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MLB Team Previews: 2011 White Sox Preview

Ryan Eisner

Ryan Eisner

Ryan has been writing for Rotowire since 2007. He currently writes about baseball and covers the White Sox.

In a 1997 Seinfeld episode entitled “The Strike,” Jerry dates a woman who looks very attractive in some lights, but grotesque in others. The White Sox's 2010 season was a similar combination of Beauty and Beast. As a team, they hit the fourth most home runs in the American League, but it was the organization's first season with fewer than 180 home runs since 1999. The Sox managed to finish in second in the AL Central, but that was a division that boasted two 90-loss clubs and they had a 17-26 record against playoff teams. Late 2009 acquisition Alex Rios bounced back to post a 20-30 season, but mid-2009 acquisition Jake Peavy suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in July and could miss a chunk of 2011. Late-2010 acquisition Manny Ramirez had just two extra-base hits in 88 AL plate appearances. Gavin Floyd and John Danks both took steps forward in their development, but Bobby Jenks struggled his way out of town. Paul Konerko had a career year, but Carlos Quentin and Gordon Beckham disappointed.

“The Strike” is also the Seinfeld episode best known for introducing the world to the idea of “Festivus,” a non-denominational and non-cheery holiday invented by Frank Costanza. The White Sox should be able to exhibit some feats of strength with Adam Dunn joining the fold and Konerko returning with a long-term contract. And the starting rotation may not have too many grievances to air with a reworked bullpen (Sergio Santos developed, Chris Sale was drafted, Bobby Jenks has been dropped, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman have been added). The upcoming payroll, north of $125 million, will be the largest in franchise history, and general manager Kenny Williams practically emptied the farm to assemble this squad. If the rotation can hold up until Peavy returns (his ETA won't be certain until later in camp), then they could be celebrating their own version of the holiday this October with their first playoff appearance in three seasons.

Offseason Moves

Allowed Bobby Jenks, Erick Threets, Freddy Garcia, Andruw Jones, Mark Kotsay, Manny Ramirez and J.J. Putz to depart via free agency.

No big surprises here. The White Sox tired of Jenks, and Putz left the team in search of a full-time closing gig (which he found in Arizona). Ramirez did not make much of an impact in his month-long stay in Chicago, and Jones and Kotsay were veteran bats for which the Sox have younger, cheaper replacements.

Signed Adam Dunn to a four-year, $56 million contact.

General manager Kenny Williams was reportedly in hot pursuit of Dunn at the 2010 trade deadline, but the deal fell through after he acquired Edwin Jackson from the Diamondbacks. Dunn should DH full time and hit third in his first AL season.

Re-signed A.J. Pierzynski to a two-year, $8 million contract.

The team might have had to roll with Tyler Flowers as the starting catcher had Pierzynski not returned.

Traded Scott Linebrink to the Braves for Kyle Cofield.

The White Sox got rid of a contract and player they did not particularly want in Linebrink, who had dropped to seventh-inning status in the bullpen. Cofield is already 23 and has yet to make it past Double-A.

Re-signed Paul Konerko to a three-year, $37.5 million contract.

Konerko had a fair number of suitors following a career year, but he came back to Chicago after Adam Dunn and A.J. Pierzynski both took back-loaded deals to accommodate him. U.S. Cellular Field is the venue most favorable to his fantasy value, but he will have a hard time repeating his .977 OPS.

Signed Jesse Crain to a three-year, $13 million contract and Will Ohman to a two-year, $4 million pact.

Crain and Ohman should help stabilize the White Sox's bullpen after Jenks and Putz left in free agency. Ohman would probably serve as one of the first left-handers up if Matt Thornton inherits Jenks' closer role, and Crain should serve as one of his top setup men. Crain could also be in the mix for the occasional save.

Claimed Philip Humber off waivers from Oakland.

The former third-overall draft pick could contend for a spot in the rotation while Jake Peavy is out. Otherwise, he should work in long relief.

Signed Brian Bruney, Jeff Gray, Josh Kinney, Shane Lindsay, Miguel Socolovich, Donny Lucy, Jared Price, Dallas McPherson and Lastings Milledge to minor league contracts and invited them to spring training.

