2014 Chicago White Sox Team Preview
The White Sox surprised most in 2012 when they challenged the Tigers for the division for much of the season. However, two things became apparent a few weeks into the 2013 season. One, the White Sox were not going to contend with the Tigers, Indians, and Royals in the AL Central Race. In fact, they were going to contend with the Astros and Twins for the worst record in the American League. Two, looking at the organization, things were not going to get better anytime soon. Recent drafts and trades yielding very little fruit for a thin farm system, and much of the core that had buoyed the club for much of the latter 2000’s were hurt, old, or both. Chris Sale’s emergence as one of the premier left-handed starters in the American League was a bright spot, but that was about it.
Rebuilding was off the table, with a losing team drawing lukewarm interest as the “second team” in the Second City. So rookie general manager Rick Hahn started to sell off parts for MLB-ready prospects. The sell-off started in July, when longtime setup man and sometime closer Matt Thornton was sent to Boston for a Double-A bat. The trades continued to roll as Hahn turned former ace Jake Peavy into Avisail Garcia at the deadline and Alex Rios into Leury Garcia in mid-August. The trades became more aggressive in the offseason, and a pair of trades with Arizona exchanged Hector Santiago and Addison Reed for Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson. Hahn also re-inserted his club into the international market, signing Micker Zapata to the largest international amateur contract in team history, and signing Jose Abreu to the largest contract (period) in team history.
The White Sox will probably not be good once again in 2014. The team is awkwardly constructed, with three 1B/DH’s on the team, questions on the back end of the rotation, two young catchers who are sub-par hitters and fielders, and unresolved issues at third base and closer. Still, they have turned an aging core into one where essentially every starter other than the shortstop, left fielder and DH will be 27 or younger on Opening Day. The playoffs certainly aren’t a possibility for 2014, but they will at least be interesting…in a few seasons.
Signed Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract.
Abreu’s contract is the largest ever signed by the White Sox, to a free agent or otherwise. He immediately takes over at first base and he is one of the better power hitters to come out of Cuba in recent history. However, some scouting reports have voiced some concern over whether his swing will be able to catch up to major league pitching. So he could hit 40+ home runs at U.S. Cellular Field...or he could hit .220.
Received Sean Bierman and Ben Kline from the Rays. Received Jackson Laumann from the Braves.
All three deals just add a bit more depth to the organization.
Claimed Jake Elmore off waivers from the Astros and Eric Surkamp off waivers from the Giants. Selected Adiren Nieto from the Nationals in the Rule V draft.
Nieto may have the best chance of chance of making the major league roster since the White Sox are incredibly thin at the position and would have to return him to the Nationals if he is not on the active roster. Eric Surkamp should contend for the team’s fifth starter job, and he could be a bullpen candidate if he loses that race to Erik Johnson. Jake Elmore flashed extreme positional flexibility last year for the Astros (he played all nine positions), and he should enter camp with the chance to win a utility role.
Re-signed Paul Konerko to a one-year contract.
It looked like Konerko may have ridden into the sunset after the Sox signed Jose Abreu to a massive deal, but they re-signed Konerko to a reduced, one-year deal to serve in a “leadership” role.
Signed Felipe Paulino to a one-year contract.
The fourth spot in the rotation is Paulino’s to lose.
Participated in a three-team trade in which the White Sox traded Hector Santiago and Brandon Jacobs and received Adam Eaton.
Hahn jumped into his second three-way trade in six months to pick up the team’s new center fielder and leadoff man.
Traded Addison Reed to the Diamondbacks for Matt Davidson.
The White Sox figure to lose a lot of games again in 2014, so it made some sense to part with a young, cheap closer if he brought back a young, cheap third baseman. Davidson should be the team’s everyday third baseman at some point in 2014, if not on Opening Day.
Signed Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs to one-year contracts.
Belisario and Downs add some experience to a bullpen that traded away Addison Reed, Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain over the last year. Belisario nor Downs are expected to be in the closer mix, but they could if Nate Jones/Matt Lindstrom falter.
Invited Dylan Axelrod, Eric Patterson, Chris Bassitt, Chris Beck, Miguel Gonzalez, Micah Johnson, Brian Omogrosso, Kevan Smith, Scott Snodgress, Keenyn Walker, Andy Wilkins, Cody Winiarski to spring training.
