Along with the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, the Chicago White Sox were among the busiest teams last off-season, acquiring big Jeff Samardzija in a trade with Oakland, signing Melky Cabrera and David Robertson to big deals, and inking relievers Zach Duke and Dan Jennings. The moves didn’t help the Sox all that much, as they finished 76-86, missing the playoffs for the 7th consecutive season. This year, Rick Hahn didn’t make as many major moves, but the ones that he did make seem to have made the team much better, and much more balanced, than they were last year. Will the team be able to reach its expectations, or will it fall short again? Here is my outlook for the White Sox’ 2016 season:
LF- Melky Cabrera
CF- Austin Jackson
RF- Adam Eaton
Just like last year, the Sox signed a big name player to fill a spot in their outfield. Of course, the deal that Austin Jackson signed is much shorter than the one that Melky Cabrera got last offseason- the centerfielder, who ended last season on the North Side, got a one-year deal worth only $5 million. However, he hits for a decent average and is a pretty solid base stealer. The number one reason why he was brought in, though, is probably because but he provides something that the Pale Hose sorely lacked last year- good defense. Both Cabrera and former center fielder Adam Eaton were major contributors to a defensive effort that was, by far, the worst in the league last year, and Jackson, a terrific athlete, will track fly balls and line drives far better than Eaton did last year, something that should limit the pressure on the two corner outfielders.
Hopefully, this lessened pressure will allow Eaton and Cabrera to focus on improving with the bat. In 2014, Eaton’s first year in Chicago, he only played in 123 games, but he played phenomenally, batting .300 and providing a spark as the team’s leadoff hitter. In 2014, Cabrera played like an all-star, hitting .301 when he was with the Blue Jays. Last year, though, Eaton started the batted a combined .192 in April and March, and Cabrera had one more hit than he did in 2014 in 19 more games. Both men picked it up as the season drew to a close, and they’ll need to continue hitting well in order for the team to improve on their league ranking in runs scored (28th, only more than the horrendous Phillies and Braves).
3B- Todd Frazier
SS- Jimmy Rollins
2B- Brett Lawrie
1B- Jose Abreu
C- Alex Avila
DH- Avisail Garcia
There is a distinct possibility that the left side of the infield could be manned by two veteran newcomers this season. One of those is Frazier, who was acquired in what might have been the best trade in the offseason. While he strikes out a decent amount and doesn’t hit for a great average, Frazier is a great clubhouse guy and will slot in nicely behind Jose Abreu as the first legit power threat at third base that the team has had in my lifetime. On his left should be Rollins, the veteran who struggled with injuries last year in Los Angeles. The 37-year old doesn’t have as much pop as he did when he was a megastar in Philadelphia, but he did hit 13 homers and had only 9 errors in 134 appearances, something that could only boost the Sox’ abysmal D from last year. He’ll provide a good stop-gap until Tyler Saladino discovers his bat or Tim Anderson makes the big leagues.
The other major trade that the Sox pulled off this offseason was to acquire Rollins’ double-play partner, Lawrie. To say that he has been a mercurial presence is an understatement- he was touted as a future superstar in both Toronto and Oakland before being traded away from both teams, but his talent is undeniable. He could be the x-factor in the team’s run at the playoffs- if he’s able to live up to expectations, he can help carry the team to the postseason; if he struggles to find a place in the clubhouse, the team could be thrown into further disarray than what it’s already in. The anchor of the infield is obviously Abreu, who struggled a bit last year as pitchers learned his weaknesses yet still managed to knock in 101 RBI’s, and he will be counted on as the focal point of the team’s offense, just as he’s been the last two seasons.
Another newbie, Alex Avila, figures to be the left-handed bat in a platoon at catcher, and with all the right handed starters in the division, figures to see the most playing time. He has an intimate knowledge of the AL Central, having spent all of his 7-year career as a Detroit Tiger, and while he seems to have lost most of the hitting ability that made him an All Star in 2011, he has a .251/.358/.423 line against righties for his career, which isn’t all that terrible. The DH this year, now that Adam LaRoche is officially retired, falls to Garcia, who struggled mightily in his first full season in the majors last year. Now that his expectations are very low and he doesn’t have to worry about wielding a glove very often, he might be able to reach his potential, but until he proves he can figure it out, I see him as one of the team’s biggest liabilities.
