Baseball is nearly upon us. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training any day now, and as a White Sox fan I am less than excited. Keith Law of ESPN recently ranked ($) all 30 major league organizations’ farm systems. Although this is a premium article, many sites have been republishing Law’s content and comments, which include the fact that the White Sox are dead last by a lot.
The White Sox are coming off a losing season in which they finished 3rd in the worst division in baseball. How bad was it? The AL Central was the only division without at least two .500 or above teams. The Minnesota Twins had the worst record in the AL and the 2nd worst record in baseball. The White Sox underachieved after some people thought they would be a contender for the division crown. Although the White Sox offense was near the bottom it wasn’t the worst, but that actually makes the fact that Adam Dunn and Alex Rios got so much playing time even worse. Add Juan Pierre to the mix, and the White Sox gave those guys 1777 plate appearances, or about 28% of all 2011 plate appearances. That means that more than 1/4 of the time, the person batting was somewhere between bad and terrible. Carlos Quentin put together another solid season, but only played 118 games. He has still yet to play more than 131 games and was shipped out this winter. Not only has Gordon Beckham failed to take The Leap but he has regressed since his rookie season.
Despite all that, the White Sox has the best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in the American League. They were 2nd in K/9 and has the lowest BB/9 ratio. They were 2nd lowest in HR/9. All of this was with the 2nd highest Batting Average on Balls In Play, which either means their defense was terrible or they were just unlucky (this stat is why their ERA was so high). It turns out their defense, as least according to Fangraphs, was below average and pretty middle of the road last season. So 2011 can be summarized as this, terrible hitting, great pitching, mediocre fielding and some bad luck. The real question though, is what does this mean for 2012?
First and foremost, Ozzie Guillen is gone. Guillen managed 8 seasons, which of course included one World Series win. He is third all-time in wins by White Sox managers, but all of that is old news. Robin Ventura, his infield mate from the early ’90s, has taken over, and since this is his first managing job at any level, there is nothing to go off of. The more important departure is Mark Buehrle, who I have made the case could have been the best White Sox pitcher ever. He is 4th all-time in starts and now he’s gone making it unlikely he will ever be considered best in team history. Sergio Santos, Quentin and Jason Frasor were traded and Juan Pierre was not re-signed. So what’s left?
After three down seasons from 2007-2009, it looked like Konerko’s career was on the decline. Then he had probably his best season ever in 2010 and followed it up with another top 3 season in 2011. This makes it difficult to project how 36-year old Konerko will perform this season. AJ Pierzynski continues to do what he does: play about 130 games per season, slightly above average but nothing world changing. Alexei Ramirez’s 2011 season was a slightly better version of his 2010 season and that probably sets the bar pretty well for what to expect the next couple seasons. It’s easy to forget that Ramirez is already 30 and probably has hit his peak. That for the most part sums up the known quantities on offense.
As was previously mentioned, Gordon Beckham has been declining offensively over his three seasons. He played some amazing defense last year, and since he’s only 25 there is still time for him to turn it around. He probably holds the key to the next couple of seasons. If he can find the stroke he had his rookie season, he could be a perfect #2 hitter. Brent Morel had an insane September with 8 HRs and 15 BBs, despite having only 2 HR and 7 BB the first 5 months of the season. Morel’s defense wasn’t as stellar as people hoped, but after only 147 major league games it’s too early to tell. The hope is that September was a turning point and he has figured it all out.
The outfield is where the most questions are. Alex Rios had an underrated 2010 before an awful 2011. He has alternated good seasons with bad for the last 4 seasons, meaning that if that pattern continues, this year will be good one. Of course, there’s nothing really to this pattern, it’s just a coincidence so there’s no reason to be excited about Rios. Left field will be manned by 28-year old Alejandro De Aza, a late bloomer who has played only 140 major league games to this point. The 54 he played last season were pretty amazing though. Using Fangraph’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), De Aza added the third most value on the team last season behind Ramirez and Konerko. WAR is a counting stat, not a rate stat, meaning that in 54 games De Aza added as much value as Pierzynski and Beckham did combined for the entire season. This makes it even more perplexing as to why Ozzie played him so little until the very end of the season. There’s a strong possibility that the leadoff spot is his to lose. Right field will be played by Dayan Viciedo. He didn’t hit particularly well in 29 games last season but played some pretty decent RF in limited time, which is promising. If he can find that stroke that he’s show in the past, he can do some damage. In a perfect world he is a dangerous #5 or #6 hitter who takes over a more important role from Dunn or Konerko in a couple of years.