This list includes the usual suspects of top prospects due to get some time with the big league coaches, and a regimen of minor league lifers who could step in during split squad games and have little chance of cracking the active roster unless there are a dozen or so injuries. Dylan Axelrod was non-tendered earlier in the offseason after serving in the rotation for part of 2013, so one would assume he would get a chance to earn his old job back. Same goes for Brian Omogrosso, who spent a few innings in the White Sox’s bullpen.
1. Adam Eaton, CF
2. Alejandro De Aza, LF
3. Avisail Garcia, RF
4. Adam Dunn, DH
5. Jose Abreu, 1B
6. Alexei Ramirez, SS
7. Gordon Beckham, 2B
8. Matt Davidson, 3B
9. Josh Phegley/Tyler Flowers, C
This lineup still has a lot of questions. Hahn traded still-young, still-good, still-cheap closer Addison Reed to the Diamondbacks for the young and potentially powerful Matt Davidson, but Davidson is no lock to break camp with the club. If he does not, then we might see another Jeff Keppinger/Connor Gillaspie platoon, at least for the season’s first few months. Marcus Semien may also play here, but he likely needs a bit more time at Triple-A before he’s ready for a regular role. The arrival of Adam Eaton bumped Alejandro De Aza from center field, which may bump Dayan Viciedo from an everyday spot in left field. Viciedo has a 96 OPS+ over his first two full seasons in the bigs, and a part-time role will probably not help.
1. Chris Sale
2. John Danks
3. Jose Quintana
4./5. Felipe Paulino/Erik Johnson/Andre Rienzo/Charles Leesman/Eric Surkamp/Dylan Axelrod
Once considered an injury risk and a pitcher bound for short-inning bursts, Sale took over as the ace of the White Sox’s rotation in 2013 with the second-highest bWAR of any pitcher in the American League. Manager Robin Ventura should continue to ask Sale to throw 7-8 innings per start in 2014. John Danks and Jose Quintana are the other two sure things in the rotation, with Danks set for his first full healthy season since 2010. Things get interesting after that, with a handful of guys on the active roster who have the ability to start. Free agent signee Felipe Paulino and top pitching prospect Erik Johnson have the inside tracks the fourth and fifth spots. Rienzo struck out more than a batter per inning at Triple-A, but major league batters ate his mediocre fastball for lunch in a handful of late-season starts. Surkamp has the misfortune of sharing a handedness with Sale, Quintana and Danks, so he could wind up as a swing guy between the rotation and ‘pen.
Closer: Nate Jones/Matt Lindstrom/Daniel Webb
When Addison Reed departed in December, there was no apparent heir to the closer role on the White Sox’s roster. The team’s last three previous closers are either in the rotation (Chris Sale) or on other teams (Hector Santiago, Matt Thornton). Most eyes turned to Nate Jones after the Reed trade, as his high-90s, sometimes-100, fastball has lit up the 8th inning the past two seasons. Matt Lindstrom, who appeared in 76 games last season and has some 9th inning experience, has also been an oft-discussed name. The wild card may be Daniel Webb. He has all of 11.1 innings of major league service time, but he can consistently throw in the upper-90s, with a complementary mid-80s slider. Manager Robin Ventura said he does not plan to name a closer until later in camp, so we may be on our toes for a while.
Key Bullpen Members: Other important bullpen members should include new additions Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario, both of whom could become as frequently used as Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain in years past. Donald Veal held opposing batters to a .208 average over the second half of last season. Eric Surkamp, Andre Rienzo and/or Dylan Axelrod may end up as the long man if they lose out on a rotation gig.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
Paul Konerko is Still on the Team?
Entering last season, it looked like Konerko would be the kind of player to gracefully mature as a productive player into his early-40s. That perception came to a shattering end in 2013. He dealt with a litany of injuries in his age-37 campaign that severely limited his production at the plate even if he was "healthy" enough to record 500-plus at-bats. He had 124 home runs from 2009-12 to go with a .376 OBP over that stretch, but he had a career-low .669 OPS in 2013. Notably, he served as the White Sox's DH in 50 games and only played a full game at first base 65 times. The White Sox's signing of Jose Abreu should bump him from regular at-bats in 2014, and now it looks like he is bound to platoon with Adam Dunn at DH. His presence should be felt more in the clubhouse than in the box score.
What’s Going On in the Outfield?