Milledge and McPherson are the sexiest names on this list, and Milledge probably has the best odds of making the Opening Day roster, albeit as a reserve outfielder.

Projected lineup

1. Juan Pierre, LF
2. Gordon Beckham, 2B
3. Adam Dunn, DH
4. Paul Konerko, 1B
5. Alex Rios, CF
6. Carlos Quentin, RF
7. A.J. Pierzynski, C
8. Alexei Ramirez, SS
9. Brent Morel, 3B

Juan Pierre led off for the White Sox 156 times in 2010, and 2011 should be no different. He is a lock for that perch, and manager Ozzie Guillen should give him the green light on the basepaths early and often. Rios could hit either third or fifth in the lineup, either pre-empting or following the 1-2, righty-lefty punch of Konerko and Dunn (or Dunn and Konerko). Ramirez provides some offensive balance toward the bottom of the order, and he could be slotted second if Beckham struggles. Whoever starts at third (be it Morel, Mark Teahen or Omar Vizquel) should hit in the bottom third on most days. The job is Morel's to start spring training, so he gets penciled in at ninth here.

Projected Rotation

1. Mark Buehrle
2. Gavin Floyd
3. John Danks
4. Edwin Jackson
5. Jake Peavy/Lucas Harrell/Tony Pena/Chris Sale/Philip Humber

The fifth slot in the rotation is the probably the biggest question in the organization heading into spring training. Odds are Peavy will begin the season on the DL because of the shoulder injury that ended his 2010 campaign, and the team did not want to expend major resources in the offseason on a slot that will only be open until Peavy returns. Sale is also on the list of candidates for the closer slot in the wake of Bobby Jenks' departure, so it should be apparent fairly early in camp whether he will compete for a spot in the rotation. Harrell made a trio of spot starts toward the end of last season, and Pena has the ability to throw five or so innings, but he's never been a starter for a prolonged stretch of his MLB career.


CL: Matt Thornton/Chris Sale

Thornton is the favorite for the closer role after serving as Bobby Jenks' chief setup man for the past couple of seasons. He struck out 12.0 per nine in 61 appearances in 2010 and saved eight games when Jenks was hurt or ineffective. Sale might be the fan favorite for the role after he saved four games in his first professional season and struck out 32 while walking 10 in 23.1 innings. However, the team drafted Sale as a starter, so he is also a factor in the rotation formula. Jesse Crain and Sergio Santos could also be in the mix for saves as well.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise

Is Brent Morel ready to take over the third base position?

This time last year, it looked like Mark Teahen would be the White Sox's starting third baseman until Dayan Viciedo was ready defensively, and Morel was on his way do Double-A Birmingham following a hot AFL showing. Fast forward 365 days and Teahen is a super-sub, Viciedo is headed for the outfield (or the trading block?) and Morel heads into spring training as the favorite for the third base job. He earned that privilege after hitting .322/.359/.480 between Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte and starting the White Sox's final 17 games. His glove is ready to start at the major league level, but he will need to prove his bat is just as capable. The glove should keep him in the lineup on a regular basis, and he should hit enough to keep afloat. Teahen or Omar Vizquel would be ready to step in at the hot corner should Morel falter.

Where does Chris Sale's future lie? Can the White Sox stick it out until Jake Peavy returns?

The answer to the first question may depend on the answer to the second question, and both should be answered in the first half of spring training. Peavy's return timetable has been hazy for most of the offseason, which has led to some speculation that Sale would enter the starting rotation for the interim. After all, the White Sox drafted Sale as a starter in the first round of the 2010 draft, and that appeared to be his career trajectory until he was moved to the bullpen to address a need with the big league club in 2010. Peavy will be out until late June or July, then the squad might be tempted to stretch Sale out in spring training and deploy him as the fifth man in the rotation. This would allow Sale to start for a couple of months and then fall back to the bullpen to keep his inning count down. However, if Peavy will be able to come off the disabled list within the season's first couple of weeks, then the squad may prefer to keep Sale in a relief role instead of jerking around his responsibilities. If that is the case, then two new questions arise – Does Sale or Matt Thornton close? Who else can start? Phil Humber, Tony Pena, Lucas Harrell are all capable, but chances are manager Ozzie Guillen will have to deploy his bullpen early and often if a member of that group claims the final rotation spot.