C- Dioner Navarro
2B- Carlos Sanchez
SS- Tyler Saladino
I’ve always thought pretty highly of Navarro since his breakthrough season for Tampa Bay back in 2008. The tubby backstop has a career average of .270 against left handed hitters, which will do wonders to help the Sox’ poor offensive results from the catcher position last year and isn’t too terrible at hitting righties, in the case that Avila struggles at any point.
Sanchez struggled at the plate last season after being called up to replace fellow youngster Micah Johnson, but kept his job for the rest of the season due to his superior defense. Knowing how injury-prone Lawrie has been over the past couple years, and how temperamental he has been in a couple of instances, having Sanchez on the roster is insurance is probably in the team’s best interest.
Saladino and Rollins are currently in a battle for the shortstop position that I think the vet will pull out. However, with the former Phillie’s age and production being possible question marks, I think that keeping Saladino with the big club is the right move, as he impressed in his limited action last season.
Chris Sale- LHP
Jose Quintana- LHP
Carlos Rodon- LHP
Mat Latos- RHP
Erik Johnson- RHP
Basically the entire team fell below expectations last season, and the pitching staff was no exception. Even the normally infallible Chris Sale saw his ERA balloon to 3.41 last season. However, it’s expected that the lanky lefty will bounce back with a better defense backing him up on the field and more stability in the rotation behind him. Jose Quintana will move up to the number two role, while Carlos Rodon, perhaps the team’s best hurler last season, will fill the number three spot. These two lefties, who have styles that are drastically different from Sale’s, seemingly give Robin Ventura a three pitchers that no team would want to face.
The back of the rotation, however, generates nearly as many questions and doubts as it did last year. Latos figures to be the #4 starter, and he has the potential to be a #2 guy, but his temper and weight are both very hard to predict, and he has struggled since being signed away from Cincinnati last season. I would love to see Erik Johnson, last year’s International League Pitcher of the Year, fill the number 5 spot in the rotation (it won’t happen, but a boy can dream), because I think he has the potential to be special. However, he has limited experience, and had a couple of up-and-down outings in his few major league appearances. Even though these guys are certainly better than last year’s options, they might be just as inconsistent.
John Danks- LHP
Zach Putnam- RHP
Zach Duke- LHP
Matt Albers- RHP
Dan Jennings- LHP
Nate Jones- RHP
Jake Petricka- RHP
David Robinson- RHP (closer)
The ‘pen was not the greatest last year, but were far better and far more consistent than they were back in 2014, having accumulated 3.1 Wins Above Replacement as a unit, and with all of the main guys returning, they figure to do about as well this year. Obviously, a guy as expensive as Danks isn’t going to see himself in the bullpen at all- he’ll either be starting or designated for assignment- but I feel that, at this point in his career, the lefty is better suited to be a spot starter and long reliever than he is to be a guy that gets the ball every fifth day.
Staying with the lefties, both Zach Duke and Dan Jennings, who were signed last offseason, saw their ERA’s spike sharply last year, but they are still among the best specialists in the game, and figure to have better seasons with a better defense and more stable rotation.
When it comes to righties, the main guy is obviously the closer, Robertson, who saved 34 games last year and gave Sox fans a guy they could trust at the end of games for the first time since Bobby Jenks (!!!) was in his prime. The rest of the bunch, while nowhere near as heralded, were pretty good last year, too- Putnam struck out a career-high 64 batters, while Albers, Jones and Petricka finished with ERA’s of 1.21, 3.32, and 3.63, respectively. It’ll be important for them to maintain their consistency in order for them to have a shot at the playoffs.
UT- Leury Garcia
OF- JB Shuck
Scott Carroll- RHP
Leury Garcia doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a utility player, but he is capable of playing in both the infield and the outfield, and showed that he is a very capable backup while filling in for Eaton when he was injured back in 2013. I think he’ll see the big club if either Rollins or Saladino struggle to get going.
