Every year, my wife’s siblings and siblings-in-law (it’s a family of 13, so this means 21 people so far) exchange names and give one gift to one other, randomly chosen member of the family. Every year, I ask Maria to let whoever draws my name know I want ‘The Hardball Times Baseball Annual’ and nothing else. In the four years I have now patronized the publication, much has changed, but it remains an unqualified delight.

This year, a particular and unlikely side note became the first stat to grab my attention, hard: The Chicago White Sox had the fourth-best record in baseball during the Ron Schueler era, 1992-2000, trailing only the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians. It came up in a lengthy treatment of the tendencies of current Sox executive (at their press time, GM) Kenny Williams by Chris Cwik.

I don’t care too much which teams had the best aggregate records of the 1990s, and I’m not asking you to do so. The trivia feels so on point, though, because of how unexpected and arresting it is. No one thinks of the White Sox as one of baseball’s best or most consistent organizations. In fact, the Sox more often draw ridicule.

Yet, the White Sox are the last team to win the World Series from the AL Central. During Williams’ 12-year GM tenure, they were a .500 or better team nine times, and in two of the three losing campaigns, they still won 79 games. They’re never popular and never the analysts’ darlings, yet they always seem to push for the playoffs deep into the season.

In 2013, they have another group no one will choose as AL Central favorites. Their starting rotation features as its primary pillars two pitchers whose prognoses for prolonged peak performance and health are poor. Their lineup lost some left-handed thump when A.J. Pierzynski left for Texas, and the anchor of that group—first baseman Paul Konerko—had wrist surgery last fall. The bullpen looks awfully good, as White Sox bullpens tend to do, but there are holes in this roster, and they’re chasing a much more talented Detroit team defending two consecutive division titles.

On the other hand, those two pillars—Jake Peavy and Chris Sale—are true front-line guys. They combined for 411 innings pitched, a 3.22 ERA, 386 strikeouts and just 100 walks in 1,654 total batters faced last year. Gavin Floyd is a fairly safe bet to fill a back-end rotation spot. John Danks appears to be on track to return right away after making only nine starts last season.

The Jeff Keppinger addition neatly mirrors one the hated Cubs made between 2006 and ’07, adding Mark DeRosa on a three-year deal. Keppinger was a steal.

It’s problematic to assume Dayan Viciedo will improve simply because he is young and raw, but it’s not difficult. He has power, can hit the ball hard to all fields and is actually (surprisingly, for a man nicknamed ‘The Tank’) an above-average defender in the outfield corners.

Alex Rios seems to completely forget everything that has ever happened to him in baseball every offseason. He’s spent each of the past three (four? Who can remember?) Spring Training seasons reinventing himself as a hitter. One year he started holding the bat not far above his back hip until he began his swing. Another time, he worked on spreading out more in the box. Still another year, it was standing taller. It’s hilarious to watch, not least because it always seems to work. Rios found more power than he’d ever had before with his adjustments in 2012, and you figure after a season that good, he might have taken some pictures and jotted down some notes so that relearning how to play will take less time this February and March.

The middle infielders present a quandary I won’t try to solve here. Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez are tough to figure out, harder still to project. Suffice it to say, they’re usable big-league infielders.

The Detroit Tigers are better than Chicago. Kansas City and Cleveland are in the same league in terms of raw talent. As ever, though, the Sox have veterans, depth and the right distribution of talent to allow one to hold out hope for them. As ever, I will end up adding two or three wins to my raw win projection for them, because the Sox always seem to outdo themselves. Maybe Sale or Peavy (or both) get hurt; maybe age catches up to Konerko or Dunn (or both). Maybe Rios reverts to one of the versions of himself that looked like he had never known how to play baseball.

I doubt it, though. When projecting ballplayers’ performances in the coming year, one should always ponder them as probability ranges. The White Sox (whether because they scout players well, or because they manage and develop them well, or because they coach and instruct them well, or by dumb luck, or by some mix of all those factors) tend to see most of their players perform near the top end of their reasonable range. That’s what makes them interesting, and it’s what makes them so sneaky-good.

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