It’s dark in the hole in which the Chicago White Sox find themselves, and the hardest thing about climbing out might be this: They’ve never really been down here before. The Sox last won fewer than 79 games in 2007, when they won 72. (The next year, by the way, they won the AL Central in a tiebreaker, at 89-74.) Before that, they’d last been a sub-.500 team in 1999. (The next year, they won 95 games, and the AL Central.) The last time the White Sox finished last in a division, they were seventh, in the 1989 AL West, at 69-92. (They won 94 games in 1990, vaulting to second place.)
You might be waiting for a punchline. Happily, I have one. Until 2013, when the Sox won 63 games, they were one of only four franchises in baseball who hadn’t had a putrid (65 wins or worse) season since 1976. The other three were the Red Sox, Yankees and Cardinals. And that year, that terrible 64-97 1976 the Sox had? In 1977, they won 90 games.
No one thinks of this as one of baseball’s pillar franchises, because they have a bad habit of finishing second a lot, always in contention, but rarely in October, and hardly ever on the temporary stages, having trophies presented to them. It’s also, of course, a function of their standing as the Second City’s Second Team, and the way you can be sure that the latter is not driven by the former is that the Sox won the World Series, in 2005, and have generally been better than the Cubs for the last quarter-century, and they haven’t made a dent in the Cubs’ lead-pipe lock on the city’s primary affection.
Having lost so many games in 2013, and with a notoriously weak farm system, the White Sox were expected to use this winter to start over. The trend these days has bad teams, even ones in large markets, with high expectations, choosing full-scale rebuilding and the pursuit of a fully sustainable model for success, instead of desperately trying to hang the next banner. The Houston Astros and the Cubs are the chief examples, and they started from a place not so different from this one.
Despite a leadership change and an owner making noises about moving on, though, the White Sox look like a team interested in adding another page to their quick-turnaround scrapbook. The first thing they did with their offseason—right in the middle of the playoffs, in fact—was to spend $68 million on Cuban first baseman and slugger Jose Abreu. Abreu put up video-game numbers in the top Cuban baseball league, and while the scouting consensus is that his bat speed will limit his upside a bit in the States, he has to be considered the most promising hitter (not position player, but hitter) to come out of Cuba in a decade or more.
Abreu plays first base, which means the Sox are officially leaving behind the Paul Konerko era. Konerko finally ran out of miracles this season, after an inspired late-career resurgence. Abreu is 26. General manager Rick Hahn seems intent on getting younger, even as he continues to try to win.
I don’t think the White Sox will come back and win 90 games, or their division, in 2014. Given their history, though, and given the early signposts indicating their intentions, it would be wise to take a thorough look at them, and see what getting back into the race would entail for them.
The Tyler Flowers Experiment was a disaster, a trainwreck on fire. The White Sox’s starting catcher last season both defended the position poorly and hit .195/.247/.355, which is why, by season’s end, he wasn’t even really the starting catcher. A shoulder injury shelved him for the year at the beginning of September, and since it’s his throwing shoulder, it could also put his future behind the plate in doubt. The Sox need to move on, right away.
At first base, they’ve already made their move, and the more I ponder their addition of Abreu, the more I love it. He might not be a star, but then again, he might, and the fact is that bats of his caliber, even when available in the domestic talent markets, cost long-term assets in the form of either traded prospects or forfeited draft picks. Abreu might enliven the worst offense the American League has seen in 30 years, and he costs only money—an abundant and renewable resource in baseball.
Gordon Beckham spent the winter leading into 2013 working on being less top-hand dominant with his swing. He also made an adjustment to get into a deeper crouch at the plate. A week into the season, though, he broke a hamate bone in his right (top) hand, on a swing, underscoring the fact that making significant changes to game mechanics is a lot harder—and more complex, and riskier—than fans think.
When he got back onto the field, Beckham had the best season he has had since his rookie year, 2009. He made more contact, and by lifting the ball more than ever (probably thanks in part to the stance adjustment), he maintained the power gains he had made in 2012, although the extra-base hits tended to be doubles, not homers.
Next season will be the age-27 campaign for Beckham. He is what he is. The future star that showed up in short order after Chicago drafted him has given way to a usable role player, a below-average but acceptable regular. He’s an okay guy to have around, but the White Sox have had too many players in that mold the past two seasons, in Alejandro De Aza and Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo. Beckham has the most external appeal, relative to his real value, so he’s probably going to have to go if the Sox are going to get back on the horse quickly.
