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.

Larry Walker to wear a Rockies cap on his Hall of Fame plaque

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I guess this came out the day he was elected but I missed it somehow: Larry Walker is going to have a Rockies cap on his Fall of Fame plaque.

While it was once solely the choice of the inductee, for the past couple of decades the Hall of Fame has had final say on the caps, though the request of the inductee is noted. This is done to prevent a situation in which a cap truly misrepresents history. This issue arose around the time Wade Boggs was inducted, as he reportedly had a deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to pick their cap on his plaque which, to say the least, would’ve been unrepresentative.

There have been some mildly controversial picks in the past, and some guys who would seem to have a clear choice have gone with blank caps to avoid upsetting the fan base of one of his other teams, but Walker’s doesn’t seem all that controversial to me.

Walker played ten years in Colorado to six years in Montreal and two years in St. Louis. His numbers in Colorado were substantial better than in Montreal. His MVP Award, most of his Gold Gloves, most of his All-Star appearances, and all of his black ink with the exception of the NL doubles title in 1994 came with the Rockies too. Walker requested the Rockies cap, noting correctly that he “did more damage” in a Rockies uniform than anyplace else. And, of course, that damage is what got him elected to the Hall of Fame.

Still, I imagine fans of the old Expos will take at least some issue here. Those folks tend to be pretty possessive of their team’s old stars. It’s understandable, I suppose, given that they’ve not gotten any new ones in a decade or two. Add in the fact that Walker played for the 1994 Expos team onto which people love to project things both reasonable and unreasonable, and you can expect that the Expos dead-enders might feel a bit slighted.

Welp, sorry. A Rockies cap is the right choice.  And that’s Walker’s cap will feature.