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2014 Preview: Chicago White Sox

Feb 27, 2014, 2:08 PM EDT

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Chicago White Sox.

The Big Question: Can the White Sox rebuild the league’s worst lineup on the fly?

Chicago went from 85 wins in 2012 to 63 wins last year for the White Sox’s worst season since 1970. Their pitching got worse, but it was nothing compared to the offense falling off a cliff by going from fourth in the league with 748 runs to dead last with 598 runs. It was ugly.

Instead of stocking up on prospects with an eye toward several years down the road general manager Rick Hahn has instead tried to rebuild the lineup in the short and long term, acquiring MLB-ready young talent in Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson, and Avisail Garcia. In doing so he traded away a young closer in Addison Reed and a young mid-rotation starter in Hector Santiago, and the White Sox previously parted with Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Jesse Crain, and Matt Thornton in the middle of last season. Toss in Paul Konerko fading into a part-time role and this is a very different lineup than the .680 OPS crew, but will the results be much different?

Not so long ago Eaton looked like one of the best leadoff prospects in baseball, Abreu has immense upside after putting up monster numbers as a slugger in Cuba, and both Davidson and Garcia have the potential to be solid contributors offensively. But for the White Sox’s lineup to go from horrible to respectable immediately they need just about everything to click and holdover bats Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, and Tyler Flowers have disappointed after once showing promise as youngsters themselves.

Chicago’s offense can’t help but be better in 2014, but the White Sox don’t look capable of making the leap into contention and the success or failure of the season depends largely on Abreu living up to the hype and 2-3 other young bats emerging as long-term regulars (plus Chris Sale staying healthy and remaining one of the elite starters in the league, of course). If they can accomplish those things and win 70-something games Hahn and company should be pretty happy with the offseason moves.

What else is going on?

  • Thanks to a misleadingly poor win-loss record last season it’s possible that a lot of people don’t realize just how amazing Sale has been as a starter. Among all MLB starting pitchers since 2012–when he moved into the rotation–Sale ranks ninth in ERA and third in ERA+, which adjusts for ballparks and leagues. He’s also fifth in strikeout rate, fourth in K/BB ratio, and ninth in opponents’ OPS. He’s one of the best 5-10 pitchers in baseball and he’s still just 25 years old.
  • Much is being made about the decision to trade away a 24-year-old closer coming off a 40-save season, but Reed wasn’t all that great once you get past the save total. He has a 4.17 career ERA, is more fly-ball prone that is ideal in the ninth-inning role, and has mediocre control. And while he’s piled up plenty of saves his actual save conversion rate of 85 percent is nothing special. The wisdom of the trade obviously depends on whether Davidson proves to be a valuable regular, but the idea of cashing in Reed was a smart one. Closers are made, not born, and Nate Jones or Matt Lindstrom likely can handle the job without much dropoff.
  • Exactly how good can Abreu be? Projecting foreign players is always tough, but Fan Graphs’ reliable ZiPS system pegs Abreu as a .273 hitter with 26 homers and an .858 OPS as a rookie. To put that in some context, an .858 OPS would have ranked sixth among MLB first basemen last season, one spot behind Freddie Freeman. If the White Sox get that, they should be thrilled with their $68 million investment. (The bad news? Abreu is the only White Sox hitter projected by ZiPS to be above average.)
  • Overshadowed by the young, MLB-ready bats brought into the mix is that the White Sox also already had a very good infield prospect in Marcus Semien. Last season between Double-A and Triple-A he hit .284 with 19 homers, 24 steals, more walks (98) than strikeouts (90), and an .880 OPS, including a studly .401 on-base percentage at age 22. Semien getting on base and Abreu knocking him in could be a very nice combo for a long time, perhaps as soon as midseason.

Prediction: Better–and a whole lot more interesting–but still nowhere near good. Fifth place, AL Central.

  1. historiophiliac - Feb 27, 2014 at 2:30 PM

    In all candor, Gleeman, are you really going to do much to rearrange the standings from the end of last season?

  2. karlkolchak - Feb 27, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    It pains me to say this having grown up rooting for the Sox, but it sucks coming off a last place finish with one of the worst farm systems in baseball.

    • jerze2387 - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:41 AM

      but now theyve got a lot of young talent. Abreu, Davidson (who should have plenty of power in US Cellular), Semien, Viciedo (who i cant seem to give up on. When he makes contact he hits it HARD. if he ever gets better at contact hes going to be a problem for pitchers), leury garcia with his speed, avasail Garcia, jordan Danks. Quintana (who i think is underrated and very very solid) and sale…theyve got a nice young core of talented players. A lot of spped and a lot of power

  3. stex52 - Feb 27, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    Or you could be like the Astros. Off of a last place finish, with one of the best farm systems in baseball (after years of building). And Baseball Prospectus still picks you to stink for another couple of years.

    • jwbiii - Feb 27, 2014 at 5:19 PM

      But there is hope for the Astros’ future. For the White Sox, darkness there and nothing more.

      • stex52 - Feb 27, 2014 at 5:35 PM

        If all is dark, would you mind sending Chris Sale over? Thanks so very much.

  4. frank35sox - Feb 27, 2014 at 5:26 PM

    A lot of things need to come together, but Hahn did a great job this off season. If asked in October how long I thought before the Sox were contenders again, I would have guessed 5-6 years. Now I think 2-3 is possible. The Sox have never been shy about spending money on free agents or trading relievers. I think this team is a lot closer to contending than I would have said 6 months ago and that makes me very happy and optimistic.

  5. weaselpuppy - Feb 27, 2014 at 9:59 PM

    The Twins pitching staff went from AAA to AAAA. They have exactly one guy in their lineup that is a for sure starter on most every other team. Trevor Plouffe is their 4th best player.

    How are they finishing above a Sox team that at least has a lot bonafide MLB players. Don’t get me wrong, the Sox season will be a bag of wet cats, but the Twins could lose 105 games.

    • jerze2387 - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:35 AM

      and bag of wet cats is now my new favorite phrase petraining to the baseball season

  6. esracerx46 - Feb 27, 2014 at 10:03 PM

    Gleeman or anyone else want to make it interesting? The Sox most likely are not making the playoffs, but I don’t think they finish Last in the central.

  7. twinwildflyer - Feb 28, 2014 at 1:41 AM

    No mention of De Aza?

    • timmmah10 - Feb 28, 2014 at 9:09 AM

      What’s there to mention? He’s a below average hitter (check the OPS brah) with a little speed and a noodle arm. He most likely will lose his job to Garcia. Eaton, Garcia, Viciedo is a better 3 some than anything with De Aza mixed in.

    • jerze2387 - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:36 AM

      hes gonna be on De Bench

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