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 2013 season. Today: the Chicago White Sox.
The Big Question: Will the White Sox again exceed low expectations?
Last year at this time the White Sox were coming off a disappointing 79-win season and had lost Mark Buehrle to free agency, fired Ozzie Guillen and replaced him with a manager totally lacking in experience at any level, and further retooled by trading Carlos Quentin and Sergio Santos. Expectations were so low that Las Vegas set their over/under win total at 75 and many people wondered why the front office stopped short of a full-scale rebuild.
And then they won 85 games.
This offseason Chicago re-signed Jake Peavy to a favorable contract but again shed talent, as A.J. Pierzynski, Kevin Youkilis, Brett Myers, and Francisco Liriano walked via free agency and the biggest additions were Jeff Keppinger and Matt Lindstrom. And so expectations remain low, with Las Vegas setting the over/under at 80 wins. I think they’ll beat that total, not because the White Sox are a particularly great team but because they’re clearly a decent team and the unbalanced schedule means someone in the AL Central besides the Tigers is going to finish above .500.
There are plenty of potential stumbling blocks for the White Sox emerging as that team, of course. Tyler Flowers has a very difficult task replacing A.J. Pierzynski’s production and durability behind the plate. Counting on Peavy to stay healthy in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-2007 is iffy and the rotation has other health question marks in John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Robin Ventura needs to get some kind of offensive help from the Keppinger, Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez infield trio so the lineup doesn’t lean so heavily on Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, and Alex Rios.
Because of all that the White Sox making a legitimate run at the AL Central title deep into the season looks unlikely, but unless the rotation falls apart because of injuries it’s also hard for me to imagine Chicago not finishing above .500. And yet if they do beat Las Vegas’ preseason expectations again it would be the White Sox’s first time with back-to-back winning seasons since 2005-2006.
What else is going on?
• For all the talk of teams making mistakes by shifting dominant young relievers to the rotation only to see them struggle and/or get hurt Chris Sale did exactly that for the White Sox last season and it couldn’t have gone better. At age 23 he was among the AL’s top five in wins, ERA, WHIP, opponents’ batting average, and strikeout rate, throwing 192 innings with a 3.05 ERA and 192/51 K/BB ratio before signing a long-term contract that could keep him in Chicago through 2019. Sale holding up physically in Year 2 as a starter might be the biggest key to the White Sox’s season.
• Dayan Viciedo showed a lot of power at age 23, smacking 25 homers in his first full season, but his overall production was lacking for a corner outfielder who isn’t a plus defensively. He hit just .255 with a measly .300 on-base percentage, striking out 120 times in 147 games while drawing a pathetic 20 walks in 543 trips to the plate. Despite playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark Viciedo’s all-around offensive contribution was below average among MLB left fielders even without factoring in his defense. Viciedo is obviously not without long-term potential, but power vastly overstated his 2012 value.
• Addison Reed posted a 4.75 ERA that suggests he wasn’t very effective as a 23-year-old rookie closer, but he allowed 21 percent of his total runs in one May appearance. In his other 61 games Reed threw 55 innings with a 3.75 ERA and 53/15 K/BB ratio while converting 88 percent of his save chances. He also averaged 94.6 miles per hour with his fastball. As a fly-ball pitcher in a power-inflating ballpark Reed will always be walking on relatively thin ice, but the White Sox have the ninth inning figured out for the foreseeable future.
• Dunn had a bounceback season after a miserable 2011, boosting his OPS by 231 points. That’s an amazing turnaround and it’s also amazing that he managed an .800 OPS while hitting just .204. In fact, while leading the league in both strikeouts (222) and walks (105) and ranking fifth in homers (41) he had the highest OPS of all time for someone with a sub-.220 batting average. By comparison, 25 players last season hit .280 or higher and posted a lower OPS than Dunn. It might not always be pretty, but production is production.
Prediction: Second place, American League Central