Five questions: Chicago White Sox

It’s that time of year again, almost baseball season. And that means it’s time to look at how all the teams will do. Let’s examine the White Sox.

I did this last year for THT, and wrote a White Sox preview I was rather proud of. I went over their roster, making a series of points I felt were well argued and backed up by solid info. There was just one small problem: It turned out I was wrong on virtually every point.

Last year, you read that a full year of Edwin Jackson should help their rotation. He neither helped much nor was there for the full year. The bullpen should have been better, and instead it suffered through some difficult times early in the year. Last but not least, the signing of Adam Dunn should have helped their bats. I think we all know how that one played out.

Last year was an extremely disappointing one for the White Sox. They began the season with the slogan “All in” to show how high their goals were, but instead flopped out, finishing the year under .500. So what does the future hold for 2012? Let’s see.

Are the White Sox rebuilding?

According to Kenny Williams, yes, they are. This offseason, he addressed the media and said that in his entire decade-plus long tenure as GM, he’s never used the R-word. Well, he’s using it now. They’re rebuilding.

That makes sense. Let’s take the long perspective in looking at the Sox under Williams for a second. They’ve attempted to do a difficult balancing act of trying to win now without completely mortgaging the future. That’s tricky given the fact that they have neither super-sized pocketbooks (which is due primarily to issues beyond Williams’ control) nor an especially brilliant farm system (which is more Williams’ fault).

Still, the Sox generally have managed to balance winning now and building for the future, but in the recent years, they’ve started to tilt more towards winning now. Last year’s “All in” slogan was, among other things, a tacit admission that it was all about 2011, not down the line. They made their big signings and didn’t have too much coming through the pipeline that could help claim a division.

Now that “All In” failed, the Sox should rebuild and Williams’ statement prudently reflected reality.

As the season nears, the Sox have moved away from talk of rebuilding. But let’s face it, this is the squad that flopped when they went all in during 2011. Fans shouldn’t get their hopes up for 2012. That doesn’t mean the Sox intend to tear things down completely, but there is a transition underway.

What will the White Sox starting staff be like in the post-Buehrle era?

The Sox have had the good fortune to have Mark Buehrle anchoring their rotation for the last 11 years. In that span, he’s started 362 games, more than any other pitcher. He’s never gone on the DL and almost never missed his turn in the rotation. (He missed a start in Sept., 2007, but that’s about it).

Oh, and he’s given the team high-quality innings, too. Overall, he’s been 157-118 with a 120 ERA+ in those 11 years. But it’s all over now, as the Miami Marlins signed him this offseason.

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Sale is a key to the Sox 2012 season.

What will this mean? Well, the Sox have their plan. They’re moving highly regarded young pitcher Chris Sale into the rotation to take Buehrle’s place.

Sale, who turns 23 years old just before Opening Day, has been a reliever for the last year and a half and done very well for himself. His overall ERA is 2.58 in the majors; a nice number for anyone, but an especially nice performance for someone still years away from his prime.

Frankly, it’s quite likely replacing Buehrle with Sale will improve the rotation. Buehrle is still a savvy pitcher, but he is getting older, and his never-great K rate has been under 5.0/9 IP for three straight years now. He’s still good, but likely past his prime.

Okay, but while Sale could be an improvement, there is a risk. Buehrle was perhaps the most consistent pitcher in baseball during the last decade. He also never got hurt. Though Sale has the raw talent, it’s open to question wheter he’ll deliver on it or if he’ll stay healthy enough. Both risk and reward are higher with Sale.

The rest of the staff looks the same. They still have the pair of 20-somethings, Gavin Floyd and John Danks. Both those guys had down years last season but are decent bets to bounce back. They’re peripherals were fine, but the results just didn’t quite follow. Danks in particular had a rough go. His walks were down, his strikeouts up, his homers where they normally are, and yet he started the year 0-8.

The Sox signed Danks to a nice contract this offseason, a move that surprised many, because he had an off season and the team was supposedly rebuilding. True, but his poor performance was more a problem of defense and bad bounces.

