2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Chicago White Sox.

The White Sox haven’t seen a winning season in five years. Normally, this would be the part of the preview where we say something kind, like “They’ll definitely turn things around in 2018” (they could) or “Yoan Moncada sure did look good in camp” (he did), but it isn’t yet clear where the White Sox are headed this year. They’re still in the middle of an extensive rebuild with no immediate plans to contend. Will 2018 be the year that they compromise those rebuilding efforts by signing a few veteran players at the trade deadline and making a late-season run at the playoffs? Probably not – though they wouldn’t be the only AL Central team to attempt that balancing act.

The White Sox aren’t the Royals, however. They’ve already taken considerable measures to build toward long-term stability: flipping Jose Quintana to the Cubs for no. 1 prospect Eloy Jimenez and no. 5 prospect Dylan Cease last summer; grabbing a handful of the Yankees’ top-shelf prospects for Todd Frazier and two relievers; and cultivating a rich farm system that was ranked third-best by MLB Pipeline and fourth-best by Baseball America. They made several smart moves in preparation for the July trade deadline, too, inking Welington Castillo to a two-year, $15 million deal and swapping Triple-A infielder Jake Peter for relief pitcher/trade chips Luis Avilan and Joakim Soria in a three-team trade with the Dodgers and Royals.

If 2017 was the season when the team worked on building up their reserves of young talent, then 2018 figures to be the season when that young talent has to prove itself. Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and Yolmer Sanchez are expected to hold down the fort in the infield. Moncada’s 20+ homer potential is still curbed by an astronomically high strikeout rate (32.0% in 231 PA in 2017), but he’ll enter 2018 as the Sox’ leadoff hitter and hope to improve the paltry .231/.338/.412 batting line he managed with them last year. Speaking of free swingers, Anderson followed up a productive big league breakout in 2016 with a .257-average, 0.2-fWAR performance in 2017, complete with a 26.2% strikeout rate of his own.

The infield grades better at the corners, where Abreu and Sanchez will look to replicate strong 2017 performances. Abreu posted some of his best numbers since his major league debut with the team in 2014, amassing 4.1 fWAR after harnessing a 140 OPS+ and leading the AL with 343 total bases. Sanchez, meanwhile, will assume his post at third base after the White Sox failed to net Mike Moustakas over the offseason. What he fails to bring to the plate, he delivers on defense – at the conclusion of last season, he ranked ninth-best among all AL third basemen. Matt Davidson is expected to hold down the DH spot, but his impressive power stroke has been tempered by an aggressive approach that yields a few too many strikeouts and too few walks.

Further out in the field, Nicky Delmonico, Adam Engel and Avisail Garcia will man left, center and right field, respectively. Neither Delmonico nor Engel have much power to speak of, and Delmonico’s health is in question after he sustained a hamstring strain and partial shoulder dislocation in camp earlier this month. Garcia, on the other hand, is coming off of a career year after slashing .330/.380/.506 with 18 home runs in 561 PA, and could be one of the club’s top producers again in 2018 if he doesn’t become trade bait first.

James Shields is the White Sox’ Opening Day starter, which might have been an exciting statement to make four years ago, but certainly isn’t now. The 36-year-old right-hander earned a two-month stay on the disabled list with a lat strain last year and finished his 2017 run with a 5-7 record in 21 starts and a 5.23 ERA, 4.1 BB/9, 7.9 SO/9 and -0.2 fWAR through 117 innings. Despite his lackluster production, he’s still a proven innings-eater when healthy and will be expected to provide some veteran stability to an inexperienced pitching staff.

Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Carson Fulmer and Miguel Gonzalez will round out the rest of the rotation. Carlos Rondon, another promising young southpaw, has chronic shoulder issues that will prevent him from testing his potential on a big league stage until June, if not later in the year. Giolito, Lopez and Fulmer remain relatively untested in the majors and all have struggled to varying degrees with fluctuating velocity and poor command over the last year or so. Twenty-three-year-old Giolito finished strong last year with a 2.38 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 6.8 SO/9 in 45 1/3 innings and continued to impress in camp, though he has yet to deliver results over a full season. As this is still a rebuilding year, there should be plenty of room for the club’s younger pitchers to find their groove in the majors without worrying about jeopardizing a run at the playoffs.

The bullpen is on shaky ground as well, especially after David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak, Tyler Clippard and Dan Jennings jumped ship last year. Renteria hasn’t established a closer and intends to leave the job wide open to a combination of Nate Jones, Joakim Soria and Juan Minaya. Danny Farquhar, Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Santiago and Luis Avilan could all help bolster the ‘pen as well, but this doesn’t look like a group that will rise too far above their 10th-best ranking in the American League, if at all.

In a nutshell: The White Sox may not be the flashiest or most exciting team in the AL Central (an understatement if ever there was one), but they made a number of shrewd moves this offseason as they continue to advance their rebuild. They’re a solid middle-of-the-pack kind of club and likely won’t finish above third place in the division, though they might be able to break their five-year losing streak while doing so. If 2018 isn’t their year, 2019 very well could be.

Prediction: 4th place, AL Central

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.