Rebuilding, reloading; two words Sox fans must accept this season.
Rebuild and restructure are words the Chicago White Sox have preferred to avoid for decades, primarily because that has not been the game plan. They were a Go For It franchise. Maybe these two words fit better for the Sox strategy for 2014 — overdue overhaul. The message was pretty clear long before the Sox finished with 99 defeats and went 26–50 inside the AL Central. General manager Rick Hahn moved briskly to shed payroll, dealing Jake Peavy and Alex Rios in July, and then got more determined to build a younger, more athletic team during the offseason. It’s unlikely to translate into a 2014 contender, but if the young players Hahn collected from the Tigers (Avisail Garcia), Diamondbacks (Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson), Rangers (Leury Garcia) and Cuba (Jose Abreu) deliver, then the White Sox already have the young pitching to become factors in the AL Central soon.
There is a reason Chris Sale finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting with a losing record (11–14). Sale averaged better than a strikeout per inning and limited opposing hitters to a .230 average. He’s the most dominant lefthander in a rotation that will feature three lefties — and White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is convinced that Sale, 25, is the best southpaw in the league. Sale has pitched in consecutive All-Star games, winning the 2013 game while pitching two hitless innings. The White Sox lefthander who is not as well known is the staff’s second starter — Jose Quintana. He pitched 200 innings, 64 more than his rookie season, but finished 9–7 because Sox hitters didn’t do their part. He mixes four pitches well, walking less than two batters per start. The top rotations excel at spots three, four and five, and that’s where the White Sox have work to do. John Danks, another lefty, leads the rotation on payday ($14.25 million) but is working to regain velocity after 2012 shoulder surgery. Although Danks recovered to make 22 starts, he allowed an alarming 27 home runs in 138.1 innings and didn’t match his pre-surgery strikeout ratio. If his velocity does not improve, his control must. The final two spots opened with the trades of Peavy (Red Sox) and Hector Santiago (Angels). Erik Johnson is a durable righthander who dominated the Southern League and also excelled in the International League before getting five solid September starts. Andre Rienzo was actually promoted ahead of Johnson. He throws harder with less command. That pair and former Royal Felipe Paulino, on the mend from 2012 elbow surgery, are the top righthanders. The White Sox signed former Giant Eric Surkamp, which means they are considering a four-lefty rotation.
The Sox sent Addison Reed and all 40 of the team’s saves to Arizona, but Cooper never worries about finding a closer. He’ll remind you that the 2005 World Series champs used three. Nate Jones is likely to move his triple-digit fastball from the eighth inning to the ninth. But if he’s not ready for prime time, veterans Matt Lindstrom and Ronald Belisario have pitched in the ninth inning. The Sox have two other young powerful right-handed arms in Daniel Webb and Jake Petricka. Cooper would love to see Mitchell Boggs rediscover his command that allowed him to collect 34 holds and strand 83 percent of inherited runners for the Cardinals in 2012. Manager Robin Ventura likes to have left-handed specialists, so the Sox acquired Scott Downs. Donnie Veal has the edge for the second spot, but if his control disappears, watch for rookie Charlie Leesman.
Shortstop Alexei Ramirez delivered the strangest season of his six-year career, stealing a career-high 30 bases while hitting a career-low six home runs and making a career-worst 22 errors. The Sox need more pop and reliability. Second baseman Gordon Beckham started fast and then suffered a fractured hamate bone. He failed to hit with power and did not deliver on Gold Glove predictions, either. If the Sox deal either veteran at some point this season, they will have to rely on a fading Jeff Keppinger or rookies Luery Garcia or Marcus Semien.
The corners are not as settled as the middle. Paul Konerko’s 15-season reign as the team’s first baseman will end as he moves to a part-time role. The Sox expect Abreu, a 27-year-old free agent from Cuba, to replace Konerko’s middle-of-the-order power. His next big-league game will be his first professional game in the U.S. There is also a plan for third base, but the transition might not be as swift. Davidson, the MVP of the Futures Game, should be the guy by midseason, but he might not be ready in April, so look for Conor Gillaspie (lefty) and Keppinger (righty) to share the spot in a strict platoon.
