As the Orioles and Royals became famous for confounding sabermetric prediction models (Starting rotation and an ability to get on base? We don’t need no stinkin’ starting rotation and an ability get on base!), the White Sox quietly went the opposite direction. They regularly failed to do as well as the statheads expected. Despite a team with stars such as Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier, and José Quintana, the South Siders haven’t been to the postseason in a decade and haven’t even had a winning record since 2012. Management addressed the problem by getting rid of the aforementioned stars, trading Eaton and Sale prior to the 2017 season and sending Frazier and Quintana packing during the past season. In return, Chicago received a bounty of high-ceiling prospects: pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López for Eaton, infielder Yoan Moncada and pitcher Michael Kopech for Sale, outfielder Blake Rutherford for Frazier, and outfielder Eloy Jimenez and pitcher Dylan Cease for Quintana. And that’s just the top-100 prospects they received. Overall, the team’s farm system, per ESPN’s Keith Law (ESPN Insider required), is ranked fourth in the majors, up from tenth a year ago and 22nd (!) prior to the 2016 season. We can thus sum up the 2018 White Sox as follows:
Key strength: Future
Key weakness: Present
How do they score runs? Do they get contributions from many or a few players?
Infrequently; and it depends what you mean by “contributions.”
The 2017 White Sox scored 706 runs, ahead of only the Royals (702), Rays (694), and Blue Jays (693) in the American League. Considering that the team had the aforementioned Frazier for half the season and played its home games in one of the American League’s most homer-friendly ballparks, well, that’s not good.
The team enters 2018 with a reliably above-average bat only at first base, where José Abreu batted .304/.354/.552 in 2017, leading the league in total bases and finishing 14th in the MVP vote. He’s had 100+ RBI four straight seasons. His challenge will be finding players to drive in. Third baseman Yolmer Sanchez and shortstop Tim Anderson will share the leadoff spot. Last year their on base percentages were .319 and .303, respectively, compared to the league average of .326. Moncada is penciled into the No. 2 spot and second base. He hit .231/.338/.399 in 54 games last year, but he won’t turn 23 until May 27, so it’s reasonable to expect improvement.
At catcher, Wellington Castillo had an .813 OPS last year, seventh in the majors among 23 catchers with at least 350 plate appearances. He turned down an option with the Orioles to sign with the White Sox for two years, with a club option for a third.
Last year right fielder Avisaíl García (henceforth A García) had, by far, his best year at the plate, batting .330/.380/.506, all career-best figures, as well as career highs in hits, runs, RBI, doubles, triples, homers, and total bases. Though this will be his sixth year with the club, he’s still only 26. He’s eligible for free agency after the 2019 season, so management will have to make a hold-or-sell decision on him. If he starts the season looking like 2017’s All-Star, he could be viewed as a contributor to the next strong White Sox team, or another veteran player who could yield a haul in a trade. If he comes out the gate looking like the .258/.310/.385 career hitter who entered last year, his value will be diminished. Warning to White Sox fans: He had an otherworldly .392 BABIP last year. He won’t again this year.
The supporting cast is weak. By Baseball Prospectus’s True Average metric, the only above-average White Sox hitters with at least 200 plate appearances last year were Abreu, A García, the departed Frazier, and Melky Cabrera, who was traded to the Royals in July and is currently a free agent.
This is a young team—only Abreu (31) and Castillo (30) enter the season aged older than 27—but, other than Abreu and A García’s 2017 breakout, the performances at the plate to date haven’t been particularly encouraging. The offense needs to be more than a two- or three-man show if it’s to improve in 2018.
Are the hitters notably aggressive or patient?
Aggressive to the point of self-destructiveness. Among 140 American League players with at least 300 plate appearances, Anderson had the worst K/BB ratio, 12.5. DH Matt Davidson was second worst, 8.7. Center fielder Adam Engel was sixth at 6.2, and left fielder Leury García was eighth at 5.3. As a team, the White Sox had the fourth highest strikeout rate in the league, whiffing in 23.1% of their plate appearances, and walked only 6.6% of the time, the third-lowest rate.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced?
The White Sox could be contenders as soon as 2019 or 2020. They won’t be in 2018. The team will make do with what it’s got and not rush its prospects through the farm system. The excitement at Guaranteed Rate Field will come when the young blue chippers join the club.
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness?
