This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.
The White Sox were bad in 2014, but they were at least interesting. They had perhaps the AL's best pure hitter in Jose Abreu, and one of the most lethal pitchers in Chris Sale. The former led the league with a 169 OPS+, while the latter's 178 ERA+ were tops among qualified AL starting pitchers. The team also received a pleasant surprise in Connor Gillaspie's adept management of the third base spot, and Alexei Ramirez probably would have represented the league in the All-Star game were it not for Derek Jeter's retirement tour. Adam Eaton gave the team its first true leadoff hitter in quite a while, and Jose Quintana posted his second straight 200+ inning season, and his 2.81 FIP rank eighth in the AL. However, the bullpen was a mess, the back end of the rotation was a revolving door, and the club could not field a capable second baseman or catcher. The club was only a few games under .500 at the All-Star break, but they were never in the division or Wild Card races.
All the while, general manager Rick Hahn has been doing his best to rebuild this club on the fly. Hahn over a team in October 2012 that was on the precipice of finishing with its worst winning percentage since 1950. Rather than pull a Cubs/Astros style rebuild after a 63-99 record in 2013, Hahn has spent his first year-plus trading moveable assets for non-elite, but close-to-the majors prospects. Out with Addison Reed, Hector Santiago, Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Alejandro De Aza, and Gordon Beckham, and Jeff Keppinger. In with Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson, Jake Peavy, Avisail Garcia, Francellis Montas, Leury Garcia, and a handful of other interesting lower-level arms.
This past offseason marked phase two of the rebuild -- adding veterans through both the trade and free agency markets to fill out the roster around Abreu and Sale. Hahn had one of the most active offseasons east of San Diego, adding a bonafied middle-of-the-line up guy (Adam LaRoche), a top-line starter (Jeff Samardzija), the top free agent closer (David Robertson), an above-average outfielder (Melky Cabrera), and bullpen help (Zach Duke and Dan Jennings). All of those guys fill gapsfrom the 2014 roster, and in many cases, they replace players who produced barely-replacement level stats. To be sure, there are still holes on this roster, with second, catcher, and third base the most glaring needs. However, they could be more competitive in the AL Central race in 2015 with the Tigers apparently on the downswing and the Royals unlikely to repeat their World Series run.
Konerko's retirement marked the end of an era on the south side, as he was the last player left on the roster from the team's 2005 World Series club. Paulino was a failed Don Cooper reclamation project who only made a handful of forgettable starts for the 2014 club. Lindstrom was one of the most-used relievers in the league in 2013, but it was all downhill in 2014 after he lost the closer role in 2014.
Signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $25 million contract
At the time LaRoche signed early in the offseason, it just looked like a move to pick up a bat to flip later in his two-year contract. A few weeks later, it became evident that LaRoche was just the first of many veterans Hahn would bring in to re-construct his roster. LaRoche provides the White Sox with another power bat, hitting behind Jose Abreu most nights.
Signed Zach Duke to a three-year, $15 million contract
The White Sox's bullpen was one of the worst in the American League while Duke was an extremely effective LOOGY for the Brewers. He better be more 2014 than 2013 (when he posted a 1.56 WHIP in 31.1 innings) for the contract to pay off.
This is when we knew general manager Rick Hahn meant business. He was able to acquire Samardzija from the A's for seemingly less than the A's paid for him just a few months prior. Semien may have been the team's second baseman of the future, or he might have just been another utility guy. Samardzija becomes a very capable No. 2 to Chris Sale's 1, and he adds some right-handed flavor to a rotation that could be very left-handed heavy. Michael Ynoa is a hard-throwing lottery ticket who might become a bullpen piece.
Signed Melky Cabrera to a three-year $42 million contract
The White Sox were expected to go after an outfielder this offseason to replace the soon-to-depart Dayan Viciedo, but it was thought they would pursue someone along the lines of Nori Aoki or Colby Rasmus. Instead they signed Cabrera off a 126 OPS+ season. He should hit second most days, sandwiched between Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu.
Signed Gordon Beckham to a one-year, $2 million contract
Beckham wasn't gone for long. The White Sox dealt him to the Angels in August for a PTBNL, only to sign back in Chicago before that PTBNL was N'd. Beckham could start at second if Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson flop in spring training. Otherwise, he will serve as a utility infielder after getting some third base experience with the Angels last year.