Hahn was not thrilled with much from his outfield last season — hitting, baserunning, catching the ball, thinking the game. So he has started almost completely fresh. Avisail Garcia was a prize in the Tigers’ system, and the Sox expect him to grow into a 25-homer, 100-RBI middle of the order stud who will play an All-Star right field. In a perfect world, Garcia also steals 20 bases. The expectations for center fielder Eaton are different, but equally high. Hahn sees an on-base machine who will take walks and pepper the gaps. Eaton’s arrival moves Alejandro De Aza into a left-field platoon with Dayan Viciedo. De Aza’s power spiked last season with 17 home runs, but he struck out 147 times and was repeatedly thrown out on the bases. Viciedo’s power took a vacation. He slipped from 25 home runs to 14 while driving in 56 and also making fielding mistakes. The Sox expected more.
Hahn has work to do here if Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley struggle again. Flowers failed to hit and lost the spot to Phegley in July and then underwent shoulder surgery in August. Phegley started fast, hitting three home runs in his first five games. But pitchers took advantage of his aggressiveness. He hit .206 with five walks in 204 at-bats. Neither was great defensively; the Sox were second in the AL with 21 passed balls. Adrian Nieto, a 24-year-old switch-hitter is a remote possibility this season. He spent last year in Single-A.
Can a team win with two first basemen/designated hitters on its bench? The White Sox will find out, because Konerko’s move to part-time player means he is likely to share the DH role with Adam Dunn, a free agent in 2015. With three guys (add Abreu) who can only play first base, the Sox will need flexibility from their other reserves. That’s good news for Leury Garcia, a swift middle infielder who can also play third and the outfield. Gillaspie can also play first and Keppinger can play across the infield. Jordan Danks could win the 25th spot because of his left-handed bat.
Ventura learned the realities of managing last summer. In 2012, he was calm and consistent. When the White Sox nearly won the division, he was credited with transferring those qualities to his players. In 2013, Ventura was calm and consistent. When the White Sox disappeared, he was blamed for not stirring any energy within the group. Ventura remains perplexed by the team’s defensive meltdowns. For a team with solid starting pitching and offensive issues, Ventura knows that fixing the defense must be a spring training priority. He and Hahn are working to address another issue — a smarter approach to hitting. The Sox ranked last in the AL in walks and next-to-last in on-base-percentage. Hitting coach Jeff Manto was fired with one game left in the season, replaced by Todd Steverson. He arrives from Oakland where he served as the minor-league hitting instructor for an organization that preaches on-base percentage daily.
After you lose 99 games, the first goal has to be .500 baseball, not contention. That is only realistic for this team if the starting pitching, led by Sale, Quintana and Danks, performs like one of the best units in the AL. The bullpen has a nice mix of young power arms and veterans but lacks a proven closer. But offense and defense are the issues. With their reliance on pitching, the Sox have to catch the ball the way they did in 2012 — and hope that Avisail Garcia, Abreu, Eaton and Davidson begin to form the core that will make this franchise contenders in 2015 and beyond.
CF Adam Eaton (L)
Hit .252 with 17 extra-base hits in 250 at-bats while battling injuries with Diamondbacks.
2B Gordon Beckham (R)
Started fast, but wrist and leg injuries erased his power, limiting him to 24 RBIs and five home runs.
RF Avisail Garcia (R)
Has been compared to his pal, Miguel Cabrera, and showed a nice bat during his stint with the Sox.
DH Adam Dunn (L)
Still the team’s primary power threat (34 homers, 86 RBIs) but those Ks (189) crush too many rallies.
1B Jose Abreu (R)
Signed six-year, $68 million contract thanks to power he flashed for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic.
SS Alexei Ramirez (R)
Sox need him to hit more than six home runs and make fewer than 22 errors while continuing to steal 30 bases.
3B Conor Gillaspie (L)
Hits righties (.261) considerably better than lefties (.159), which makes him a perfect platoon candidate.
C Tyler Flowers (R)
Had first crack at replacing A.J. Pierzynski, but 94 Ks in 256 at-bats (plus eight passed balls) a major red flag.
LF Alejandro De Aza (L)
Making overdue shift from center field and bringing his 48 extra-base hits and 84 runs scored with him.
1B Paul Konerko (R)
Power numbers slipped to 12 home runs and 54 RBIs, but plans to make a rousing farewell tour.
UT Leury Garcia (S)
Can play six positions but will never secure any of them hitting .204 without power.
OF Dayan Viciedo (R)
Sox expected 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, but he gave them 14 and 56 with sub-par defense.
INF Jeff Keppinger (R)
Makes consistent contact but failed to score (38) or drive in (40) nearly enough runs.
C Josh Phegley (R)
Started with three home runs, eight RBIs in his first five games; added one HR and 14 RBIs in final 60 games.
LH Chris Sale
Will be a prime Cy Young contender if he continues to strike out 226 hitters in 214.1 innings with a 3.07 ERA.
