2014 Preview: Chicago White Sox

13 Comments

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.

Roger Clemens says he’s not running for Congress

Getty Images
12 Comments

Apparently some people in Texas wanted Roger Clemens to run for Congress? At least enough people to where Clemens felt it necessary to tell Pete Olson, the congressman whose seat is going vacant due to his retirement, that, no, he had no interest in running for it.

From ESPN:

“The climate in politics at this time is much more than I would want to undertake, along with my family considerations,” Clemens said in a message to Olson that was obtained by ABC News.

“I am a Republican and I support our President and will continue to do so,” Clemens said. “No matter who our President may be, I will continue my support of them and root for them to be successful, just as I did when President Obama was in office.”

That’s a pretty diplomatic answer from Clemens. But even if he did not have family concerns and even if the “climate” disinterested him, I’m struggling to imagine Clemens as a viable political candidate in the first place.

For as good a pitcher as he was — and for as generally popular as he may be in Texas — the guy has some serious baggage, right? And I mean that beyond just the broad arc of the PEDs controversy that surrounded him for so long. The specifics of that controversy spun off his indictment for perjury before Congress, for example. He was acquitted — and I think it was a proper acquittal — but that was not exactly his finest hour.

It also led to a nasty battle of defamation lawsuits with a drug dealer that, remarkably, caused Clemens to come off way worse than the drug dealer, and that’s quite a trick. That whole process also revealed that he had an extraordinarily problematic extra-marital relationship with a now-dead country music singer. In all, it was a profound, 100% self-inflicted, reputation-trashing, public relations disaster that, even years later, he has taken no responsibility for. It was the sort of episode that, in addition to the ammo it might give any political opponent he may have, calls into serious questions Clemens’ judgment and sense of strategy, both of which are things that, to put it lightly, can be useful in politics.

Clemens, of course, is not going to cite any of those things as a reason for not wanting to run for office, nor does he have to. His simple “no” is all he needs to say and he can go back doing whatever it is he does for the Houston Astros.

But I am struggling mightily to understand why those people who are apparently encouraging him to run for office are doing so despite all of that being out there on the record. Is fame all that matters in politics now? Is a win bought by fame the be-all and end-all, even it means electing a candidate who is profoundly compromised both ethically and morally?

Haha, just kidding. You don’t need to answer that. I think we already know the answer.