Rienzo had been an inconsistent swing man for the White Sox over the past two years, so they flipped him for Jennings, who could play a prominent role in a re-worked bullpen.
Signed Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year, $4 million contract with a club option for 2016
Bonifacio should replace Leury Garcia as the White Sox's uber utility player, and he could be a fall-back option at second if neither Carlos Sanchez nor Micah Johnson can take the job. Bonifacio may also be the team's primary backup outfielder.
Garcia is an interesting bullpen arm, Shuck could be in the mix for a reserve outfield role, and Brantly should contend with Adrian Nieto (and others) for the No. 2 catcher role.
Belisario reported late to Sox camp in 2014 because of visa issues, and the rest of the season was fairly forgettable. He briefly held onto the team's closer role, but he proved too hittable to be effective in late innings. Five years into an MLB career, Viciedo had yet to demonstrate consistency or plate discipline required to match his awesome raw power.
Signed Junior Guerra, Arcenio Leon, Tony Campana, Juan Diaz, Logan Kensing, Joe Savery, Terance Marin, Chris Jacobs, Michael Taylor, George Kottaras, Juan Silverio, Brad Penny, Engel Beltre, Scott Carroll, Jairo Asencio, Jesse Crain, J.D. Martin, Geovany Soto, Drew Garcia, Brian Anderson, Michael Johnson, Shawn Haviland, Matt Albers, and Andy LaRoche to minor league contracts
The White Sox's minor league signings consist of the typical combination of guys you've probably never heard of, guys you've heard too much of, formerly injured players trying to prove their health. Speaking of which, Tony Campana is already out for the season with a torn ACL. Of particular note are the catchers (Kottaras and Soto), who could make a push for the backup catcher role in spring training. Jesse Crain and Matt Albers should both be in the bullpen mix if they can show they are healthy after both pitchers were down for all of 2014.
1. CF Adam Eaton
2. LF Melky Cabrera
3. 1B Jose Abreu
4. DH Adam LaRoche
5. RF Avisail Garcia
6. SS Alexei Ramirez
7. 3B Conor Gillaspie
8. C Tyler Flowers
9. 2B Carlos Sanchez/Micah Johnson/Gordon Beckham
The lineup is fairly set 1-4, but things get a bit more fluid after that. When healthy, Adam Eaton proved himself a capable leadoff man with a .362 OBP, and newly arrived Melky Cabrera should produce a healthy on-base percentage from the No. 2 hole. That should mean Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche come to the plate frequently with men on base. Avisail Garcia should hit fifth if he is healthy and takes that "next step." Otherwise, that spot could go to Alexei Ramirez or Conor Gillaspie. The only truly unsettled position heading into camp is second base, where prospects Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson will battle for the nod. Johnson could bat leadoff occasionally if he can both make the team and prove he can hit. Abreu and LaRoche will exchange first base and DH duties frequently.
Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija should be one of the finer 1-2 punches in the American League. The perennially underappreciated Jose Quintana slots nicely at 3, while former-Opening Day starter John Danks should at least be able to eat 200 innings from the 4 spot. Then things get interesting. Reclamation project Hector Noesi could start the season in the role, and he could be an interesting arm after a full year under pitching coach Don Cooper's tutelage. Scott Carroll could be a fall-back option. Last year's No. 3 pick Carlos Rodon will get a look in spring, but he probably will not be a candidate to fill the team's final rotation slot until May or June. He may also be in the mix for a bullpen spot. Last year's top prospect, Erik Johnson, was a flop at both the major league and Triple-A levels last year.
The White Sox's closer role was a mess in 2014, so Hahn signed the best closer available on the free agent market. Robertson posted a near-Mariano Rivera season in replacing Rivera for the Yankees in 2014. He recaptured the super-elite strikeout rate from 2011 after two years of decline with another 37 percent rate. In the era of every other reliever popping triple digits on the gun, Robertson survives with a 91-93 mph cutter and a low-80s curveball. He only needed one season to establish himself as one of the best closers in baseball and with his ability to pump 95-100 strikeouts in a season, he should remain one of the top closers after signing a four-year, $40 contract with the White Sox.