As for rebuilding, even teams that are looking more down the road have to show some concern in the immediate future, and Danks is a good guy to re-sign. He’s young, he’s good, and the Sox just inked him for his prime. If they can return to glory in a few years, Danks is exactly the sort of guy they’d like to keep on hand.

The Sox also have the highly talented and highly injured Jake Peavy. If he stays healthy and effective, it will be a tremendous boon to the Sox. But if that happens, it should be counted as an unexpected bonus, not part of an overall game plan.

Rounding out the rotation is Philip Humber, who was an unexpected delight in the first half of the year before turning into an injured pumpkin in the second half.

Ultimately, the Sox have a terrific potential core to their rotation, but a questionable back end. That’s true of almost all teams but is especially dangerous for the Sox because when they’ve won in the 21st century, it’s been with impressive depth in the starting rotation.

Also, moving Sale to the rotation causes a problem in the bullpen, where his arm will be missed. That’s especially the case because this offseason the Sox traded closer Sergio Santos to Toronto. The 2011 bullpen was largely built on four quality arms: Sale, Santos, Matt Thornton, and Jesse Crain. Now half of those guys are gone.

The pitcher the Sox got from Toronto, Nestor Molina, could easily turn into something special. At age 22 last year, he pitched very effectively in the minors. Just like Sale replacing Buehrle could be an upgrade, Molina entering the bullpen could be an improvement over the man he was traded for.

But there are two holes in need of filling, and as I write this (as spring training starts), Molina isn’t on the big league depth chart for the team.

What the hell happened to Adam Dunn last year, and will be he better this year?

The tale of Dunn’s 2011 is like some kind of horror story. He got off to a slow start, and the smart money said he’d get better, just let him play through it. So everyone waited. And waited. And he didn’t improve. He might have a good game or two, but it didn’t matter. He just didn’t have it.

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Dunn needs to improve in 2012.

The man with the metronome-like consistency had lost his game entirely. Instead of another 38-40 home run performance, Dunn ended the year with 11 home runs and 177 strikeouts dwarfing his .159 batting average.

What happened? No one knows. Maybe he lost that little bit on his swing and devolved suddenly and spectacularly. It’s possible. After all, he is in his early 30s and isn’t known for his conditioning. It wasn’t that long ago the Sox had another hitter on their team like that (Andruw Jones) whose career also fell apart sooner rather than later.

In general, though, the Plexiglas Principle applies. Those who dive down the highest should bounce back up some. And really, given how bad Dunn was last year, you have assume there will be some improvement. Even a .160 average with 176 punchouts and 12 homers would be an improvement.

If nothing else, Dunn won’t hurt the team so much because, if he’s still that bad, he’ll find himself on the bench more often.

Still, he should get better just because he was so bad last year. But by how much? Since Dunn’s collapse was so massive, there are almost no good comps for saying how he’ll bounce back.

Here’s what we can say, though. At age 30 in 2010, Dunn’s last year with the Nationals, his game dipped a tad. He’ll be 32 next year, and even if you ignore the severity of his disaster last year, he’s two years past his prime.

I’d put the over/under on Dunn’s performance at about halfway between his prime and his 2011 performance. He still wouldn’t be worth the money he’s getting paid, but this would be a significant increase. That said, he could bounce up higher or fall far lower.

The Sox need a higher bounce, though, if they hope to reload instead of rebuild. Paul Konerko’s unexpected resurgence can’t last forever (right?), and A.J. Pierzynski is a good bet to regress. Meanwhile, they traded Carlos Quentin.

You could easily have a situation where the main Sox bats all move to the middle. Aside from Dunn, the team suffered through a deplorable season from Alex Rios. A .281 hitter from 2004-10, he batted .227 last year while looking lost on defense.

A couple of dead-cat bounces from Dunn and Rios, and the Sox can make up for lost offense elsewhere. The problem is, they need to do more than make up for lost offense; they need to improve on the league’s 11th-best offense last season. That might be tricky.