Strengths

Outside of the fifth starter battle discussed above, the White Sox have a solid, durable rotation from spots 1-4. Edwin Jackson posted a 135 ERA+ (according to baseball-reference.com) under the tutelage of pitching coach Don Cooper. Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and John Danks have combined for 291 starts and over 1,837 innings over the past three seasons. The back of the bullpen is chock full of short-inning, high-K rate guys.

Weaknesses

Alexei Ramirez could have won a Gold Glove at shortstop last year, but the defense around the rest of the diamond will be below average, especially if Brent Morel slips out of the everyday third baseman role. Adam Dunn adds significant power to the lineup, but he also ties up the DH hole on a daily basis, so manager Ozzie Guillen will be unable to shuffle his defensive liabilities (ie: Carlos Quentin, Juan Pierre) into that slot. Also, the organization lacks depth in its farm system, so an in-season trade might be hard to pull off.

Sleepers

Rising: Even if Matt Thornton does not inherit Bobby Jenks' closer role, he has still established himself as one of the better late-inning relievers in the American League, regardless of handedness. His 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings in 2010 marked his third consecutive season with a K/9IP in double-digits, and he only had 15 unintentional walks in 60.2 innings. Thornton consistently throws in the mid-90s despite an age in the mid-30s, and he enters 2011 with the opportunity to either monopolize the closing duties or share them with Chris Sale. Even in a bullpen-by-committee role, Thornton should be good for a couple dozen saves in addition to his good ratios.

Falling: General manager Kenny Williams dipped into Jerry Reinsdorf's wallet to give A.J. Pierzynski two years and $8 million this offseason to keep the veteran catcher in Chicago. Retaining Pierzynski may stabilize the clubhouse chemistry, but he's coming off one of his worst offensive seasons – he hit just .270/.300/.388 and he had fewer than 10 home runs for the first time since 2002. Durability may also be an issue for Pierzynski over the course of this new contract, as he has caught over 1,000 innings in each of the last nine seasons. Backup Ramon Castro (who is a year older than Pierzynski) may be called into duty more often as the season progresses.

Sleeper: Chris Sale may have claimed this spot if manager Ozzie Guillen had already delineated his role, so Gordon Beckham earns the “sleeper” title, a year after he was a top-10 second/third baseman in most formats. He loses the third base designation this year, but he also no longer has the distraction of changing positions like he did prior to last year. His 2010 overall stats were suppressed by an awful start (he had .159 slugging percentage in May), but he rebounded with a monthly OPS over .900 in July and August. Beckham enters 2011 as the favorite to bat second, which would put him in front of Adam Dunn/Paul Konerko.

Super-Sleeper: It's a good thing this writer waited until the submission deadline to finish this preview, otherwise Lastings Milledge would not have made it into this space. In camp on a minor league deal, Milledge only needs to beat out Alejandro De Aza and Brent Lillibridge for the Sox's fourth outfielder spot. Should Milledge win that battle, then he would be the once-touted prospect who now has the opportunity to hit in one of the majors' best home ballparks and in what should be one of the league's better lineups. It would take an injury to one of the Sox's outfielders for Milledge to see enough playing time to roster in shallower leagues, but he would probably get playing time against left-handed starters even with an outfield at full health.


Here's the rundown of players not mentioned above:

Mark Buehrle –  You can call Buehrle a lot of things - a soft tosser, a quick worker - but "consistent" must be on the top of that list of adjectives. Last year marked his 10th consecutive season with at least 200 innings and 10-plus wins. Unfortunately, his K/9IP bottomed out at 4.2 and he struck out less than 100 on the year. He continually pitches to contact, so his ratios will vary depending on the defense behind him. Look for more out of the same out of Buehrle in 2011.