The trade that netted the White Sox Adam Eaton over the offseason caused some confusion in an outfield that looked like it was settled after the 2013 season. The team has stated that Eaton will be given every opportunity to win the team’s everyday center field and leadoff job out of camp. The same is true for Avisail Garcia in right. That means the two outfielders who were on the roster at the beginning of last season, Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo, will be fighting for at-bats in left. This is disappointing for both De Aza, who was three home runs shy of a 20-20 campaign, and Viciedo, who will turn 25 in camp. Assuming Viciedo and De Aza start the year in a platoon, then Viciedo’s youth could give him the edge early in the season as the White Sox give him every opportunity to succeed. De Aza may also serve as a defensive sub at the other two outfield spots, which would squeeze Jordan Danks from a spot on the active roster.
Will This Team Score Runs in 2014?
The White Sox had the worst offense in the American League in 2013. They scored 3.69 runs per game in 2013 – their fewest per game since 1980! MLB may be in a depressed run environment, but the White Sox, a team that plays home games at one of the better offense-boosters in the league, scored less frequently than the Astros, Mariners, or Twins. They collected a .302 on-base percentage as a team, and they only managed 148 home runs as a team – or 63 fewer than they hit in 2012. It’s easy to point at a few contributing factors – the average age for a batter on this team was 30+, the team had holes at catcher (.564 OPS) and third base (.635), and the team’s DH’s got on base at a sub-.300 clip. Things should get slightly better in 2014 (well, they can’t get much worse). Davidson and Abreu will bring some much-needed oomph to the lineup, and Abreu and Eaton could bring some much needed on-base ability. However, the team would still be lucky to get a .300 OBP out of their middle infield spots and catchers, so the offense as a whole will likely continue to be subpar.
Are There More Trades on the Horizon?
Rick Hahn has made more than his fair share of trades in his first year on the job. Since taking over in October 2012, he has sent Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Hector Santiago, and Addison Reed to other teams in exchange for younger and mostly position players. The moves have made sense for an aging, losing team that lacked MLB-caliber talent in the minors. There may not be a lot left on the active roster that could bring back much of anything in a trade. Adam Dunn is in the final year of his contract, but his limited defensive “skillset” may limit his market to AL clubs. Alexei Ramirez’s declining power and glove may make him less attractive than a few years ago, and Gordon Beckham’s potential ceiling has fallen to the floor. On the pitching side, John Danks may be on the block if he proves his health.
The White Sox’s rotation has lost Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, and Mark Buehrle over the past few seasons, but it figures to remain the team’s strength in 2014. Sale has become the definition of an ace, good for 200+ innings of good ratios and solid strikeout numbers. Jose Quintana ranked fourth in the American League in 2013 with 33 starts while striking out nearly three times as many as he walked (164:56 K:BB). John Danks’ strikeout rate was down in 2013, but he walked fewer than five percent of batters faced, and he should be good for 200 innings if he can stay healthy. The back end is a bit questionable, but free agent Paulino and Johnson should be more than serviceable if they can lock down the fourth and fifth roles.
If you had to describe the White Sox’s catcher spot with one word, it would be bad. Things are so bad that there is a realistic chance that Rule V draftee Adrian Nieto has a decent chance of breaking camp even though he has never played above High-A. White Sox catchers combined for a cool .196/.238/.325 line in 2014, with former-prospect Tyler Flowers mustering all of 21 extra-base hits and Josh Phegley fizzling after hitting three home runs in his first week in the majors. Look for the position to continue being a hole in 2014.
Rising: Nate Jones - Jones was pitching in Double-A two years ago, but he became one of the bullpen's key late-inning men in 2013. He went on a three-month run this past season where he struck out 60 in 43.1 innings and posted a 2.03 ERA over 38 appearances. He wound up leading the bullpen with 78 innings pitched, and he maintained his high-90s (occasional 100 mph) velocity into September. There were some control issues in the season's final month as the gas tank neared empty, but he enters spring training as the favorite to replace Addison Reed as the team's closer.
Declining: Alexei Ramirez - Ramirez averaged 17 home runs per season over his first four years in the league, but he has hit a mere 15 home runs and owns a measly .097 ISO since the start of the 2012 season. Given that Ramirez has only been in the league a few seasons, it may be easy to forget that he is already 32, and his over-the-fence power may gone, even in the power-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. He still has the legs to steal 20+ bags, but the double-digit power from the middle infield may once again be absent in 2014.