What can we expect from new manager Robin Ventura?

The Sox also start off with a new manager, one with zero previous coaching or managerial experience for any big league organization. The news of Ventura’s hiring was a surprise to everyone, including Ventura.

No one really knows what to expect from Ventura in terms of tactics. One definite thought can be made about him in the clubhouse: He should provide a much calmer influence than his predecessor, Ozzie Guillen. It’s impossible to out-Guillen Ozzie Guillen.

Yes, the circus finally left town after overstaying its welcome. It’s amazing that despite leading the team to its only world title in over 80 years, I don’t know a single White Sox fan who is sorry to see Guillen go. Everyone got sick of his schtick.

Could the change help the team at all? I don’t think it’ll hurt. Guillen’s controversies long since shifted from odd flare-ups that could deflect blame and media criticisms of his players to a distraction that may have worn down his players.

In the late 1970s, the Yankees perfected a good-cop/bad-cop approach to managerial hirings, shifting back and forth from the volatile Billy Martin to the calming Bob Lemon. Guillen is the closest thing we have to Martin nowadays, and the White Sox should hope that Ventura can be a breath of fresh air that allows people to focus on the matter at hand.

Sometimes the change in bosses in and of itself can make a world of difference. I wouldn’t expect any serious improvement, but I would be surprised if there wasn’t some.

Ventura’s main benefit as he settles into his new role is less who he is and more who is he not.

Can the White Sox compete in 2012?

The sunny scenario would be this: Sale immediately emerges as a terrific starting pitcher. Danks and Floyd both rebound, and Peavy is more healthy than not. The bullpen finds the arms to replace Santos and Sale, so overall the pen improves. Dunn and Rios recover, and the rest of the offense holds up. Thus the pitching and hitting improve, and they could surprise and, in fact, considerably improve over last year.

Here’s the problem with the above: It assumes everyone will have a nice season. That’s bad analysis. If you have 10 guys who you think are a 70 percent chance to improve, you should expect three to fail to live up to expectations. That’s the way the world usually works.

The Sox need everyone to do their share and so aren’t a good bet. In fact, the above overlooks a key factor: Detroit. The Tigers won 95 games last year and added Prince Fielder. Even if the sunny scenario plays out in Chicago, the Sox still might not win the division. Plus, one should generally assume the AL East gets at least one of the wild cards, leaving a single playoff spot to shoot for.

It’s more likely that some guys get better and others get worse. The Sox should improve at the front end of the rotation, but the back end, as well as the bullpen, might be down a bit. The offense is harder to predict with Dunn and Rios, but I can’t see any notable overall improvement.

The Sox should be a bit worse, but not terribly worse. Sure, if Sale bombs and Dunn and Rios remain offensive black holes and Peavy is never healthy, the team is doomed, but the dark side scenario is no more likely that the sunny one.

Sitting from here, the White Sox look like a team that will win 75-80 games. They shouldn’t be that much worse than last year, but they look a bit below 2011′s disappointment.

Then again, I’m the same guy who predicted a division title for them last year, so what do I know?

References & Resources
To help construct this preview, I got some feedback from some White Sox fans & friends I know, most notably White Sox Fan Brother

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Comments

  1. MikeS said...

    Good analysis.  All I seem to hear from my fellow White Sox fans is that Rios and Dunn can’t be as bad as last year so they will be better.  That ignores the fact that DeAza, Beckham, Morel, Flowers and Viciedo are no guarantee. Don’t expect Lillibridge to be a 2 WAR player again. Konerko could start to show his age any time now and Pierzynski really already is. That’s in addition to all the points you made – bullpen could be worse, starting rotation could be better or worse.

    I think this team wins 70 – 75 games and if absolutely everything goes right, maybe 85 – 88.  That’s still not enough to catch the Tugers.  Even if Cabrera, Fielder, Verlander and Fister are involved in some freak accidsent together, it may not be enough to catch the Indians.  Maybe even the Royals.

    The worst part is the minor leagues are so bare it isn’t going to get better for a while yet.

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