Ramon Castro – Castro has only played in 68 games since coming over from the Mets during the 2009 season. That number does not figure to increase by too much in 2011 with A.J. Pierzynski back to fill the starting catcher role and Tyler Flowers waiting in the wings. Castro hit eight home runs in 115 at-bats in 2010 so there is some power potential should he find some playing time.  

Jesse Crain – Crain got off to such a slow start last season (13 earned runs in 16 innings) that it seemed he may have regressed to the form that saw him sent to the minors in the early part of 2009. However, he turned his season around with a 1.73 ERA and 50:22 K:BB ratio in 52 innings after May 20. But he did give up a key home run in the playoffs after allowing just five dingers during the regular season. Crain improved his strikeout rate last season and had the best average velocity on his fastball in his career - even before 2008 labrum and rotator cuff surgery. With good walk rates and an ability to keep the ball in the park, Crain could figure into the closer mix with the White Sox after being used in middle relief and a setup role with the Twins. 

John Danks – Danks set career highs in innings (213), strikeouts (162), wins (15) and WHIP (1.216) in 2010 all the while holding opposing batters to a .237 average. He might have been the White Sox's best starting pitcher, and he established himself as one of the better left-handed pitchers in the American League. His fastball gained a mile per hour from the previous two years, but he also used it less frequently. He posted a respectable 3.79 ERA in 17 home starts despite allowing 13 of his 18 home runs at U.S. Cellular Field. He should slot once again toward the top of the White Sox's rotation, and his stats should improve as he enters his age-26 season. 

Alejandro De Aza - The White Sox claimed De Aza off of waivers from the Marlins prior to the season. He impressed with his performance in Cactus League play and then went on to steal 16 bases in 318 at-bats for Triple-A Charlotte. He stole another two for the Sox during a September callup, but his 2011 ceiling is probably as a reserve outfielder. He could break camp as the club's fourth outfielder.

Adam Dunn - Dunn's final season in Washington was a bit of a mixed bag. While he supplied his usual power and run production and put up his best SLG since 2007, he also failed to draw at least 100 walks and recorded his worst OBP since 2003. His defense at first base was only slightly below average, but he'll likely see plenty of DH at-bats now that he's finally bowed to the inevitable and taken his act to the American League. Playing his home games in U.S. Cellular instead of Nationals Park should also help Dunn return to the 40-plus home run level once again and maybe even take a run at his career high of 46.  

Gavin Floyd – Floyd might have been one of the best pitchers in the American League over a 12-start stretch spanning June 8 to Aug. 7. He posted a 1.19 ERA, .203 BAA and earned his first career All-Star appearance over 83.1 innings in those two months. He finished the season poorly, but a shoulder injury may have been the culprit there. Floyd's success may be attributed to a higher ground ball rate - 49.9 percent - and a K/9IP that hovered above 7.0 for the second year in a row. He enters 2011 in the top three of the White Sox rotation.  

Lucas Harrell – Harrell made his MLB debut in 2010 after six minor league seasons in the White Sox's organization, and he made a few late-season starts for the injured Freddy Garcia. His low strikeout rate in the minors profiles more as a long-relief guy than a starter, and he could break camp in that role with the Sox with a good spring

Philip Humber - Once a big piece of the trade that sent Johan Santana to the Mets, Humber will play for his third team in three years after he was picked up off waivers by Oakland in December. Humber looks destined to be a career bullpen pitcher who makes the occasional spot start, and he could be called on to do so while Jake Peavy starts 2011 on the DL.

Edwin Jackson – The White Sox acquired him almost by accident at the trade deadline as general manager Kenny Williams reportedly wanted to flip Jackson for Adam Dunn, but the Nats balked after Williams traded Dan Hudson for Jackson. He was so-so with the Diamondbacks prior to the trade (104:60 K:BB in 134.1 innings, 5.16 ERA), but he went 3-0 with a 51:9 K:BB in his first six post-trade starts. Many credited pitching coach Don Cooper for the turnaround, as he added a cutter to Jackson's repertoire. He only won once more in his remaining five starts with the White Sox, but he racked up an impressive 77 strikeouts in 75 innings and will open 2011 as the White Sox's No. 4 starter.

