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Re-tooling, not rebuilding, remains the White Sox operating philosophy. Management hopes two major December trades work better than the free agent investments from a year ago. Buying talent translated into merely a three-win upgrade and fourth place in the AL Central. This time, the Sox dealt five solid prospects to fix their infield and the American League’s worst offense by adding Todd Frazier (third base) and Brett Lawrie (second base) to a lineup that provided little help to Jose Abreu. The starting rotation, led by Chris Sale and Carlos Rodon, is formidable, and the bullpen is adequate. If the Sox score enough runs, they can play their way into Wild Card contention.
The best is likely yet to come for Sale, even after he led the American League in strikeouts last season. He won eight of his first dozen decisions after missing several weeks of spring training with a foot injury. He was dazzling in June, striking out 75 in 44 innings. The second half wasn’t as kind, especially the final month as he lost four of his last five decisions and slipped to fourth in Cy Young voting. Lefthanders remain the rage in the Sox rotation.
Sale is backed by three — Rodon, Jose Quintana and John Danks. Quintana started the season as the team’s No. 2 starter, but Rodon appeared ready to overtake him in September. Armed with a crackling fastball and wipeout slider that some compare to Steve Carlton’s, Rodon averaged a strikeout per inning in his first full pro season. He won his final three decisions and did not allow more than two earned runs in any of his last eight starts.
Good luck finding a more consistent or unluckier pitcher than Quintana, who has won nine games for three straight seasons, even though he has pitched at least 200 innings and posted ERAs of 3.51, 3.32 and 3.36 those years. This figures to be Danks’ farewell in Chicago. He’s in the final season of a five-year contract that will pay him $15.75 million, a brow-furrowing amount for a guy who has averaged six wins and 11 losses with an ERA close to 5.00 over the deal. Mat Latos, who went a combined 28–11 in 2012-13 with the Reds, was signed to a one-year, $3 million deal to (hopefully) fortify the back end of the rotation. Injuries have contributed to Latos’ recent struggles; he won only four games while playing for three MLB teams in 2015.
The best free agent investment the Sox made a year ago was David Robertson, who earned $10 million after arriving from the Yankees. Some considered that an extravagance for a team that has not contended since 2012. Although Robertson tied for sixth in the AL with 34 saves, he also tied for the league lead in blown saves (seven) and allowed seven home runs for the second straight year. The Sox were encouraged by Nate Jones’ return from Tommy John surgery over the last two months and signed him to a three-year extension. His fastball hits triple digits, allowing him to average nearly 1.5 strikeouts per inning.
The Sox re-signed Matt Albers, who had a 1.071 WHIP in 30 games with the team in 2015. Zach Putnam (home runs), Jake Petricka (lack of strikeouts) and Tommy Kahnle (walks) all have improvements to make to complete the right side of the pen. Zach Duke was a mild disappointment as the primary lefthander after he signed a three-year contract for $15 million. Dan Jennings, the bullpen’s other lefty, also struggled with control. Opponents hit .256 against him.
After an eight-year run by Alexei Ramirez, the Sox are starting over at shortstop. Ditto for second base after giving two rookies a chance to replace Gordon Beckham. Lawrie arrives from Oakland to play second. Management wanted Lawrie for his bat more than his glove, and the Sox will be thrilled if he can repeat his 16 home runs while upgrading his 60 RBIs from 2015. Shortstop will not be decided until spring training — or several months into the season. Either Tyler Saladino will slide over from third base or Carlos Sanchez will move from second. Offensively, their numbers were similar last season, so the winner figures to be the guy who shows the most consistent glove.
With the acquisition of Frazier from Cincinnati, the Sox are finally positioned with strong run producers on both sides of the infield. Abreu has delivered 208 RBIs during his two seasons without batting order protection. His only struggle was against left-handers; he strangely hit just .232 against them. Abreu should see more fastballs with Frazier hitting behind him. An All-Star the last two seasons in the National League, Frazier hit all but 10 of his 35 home runs before the All-Star break, raising questions about whether his participation in the Home Run Derby altered his stroke.
Adam Eaton played like an All-Star in the second half, posting an on-base percentage of .418, hitting eight of his 14 home runs from the leadoff spot and driving in 38 runs. Melky Cabrera hit .241 with five extra base hits in the first two months, but rallied in the second half to post numbers (.273/.314/.394) closer to his career norms. Avisail Garcia was a disappointment in his first full season back from shoulder surgery, lacking consistent power and struggling in right field. Even Garcia admitted he chased too many pitches outside the strike zone.
GM Rick Hahn signaled his displeasure with last season by letting both catchers — Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto — walk. Their replacements arrive with question marks, too. The Sox have always admired Alex Avila. They’re optimistic his offense can return to his pre-concussion levels at Detroit, which let him walk even though his father is the new general manager. The Sox are the seventh big league team for Dioner Navarro, who drove in 69 runs two years ago in Toronto.
Pardon Sox management if they never sign another free agent named Adam from the Washington Nationals. After four mostly underachieving seasons from Adam Dunn, the team expected a power and on-base upgrade from Adam LaRoche. It didn’t happen. He started slowly — and got worse. With a $13 million salary, he’d be tough to move. J.B. Shuck showed excellent pinch-hitting skills as a left-handed bat while handling all three outfield positions. Saladino and Sanchez are capable of playing third, short or second. Leury Garcia had his best offensive season at AAA and could force his way into the mix because of his ability to play three infield spots and the outfield. He can run.
Not many managers or coaches survive back-to-back-to-back losing seasons in pro sports, but Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf runs his organization with loyalty, especially to popular former players. Robin Ventura has fallen out of favor with many White Sox fans because of a perceived lack of fire, but management says that is a misconception, and Ventura remains respected in the clubhouse. Either way, if the White Sox start slowly again — and with the crosstown Cubs looming as the NL favorite — pressure will build to make a change.
Sale is one of the best starting pitchers in the AL, and Abreu swings one of the most feared bats. The Sox intend to build around those two for at least the next two seasons. Rodon and Quintana give the team two more solid starters. The Sox need Latos to be effective and consistent as a No. 5 starter. Jones is the key to upgrading the bullpen. But the offense will determine if the Sox get to .500 and possibly contend for the first time since 2012. They finished last in the AL in home runs and runs scored in a hitters’ park. Frazier and Lawrie should help, but there are still holes at DH, shortstop and right field. They look like a team at least two bats short of the top of the division.
Prediction: 4th in AL Central
CF Adam Eaton (L)
LF Melky Cabrera (S)
1B Jose Abreu (R)
3B Todd Frazier (R)
2B Brett Lawrie (R)
DH Adam LaRoche (L)
RF Avisail Garcia (R)
C Alex Avila (L)
SS Tyler Saladino (R)
C Dioner Navarro (S)
INF Carlos Sanchez (S)
UTL Leury Garcia (S)
OF J.B. Shuck (L)
LHP Chris Sale
LHP Carlos Rodon
LHP Jose Quintana
LHP John Danks
RHP Mat Latos
RHP David Robertson (Closer)
LHP Zach Duke
RHP Nate Jones
RHP Matt Albers
LHP Dan Jennings
RHP Jake Petricka
RHP Zach Putnam