Sleeper: Avisail Garcia - The White Sox acquired Avisail Garcia from the Tigers as part of the a three-way deal with the Red Sox in July, and he quickly became a fixture in the middle part of their lineup. Garcia possesses all five tools, and it looks like he began to put it all together with a .960 OPS between the Chicago and Detroit Triple-A affiliates, though he struggled mightily against southpaws. He slashed .304/.327/.447 after the trade, but that line fell to .219/.256/.384 against left-handed pitching. Garcia drew comparisons to former teammate Miguel Cabrera as he came up through the Tigers' organization. That valuation may be a bit unfair but he could hit as high as third for the 2014 White Sox as long as he continues to produce with his bat, and Garcia's status as a somewhat overlooked prospect may keep some owners from realizing the 20-homer, 20-steal potential that his still tools provide.
Supersleeper: Felipe Paulino - A once-promising starter with control issues and an injury history? Sounds like Paulino is the perfect candidate for “Throwing a Cutter 101” with pitching coach Don Cooper while under the watchful eye of trainer Herm Schneider. Paulino spent all of 2013 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and he struck out batters in bunches during his seven minor league rehab starts. He also walked batters in bunches, so a spot in the rotation is far from a guarantee, especially when there are six qualified pitchers fighting for the team’s final two starting spots.
Jose Abreu, 1B – mentioned above.
Erik Johnson, RHP – mentioned above.
Tim Anderson, SS - The White Sox bucked a trend of selecting athletic outfielders with their top draft pick by selecting Anderson, an athletic shortstop, as their first pick in the 2013 amateur draft. His speed was his top skill coming into professional baseball, and he subsequently stole 24 bases in 28 attempts for Low-A Kannapolis. The strikeouts will need to come down as he moves up the system (26 percent strikeout rate in his first 300 plate appearances), but the tools are there to keep him in the middle infield. He is easily a top-five prospect in a thin organization, and his showing in 2014 will likely dictate his major league ETA.
Matt Davidson, 3B – mentioned above.
Marcus Semien, SS - Semien is the latest White Sox prospect to run the minor league gamut. He finished 2012 in virtual obscurity at High-A, but he found his way into 21 September contests for the big league club. Stellar plate discipline helped him make is way to the top (98:90 BB:K in 137 minor league games), but this skill faded a bit against better pitching (1:22 BB:K in his September audition). His struggles continued into the Arizona Fall League, and he likely needs a bit more seasoning before he is ready for a regular MLB role. Still, the White Sox's lack of depth at third base could force him into action at some point again in 2014.
Micah Johnson, 2B - Johnson is the reigning king of the minor league basepaths. Johnson stole an MiLB-leading 84 bags (in 110 attempts) in his ascent to Double-A. He posted a .373 OBP over his 601 plate appearances, but it is worth noting that rate decreased as the level of competition grew more difficult (.422 to .309 to .227). He should start 2014 at Double-A with the chance to finish the year at Triple-A if he can get on base more consistently. He had surgery to repair a nerve in his right elbow during the offseason, but he should be ready for spring training.
Courtney Hawkins, OF - The organization may have rushed Hawkins into High-A action, and he closed the season with 160 strikeouts and a sub-.200 batting average. He missed nearly all of May due to a strained rotator cuff, but he was still able to hit 12 of his 19 home runs on the season in the 80 games after the injury. The tools are still here, but it may take him a bit longer to reach the majors than initially anticipated. Expect him to repeat the level, with the chance to reach Double-A by season's end if the plate discipline improves.
Chris Beck, RHP - Beck ascended in the White Sox organization in 2013 after the club selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft. He carried a Carolina League-low 4.3 K/9 at High-A Winston-Salem, but good fastball movement and a propensity to keep the ball on the ground earned him a late-summer promotion to Double-A Birmingham. He should spend much, if not all, of 2013 at Double-A, and he could be a candidate for the back of the Chicago rotation as early as 2015 if he can up the strikeout rate.
Trayce Thompson, OF - Thompson's raw power propelled him through the White Sox's organization through his first three years of professional ball, but he hit a wall in 2013 at Double-A Birmingham despite repeating the level. His power/speed combination would be intriguing if he could ever correct his strikeout problem, and he has the potential to hit Chicago in the next season or two, but expect him to spend much of 2014 at Birmingham again, unless the White Sox decide he is ready for Triple-A competition.
Jacob May, OF - The son of former big leaguer Lee May Jr., May is a speedy outfielder who can swipe bags and run down flies with ease. As such, he stole 24 bags in 30 attempts in his first 66 minor league games. The rest of his game needs development, and his .372 OBP will likely fall as he moves into the upper minor league levels.