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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Brewers 9, Reds 4: Milwaukee beats the Reds for the sixth time in seven tries this year. Orlando Arcia homered and drove in three. Jett Bandy had three hits and two RBI. The Brewers had 14 hits in all. Some bad news: Eric Thames left the game with a tight hamstring. He says he’ll be OK, however. And get manager Craig Counsell’s explanation of the injury is quite the humble brag:

“It just kind of tightened up over the day,” Counsell said. “It is really the on-base stuff. He’s just been on-base a whole bunch, running the bases, scoring from first, so just a whole bunch of baserunning.”

“He’s just been so awesome that all of his awesome beat-the-Reds muscles are tired. Maybe he’ll be better when he’s done beating the hell out of the Reds.

White Sox 5, Royals 2: It was tied at two until Avisail Garcia’s two-run home run in the sixth. Jose Quintana struck out ten in only six innings of work, allowing only an earned run. Rick Renteria said he was going to let Quintana pitch the seventh if the game was tied, but took him out once Garcia hit that bomb. At only 99 pitches I’m sure a veteran like Quintana would’ve been OK for another inning, but I always do scratch my head when the W is what determines when a starter is taken out.

Indians 7, Astros 6: Michael Brantley had an RBI double in the first inning and added a two-run single in the fifth. He’s hitting .318/.384/.561 with four homers and 15 driven in in 17 games. They should probably just award the Comeback Player of the Year Award now.

Yankees 3, Red Sox 1: It was Aaron Judge‘s birthday. In celebration he hit a two-run homer and made this spectacular catch, diving into the stands at Fenway:

The ump initially said it was no catch, but it was overturned on replay. The Yankees have won 11 of 14.

Orioles 5, Rays 4: Not a great night for the Rays. First, they gave up two runs on this little league homer of a disaster of a play:

 

Then, with a 4-3 lead in the 11th inning, they let the O’s come back and win it like this:

single
single
walk (bases now loaded)
sac fly (run scores)
walk (bases now loaded again)
walk

Alex Colome did everything until the second-to-last walk, then Danny Farquhar came in and walked in the winning run on four friggin’ pitches. I’m guessing Kevin Cash put his foot through a soda machine or something. At least I would’ve.

Phillies 7, Marlins 4: Maikel Franco hit a grand slam and the Phillies won their fifth game in a row. Franco had three hits in all. Sellout crowd too. No, not because the Marlins were in town. But because it was $1 hot dog night.

Pirates 6, Cubs 5: Pittsburgh needed six pitchers to get through this one, but they got through. Jon Lester allowed five runs on six hits and still hasn’t won a game this year. I suspect we’ll soon be hearing a lot about how it’s all attributable to David Ross being gone, whether there’s any truth to that or not. The game was most notable for Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe becoming the first player from Africa to play in the majors. He singled in his first at bat, too. The South African said this after the game:

“To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special. There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing.”

Pretty cool.

Mariners 8, Tigers 0: James Paxton has been one of the few bright spots for the M’s in the early going. Here he tossed seven shutout innings, striking out nine and allowing only four hits. Two driven in a piece for Jean SeguraGuillermo Heredia and Nelson Cruz.

Braves 8, Mets 2: Julio Teheran allowed only two runs while pitching into the seventh while Mets starter Robert Gsellman didn’t fool anyone, allowing five runs in the first inning. In all he allowed six runs — five earned — on ten hits without making it out of the fifth. The Braves end a six-game skid.

Rangers 14, Twins 3: The Rangers avoid a sweep. It was relatively close until late in the game when Ryan Rua hit his first career grand slam and Shin-Soo Choo hit a three-run homer in Texas’ eight-run eighth inning. The Rangers also had a four-run sixth inning in which they only recorded two hits. A hit-by-pitch, a wild pitch and a passed ball helped things along.

Nationals 11, Rockies 4: On Tuesday night Trea Turner hit for the cycle. Last night he fell a triple short of doing it again. Bryce Harper had four hits as he continues his early season tear. The top of the Nats’ order is brutal for opposing pitchers. Adam Eaton, Turner, Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy combined to go 13-for-24 with three homers and all 11 RBI on the night. It’s not surprising the Nats have the best record in baseball right now.

Padres 8, Diamondbacks 5: Down 5-3 in the ninth, San Diego put up a five-spot to come from behind. Ryan Schimpf did most of the damage, hitting a go-ahead, three-run homer off of Fernando Rodney. You’ll be shocked at his strategy in that situation:

“Just try not to do too much, really. Just trying to get ready for something to hit, trying to square something up.”

No word on whether he’s happy to help the ball club.

Angels 8, Athletics 5: Matt Shoemaker picks up his first win since being cracked in the skull with a comebacker last season. He tossed five innings, allowing two runs while scattering seven hits. Cameron Maybin helped his cause by going 3-for-4 with three driven in.

Giants 4, Dodgers 3: L.A. had a three-run lead heading into the bottom of the seventh but the Giants came back. Michael Morse, back with the Giants for the first time since 2014, hit a tying, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning. Then in the 10th, Hunter Pence hit a game-winning sacrifice fly with the bases loaded.

Blue Jays vs. Cardinals — POSTPONED:

I can’t sleep tonight
Everybody’s saying everything is alright
Still I can’t close my eyes
I’m seeing a tunnel at the end of all of these lights
Sunny days, where have you gone?
I get the strangest feeling you belong
Why does it always rain on me?
Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?
Why does it always rain on me?
Even when the sun is shinning I can’t avoid the lightning

Video: Gift Ngoepe singles in his first major league at-bat

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
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Pirates infielder Gift Ngoepe, just called up from Triple-A Indianapolis, singled in his first major league at-bat on Wednesday evening against Cubs starter Jon Lester. It was a well-struck ground ball up the middle in the bottom of the fourth inning. Unfortunately for him, the Pirates could not bring him around to score.

Ngoepe, who was pinch-hitting, stayed in the game to play second base.