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On the South Side of Chicago… The Baddest part of town…

2005 seems like forever ago. I was a freshman in college, and within weeks I had fallen into the trap of that “freshman epiphany” phase where I suddenly considered myself an intellectual. In reality, I knew nothing. While I was off arguing over what I thought was the true human condition, the Chicago White Sox were working on their first World Series title in eighty-eight years. Living in far Northwest Indiana, I was surrounded by bandwagon jumpers and true believers alike. Even as a Cubs fan, still recovering from the fatal collapse of 2003 and the backbreaking disappointment of 2004, I was beginning to latch on to the South Side team that featured childhood icon Frank Thomas as well as likeable characters Paul Konerko, Mark Buerhle and Freddy Garcia.

Cut to late summer 2014- September 27, to be exact. Paul Konerko, the last link to the World Series team, was having his retirement party on a beautiful late afternoon. I was in the upper deck with some friends, mostly to celebrate the career of a Chicago sports icon. Once Konerko had announced his plans for retirement, all of the 2005 memories came flooding back. While fondness for what was past is still always evident, what is now and what is yet to come are what matters. The Sox would win the game, which just so happened to be Kansas City’s last loss until the World Series. Just as their iconic first baseman’s career was coming to a close, his replacement, Jose Abreu, went on to win 2014 Rookie of the Year in unanimous fashion. A new era was in full effect at U.S. Cellular Field, led by Abreu and world-beater ace Chris Sale. While the Sox would finish a flaccid 73-89, there was a lot of hope that with a few key pickups over the winter, the silver and black could make a push for contention in the upcoming season.

The 2014 White Sox were pretty much the embodiment of mediocre. Not necessarily all of the individual pieces, but the sum of all their parts had become a squad that hovered around American League average in almost every major statistical category. Despite the head-scratcher that was the recent Gordon Beckham re-signing, the Sox did some decent work replenishing the offense.

For starters, Adam LaRoche comes into town likely as a flex 1B/DH, but a much needed left-handed power bat to platoon split with the right-handed and seven-years-younger Abreu. The most simple aspect to take notice is the comparison to Adam Dunn, considering LaRoche will likely spend more time filling the designated hitter role. LaRoche struck out 108 times in 140 games last season. Compare that over to Dunn, whose 159 strikeouts in 131 games created enough wind power to practically receive a clean-energy tax incentive from the government. Between the two 35-year olds, the 2014 comparisons looks even more in LaRoche’s favor as we dig deeper. Dunn obtained a far-too-modest .219/.337/.415 slash. LaRoche’s .259/.363/.455 is a visible improvement to a team that just felt predictable and stale in the middle of the lineup.

Melky Cabrera arrives from North of the border to replace Dayan Viciedo or Alejandro De Aza. Flip a coin and you’ll find an upgrade in Cabrera over either newly-departed outfielder. Melky hit his contract year in 2014 and made sure he’d get paid this winter. Despite the unpleasantness of 2012’s positive test for a banned testosterone substance, Cabrera remains a possible 3-4 win player heading into his age 30 season. One man doesn’t fix an entire outfield, however. Avisail Garcia has seen limited time so far, and has yet to show off the physical gifts that have filled his scouting reports, but it looks like the right field gig will be his come April. There is not too much pressure on the team as a whole, and Garcia will not turn 24 until June, but the “bust” whispers will likely start to gather if he either can’t handle the breadth of a full season or falls victim to the injury bug.

Adam Eaton tied Michael Bourn for the American League lead in triples last year, and his career high in for steals jumped from five to fifteen. The clear problem with Eaton is health. Twice last season he sat out a double-digit stretch of games. The 123 games he played in 2014 were a career high, which leaves all of his speedy potential on the bench for nearly a quarter of the season. Defensively, he is tip-toeing around that “black hole” status. His fielding percentage (.988) was good enough for fifth in the American League among center fielders. If Eaton can just stay healthy, there may be at least some hope that we can let go of any remaining Courtney Hawkins hype.

