectively. That's about as consistent as you can get.
The offensive production has never dazzled, and it won't this year either as he enters his age-32 season. His home run production has decreased each of the last four years, and his wOBA floats in the upper-.200's and lower-.300's. What you get from him is defense - even if that, too, has fallen 50 percent over the last two years.
You also know what you're going to get from Gordon Beckham. Just not really in a good way. His defense will be average, his offense will be less-so. He has nearly twice as many infield fly outs in his career (101) as he has home runs (54). So things could be better.
The cool part about the White Sox? They have a lot of young players that are going to see the field often. The uncool part? There's not a whole lot behind them in the farm system. Baseball Prospectus listed it as the 28th-best prospect pool in the league. That's the sad zone, where all you hear is this video on a loop. It's not a pretty place.
But that doesn't mean they're completely devoid of compelling little whipper snappers. That starts with Erik Johnson. Johnson made five starts last year and finished with a 3.25 ERA despite a 5.40 FIP. A big reason for that high FIP was the fact that he pitches like he should be on the division-rival Minnesota Twins. His 5.86 K/9 probably would have made him the fireballer of the Twinkies last year. In the minors, that number was generally above eight, so expect higher strikeout totals this year, but also a higher ERA as he enters his age-24 season.
The other two prospects of note are Adrian Nieto and Marcus Semien. Nieto was a Rule-5 draft guy, so he'll have to be on the roster the entire season if the Sox want to keep him. Considering they just optioned another catcher, Josh Phegley, to AAA, there's a good chance Nieto could make the team. He has never played above A+ ball, so don't expect much from him in terms of 2014 production, but he's an interesting story after being suspended for PED's back in 2011.
Semien is the heir-apparent to Ramirez at short. He spent most of his year at AA in 2013, but his dope .415 wOBA earned him a promotion to AAA and, eventually, a September call-up. In his 483 AA plate appearances, Semien had 21 doubles, five triples, 15 home runs, 20 stolen bases, and 84 walks to 66 strikeouts. Offensive production. Shortstop. Twenty-three years old. That's man-crush material, bruh.
The White Sox will not be great in 2014. They will not be good. They will not even be decent. They will be bad, and that's progress.
Honestly, the 2014 win total should matter little to Ventura and the White Sox fans. This should be a year devoted to developing the young talent and building for 2015 and 2016.
If I were forced to assign a number, I'd guess that Sale will at some point just refuse to leave the mound, leading the White Sox to 69 wins. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a necessary step for a team that has been stuck in 2005 for almost a decade.