Shuck impressed in limited action last season, finishing the season with an acceptable OPS of .689. The signing of Jackson knocked him out of a roster spot- keeping Sanchez in the big leagues to back up a volatile Lawrie is probably in the team’s best interest at this point- but if anything happens to any of the team’s outfielders, Shuck will be the first guy to be called up.
Scotty Carroll, who has bounced up and down between the majors and the minors over the past couple seasons, is a very capable long reliever, as he showed last season, and he could fill in for an injured starter if he was needed. His age and consistency are a couple of considerable question marks, and that’s why I think he’ll start the year in the minors, but he will be a quick call-up if anything happens to anyone on the staff besides late-inning relievers.
SS- Tim Anderson
OF- Courtney Hawkins
Carson Fulmer- RHP
Anderson, the Sox’ first round pick in 2013, is the prospect that is the most likely to see significant playing time outside of the minors this year. Even though the team seems to have a need at shortstop, many believe that the speedster won’t see the majors until sometime later this year. However, whenever he does make the big club, he figures to be a fixture in the middle infield for many years to come.
Hawkins was the team’s first round pick the year before they drafted Anderson. He has seen a lot of playing time this spring and has occasionally showcased his undeniable athleticism, but he has struggled mightily at the plate in the minors. He’s capable of making a splash somewhere down the road, but he still has a lot of work to do (something that doesn’t reflect well on the Sox’ drafts before Rick Hahn started having a larger role in baseball operations).
Fulmer, the team’s most recent top pick and its top prospect, has looked certainly looked the part. He has some iffy mechanics, which messes with his control, but he has some decent speed to his fastball, and his jerky pitching motion didn’t stop him from being dominant in college (nor did it stop Chris Sale, I might add). The former Vanderbilt ace needs some polishing in the minor leagues, but he could be a late season call-up if he can control his pitches.
1B- Adam LaRoche
3B- Matt Davidson
1B/OF- Travis Ishikawa
LaRoche seems very content with his decision to retire, and that could be a good thing for the Sox after all the drama he’s caused (combined with his lack of performance). However, if he chooses to come back to baseball, the Sox still have his contractual rights, and they could try to eke some at-bats out of him if he and Kenny Williams can patch up their differences.
Davidson was acquired in a deal with the Diamondbacks back in 2013 in exchange for former Sox closer Addison Reed and was thought to be a steal. However, he batted a dismal .199 in AAA in 2014, and despite the team’s struggles at third last year, was never called up to the majors. He still has the potential to be an everyday player, and has looked pretty good so far this spring, but right now, he’s stuck behind Frazier. If he continues to prove he isn’t a bust, though, he could soon find his way on to the big league roster as a reserve infielder.
Ishikawa making the roster and having an impact may not be a huge surprise- the retirement of LaRoche left an opening for a backup first baseman, and the veteran, who had his share of important hits during his two playoff runs with the San Francisco Giants, is an able replacement. The fact that he is even able to be in this position, though, is a surprise, and there is a chance that the Sox decide to go in the direction that I seem them going, which is keeping eight relievers and having Abreu play virtually every day.
I made a mistake in underestimating the Royals last year- despite losing ace James Shields, KC still dominated the Central division and went on to win the World Series. I won’t make that mistake again- as much as I like the moves that the Sox made this off-season, I don’t think that, as a club, that they are good enough to topple the defending champs at the top of the division. I also feel that the Tigers, who added some major firepower on the mound and at the plate with the signings of Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton, will bounce back quickly after missing the playoffs for the first time in 5 years last season by snagging the first wild card spot. That leaves the Sox in a battle with the Rangers, Angels, Red Sox, Rays, and division-rival Indians for the second spot. The South Siders will have enough to overcome the Angels and Rays, but the other two teams will be too good for the club to knock off- I just don’t think that the Sox will get enough from their outfield offensively, and I’m worried that the drop-off that the rotation suffered last year is a sign that maybe it doesn’t quite have the balance that it should. The team will go 83-79 and miss the playoffs, but they won’t be near as big of an embarrassment as they were last season, hopefully a sign of things to come.
Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.
Pingback: 2016 MLB Preview | Kevin J. Gaffney