The lineup is very right-handed. Too right-handed, really. By season’s end, the two best hitters in the lineup were Adam Dunn and De Aza, lefties both, but they were merely the best of a bad bunch. Dunn’s .786 OPS against righties was the best on the team. If that’s the best that anyone hits right-handed pitchers, your offense is sunk.
Replacing Flowers creates an opportunity to get a lefty into the mix, or at least a switch-hitter. Brian McCann is a good fit but probably too expensive for Chicago. Jarrod Saltalamacchia could work, though, and Dioner Navarro will be out there as a poor man’s version of him if that falls through.
Truly, though, the problem with the Sox isn’t the shape of the offense. It’s the size. The White Sox don’t score enough runs, and it isn’t because they don’t have enough left-handed hitters or enough power hitters or enough OBP guys. It’s because they don’t have enough good hitters. Last season, Dunn led the team wtih an OPS three percent better than the league average, after adjusting for their hitter-friendly home park. Be it at second base, third base, catcher or (preferably) all three, the White Sox need to get much more productive if they hope to contend.
The pitching staff is a bizarre mirror image of the offense. Whereas the position players are too right-handed, the starting rotation leans too far to the left: Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Hector Santiago and John Danks probably make up 80 percent of the projected rotation right now. Lefty starters have less margin for error, because the platoon advantage bumps up right-handed hitters’ walk rates against lefties. It becomes especially troublesome if the opponent, as a team, works the count well, which is why the Indians and Red Sox beat the White Sox 21 times in 25 games.
Overall, though, the Sox’s pitching isn’t bad. They allowed the sixth-most runs in the American League last season, but that came in one of the league’s very best hitters’ parks, and in front of some less-than-stellar defense. They’re thin, but not untalented. They might even be able to trade Quintana or Santiago in a move to bolster the offense, and then sign a free-agent right-hander who could balance the rotation a bit better.
The bullpen was a weakness last season, which is unusual for the White Sox, but it’s a bullpen, so a bad one in any given year is a leading indicator of a good one the next. The White Sox should be able to prevent runs well enough to win. They will succeed or fail on the merits of their offense.
Chris Sale deserves a special section, but will have to settle for this paragraph. What a pitcher. It still seems a miracle that he hasn’t broken down, given his wild, rubber-band delivery and the lagging of his elbow as he begins the violent throwing motion. I’m not, personally, a fan of the Sox’s handling of him. Their approach has been to let him run up high pitch counts, but afford him plenty of extra rest days. For instance, he didn’t pitch between May 17 and June 2, and he pitched every six days—not every five—from August 28 onward, but he threw at least 118 pitches in a game seven times.
For a guy who seems at risk of an elbow injury, I would counsel the opposite approach, because elbow injuries tend to happen when a pitcher is tired and has trouble generating enough arm speed to keep up with his body rotation. I, however, am not a pitching coach, and the White Sox have already kept Sale healthy for three years longer than most people thought he could stay healthy. Nor is he just healthy: he’s dominant. He struck out five for every batter he walked in 2013, posting a 3.07 ERA. He will be at the center of their run prevention from now until whenever he does break down.
What They Might Do
It would be not at all unlike the White Sox to fly under the radar, let no one know they were even a candidate, then sign Robinson Cano or Jacoby Ellsbury. Either player would make a major impact on this offense. That’s really what they need. They’re acting, already, on the assumption that Abreu will be a true middle-of-the-order bat. Adding another would make their offense viable again, and that, in turn, would make them contenders in the weak AL Central.
Call me crazy, but I kind of like the White Sox. They got out from under a lot of money for 2014 when they dealt away Alex Rios and Jake Peavy. Those moves also returned a solid utility player, in Leury Garcia, and a starting corner outfielder with untapped power, in Avisail Garcia. They also move on from Konerko, Jesse Crain and Gavin Floyd, all dead money by the All-Star break last year. Jose Quintana looked like a neat trick in 2012. He looked like a real, solid mid-rotation MLB starter in 2013.
Again, Abreu is the linchpin. He can make this team relevant, if he goes out and hits .300 with 30 home runs. He can make them a near-perpetual laughingstock, if he finds himself unable to catch up to big-league fastballs. It’s a credit to Hahn, though, that he didn’t automatically hit the big red button when he got the launch codes, and that the White Sox, having hit rock-bottom, might not have to drag along on that bottom for long before ascending again.Next post: A Balanced Lineup: Boston Red Sox – November 4
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