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 2015 season. Next up: The Chicago White Sox.
The Big Question: Should we be taking the rebuilt White Sox seriously as contenders?
It got largely overshadowed by the non-stop wheeling and dealing in San Diego, but the White Sox also had an extremely busy offseason as general manager Rick Hahn attempted to turn an 89-loss team into a potential contender in one winter.
Hahn beefed up the rotation behind ace Chris Sale by trading for impending free agent Jeff Samardzija, remade the bullpen by signing closer David Robertson and setup man Zach Duke, added a pair of good bats to the lineup in first baseman Adam LaRoche and outfielder Melky Cabrera, and even gave manager Robin Ventura a bit more bench versatility in utility man Emilio Bonifacio.
Hahn had a busy, productive, high-impact offseason, but will it be enough to pull the White Sox up from 73 wins to the 85-plus typically required to be a factor deep into September? Fortunately for the White Sox they were starting with two hugely valuable, young building blocks in Sale, who finished third in the Cy Young balloting at age 25, and first baseman Jose Abreu, who won the Rookie of the Year award and finished fourth in the MVP balloting at age 27. Not many 73-win teams have two elite players around which to build.
Sale won’t be ready for Opening Day after breaking his foot in late February, but assuming he’s back in the rotation by mid-April the White Sox top three of Sale, Samardzija, and Jose Quintana is one of the best in baseball. Their bullpen, which was a major weakness last year, now has a shutdown closer in Robertson, allowing guys like Duke, Jake Petricka, and and Zach Putnam to settle into setup roles. And within a couple months last year’s No. 3 overall pick, stud left-hander Carlos Rodon, should be ready for his call-up.
The turnaround offensively won’t be as dramatic, but it doesn’t need to be. Chicago ranked in the middle of the AL pack in run scoring and is essentially replacing the corner outfield/designated hitter trio of Adam Dunn, Dayan Viciedo, and Alejandro De Aza with LaRoche, Cabrera, and Avisail Garcia, who returned from injury to play 46 games down the stretch. Toss in center fielder Adam Eaton’s on-base skills atop the batting order, plus Alexei Ramirez having more pop than the average shortstop, and even with second base and catcher being question marks this has a chance to be a much deeper, more dangerous lineup surrounding Abreu.
Going from 73 wins to 85-plus wins in one offseason is extremely difficult, but the White Sox absolutely look like a team that should have a winning record and contending in a relatively mediocre AL Central division is entirely doable.
What else is going on?
- For a long time Carlos Rodon was the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, but then his stock dipped a bit and both the Astros and Marlins passed on the North Carolina State ace. Six months later it’s probably safe to assume both teams would do things differently, because Rodon struck out 38 batters in his 24-inning debut, ranked as a top-20 prospect by both Baseball America and MLB.com this offseason, and then impressed this spring with a 19/3 K/BB ratio in 12 innings. He looks just about ready and has top-of-the-rotation upside.
- Because he was 27 years old and a superstar in Cuba it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to put Abreu’s numbers up against other “rookies” … but why not. He had a 169 OPS+ last season. Here’s a list of all the other first basemen in MLB history to top a 150 OPS+ as a rookie: Mark McGwire, 164 in 1987. That’s it. That’s the entire list. Even setting aside the whole rookie thing, the last 27-year-old first basemen with a higher OPS+ than Abreu were Miguel Cabrera in 2010 and Frank Thomas in 1995. And then no one else since 1962.
- Adam Eaton played so well in his first season with the White Sox–hitting .300 with a .362 on-base percentage and solid defense in center field–that Hahn signed him to a long-term contract extension that keeps him under team control through 2021. Eaton lacks power, but his on-base skills and speed are top notch and are an ideal fit atop the lineup and in front of Abreu. Eaton hit .348 in the minors, including .364 with 40 steals in 133 games at Triple-A.
Prediction: One of the biggest improvements of any team in baseball, going from 73-89 to at least .500 in a division where four of the five teams figure to win 80-something games. But just short of the playoffs.