Five questions: Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are coming off a strange season. Expected to finish as also-rans—even team GM Kenny Williams used the r-word, “rebuilding,” in the winter of 2011-12—the club contended all year. Only a dismal stretch run cost the Sox a chance at the division title.

A lot went right for the 2012 White Sox. Accused of having the worst farm system in America, they produced several pitchers who contributed to their big league squad. Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski both had strong seasons at the plate as they continued to defy Father Time. Chris Sale emerged as an ace. Jake Peavy stayed healthy all year. Alex Rios rebounded well, and Adam Dunn had a comeback season with 41 homers.

Then again, for a surprise 85-win team, a lot went wrong for the White Sox. Starting rotation stalwart John Danks missed the entire season with an injury. Second baseman Gordon Beckham confirmed his status as a bust. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez may have kept his batting average, but the rest of his offensive game flopped. (His walks, for example, fell from 51 to 16). Dunn may have gotten over his 2011 disastrous campaign, but he’s clearly past his prime.

So that makes 2013 a hard year to figure out. Is this a contender or a pretender? Let’s find out.

What will life without Pierzynski be like?

For the better part of the decade, the Sox had a franchise fixture behind home plate in Pierzynski. He’s provided solid and consistent offense and last year experienced a surprising power surge with 27 homers.

But now he’s gone, as the team figured it was time to move in a different direction. Tyler Flowers is the new mask in town, and everyone expects an offensive decline. Flowers has more power than Pierzynski— he has 12 homers in 273 career at-bats—but he’s a lifetime .205 hitter. He should do better with regular playing time, but then again, he just turned 27 and is barely over the Mendoza line lifetime.

Yeah, the Sox should expect a decline in offensive production behind the plate. On the bright side, Flowers will be an improvement on defense. Pierzynski was terrible at throwing out runners, and Flowers can at least nail one third of all would-be thieves.

Will the Sox finish fourth in the league in runs scored again?

On the face of it, a drop-off in hitting from the catcher slot shouldn’t be a big deal because the White Sox finished fourth in the AL in run scoring last year. So they should have some offense to burn, right?

No, not really. First, their run scoring was inflated by their park. According to Baseball-Reference, The Cell ranks one of the top two or three hitters’ parks in the AL. Take away the park, and they’re a below-average offense. Going by OPS+, only four AL offenses were worse than the White Sox last year.

Last year’s offense was carried largely by a few veteran bats: Pierzynski, first baseman Konerko and outfielder Rios. Not only is their longtime catcher gone, but Konerko and Rios are good bets to fall off.

Konerko has been a remarkably steady hitter who has aged better than anyone would have guessed. But he is in decline and will be 37 this year. Last year saw his second straight season with decreased homer totals and his second straight year with a lower average, along with a similar decline in RBIs, doubles, runs, and hits. Also last year, his walks were down. He was still a fine hitter, but you don’t really want to count too much on him to bail out an offense.

Rios set personal highs in homers (25), RBIs (91), and batting average (.304). It wasn’t just park effects, as he also had his best OPS+ and second-best offensive WAR. However, aside from being a model of inconsistency over the last few years, Rios just turned 32 years old.

Where are they going to make up the lost offensive production? The other prominent hitter is Dunn. While he recovered from his year-long immolation in 2011, his 2012 performance shows that while he can still do some things great (41 homers, 105 walks), he’s past his prime, as indicated by his absurd 222 strikeouts and .204 average.

Maybe shortstop Ramirez will rebound a bit from his rotten 2012 campaign, but he’s always been more a glove man than a batter. At this point, no one expects anything at the plate from former super-prospect Beckham. Outfielders Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza are the best bets for improved offensive production.

The only new starter is third baseman Jeff Keppinger, who had a breakout last year with Tampa. Then again, his breakout season was entirely the product of a suddenly improved batting average and came at age 32. So he’s a bad bet to maintain that performance. Of course, aside from a nice month or two from Kevin Youkilis, last year the Sox had a gaping hole at third, with a cumulative batting line of .201/.286/314. Keppinger should top that.

As spring training geared up, the above the Sox traded for a third baseman, young Giants prospect Conor Gillaspie. He should help, if only by giving them an extra option to play with in the infield. In all, though, what wasn’t a great offense last year looks worse for wear this year. If this team is going to win, it won’t be with hitting.

How will the starting rotation do?

Okay, the strength of the 21st-century White Sox has typically been their pitching anyway, though 2012 was a mixed year. The bad news was rotation stalwart Danks missing nearly the entire season—and being pretty bad when he did pitch.

The good news, though, was really good. Peavy was healthy for the full year for the first time since his 2007 Cy Young season. He wasn’t even the most effective Sox pitcher, as young Sale emerged as a star.

