Springtime Storylines: Are the Chicago White Sox rebuilding or contending?

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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 2012 season. Up next: Chicago White Sox.

The Big Question: Are the Chicago White Sox rebuilding or contending?

After eight tumultuous but mostly successful seasons as manager Ozzie Guillen left for Miami and general manager Ken Williams shook things up even further by choosing someone with zero managerial experience to replace him in Robin Ventura. And then Williams made several big moves that seemingly put the White Sox squarely in rebuilding mode.

He traded 23-year-old closer Sergio Santos, setup man Jason Frasor, and starting right fielder Carlos Quentin while watching Mark Buehrle leave as a free agent, but Williams stopped just short of a total overhaul. Rumored trade bait like Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton, and John Danks remain, along with the untradeable contracts of Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, and Adam Dunn, and the team’s best hitter is still 35-year-old Paul Konerko.

Not exactly what full-on rebuilds are made of, and by promoting Chris Sale, Dayan Viciedo, and Addison Reed to bigger roles it’s more like the White Sox are retooling on the fly. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can actually contend in the process. Chicago went 79-83 last season and will need an awful lot of things to go right to climb much further than .500, although the weakness of the division beyond Detroit makes just about any decent team a quasi-contender in the AL Central.

What else is going on?

  • Dunn and Rios were amazingly awful last season, so simply being “really bad” this year would be a massive improvement. And if they each bounce back all the way to their 2010 levels the White Sox’s lineup should top last season’s measly 654 runs with ease. On the other hand, if that doesn’t happen then Konerko is the only real masher in a lineup that could get very ugly if Alejando De Aza fails to provide a spark at the top and Gordon Beckham continues to underwhelm.
  • Santos was dominant more often than not for the White Sox and should be very good as the Blue Jays’ long-term closer, but Chicago has another potentially dominant young right-hander in Addison Reed and along with Thornton and Crain form the makings of a good late-inning trio. That bullpen depth made dealing Santos easier to swallow and allows the White Sox to give formerly excellent setup man Chris Sale an opportunity in the rotation.
  • Sale was a starter in college, but the White Sox shifted him to the bullpen in the minors in an effort to speed up his arrival in the big leagues and it worked so well that they kept him there last season. Sale has a 2.58 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 94 innings as a reliever, so it’s tempting to keep him there, but at age 24 and with two good off-speed pitches to go with a plus fastball it makes sense to see if he can thrive in a 200-inning role before letting him settle into a 65-inning role for good.

How are they gonna do?

It’s hard to imagine the White Sox giving the Tigers serious competition for the division title, but like the other three teams in the AL Central they’re certainly capable of finishing in second place. Las Vegas pegs the over/under for their win total around 76 and after going 79-83 last season that seems about right. Chicago isn’t as bad as the “rebuilding” label might suggest, but it’s still a mediocre team and they figure to be sellers at the trade deadline.

Report: Qualifying offer to be in the $18 million range

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According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, teams have been told that the qualifying offer to free agents this offseason will be in the $18 million range, likely $18.1 million. The value is derived by taking the average of the top 125 player salaries.

At $18.1 million, that would be $900,000 more than the previous QO, which was $17.2 million. This will impact soon-to-be free agents like Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Yu Darvish, among others. That also assumes that the aforementioned players aren’t traded, which would make them ineligible to receive qualifying offers. We’ve seen, increasingly, that teams aren’t willing to make a QO to an impending free agent and that trend is likely to continue this offseason.

The QO system was modified by the newest collective bargaining agreement. The compensatory pick for a team losing a player who declined a QO used to be a first-round pick. That was a penalty to both teams and players, which is why it was changed. Via MLB’s website pertaining to the QO:

A team that exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season will lose its second- and fifth-highest selections after the first round in the following year’s Draft as well $1 million from its international bonus pool. If such a team signs multiple qualifying offer free agents, it will forfeit its third- and sixth-highest remaining picks as well.

A team that receives revenue sharing will lose its third-highest selection after the first round in the following year’s Draft. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its fourth-highest remaining pick.

A team that neither exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season nor receives revenue sharing will lose its second-highest selection after the first round in the following year’s Draft as well as $500,000 from its international bonus pool. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its third-highest remaining pick.

Additionally, if a player who rejected a QO signs a guaranteed contract worth at least $50 million and came from a team that receives revenue sharing, that previous team will receive a compensatory pick immediately following the first round in the ensuing draft. If the contract is less than $50 million, that team will get a compensatory pick after Competitive Balance Round B. If the player’s team is over the luxury tax threshold, that team will receive a compensation pick following the fourth round. If that team neither exceeded the luxury tax nor receives revenue sharing, the compensation pick will come after Competitive Balance Round B.

Yeah, it’s a bit convoluted, but you do the best you can with a flawed system.

The Astros’ pursuit of Sonny Gray is “heating up”

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Jon Morosi of MLB Networks reports that talks are “heating up” between the Astros and Athletics on a Sonny Gray trade. Gray, obviously, would represent a big upgrade for the Astros’ rotation. He has a 3.66 ERA and has struck out 85 batters while walking 28 in 91 innings.

Morosi adds that Gray is not the only option for the Astros, as they are also talking to the Tigers about a potential acquisition of Justin Verlander and Justin Wilson. That would obviously be a much tougher deal to negotiate given Verlander’s 10/5 rights giving him veto power over any trade, not to mention the massive amount of money he’s still owed on his contract.

Also: I’m pretty sure that it’s in the MLB rules that any trade between the Tigers and the Astros has to involve Brad Ausmus, C.J. Nitkowski and Jose Lima, and that’s not possible given their current occupations and/or their deaths in 2010.