Evaluating the opposition: The 2015 Chicago White Sox
Growth and offseason acquisitions could push Chicago into playoff contention
Following a 73-89 showing in 2014, the Chicago White Sox do not jump out as a threat to Cleveland in next year’s division race.
Such a thought process would be selling the White Sox short, however.
Recently, I broke down the brighter-than-expected offseason outlook for the Detroit Tigers, finding even if they lose Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, Detroit still projects as a playoff contender, especially considering the win-now nature of the organization.
The White Sox are not of the same mindset and are instead in a rebuilding phase. Yet, that rebuild could yield some interesting fruit as soon as next year with a few good breaks.
A contending White Sox team in 2015 would start at the top of the rotation, with left-handers Chris Sale and Jose Quintana forming a daunting combination for opposing lineups. In terms of fWAR, those two finished eighth and ninth in all of baseball. Even if those two come back down to Earth a bit, the White Sox have two firm building blocks.
The issue in Chicago is the other three starters. Right now, right-handers Hector Noesi and Chris Bassitt are projected to join left-hander John Danks in the rotation. Those three are all pretty close to replacement level, leaving Sale and Quintana as the only pitchers of consequence on the South Side.
Sale and Quintana alone project to make this starting rotation close to average. With three black holes after them, however, average is really the best the White Sox starters can project to be right now.
While Chicago’s rotation has two top-level performers to nail down some value, the same cannot be said for the White Sox’s bullpen. There are some intriguing names for manager Robin Ventura to call upon -- headlined by former Cleveland farmhand right-hander Zach Putnam -- but as a whole, this group projects to be easily below-average.
Not that having a below-average bullpen is all that bad for a rebuilding team. Big name relievers -- namely closers who are able to rack up gaudy save totals -- cost real money and have a high flameout rate, making them a risk contending teams need to take, not ones looking at finishing around 75 wins.
There are a few other fringe benefits to the White Sox’s no-name, low-expectation bullpen, but we will get to those later. For now, suffice to say Chicago’s bullpen will not threaten the dominant one in Kansas City for the title of best in the American League Central.
Moving to the infield, Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn may be gone, but first baseman Jose Abreu is a building block for the future. He may regress a bit from the 2014 season -- given we have no track record on him, last year could just be everything going right for him -- but in that same vein, he also could be able to maintain this or even keep growing. All that is for certain is the White Sox have a lineup cornerstone and really valuable player in Abreu who is in the midst of his prime.
The rest of the White Sox’s infield is fairly nondescript, with shortstop Alexei Ramirez projected to continue producing at an above-average level and second baseman Marcus Semien seemingly ready to establish himself as an adequate major league player. Catcher Tyler Flowers and third baseman Conor Gillaspie both seem to be below-average, though both are on the sweet spot of the aging curve and could, in theory, take another step forward toward mediocrity.
It is not a star-studded infield, but the presence of Abreu cures a lot of ills and pushes it to slightly above-average. Which is more than can be said about Chicago’s outfield.
Center fielder Adam Eaton is a solid player when healthy, but the rest of the White Sox’s options in the outfield are a little underwhelming. Jordan Danks and Dayan Viciedo both project as pretty close to replacement level, while right fielder Avisail Garcia is unproven even if he is young with upside.
All together, this outfield as it sits right now is easily below-average, though there is some hope that players like Eaton and Garcia could take steps forward. The team as a whole is still rebuilding, however, with the roster as currently constructed projecting for around 74 wins, also known as essentially the same amount as the team won in 2014.
But what about offseason upgrades?
Clearly, a 74-win team is not one pushing for a playoff berth, but the danger the White Sox pose to the AL Central comes from their upside.
The projections are conservative on Abreu, Sale, and Quintana. But what if Abreu keeps this up, Sale pitches like a Cy Young candidate again like he did in 2014, and Quintana keeps beating the projections? Suddenly, the White Sox are a little closer to average.
Plus, Eaton (entering his age-26 season) and Garcia (entering his age-24 season) are both young players pushing toward their prime. The projections are low on them, but if they both continue to improve (as young players tend to do), Chicago is just about an average team.
Just from players already on the roster, the White Sox could see themselves become an average team, which is scary considering general manager Rick Hahn has money to spend this offseason.
Thanks to the end of contracts like Adam Dunn’s, the White Sox only have around $70 million in payroll committed right now. After spending $83.5 million in 2014, Hahn could spend $13.5 million in free agency -- or even more if Chicago decides they want to contend immediately.
The fringe benefit mentioned earlier about the White Sox’s weaknesses appears here. With so many low-performing, near-replacement level players, even upgrading to average players does quite a bit for Chicago’s playoff chances.
Combined with the internal improvements listed above, if the White Sox can find two average starters to replace Noesi and Bassitt, an average left fielder to replace Jordan Danks, and a two solid relievers to upgrade their below-average bullpen, Chicago has gone from a 74-win team to one looking at an 87-win projection.
Where does this leave Cleveland?
Of course, that 87-win projection is the result of a bunch of things going right for the White Sox and is not likely to happen. But the point is, there is a blueprint for Chicago to contend as soon as next season.
Cleveland is still a good team, but the competition in the AL Central looks to be fierce. The Tigers still look to be good, the Royals are in the World Series, and the White Sox have the upside to make a Royals-like run.
The playoffs are still a possibility for Cleveland in 2015, but in addition to competing with the two AL Central teams that made the postseason this season, the White Sox are a team to keep an eye on.
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Similarly, 3B Matt Davidson took a significant step back as a prospect last year, he's their AAA 3B and he should be close to contributing at a position the White Sox could use the contributions. He looks pretty much like a Three True Outcomes player at this point, with an above average walk rate usually 10-11%, a worryingly high K-rate that's been between 25-30% for basically his entire minor league career, and 20 HR power. He'll be 24 next year and there's reason to hope for a bit of a breakout year from him.