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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.

Chapman has trouble remembering convo with Cubs management about off-field behavior

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CHICAGO — Star closer Aroldis Chapman joined the Cubs on Tuesday, arriving to a mixed reaction in Chicago and saying he couldn’t remember what management told him about off-field expectations and behavior.

After Chapman’s awkward introductory news conference, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein insisted Chapman understands what the Cubs expect of him after an offseason domestic violence incident.

When the Cubs announced the trade with the New York Yankees on Monday, the team released a statement from Chairman Tom Ricketts saying they were aware of his 29-game suspension to begin the season under Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy.

Ricketts said he and Epstein talked by phone with Chapman before the deal was completed and “shared with him the high expectations we set for our players,” adding that Chapman was “comfortable” with them.

But when asked repeatedly about that phone conversation before Tuesday’s game against the crosstown White Sox, Chapman said through an interpreter that he couldn’t recall details because he was taking a nap at the time the call came in.

The question was asked several more times. A Cubs spokesman once asked the question himself to the interpreter, coach Henry Blanco.

“It’s been a long day,” Chapman said. “Trying to remember.”

Asked again several minutes later during the group interview if he could now remember what Ricketts said, Chapman shook his head.

“I still don’t remember,” he said in Spanish.

Epstein called it a misunderstanding and that Chapman was “pretty nervous” as he faced seven cameras and more than two dozen reporters.

“I was on the call, Tom was on the call, Aroldis was on the call and Barry Praver, his agent, was on the call. It happened and it was real,” Epstein said before the Cubs’ 3-0 loss to the White Sox.

Chapman was accused of choking his girlfriend and firing eight gunshots in the garage of a Florida home in October. The woman later changed her story and no charges were filed.

“You learn from the mistakes that you make,” Chapman said.

The case caused the Los Angeles Dodgers to back out of an offseason trade for Chapman. Cincinnati eventually traded him to the Yankees, and after his suspension, the 28-year-old Cuban converted 20 of 21 save chances for New York.

The Cubs have long boasted of stocking their roster with high-character players, helping earn the “lovable losers” label they’ve carried for decades since their last World Series title in 1908.

But the Cubs (59-40) have retooled their roster under Epstein and have the best record in the major leagues despite Tuesday’s loss in which Chapman didn’t pitch. Chapman, who threw a 105 mph fastball last week, fills perhaps the team’s largest hole as he replaces Hector Rondon as closer.

The Cubs sent four players to the Yankees, including shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres, to get one of the game’s top relievers. Epstein said they wouldn’t have made the deal if not for the phone call he and Ricketts had with Chapman.

“Tom laid out the exact same standards that he lays out to everyone in spring training,” Epstein said. “He said, extremely clearly, `Look, Aroldis, I tell all the players this in spring training and it’s important you hear it and I need to hear from you on this. We expect our players to behave. We hold our players to a very high standard for their behavior off the field. And we need to know you can meet that standard.’

“Aroldis said `I understand. Absolutely, I can.'”

The Cubs activated Chapman before Tuesday’s game and designated left-hander Clayton Richard for assignment.

Reaction to Chapman’s acquisition in Chicago has been tepid. While there were supportive fans on talk radio, the Chicago Tribune carried a front-page column Tuesday criticizing the move. The back of the Chicago Sun-Times tabloid read “Spin City” over a picture of Epstein.

Chapman said he expected a “good reaction” from Cubs fans. He was also asked during the 20-minute meeting with reporters in the visiting dugout at U.S. Cellular Field if we would consider working with organizations looking to prevent domestic violence. Chapman said no.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon defended Chapman.

“He did do a suspension, he has talked about it, he’s shown remorse,” Maddon said. “Everybody else has the right to judge him as a good or bad person. That’s your right.

I want to get to know Aroldis. I think he could be a very significant member and he’s got the potential, yes, to throw the last out of the World Series. And if he does, I promise you I will embrace him.”

Report: Padres working on trading Andrew Cashner

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 21: Starter Derek Norris #3 of the San Diego Padres pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning at Busch Stadium on July 21, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of FOX Sports and MLB Network reports that the Padres are working to trade starter Andrew Cashner. He notes that a deal may be consummated before he takes the hill for Tuesday’s start in Toronto against the Blue Jays. The Marlins, Orioles, and Rangers have had reported interest in Cashner.

Cashner is 4-7 with a 4.79 ERA and a 61/27 K/BB ratio in 73 1/3 innings. He missed over three weeks between June 11 and July 2 due to a strained neck.

The right-hander is earning $9.625 million this season and will be eligible for free agency after the season.