The catching situation is a bit rough. Quality behind the plate is a premium these days, and Tyler Flowers is the best the Sox can use right now. I feel like I’ve been waiting for Flowers to become something more than he is or ever will be. Not talking Yadier-caliber, but consistently serviceable would be okay. 159 strikeouts is enough to realize that maybe a guy who hit fifteen home runs should take it easy at the plate every now and then. The other option is Geo Soto, Chicago baseball’s one-hit wonder still searching for his sequel. That is to say Soto even makes the opening day roster, which is entirely possible if there is any lingering chemistry between him and Jeff Samardzija.

Conor Gillaspie most likely gets the nod at third to start April. If he is to keep sweet-swinging Matt Davidson at bay, he’ll need to build on a better-than-okay 2014. Seven homers isn’t going to land Gillaspie a Silver Slugger, but 31 doubles and a fistful of triples aren’t bad for a second-year placeholder. His errors dropped from a league-worst 16 to a league-groan 12, despite seeing nearly 30 more balls roll his way. His .565 OPS against left handed pitchers is a cause for concern if there ever was one. 22 of his 78 strikeouts came against lefties as well, despite 256 fewer at-bats. Yikes. On a lighter note- similar batters on Baseball Reference include the wonderfully-named Spider Jorgenson.

Second base will go to the winner of a rather uninteresting three horse race between Carlos Sanchez, Emilio Bonifacio, and the prodigal “ugh” Gordon Beckham. Ventura will likely swap them in depending on the situation, and he’ll probably make a late-spring statement about versatility at the position, but it really is pretty bleak. Micah Johnson still has some work to do in Charlotte, but when Rick Hahn and the Chicago media say he’s ready, the current Hydra of utility infielders manning the position will be put to rest. Beckham is the defensive specialist of the group, ranking first in the AL in range factor for second baseman. He also finished fourth in errors, but saw a lot more action at the position than Bonifacio or Sanchez. Still, I the consensus seems to be that Sanchez will land the starting gig for now. He’s listed as the top dog at 2B on the Sox’ depth chart, so I guess that’s at least a good indication heading into spring training. He’s got youth on his side, and his main competition is a journeyman infielder and an agonizing disappointment. Why did the Sox re-sign Beckham? Was there a ransom? Maybe Rick Hahn has a heart of gold. Either way, the battle for second base will likely be the most exciting competition in White Sox camp. Don’t touch that dial!

The final piece of the offensive puzzle is stalwart shortstop Alexei Ramirez. The speed is still there, and apparently the decision making skills are as well. Ramirez saw his success rate climb to a career best 84% theft rate. Expecting another ~20 steal, ~15 home run season is not outside of the realm of possibility, and given the Sox’ below average steal figures, every bit of the 33 year old’s speed will be needed if Robin Ventura decides to finally take some risks this year.

I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on Ventura. After all, the man is still likely best known for getting the snot knocked out of him by Nolan Ryan. In 2015, Ventura’s job is still pretty safe, considering his legacy in black and the fact that the Sox have been re-stocking the roster steadily the during his tenure. In three seasons, he has lived up to about every expectation I’ve had. He’s been docile. He’s been relaxed. He’s been boring. While I’m not saying he should start micromanaging and calling for pressure bunts and dangerous steals like a certain divisional rival, but the ends might justify the means in an attitude shift. The White Sox finished dead last in the NL Central in steals last year, which can’t be all Ventura’s fault for having a saccharine trigger finger. A full season (fingers-crossed) of Avisail Garcia and Adam Eaton, a steady Alexei, and the possible emergence of Micah Johnson (swoon) could mean a more gutsy Robin on the perch. In all seriousness, losing Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko from the lineup should help the baserunning tremendously, but thats all just reflex speculation.