LH Jose Quintana
Contender for Mr. Unappreciated finished 9–7 while allowing 188 hits in 200 innings with 164 strikeouts.
LH John Danks
Made determined return from shoulder surgery with drop in velocity that resulted in 28 home runs in 138 IP.
RH Erik Johnson
Looked major-league ready in five September starts, winning three games and striking out 18 in nearly 28 IP.
RH Felipe Paulino
Struggled at two minor-league levels in the Royals organization in first season back from Tommy John.
RH Nate Jones (Closer)
Has shown he can deliver more than a strikeout per inning, getting 89 in 78 last season.
RH Matt Lindstrom
Possible closer because of his ability to generate double plays (15) and keep the ball in the park.
LH Scott Downs
Durable veteran returns for 13th season because of his ability to retire left-handed hitters.
LH Donnie Veal
The Sox loved the 29 strikeouts in 29 innings but worry about the 16 walks.
RH Ronald Belisario
Inconsistent veteran makes his American League debut after striking out 49 in 68 innings with the Dodgers.
RH Daniel Webb
Looked promising during September call-up, striking out 10 in 11.1 innings
2013 Top Draft Pick
Tim Anderson, SS
The White Sox have always been a franchise attracted to players with tools, and they proved that again when they drafted Tim Anderson, a shortstop from East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss., with the 17th overall selection. Anderson grew up playing basketball in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and did not seriously pursue baseball until his junior year, one reason SEC programs did not heavily recruit him. The White Sox hope that he develops as a leadoff hitter who can steal bases. Many scouts evaluated him as the fastest player in the draft, and Anderson showed that speed by stealing 24 bases in 68 games in Low-A ball. He hit .277 with little power and will have to improve his contact rate after striking out 78 times in 267 at-bats. Anderson prefers to play shortstop, but many believe that he’ll have to move to center field.
OF Courtney Hawkins ()
The youngest player in the Carolina League, Hawkins showed power, but struck out in nearly 42 percent of his at bats.
RHP Erik Johnson (24)
Powerful 6'3" righthander struck out 149 across three pro levels and went 3–2 with a 3.25 for the big club in 2013.
3B Matt Davidson (23)
Futures Game MVP launched 17 home runs in Class AAA and three more with the Diamondbacks.
2B/SS Marcus Semien (23)
Southern League MVP showed solid glove and speed while hitting .261 in September call-up.
RHP Chris Beck (23)
The 6’3” righthander walked only three in 28 innings after promotion to Class AA.
2B Micah Johnson (23)
Led the minor leagues with 84 steals while advancing from Low-A to Class AA.
Beyond the Box Score
Face of the franchise The White Sox acquired Paul Konerko from the Reds before the 1999 season, and by 2000 he replaced Frank Thomas as the team’s everyday first baseman. Now he's embarking on a farewell tour. This season, officially his last, Konerko will have three official roles — part-time first baseman, part-time designated hitter and full-time clubhouse sage. Konerko has officially served as the team’s captain since 2006. He says the primary reason he decided to return for his 16th and final season was to serve as a mentor to younger players and re-create the winning culture the Sox lost in 2013.
Cuban ambassador Minnie Minoso’s popularity has never subsided with White Sox faithful — and neither has his legacy. Minoso, who made his debut with the Sox in 1951, was the team’s first Cuban-born player. Now 88, Minoso remains a White Sox ambassador as well as a guy who has helped the franchise become a favored destination of three key Cuban players. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez joined the Sox in 2008. Left fielder Dayan Viciedo followed in 2010. This season the Sox should have a threesome because first baseman Jose Abreu elected to sign with Chicago over other interested franchises.
Latin America's Team Cuba won’t be the only Latin American country with baseball fans trying to track White Sox games. When righthander Andre Rienzo pitched against Cleveland last July 30 he became the first Brazilian-born player to pitch in the major leagues. Rienzo added to his resume by winning his first game against the Royals on Aug. 21. He finished 2–3 and will compete for a spot in the Sox rotation. Don’t forget the folks in Colombia, either. With 15 career wins, Jose Quintana has more victories than any pitcher from that nation.
Forecasting the future Conor Gillaspie is in a battle to keep his job as the White Sox third baseman. He’s not ready to give in. But when the time comes for Gillaspie to try something else, he’ll be ready. Gillaspie is a confirmed weather nerd. He studied meteorology at Wichita State and loves a complex Midwest forecast. “I love blizzards, heavy snow,” Gillaspie says. “I love that stuff. You have to find something you are interested in outside this game just in case.”