The bench will be composed of a few guys for sure. Brent Lillibridge can play pretty much anywhere and hit exceptionally well last season. With Beckham’s struggles, and De Aza and Viciedo marking uncharted territory, I would expect Lillibridge to get more playing time this season. Tyler Flowers owns the backup catcher role, and unfortunately it keeps looking like he isn’t going to be much more than that. I guess that Eduardo Escobar or Osvaldo Martinez could make the team as another backup infielder, but they might be better served playing regularly in the minors.
The White Sox starting rotation is going to be a really interesting animal. Both Gavin Floyd and John Danks pitched much better in 2011 than either of their records showed. You could make the case that both were in the top 15 in the AL last season. Danks got a big extension which put’s him in place to be the team’s ace for the next couple of years. Assuming the team doesn’t move Floyd, that’s probably a decent 1-2 punch. Former high prospect Phillip Humber finally produced last season after flaming out with some other teams. Humber is 29 and coming off just his first full major league season, so there is almost nothing to indicate this wasn’t a fluke. But a season like last year gives the White Sox a top five #3 starter. Things get even more reliable after that.
Chris Sale will move from the bullpen to the rotation and has a full range of expectations. Long term, some think he could be an ace, others say no more than a #2 starter. Of course plenty of people think he doesn’t have the stamina or depth of pictures to be a starter. If Floyd doesn’t get traded, Sale only needs to be good enough to be #3 or #4 in 2012, but there is still a lot of unknown. Jake Peavy has only made 36 starts in his two full seasons with the White Sox, but when he was healthy in 2011, he was good. Peavy’s health is too much of a question mark at this point, but if he stays completely healthy, he and Danks are a pretty formidable 1-2 punch. But that’s a big ‘if’. If he can’t go, or Floyd gets traded, Zach Stewart seems like the next option. Stewart isn’t anything special, but he can fill a gap if needed.
The White Sox bullpen was very underrated in 2011. They finished 3rd in WAR and 2nd in FIP, and had they not tried Matt Thornton at closer for so long, it might have been better. Unfortunately, the bullpen is going to look very different in 2012. Gone is closer, and best reliever, Sergio Santos to an offseason trade. Their third best reliever, Chris Sale is moving to the rotation. Midseason acquisition Jason Frasor is gone, although he wasn’t very good. Jesse Crain was good but not great, and Will Ohman got better as the season wore one, but those two with Thornton make up the entire list of “known” quantities. Addison Reed will definitely have a chance to earn a job out of spring training and could be the closer of the future. Stewart could make the pen as a long man, and Dylon Axelrod could fit in as well, but the bullpen could use another experienced arm at some point.
What Does It All Mean
The White Sox are in an unpredictable transitional period: new manager, trying to cut payroll, but not fully committing to rebuilding because of the contracts they are already committed to. Dunn, Rios and Peavy did not come close to earning their paychecks next year, and must turn that around if the White Sox are going to have a chance. If this team catches every possible break, they could be a World Series contender. With the rising teams in their division, worst case could be a 4th place finish1.
When it’s all said and done, I think two out of Beckham, De Aza, Viciedo and Morel will have seasons to get fans excited, while the other two make us worry. I think Floyd is traded by the deadline and Thornton could be too. I think they finished 3rd behind Detroit, and either Cleveland or Kansas City. Dunn will have a better season, but I don’t know how much better. Rios will continue to frustrate. I think it’s been a while since the the gap between best and worst scenarios were so far apart, but with a new manager and no more Buehrle, it’s going to be a different season, that’s for sure.
- I think they finish ahead of the Twins for sure [↩]