Key Bullpen Members: The White Sox's bullpen was one of the worst in the league in 2014. The team's relievers had the second-lowest strikeout percentage in the league (18.2 percent versus a league-wide average of 22.2 percent), and their 1.51 WHIP ranked dead last. The pen's 63.2 percent save conversation rate was 27th. The Sox jettisoned some of the biggest offenders in Matt Lindstrom, Ronald Belisario, Scott Downs, and a few other guys who only lasted a few innings in the bullpen. In their place, new arrivals Zach Duke and Dan Jennings should be featured prominently, and Robertson's placement in the close role will allow 2014 surprises Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam to handle high-leverage situations in earlier innings. Daniel Webb is a hard-throwing right-hander who could become interesting if he can get his walks under control, and the same goes for Maikel Cleto.
Notes of import, Fantasy and Otherwise
Who's the second baseman?
The White Sox enter camp with two prospects (Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson) competing for the role, and two veterans (Gordon Beckham and Emilio Bonifacio) who could play the position on a regular basis. Sanchez may be the favorite after he saw regular duty at the spot late last year and slashed .263/.283/.316 over 99 August/September plate appearances. Those numbers are hardly inspiring, but he demonstrated sound on-base skills throughout his minor league career, and he is still incredibly young. It could just take some time for him to adjust to major league pitching -- he hit .241 with a .293 OBP in his first shot at Triple-A in 2013, but he rebounded to post a .349 OBP in his second try in 2014. Johnson may be the most intriguing, given that he is just a calendar year away from stealing 87 bases. He was hampered last year by a pair of hamstring injuries, which limited him to a more-mortal 22 steals (on 35 attempts). Healthy hammies should result in a more aggressive approach on the basepaths, and a capable approach against MLB-quality could result in Johnson winning the job. The team brought Beckham back into the fold to serve as a sort of insurance policy against both prospects flopping, but the club may opt to have the young guys struggle for a while before turning back to Beckham. Bonifacio can play at second on occasion, but it appears the preference would be to have him play all over the field.
At the eve of camp, a likely scenario would be Sanchez winning the job, while being spelled 2-3 times per week by Beckham and Bonifacio. If Sanchez struggles, and Johnson excels at Triple-A, then the two could swap before the end of May.
Can Jose Abreu repeat his breakout performance from 2014?
Things could not have gone much better for Abreu in his first MLB season. The Cuban expat entered the year with some questions about whether his swing would hold up to advanced pitching, but Abreu displayed an advanced work ethic that made the transition nearly seamless. He raced to 29 home runs before making the AL All-Star squad, and finished his Rookie of the Year campaign leading the majors with a .581 slugging percentage. He proved himself to be more than just a slugger in the second half, hitting .350 after the break. He swings more than you would like and misses more than he should, so it would not be a surprise to see his average suffer a bit in 2015 if he cannot sustain his .356 BABIP. However, his power should continue to rank him in the upper echelon of AL first basemen in 2015, and he should have a spot in the heart of the White Sox's order for several years to come.
When will top pick (and top prospect) Carlos Rodon be in the majors?
It took a while for Rodon to sign with the White Sox after the team selected him third overall in the June draft. But before he even signed, there were whispers in Chicago that he would follow the Chris Sale route and pitch in the MLB bullpen in September en route to a preferred spot in the 2015 rotation race. Instead, Rodon's season ended after nine inspiring minor league appearances (six starts). The plan is for him to take on a starter's load in major league camp, but his role for the regular season is still up in the air. Barring an injury or implosion, he should be on the 25-man roster by May or June. That promotion could be to the rotation if he can continue to develop a changeup to supplement his elite slider and plus fastball. Otherwise, he could pitch as a long man in the bullpen and transition to the bullpen either by the end of the year or to start 2016.
The top of the rotation and the top of the lineup both figure to be strong heading into the season. Sale-Samardzija-Quintana should rank as one of the best 1-2-3 punches in the league, assuming Sale stays healthy and the adjustments that helped Samardzija take the leap in 2014 persist into 2015. The rotation would be even better if Danks can recapture some of his pre-shoulder surgery effectiveness.
Despite all of the White Sox's moves this offseason, there are massive question marks at catcher, second base, and third base. Tyler Flowers hit a career-high 15 home runs as the White Sox's starting catcher in 2014, but he was only able to accrue more than 400 at-bats because the team lacked a credible backup. Adrian Nieto, Geovany Soto, Rob Brantly, George Kottaras, and Kevan Smith may all be capable of logging significant innings behind the plate, but none of them have a track record of staying healthy or staying productive for extended stretches. The White Sox's second base situation was discussed above. At third base, Matt Davidson was supposed to be the future, but he flamed out at Triple-A after failing to make the club out of camp. Conor Gillaspie hit .351 through May 31, but he hit .255 the rest of the way out and offers minimal power from a position where it is to be expected.
