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2014 Preview: Chicago White Sox

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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 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.

Report: Diamondbacks to trade Michael Bourn to the Orioles

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 21:  Michael Bourn #1 of the Arizona Diamondbacks reacts after striking out during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on August 21, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball reports that the Orioles and Diamondbacks have agreed in principle to a trade involving outfielder Michael Bourn. The trade is in the process of being finalized. It is not yet known what the Diamondbacks are receiving in return.

Bourn will be the second outfielder the Orioles have acquired on Wednesday, as the club also claimed Drew Stubbs off waivers from the Rangers.

With rosters expanding on Thursday, the Orioles are making a concerted effort to bolster the team’s outfield depth. Both Stubbs and Bourn are eligible for the Orioles’ postseason roster if the club makes it.

Bourn, 33, hit .261/.307/.362 with 21 extra-base hits, 30 RBI, 43 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 358 plate appearances.

Orioles claim Drew Stubbs off waivers from the Rangers

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 7: Drew Stubbs #15 of the Texas Rangers walks off the field after an at-bat during a game against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 7, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. The Rangers won the game 3-0. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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The Orioles have claimed outfielder Drew Stubbs off release waivers from the Rangers, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports. The club designated for assignment pitcher Kyle Lobstein, whom they acquired from the Pirates earlier on Wednesday, to make roster space for Stubbs, Dan Connolly of BaltimoreBaseball.com reports.

The Rangers designated Stubbs for assignment last week. After clearing waivers, Stubbs refused an assignment to Triple-A Round Rock, so the Rangers released him on Monday.

Stubbs, 31, has taken only 67 plate appearances this season — 42 with the Braves, 25 with the Rangers — as he missed a lot of time between mid-May and mid-August with a sprained left toe.

With rosters expanding, the veteran Stubbs will simply add to the Orioles’ outfield depth.