Paul Konerko – Konerko had one of the best seasons of his career in 2011, and it conveniently came as he entered free agency. He finished the season ranked in the top-10 in the AL in slugging, on-base percentage, batting average, home runs, RBI, runs created and extra-base hits. His career-worst contact rate may indicate he was a bit more aggressive at the plate, and a BABIP 40 points above his career average certainly didn't hurt. Konerko re-signed with the White Sox for three more seasons, and that decision may have been best for his fantasy prospects in 2011 - he hit 26 of his 39 home runs in Chicago. While he may not come close to repeating his 2010 performance, he should stick in the fourth spot in what figures to be a very capable lineup that added Adam Dunn to the mix during the offseason.  

Brent Lillibridge – Lillibridge played in a career-high 64 MLB games in 2010, but he did not prove himself to be much more than a utility guy. He manned seven positions (including DH) over his 101 plate appearances and only churned out a .224/.248/.378 line. That low on-base percentage meant he was only able to attempt eight steals at the major league level despite nabbing 19 in 49 games with Triple-A Charlotte. Also bad news for Lillibridge is the fact that the White Sox have two other uber-utility guys in Mark Teahen and Omar Vizquel, and both of them are in higher pay grades. He will probably be one of the last cuts of camp, but he has the speed for some cheap steals should he ever receive regular playing time.  

Will Ohman –  Ohman had a respectable year for a LOOGY but couldn't make it through the season in one piece as elbow problems cut short his September. Coming off 2009 shoulder surgery that's a bad sign, but the White Sox were willing to give him a two-year deal in January. If he's healthy, he can be effective as a second lefty in the bullpen, but that's becoming an increasingly big 'if' as Ohman gets older.  

Tony Pena – Pena served as the flex guy of the White Sox's pitching staff, starting three games and serving in a mix of long and short relief for the remainder of his 100.2 innings. He only had a 56:45 K:BB in 2010, but that rate is not reflective of his career thus far. He should occupy a flex role once again in 2011, with more work in the middle innings than the late ones.  

Juan Pierre - The White Sox acquired Pierre prior to the 2010 season for three things - leading off, stealing bases and scoring runs. He had a pretty good year if those are the only three factors up for consideration. He led off 156 of the White Sox's 162 games and got on base at a .341 clip. He stole 68 bags, a total that led the majors and brushed past his previous career high of 65, and his 96 runs scored ranked 10th in the American League. The White Sox will ask him to do the same three things in 2011, and he should be up for the task.  

Carlos Quentin - Quentin avoided the disabled list in 2010 after a broken hand ended his 2008 season prematurely and plantar fasciitis marred his 2009 season. Still, a variety of day-to-day maladies held him to 131 games, and what we did see was a step back from his breakout 2008 campaign. He could get on base thanks to an acceptable walk rate and his tendency to get hit by a lot of pitches, but his .241 BABIP led to a .243 batting average. His power is reflected in his .236 ISO, and while he only hit 26 home runs in 2010, he remains a threat to hit 30-plus for as long as he plays his home games at U.S. Cellular field. He will start 2011 as the White Sox's starting right fielder despite his defensive shortcomings, and he will probably have a home at either No. 6 or No. 7 on manager Ozzie Guillen's lineup card. 

Alexei Ramirez – Ramirez was one of the best offensive shortstops in the American League in 2010, and he might have been even better were it not for an awful April. He hit .215 with one home run, 18 RBI and a 1:13 BB:K through his first 79 at-bats, but then .292, 17, 62 and 26:69 over his next 506 en route to the AL Silver Slugger award. The award may have more to do with the current state of his position in his league than with his actual stat line, but there wasn't much to complain about other than a falling walk rate. He has racked up double-digit totals in home runs and steals in each of his first three MLB seasons, and there is no apparent reason to think he will not make it four in a row as the White Sox's starting shortstop in 2011.  

