Craig Calcaterra

Chicago White Sox's Todd Frazier takes the field before the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Glendale, Ariz., Tuesday, March 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Associated Press

2016 Preview: Chicago White Sox


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 2016 season. Next up: The Chicago White Sox.

White Sox fans have gotten used to busy offseasons. They have yet to become acquainted with those busy offseasons bearing any real competitive fruit. So you can forgive them if they’re a tad skeptical of the changes made on the south side this past winter.

This year the Sox identified catcher, second base, shortstop and third base as prime reasons for their disappointing 2015 finish and plugged those holes with Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, Brett Lawrie, Jimmy Rollins and Todd Frazier, respectively. Austin Jackson was added late in the offseason for center field. Frazier is a HUGE upgrade and will pair nicely with Jose Abreu in the middle of the order. Lawrie will likewise be an offensive improvement at second base. There were some questions about his defense — he’s played much more third than second over the course of his career — but he’s looked solid there this spring. He has been a decent offensive performer in the past, but he has still not met the high expectations many have had for him. It’s hard to believe that Jimmy Rollins has anything left in the tank.

There are still a lot of question marks. Avila and Navarro are no spring chickens and neither is exactly a plus option at the plate, even if they prove to be a solid receiving corps (which, to be honest, is not something they should really be expected to be based on recent performance). Melky Cabrera, one of last season’s imports, underperformed in 2015. Can he return to the form he showed in Toronto? Adam LaRoche famously retired a few weeks ago, but that should probably be considered addition by subtraction. Unless of course there is a leadership void created by the loss of a 14-year-old boy. We’re on year five of waiting for Avisail Garcia to fulfill expectations.

Did the White Sox improve their offense and defense in the offseason? I think it’s fair to say they did. Did they improve it enough given how bad they were in 2015? Eh, doesn’t feel like it.

Pitching-wise things obviously start with Chris Sale and he’s outstanding. Jose Quintana is quietly one of the better number two starters in baseball, even if no one ever really acknowledges it. Carlos Rodon‘s rookie campaign was promising and he has nice potential, though he’s likely going to struggle with control and the adjustment to two new catchers who have bad pitch framing numbers. John Danks and Mat Latos aren’t the sort of horses you’d bet on to do that much at this point. At best you get some innings eaten, but that’s certainly not a guarantee with Latos.

Like a lot of teams the back end of the pen looks OK. Here it’s Dave Robertson and Nate Jones. The rest is an uninspiring mix of guys who disappointed last year. Eh, bullpens are like that. There’s not reason, though, to think this will be a great group.

Sorry, I’m just pessimistic about the White Sox overall. Beyond the Frazier addition I’m not enamored with the White Sox’ offseason moves and feel like they were exercises in bringing in name brand players as opposed to useful, improved ones. I think a lineup needs more than 2-3 reliable bats and a rotation needs more than two sure thing pitchers. Finally, while I am not the sort to read TOO much into team chemistry stuff, the fact that the White Sox clubhouse nearly tore itself apart over the presence and then absence of a 14-year-old boy is . . . troubling. All of this, I think, adds up to another disappointing year on the south side.

Prediction: fifth place, A.L. Central.

2016 Preview: Detroit Tigers

Venezuelan-born Detroit Tigers player Miguel Cabrera watches a MLB clinic for young baseball players in Matanzas, Cuba, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. The clinic is part of a three-day mission meant to warm relations between the U.S. league and this baseball-loving nation. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
Associated Press

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 2016 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

The Miguel CabreraJustin Verlander Tigers era is not yet over. Not necessarily. Cabrera, though he missed a huge chunk of the middle of the year due to injury, was still one of the game’s best hitters when healthy. Verlander, despite himself missing a lot of time to start the year and despite hitting a lot of bumps in the road early after he returned, settled down nicely and improved as the year progressed. He has looked sharp this spring and seems to be poised for a new phase of his career in which he truly commits to getting hitters out without thinking that he can simply throw the ball by everyone. It’s a nice adjustment to see and it suggests that he can age more like wine and less like, well, a normal pitcher.

It’s entirely possible that this Tigers team, which had seen so much success before last year’s injury-fueled collapse, has another run left in them. If they make that run, however,  it will be based more on just their Big Two. There were a lot of offseason additions made to the Detroit roster, and they’re going to need to pan out for the Tigers to get back into the thick of things in the Central.

Jordan Zimmermann was brought in on a five-year $110 million deal to help to fortify the front half of the rotation alongside Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, who himself missed a lot of time and underperformed last year. Mike Pelfrey was likewise added. Both of those guys come with some serious warning signs of decline, but Zimmermann is capable of solid production and Pelfrey just has to eat some innings and keep Brad Ausmus from having to use the bullpen quite as much as he has in the past. Verlander and Sanchez are key here — if they’re not back to ace and ace-esque form this year forget it, but the rotation is not necessarily a problem.