One thing Robin Ventura will have at his disposal will be a pitching staff top-heavy in potential. Of course there are the stars, as Jeff Samardzija slides in behind Chris Sale to present a rather fun tandem atop the rotation. Ol’ Shark watched his opponents’ slash line dip considerably from 2013 to last year (.255/.325/.411 to .234/.279/.367) and watched his WHIP flirt sensually with 1.06, most notably falling to .931 during his 16 starts in the allegedly tougher American League. I’ve heard radio jib-jab about how Samardzija is a possible bust candidate. Sure, I can understand any player falling off a bit after a contract year. Shark suffered a bit to the long ball during his layover in Oakland. That hiccup aside, his overall transcript proves that he hovers around ace-quality and is likely overqualified for the job of second starter, much to the South Siders’ benefit.

Jose Quintana reached career bests in ERA (3.32) and Strikeouts (178). The 26-year old lefty is becoming the latest Don Cooper masterpiece. Across both leagues, Quintana was fifth in home runs per nine (.449) and tenth in FIP (2.81), a figure that leaves his name lingering around those of Price and Lester, last year’s trade deadline darlings. He continues to ascend the lefty ladder, and if his consistent progress is any indication of what to expect in 2015, the White Sox could really start to look more like party-crashers than the boring and sometimes unwatchable team they were last year.

Then there’s John Danks, the pitching equivalent to the ground beef that comes in plastic tubes. It exists, it technically gets the job done, but in the end you’re sad and gassy. Much like his mate Jose Quintana, Danks finished in a few MLB top tens, though not in a good way. He tied for eighth in home runs given up (25) and walks (74), as well as third in earned runs (102). Righties batted .275 against him. The same batters had a BABIP of .301 compared to .271 for lefties. That all seems a bit reversed, right? Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing too crazy about his RHB vs. LHB split, but to me it is always tough to watch a lefty flounder against the guys he was made to deceive. Maybe I’m old fashioned. Maybe every White Sox preview on Earth is right when we unanimously agree that John Danks starts are about as engaging as baby pictures on facebook. For a fourth starter, there are worse options. This season will welcome Danks to the bad side of 30, and the odds that he will return to the pitcher he was at the end of the last decade have all but evaporated.

As for the fifth spot, Hector Noesi seems like the logical choice for now. He isn’t very good and is really only there because someone has to eat innings and take up space for a million bucks. Yeah, his numbers steadily improved month over month in 2014, and that may bode well heading into 2015, but I can’t fathom a reason he keeps his job if Rodon is promoted.

The living, breathing second chance that is Zach Duke joins a new-look Sox bullpen. Duke is a real LOOGY’s LOOGY (LHB hit .199 in 2014), but I’d bet that Ventura and Cooper have more-involved plans for the reliever. David Robertson brings a bit of hope to the back end, a place of great sadness in recent years. Robertson’s 39 saves landed him third in the American League for the fashionable closer statistic. His 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings last year was his best since he made the all-star team in 2011.

From 2013-2014, the White Sox gained ten wins. The likelihood that they can do it again is not too great, given the remaining points of lackluster talent on the field. Still, another five or seven victories would be pretty big for a franchise in the midst of a complete reload phase. If the South Siders were to win more than 80 games, the season would have to be considered a success. Pretty much any team can spout off the typical hope springs eternal nonsense of “well, if it all comes together…” when the potential to surprise isn’t necessarily there. Yes, there are holes. Nasty ones. But if the Sox are hanging around at the end of July, anything is possible. For what it’s worth, we’re coming off a year that ended with the Giants and Royals playing for the World Series. Yes, okay, I understand what they did to get there, and the Game Genie that was lodged in Bumgarner’s back during October, but the lesson is that surprises can and will happen. The Central Division is likely weaker at the top in 2015 than it has been in a few years. Kansas City might catch a World Series hangover. Detroit might finally fall from grace. Cleveland will inevitably be Cleveland. Who knows? If it all comes together…

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