Rising: Adam Eaton
Eaton was exactly the leadoff hitter the White Sox wanted when they acquired him as part of a three-way trade in December of 2013. He only had 15 steals, but his 10 triples led the American League and he set the table well for players like Jose Abreu behind him. Eaton plays with a bit too much energy at times, and both of his stints on the disabled list in 2014 were related to overexertion. He appears to be fully healthy heading into 2015, and should sit atop the order once again. With a slew of offseason improvements to the White Sox's lineup -- including the addition of Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche -- Eaton's counting stats could significantly improve this season if he can dial it down to 100 and avoid the disabled list.
Declining: Adam LaRoche
LaRoche had his best season as a National in 2014, and he was rewarded with a two-year deal from the White Sox. The new team puts him in a park that is friendly to left-handed power, so it's entirely possible that LaRoche will be able to top the 30 home run mark in 2015 for just the third time in his career. He is 35, however, and last season's quad and back issues were just the latest in a series of injuries he's dealt with over the last few years. Additionally, he will be DH'ing on regular basis for the first time in his career, and moving to that role is generally associated with a dip in offensive production. LaRoche may be a riskier asset than it appears on first glance, so be warned.
Sleeper: Avisail Garcia - Ignore Garcia's 2014 stats. His biggest accomplishment was just getting back onto the field. He was expected to sit for the season after tearing his labrum in the ninth game of the year, but defied expectations and was back in the lineup by mid-August. Garcia was less than stellar in his subsequent 156 plate appearances, but the Sox were excited about Garcia's bat before he hit the DL, and he has surprising speed on the basepaths for a man of his size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds). The power should come as he embarks on his age-23 season, and he should be given the keys to a spot in the middle third of the order come spring training, along with the team's everyday right field gig.
Supersleeper: Micah Johnson - Johnson will have the opportunity to compete for the White Sox's starting second base job in camp, but he will have to beat out fellow prospect Carlos Sanchez, along with Gordon Beckham and Emilio Bonifacio. Even if he fails to secure the job in should be up at some point in the 2015 season. Speed is Johnson's primary tool, and he could produce prodigious steal totals even if he is only in the major leagues for a few months.
Carlos Rodon - mentioned above
Tim Anderson - Anderson is one of the more interesting position players in a budding White Sox minor league system. He was playing at Double-A Birmingham one year after the White Sox drafted him in the first round of the 2013 draft, but a fractured wrist ate six weeks of his season. Anderson showed no ill effects from the fracture, hitting .364 at Birmingham after his return, but the 21-year-old still needs to learn how to take a walk. A plus athlete who could be an efficient baserunner in the majors, Anderson figures to spend much, if not all, of the 2015 season in the minors, with a major league arrival likely in 2016.
Micah Johnson - mentioned above
Francellis Montas - Montas was one of the lesser-known players included in the Jake Peavy trade of 2013, but he finally harnessed his triple-digit fastball in 2014 and shot up the White Sox's organizational ranks. That fastball, along with a very good slider, helped him to a 4:1 K:BB ratio at High-A before a late-season promotion to Double-A and an appearance in the Arizona Fall League. He could compete for a bullpen spot as soon as 2015, but his ETA could be prolonged if the White Sox decide to give him a longer look as a starter.
Tyler Danish - Danish impressed in his first full professional season. The 2013 second-round pick was quickly promoted to High-A Winston-Salem, where he struck out more than three times as many as he walked in a league where he was (on average) more than three years younger than the competition. He uses a nearly-sidearm delivery to throw a low-90s fastball and an impressive slider, but the delivery may raise injury concerns in the future. He should spend much of 2015 either at High-A once again or Double-A Birmingham.
Spencer Adams - The White Sox drafted Adams out of high school in the second round of the 2014 draft and were able to sign him away from his home-state University of Georgia. He struck out 59 and walked four in 41.2 innings of rookie-level ball in 2014, and the strikeout totals should continue as he makes his way up the system if he can develop his secondary offerings. The right-hander is still fairly raw and will likely spend the 2015 season in the low minors.