Alexis Rios - General manager Kenny Williams was probably a bit embarrassed after Rios hit just .199 in 41 games with the White Sox as a waiver claim in 2009, but the pickup was vindicated in 2010. Rios hit on the good side of .300 for most of the season before a September slump dropped the cumulative average to .284. Still, that batting average was more than palatable when combined with 34 steals and 21 home runs. The third spot in the lineup is his to start the year, as is the center-field job. The White Sox's base-running philosophy should make him a safe bet for 20-30 steals, and their home park should help him to more than 15 home runs again this season.  

Sergio Santos – Santos was not a pitcher until 2009 and only logged 28.2 innings in the minors that year, but a high-90s fastball caused the White Sox to add him to the 40-man roster in December 2009. He surprised most by making the 25-man roster after a very good spring, and surprised even more by not allowing a run in his first 12 major league appearances. Santos should be an important figure in the White Sox's late-game relief corps in 2011, and he should get a few more save opportunities with Bobby Jenks no longer in the picture.  

Mark Teahen – Teahen opened 2010 as the White Sox's starting third baseman, but he lost the job after fracturing his right middle finger at the end of May. He was on the shelf until August, and he returned to a utility role rather than an everyday gig. Also consider that he posted a career-low .709 OPS when healthy, and he did not appear to get any sort of offensive boost from playing home games at U.S. Cellular field. Brent Morel is slated to start at third in 2011, so Teahen could see time at four or five positions in a super-utility role.  

Omar Vizquel –  It looked like the White Sox signed Vizquel prior to the 2010 season primarily to mentor along their younger middle infielders, but he wound up as their everyday third baseman once Mark Teahen went down with a finger injury. Vizquel didn't do too bad in that spot and he finished the year with a .276 batting average, .341 OBP and 11 steals. That was enough for the Sox to sign him for another year, and he should see time at three infield positions in a reserve role.  

Top Prospects (in no particular order)

Chris Sale, Brent Morel – See above

Tyler Flowers – Flowers was supposed to push A.J. Pierzynski for the starting catcher role in 2010, but he took a step back and his standing in the White Sox organization appears much weaker in December 2010 than in December 2009. Flowers only managed a .220/.334/.434 line in his first full season at Triple-A Charlotte, and five of his 16 home runs came in a 10-game window. He played sparingly during a September callup, and he appears destined for another full season in Charlotte in 2011 after the White Sox re-signed Pierzynski to a two-year deal in the offseason.  

Dayan Viciedo – The kid can hit, but he can't walk. Viciedo received 106 major plate appearances in 2010 - he had an extra-base hit in 13 of those and walked just twice. He also had 20 home runs in 363 plate appearances for Triple-A Charlotte, which is where he could start the 2011 season with Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn now in the fold. Viciedo should be up with the big club again at some point this season, but he will need an injury to one of the White Sox's corner infielders to see any playing time. Manager Ozzie Guillen discussed the possibility of using Viciedo in the outfield, which might hasten his path to the majors.

Eduardo Escobar - Escobar earned a spot on the 40-man roster after a surprising showing in the 2010 Arizona Fall League. Right now he profiles as a glove-first, bat-second type of shortstop, but the bat should have plenty of time to develop in the minors as the White Sox have no need to rush him to the majors, especially with Alexei Ramirez recently signing a four-year extension, thereby locking down the shortstop slot.

Jared Mitchell – Mitchell entered the 2010 season as one of the White Sox's top offensive prospects, but his chances of making an impact in 2010 hit the proverbial wall when he hit a literal wall in spring training. He tore a tendon in his ankle during the incident and was forced to sit out the entire season. Mitchell's biggest tool was his foot speed, so he will need to rehab the ankle well to hasten his path to the pros. His ETA could come in 2012 when Juan Pierre's contract expires.

Gregory Infante - The White Sox recalled Infante from Double-A Birmingham in September thanks to a high-90s fastball that helped him strike out 69 in 60 innings between High-A Winston Salem and Birmingham. He lives and dies by the fastball, but he could factor into the short-relief equation at some point during the 2011 campaign.