Springtime Storylines: Are the Chicago White Sox rebuilding or contending?

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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 2012 season. Up next: Chicago White Sox.

The Big Question: Are the Chicago White Sox rebuilding or contending?

After eight tumultuous but mostly successful seasons as manager Ozzie Guillen left for Miami and general manager Ken Williams shook things up even further by choosing someone with zero managerial experience to replace him in Robin Ventura. And then Williams made several big moves that seemingly put the White Sox squarely in rebuilding mode.

He traded 23-year-old closer Sergio Santos, setup man Jason Frasor, and starting right fielder Carlos Quentin while watching Mark Buehrle leave as a free agent, but Williams stopped just short of a total overhaul. Rumored trade bait like Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton, and John Danks remain, along with the untradeable contracts of Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, and Adam Dunn, and the team’s best hitter is still 35-year-old Paul Konerko.

Not exactly what full-on rebuilds are made of, and by promoting Chris Sale, Dayan Viciedo, and Addison Reed to bigger roles it’s more like the White Sox are retooling on the fly. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can actually contend in the process. Chicago went 79-83 last season and will need an awful lot of things to go right to climb much further than .500, although the weakness of the division beyond Detroit makes just about any decent team a quasi-contender in the AL Central.

What else is going on?

  • Dunn and Rios were amazingly awful last season, so simply being “really bad” this year would be a massive improvement. And if they each bounce back all the way to their 2010 levels the White Sox’s lineup should top last season’s measly 654 runs with ease. On the other hand, if that doesn’t happen then Konerko is the only real masher in a lineup that could get very ugly if Alejando De Aza fails to provide a spark at the top and Gordon Beckham continues to underwhelm.
  • Santos was dominant more often than not for the White Sox and should be very good as the Blue Jays’ long-term closer, but Chicago has another potentially dominant young right-hander in Addison Reed and along with Thornton and Crain form the makings of a good late-inning trio. That bullpen depth made dealing Santos easier to swallow and allows the White Sox to give formerly excellent setup man Chris Sale an opportunity in the rotation.
  • Sale was a starter in college, but the White Sox shifted him to the bullpen in the minors in an effort to speed up his arrival in the big leagues and it worked so well that they kept him there last season. Sale has a 2.58 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 94 innings as a reliever, so it’s tempting to keep him there, but at age 24 and with two good off-speed pitches to go with a plus fastball it makes sense to see if he can thrive in a 200-inning role before letting him settle into a 65-inning role for good.

How are they gonna do?

It’s hard to imagine the White Sox giving the Tigers serious competition for the division title, but like the other three teams in the AL Central they’re certainly capable of finishing in second place. Las Vegas pegs the over/under for their win total around 76 and after going 79-83 last season that seems about right. Chicago isn’t as bad as the “rebuilding” label might suggest, but it’s still a mediocre team and they figure to be sellers at the trade deadline.

This Day in Transaction History: Padres pawn off James Shields

James Shields
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For a few years, starter James Shields was quite dominant. From 2011-14 with the Rays and Royals, the right-hander made a minimum of 33 starts each season with a 3.17 ERA. He peaked in ’11, finishing with a 2.82 ERA and finishing third in American League Cy Young balloting.

Shields leveraged that 2011-14 run into a four-year, $75 million contract with the Padres, inked in February 2015. It wasn’t an outright disaster of a contract for the Padres, but Shields did not live up to expectations. In his first year with the Padres, he posted a 3.91 ERA. Through the first two months of the 2016 season, Shields allowed 32 earned runs over 67 1/3 innings. The Padres, however, scored only 22 runs in his 11 games, so he was 2-7 after 11 starts. Shields also gave up one of the more memorable home runs in recent history on May 7, 2016:

On June 4, the Padres moved Shields and $27 million of the $58 million remaining on his contract to the White Sox. The White Sox gave up pitcher Erik Johnson and an infield prospect named Fernando Tatís Jr.

If the White Sox had a do-over button, they would have pressed it. Shields, 34 at the time of the trade, had a disastrous rest of the 2016 season, posting a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts for the White Sox. He finished out the remainder of his contract in Chicago, registering a 5.23 ERA in 2017 and a 4.53 ERA in ’18. Shields went into free agency but went unsigned and hasn’t pitched since.

Johnson flamed out after the 2016 season, yielding 20 runs in 19 2/3 innings in four starts for the Padres. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017 and spent the ’18 campaign between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso.

Tatís, as we know now, was the jewel of the trade. The White Sox signed Tatís as a 16-year-old as a free agent. A year later, before he ever appeared in a professional game in the White Sox organization, he was moved in a big trade. While it took him a couple of years to appear on top-100 prospect lists, his talent was readily apparent. In 2017, Tatís spent most of his season with Single-A Fort Wayne. He accrued 26 doubles, 21 homers, 29 stolen bases, 69 RBI, and 78 runs scored in 518 trips to the plate. Going into the 2018 season, Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus each ranked him among the top-10 prospects in the game.

Tatís was off to another great start in 2018. Through 88 games, he had a .286/.355/.507 line with 22 doubles, 16 homers, 16 stolen bases, 43 RBI, and 77 runs scored spanning 394 plate appearances. Sadly, in mid-July, Tatís broke his left thumb and suffered ligament damage while making a head-first slide. He recovered from the injury, playing in the Dominican Winter League and having another strong performance over 23 games. Tatís followed that up with a productive spring training, giving the Padres only one choice. He began the season on the Opening Day roster and jumped out to become one of baseball’s best players.

Over his first 84 games as a major leaguer, Tatís batted .317/.379/.590 with 13 doubles, six triples, 22 home runs, 16 steals, 53 RBI, and 61 runs scored over 372 plate appearances. Baseball Reference put him at 4.1 Wins Above Replacement. Sadly, similar to 2018, Tatís suffered a season-ending injury, a stress reaction in his lower back. At the time, he was neck-and-neck with Pete Alonso and Mike Soroka in the NL Rookie of the Year race. The injury allowed Alonso to win the award in a landslide while Tatís finished third.

While the White Sox would have loved to have Tatís at third base, they did end up finding some quality players in Yoán Moncada at the hot corner and Tim Anderson at shortstop. The White Sox and their young corps are close to being competitive again, but having Tatís in tow certainly would have sped up the process. And the Padres likely never would have gotten Tatís if they hadn’t inked Shields first.