But ah, that bullpen. Long a sore spot for the Tigers, even when they were winning divisions, it’s gonna be sore again. It’s a totally new cast of characters out there under the Comerica Park shrubbery. That beats Dave Dombrowski’s old habit of simply running the same guys out there and hoping for different results, but it’s still a pretty suspect cast. Francisco Rodriguez saved 38 games last year and looked pretty good doing it, but there are a lot of miles on that odometer. Mark Lowe will set him up. He looked amazingly good for Seattle in 2015 but that was very clearly a fluke. His meh performance after being traded to the Jays is more in keeping with expectations. Justin Wilson could be a nice pickup, but he has been uneven at times. There are a lot of other moving parts, but none of them enthralling. The less this pen is relied upon, the better things will be going for the Tigers.

The real power here is the lineup. Beyond Cabrera, the pickup of Justin Upton has to make people happy and will definitely solidify a left field situation which didn’t have any obvious answers after Yoesnis Cespedes was traded last year. In right, J.D. Martinez‘s 38-homer year showed that his 2014 was no fluke. Ian Kinsler continues to be Ian Kinsler and that’s a good thing to be. The Cameron Maybin pickup for center was promising, but he’ll start the year on the DL. Less sexy than the Cabrera-Upton-Martinez triumvirate is the hops of a bounce back from Victor Martinez and some improvement many have hoped for from Nick Castellanos. The James McCann/Jarrod Saltalamacchia combo behind the plate presents the Tigers with offensive upside they haven’t had back there for a while. This lineup could be very special.

Ultimately the Tigers’ prospects in 2016 are going to depend on some old guys showing they still have something left and showing that they can avoid the injury bug. They have lots of big names and, if things all break right, they could easily contend in the AL Central. All of those guys on the wrong side of 30 breaking right and simply not breaking is not the sort of thing I’d bet a ton on, however, so I’m going to temper my expectations and allowed myself to be pleasantly surprised should they prove to be too pessimistic.

Prediction: Fourth place, A.L. Central.

2016 Preview: Minnesota Twins

Minnesota Twins' Miguel Sano follows through on a solo home run swing on a pitch from Boston Red Sox's Joe Kelly in the first inning of a spring training baseball game, Tuesday, March 29, 2016, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Associated Press

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 2016 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

You look at the Twins and you see all kinds of young talent emerging and you think “in a year or two they’re gonna be scary.” Then you realize that the past couple of teams which fit that profile — here I’m thinking Astros and Cubs — were scary at least a year and maybe two years earlier than most people thought and you think . . . hmmmm . . .

OK, I’m not gonna go that far. I was burned on how early some other teams got good, and I really do like the talent the Twins are assembling, but I’m still going to say that they’re a year or two off.

In the meantime, though, there’s a lot to love here. Miguel Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs in only 335 plate appearances last season and they’ll have him all year. Likewise here to stay is Byron Buxton, one of the top prospects in the game. He didn’t do particularly well in his 2015 cup of coffee, but cups of coffee are not the measure of top prospects. He could really be something special. The Twins likewise picked up 29-year-old South Korean slugger Byung-ho Park. That will move Sano from DH to the outfield, which, OK, that might be scary, but the Twins offense was a horror show outside of Sano last year and putting a guy who hit .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in the KBO last season in the lineup can’t hurt at all, even if he doesn’t adjust to the majors like, say, Jung-ho Kang did.

Beyond the excitement of those young faces, there could be marginal improvement elsewhere. J.R. Murphy is no one’s idea of a great catcher, but Kurt Suzuki stunk on ice last year, so that situation is probably a tad better. Joe Mauer hit a mere .265/.338/.380 in 158 games. His MVP days are a distant memory, but he has more left in the tank than that line suggests and a better year is a reasonable expectation.

On the pitching side of things there is some reason for hope. Having Ervin Santana back for more than the half a season he had last year due to a drug suspension is good news. Phil Hughes is not as good as his 2014 suggested but he only made 25 starts last year and might be a bit more reliable this year. Putting Ricky Nolasco in the rotation was not anything Twins fans wanted to see, especially since it pushed Tyler Duffey down to the minors. Duffey was 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA (134 ERA+) and 1.31 WHIP last year while Nolasco was an expensive train wreck, but the Twins front office is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of sunk costs. Worth watching is top prospect Jose Berrios, who was 14-5 with a 2.87 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 175 strikeouts in 166 1/3 innings in 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A last year. If the season is promising early, he could come up to help solidify the rotation. If not, expect the Twins to keep him down due to service time considerations.

In the pen is Glen Perkins will close and Kevin Jepsen who will setup. That’s a nice combo.

Overall, there’s a lot to like here. The Twins won 83 games and were in the wild card hunt for most of the year after an excellent May catapulted them into the conversation. They’re not as good as that May was but they may be better constructed for the six month slog. Part of me thinks that the Twins will be one of those teams we look back on in September and say “man, no one saw them coming.” For now though I’m going to be a bit bearish and say that they’re a year away from being super exciting.

Prediction: Third place, A.L. Central.