If Danks returns, Peavy stays healthy and Sale can avoid a sophomore slump, the Sox will have among the most formidable top three pitchers out there. Also, they’d still have franchise warhorse Gavin Floyd eating innings for them. And among Jose Quintana, Hector Santiago and whomever else they can dig up, the Sox might even have an effective fifth starter. Few teams have four effective starters—heck, many teams don’t even have three, and the Sox could have five if everything works out right.

Yeah, if everything works out right. This is all best-case scenario stuff. None of the above individual pitcher scenarios is far fetched, but few are really locks, either. If you have 10 predictions that all have a 70 percent chance of happening, then odds are three of them won’t happen, even if the odds are in favor of all them.

Maybe Danks won’t be fully healthy, and Peavy is always an injury risk. As talented as Sale is, young pitchers can break your heart. Look, the Sox have a tremendous record over the last several years with pitching coach Don Cooper keeping their main arms healthy and effective, and they do have more depth in their rotation than most franchises. They should have a quality rotation even if things some go wrong—which is good, because odds are, things will go wrong.

What kind of GM will new Sox boss Rick Hahn be?

For about a decade, the man making the final roster decisions was White Sox GM Kenny Williams. Overall, you’d have to call his tenure a success, as he brought Chicago its first baseball title since 1918. But he opted for a new position with the club, and let longtime assistant Hahn take command.

People have spoken about Hahn as a possible GM for years. His name often came up with other teams’ openings, but he always stayed with the White Sox, waiting his turn. Unlike Williams, who went from baseball player to management figure, Hahn’s pedigree is pure business. He has a law degree from Harvard and a graduate degree in business from Northwestern. He’s supposed to be a great contract negotiator. Also, reports are he’s more sabermetrically inclined than Williams, which makes sense given their different backgrounds.

That said, we don’t know what Hahn will be like as GM. On paper, it looks like he should be a good one, but who’s to say he won’t prove to be just a toolsy front office guy?

For now maybe the best thing to go on is the track record team owner Jerry Reinsdorf has with selecting the guy to be point man running his franchise. Under Reinsdorf, the White Sox generally have been a well-run team. Hahn is the fourth White Sox GM in the last quarter-century, preceded by Larry Himes, Ron Schueler and Williams. Like Hahn, all were first-time GMs, and the three guys before all had some success with the club. Granted, before Himes you had the laughably bad Hawk Harrelson tenure, but you have to go back to the mid-1980s to find a failed Sox GM.

Along those lines, it’s probably wrong to focus on how Hahn might be different from Williams by noting sabermetrics versus scouting or whatever. Hahn was Williams’ longtime assistant, after all. And Williams is still part of the Sox brain trust—he just no longer will make the final decisions. While Hahn might emphasize sabermetrics more, the team was never opposed to stats, and it will still have scouting. Expect more continuity than change. Given the track record of South Side GMs, that’s a good thing.

Can they make it to October?

As always, this is the real question.

Can they? Sure, it’s possible. I don’t know if it’s likely, though. The White Sox won 85 games last year and maybe they improved a little, but just a little. Their offense wasn’t that good and should be worse in 2013. Starting pitching will remain their strength.

Ultimately, they’ll go as far as those starting pitchers can take them. If everyone is healthy and effective, they can do it. Many teams have ridden that formula to success, even with lackluster offenses. However, expecting a bunch of pitchers to be healthy and effective is usually a way to get your hopes dashed.

The Sox have one weapon going for them: playing in the AL Central. In most divisions, I wouldn’t expect them to have a chance even if their rotation held out. But the AL Central is the weak stepsister of the junior circuit.

The Twins might be the most lackluster team in the AL (or would be, if it wasn’t for those dang league-migrating Astros). The Indians are a trendy team to expect an improvement from, but they went 5-24 last August, the worst month in franchise history (and that ain’t such a lovely franchise history they have there in Cleveland). The Royals might be on the upswing, but the last time they won 85 games in a season, Jim Henson was still alive, and Ronald Reagan was just getting used to retirement.

Then there are the Tigers. They remain the division heavyweight—though with 88 wins in the 2012 regular season, they didn’t quite play like a heavyweight. If Detroit falters and the Sox play as well as they hope, they can catch them. Then again, if things go badly for Chicago and one of the division’s doomed or damned catch fire, the Sox could end up in third. I don’t expect them to finish first or third—second seems like the safest bet, but the Sox could surprise or disappoint in either direction.

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Comments

  1. Josh said...

    When talking about the White Sox offense, you can’t talk about how they benefited from their home park and then discount the player without taking into account that they still play in that home park. Yes, the offense will take a step back. But because of the Cell, it’s not improbable that they finish in the top half of the league in runs scored again.

  2. AJ said...

    Good read, thank you. Based on my non-expert opinion, there is a lot to be excited about in the Central, but Windy City natives will have to settle for seeing it in opposing dugouts. Chris Sale should continue his rise to the top of the SP rankings, but I have a feeling tthis year will be a harsh reality check for those still riding the buzz of last year’s surprise success.

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