White Sox 2014 Preview: Pitching

The White Sox quietly had a much better pitching staff in 2013 than most people gave them credit for. Chris Sale proved that 2012 was no fluke, and Jose Quintana was probably the most underrated starter in the AL last season (realistically he was one of the 15-20 best starters last year). Both of those guys are back and locked into deals that will keep them around for a while.

Sale looks like the real deal. He was 5th in the AL in both FIP and fWAR last season, which for non-stat nerds, is really good1. Sale should continue to be in the Cy Young conversation as long as he stays healthy. Some analysts/scouts think his arm is a time bomb waiting to explode, but every year that goes by is a good sign. He is the first bonafide ace the White Sox have had probably since Jack McDowell.

Quintana was picked off the scrap in 2012 and put together a solid season that year. His numbers were better in 2013, and even when factoring in a bit of good luck (see his BABIP and xFIP), he was very good. It’s unfortunate that like Sale he is left-handed, but he’s only 25 and still has some room to grow. Sale’s track record indicates that if he is healthy, he will be good. Quintana needs to show another solid year, but seasons like last year make him a true No. 2 starter on a good team.

All of the above bodes well for John Danks, who from 2008-2010 looked like the future ace of this team. His 2011 season was actually better than it looks on paper, mostly due to some bad luck along the way. Then an injury ruined his 2012 season, and part of 2013, neither of which was very good when he was pitching. Looking at his pitch data, he relied on his curve and change-up far more in 2013 than any previous season. Overall, his pitch data shows that he has slipped a bit over the years. Danks is no longer a threat to be an ace. But if he can get those home run numbers down, he is still solid enough to contribute as a #3 starter on a team like this.

After trading Hector Santiago for Adam Eaton, and deciding the Dylan Axelrod Experience was over, the Sox are going to add two “new” arms to their rotation. New is a relative term, since Felipe Paulino, the likely #4 starter, will turn 31 before the World Series ends. Paulino has 91 games (63 starts) over 5 seasons dating back to 2007. He did not pitch in the majors last year, and had just 7 appearances in 2012, so there are not a lot of numbers to look at. Despite the small sample size, it appears Paulino is capable of strikeouts, and has had some bad luck over his career based on BABIP. He was actually very good in his 7 starts in 2012, so it’s a surprise he was nowhere last season. Paulino definitely fits the mold of a classic Don Cooper Reclamation Project, and it’s not crazy to think Cooper could turn this guy into much more than a 4th starter. For a team that isn’t ready to compete this season anyway, this is a good gamble.

24-year old Erik Johnson will get first crack at the last starting spot. Johnson has spent plenty of time recently at, or near, the top of White Sox prospect rankings. He looked overmatched at the end of last season in his first 5 starts despite a respectable ERA. Hopefully those starts helped him get his feet wet. Johnson won’t have to do much to keep his 5th starter job on a team that is projected to finish 4th, so hopefully the pressure is low. He is projected long term as a solid #3 starter, so the hope is that he fits in behind Sale and Quintana going forward.

Bullpens are incredibly hard to predict, and are typically very inconsistent year-to-year. When looking at FanGraphs, one could conclude that the Sox had four solid relievers last season. Two of those guys (Addison Reed and Jesse Crain) are gone. Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom are back though, and will likely anchor this bullpen. Jones appears the odds on favorite to be the closer, and he deserves it. His two big league seasons have been underrated, particular by that 4.15 ERA in 2013 that doesn’t jive with his FIP and strikeout numbers. Jones appeared to be unlucky in 2013 more than anything, and has the goods to be a closer. Since closers aren’t that important on 3rd and 4th place teams, it probably doesn’t matter much if he is as good as Addison Reed or not.

Lindstrom is 34, and back for his 2nd (and likely final year) with the White Sox. Somehow Lindstrom’s home run numbers were down despite pitching in a homer friendly park. His stats mostly jived with his career numbers and nothing in his FIP or xFIP seems to indicate that he over/under performed much. He figures to be the primary setup man, and should handle that role just fine.

Donnie Veal seems to move back and forth from the minors more than anyone ever, but he should spend the entire 2014 season on the team. The lefty specialist job is officially his, and while he had a good 2012 season, and just an OK 2013, he has only thrown 58.2 ML innings to this point.

The Sox signed Ronald Belisario from the Dodgers to (presumably) be their other setup man. Belisario had a solid 2012, but less than great 2013 in LA. His numbers have been all over the place in four seasons, and 2012 grades out more to luck than dominance. Moving from the NL to the AL, and a pitcher’s park to a hitter’s one probably won’t bode well here. Relief pitching is hard to predict, but this might not end well.

Like most AL teams, the White Sox will likely carry 12 pitchers, which means there are three more spots available. 23-year old Daniel Webb figures to be one of those guys. Webb pitched in 9 games for the Sox last year, and it’s too early to tell much. Scott Downs on the other hand, has 12 years of experience. Downs has been consistent, but not great for his entire career.He doesn’t have a negative fWAR in the last decade. He should bring some veteran leadership to the bullpen. Lastly, 24-year old Maikel Cieto will likely hold the last spot. Cieto has 13 appearances of three seasons, so there isn’t much to gleam here so far. He is the kind of wildcard that Cooper could mold into gold, or a guy who will be in the minors by Memorial Day.

  1. The Tigers threesome of Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez occupy 3 of the spots ahead of Sale []