Guaranteed Rate Field is a homer haven, increasing home runs for left-handed hitters by 15% and for righty swingers by 4%, while suppressing other base hits. So it’d make sense for the White Sox to emphasize sluggers who can draw a walk. Oops. Abreu’s the only White Sox batter who topped 18 homers, and their walk rate, as noted, was third worst in the league.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned? Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
The White Sox trailed only the Yankees in park-adjusted defensive efficiency last year, though they ranked below average in both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. The pitching staff needs all the help it can get. The team was third to last in ERA and last in both FIP and Deserved Run Average. Like the team’s batters, the pitching staff got the whole K/BB thing wrong, leading the league in walks (handily, with 632, 53 more than any other team) while getting the third-fewest whiffs. They also tied with Baltimore for the league lead in home runs allowed.
The likely starters are James Shields, Carlos Rodón, Miguel González, Lucas Giolito, Carson Fulmer, and Reynaldo López. Rodon, Giolito, and Fulmer were first-round draft picks in 2014, 2012, and 2015, respectively. Shields and González are the only starters with more than 70 innings pitched for the club last year. Rodón started twelve games, López eight, and Giolito seven, and Fulmer five. It’s possible to imagine Shields, who’s 36, and González, who’ll be 34 in May, eating innings while youngsters López (24), Giolito (23), and Fulmer (24) successfully acclimate to major league hitters and Rodón (25) comes back strongly from shoulder surgery. It’s also possible to imagine peace in the Middle East and affordable healthcare. But don’t count on it.
Realistically, the White Sox will make do with the two older guys who’ll hold down the fort until the youngsters emerge over the next couple seasons.
How do they run their bullpen?
In addition to trading away the stars noted above, the White Sox sent their three best relievers—David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Anthony Swarzak—packing at the trade deadline. Given that only Robertson was well-regarded going into the 2017 season, count the White Sox among teams that believe effective relievers are made, not born. Joakim Soria, acquired via trade from Kansas City, will close, with Nate Jones, Juan Minaya, and Luis Avilán handling setup duties. Should any fail, upgrades are much more likely to come from the minors than the outside.
Does the team deploy a large number of shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players?
Only the Brewers, Astros, and Rays shifted more than the White Sox last year. The team nearly doubled its shifts, from 783 in 2016 to 1,490 in 2017. They were a little above average at turning double plays.
Nobody’s really out of position. Some of the fielders are just better than others.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Castillo good at controlling the running game but was a poor pitch framer until last year. There’s concern whether his improvement was a lasting change or a fluke. Backup Omar Narvaez has also demonstrated a strong arm, but his framing and blocking skills behind the plate have been subpar in 117 games over the past two years.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
As noted above, the White Sox have turned one of the game’s weakest farm systems into one of the strongest over the course of just two years. There’s plenty of available talent in the minors, but even in the event of injury, the team won’t rush its top prospects, given its weak 2018 outlook.
Both Abreu and A García have been mentioned as trade pieces. Both would yield an impressive haul, but both are also young enough to have a key role with the next good White Sox team, so they seem likely to stay put. A strong start to the year by Shields or González would almost certainly result in them getting flipped. The team’s displayed a willingness to trade bullpen arms for value as well.
Are any players particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
The club will take it easy on the young pitchers, for obvious reasons. Nobody else is notably fragile.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign? What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)?
The continued presence of Abreu and, arguably, A García, is all that separates the White Sox strategy between rebuild and total Cubs/Astros-style teardown. GM Rick Hahn gets deserved credit for rapidly restocking the farm system and positioning the White Sox for the time when the Cleveland juggernaut gets old and/or expensive, ceding the top spot in the Central. That time is not 2018, or maybe 2019, but it’s not far off.
As for money, the White Sox play in the nation’s third largest market yet are inexplicably not viewed as a large-market, large-payroll team the way the Cubs are. That’s not a relevant issue in the present, but could be when the Sox need to add expensive pieces to fill out a roster of home-grown stars.
What’s likely to happen?
The battle for last place in the American League Central is likely to be closer than the battle for first, with the Tigers and Royals joining the White Sox in rebuilding. Chicago or Detroit seem the likely fourth and fifth place finishers. Additionally, 2018 will be Ken Harrelson’s last year in the White Sox broadcast booth. So with a talented pool of prospects moving up through a retooled farm system, and the smart and entertaining Jason Benetti set to take Harrelson’s place full-time in 2019, the prospects for the team beyond this season are bright, though contention may be more a 2020 event than a 2019 one.
PREDICTED WINS: 70. They’re not going to be good, and if they deal Abreu or A Garcia, they’re going to be worse. But have hope, Chisox fans. Better days are on the way.Next post: 2018 Season Preview Series Index
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