2015 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 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.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.