Heading into the final series of the 2013 season, the Chicago White Sox needed to win one of four games against the Kansas City Royals in order to avoid their first 100-loss season since 1970. They were able to lock down a W in the penultimate game of the year, besting the Royals in a 6-5 contest. It was a small victory for the Sox in a season that featured few of those, and it's difficult to say that it represented anything more than a late September game between two non-contenders. The reason it matters is because the White Sox are getting better, and it's happening quicker than people think. They probably won't contend in 2014, but the days of living in the cellar will soon be behind them.
Manager: Robin Ventura (3rd year)
2013 record: 63-99, 5th in AL Central
SB Nation blog: South Side Sox
First series vs. Tigers: April 21-24 @ Comerica Park
Tyler Flowers earned the scorn of many White Sox fans after a poor showing in 2013. He hit just .194/.247/.355 while striking out in 34.2% of his 275 plate appearances. His performance led to a significant drop in playing time during the second half, when he only logged 40 plate appearances and 11 starts. Despite the dismal season, he is currently penciled in as the team's starting catcher. Behind Flowers will be Rule 5 pick Adrian Nieto, a Cuban import who was drafted by the Washington Nationals in 2008. Nieto hit .282/.371/.446 with 28 doubles in 448 plate appearances for Advanced-A Potomac last season. Manager Robin Ventura confirmed that Nieto will make the team (only after Nieto's agent did) so it will be interested to see whether the 24 year old can make the jump to the big leagues.
One of the most forgotten moves in a topsy-turvy offseason was the White Sox' acquisition of Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. Abreu received a six year, $68 million contract, the largest ever for an international free agent at the time. There are plenty of questions about how good he will be, but Keith Law seemed to be impressed a couple weeks ago.
Abreu also was more trim than I expected and played a very capable first base, looking agile and showing good instincts.
The lone snag in a preseason full of praise is that Abreu has been dealing with an ankle issue. The Sox say he will not go on the disabled list, which begs the question: where is everyone going to play? Paul Konerko has already accepted a lesser role in his final season with the Sox, and will probably serve in some sort of platoon with designated hitter Adam Dunn. Dunn produced a .681 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2013.
Working around the infield, Gordon Beckham will be the team's primary second baseman, though an oblique strain might limit him early on. He missed nearly two months early in 2013 with a fractured hamate bone, but hit well in his return. As late as mid-August, he was sporting a .780 OPS before a putrid .189/.250/.288 finish to the year brought his numbers back to pedestrian levels. At short, Alexei Ramirez put up a second consecutive season with a sub-.700 OPS and single digit home runs after opening his career with four straight years of the opposite. While he committed a career high 22 errors, advanced metrics rated him among the better defensive shortstops in the game. Matt Davidson is the third baseman of the future on the south side, but the top 100 prospect will begin the season in the minors. Conor Gillaspie will get the first crack at the job. Gillaspie was red hot to start the 2013 season, but steadily regressed from his .859 April OPS as the season went on.
Youth will be served in Chicago's outfield in 2014, as three of the four primary outfielders will be 25 years old or younger. Only left fielder Alejandro De Aza is older, but the soon-to-be 30 year old still has a few years left before we should expect serious age-related regression. De Aza hit .264/.323/.405 with a career high 17 home runs last year. Both De Aza and Avisail Garcia have the ability to play center field for stretches, so the Sox' outfield defense should be above average. Garcia hit .304/.327/.447 with 11 extra base hits in 168 plate appearances after being traded at the deadline, leading Ventura to ponder whether he could prosper as the team's number two hitter. New center fielder Adam Eaton posted a .674 OPS in 277 plate appearances after a stellar debut in 2012, and ultimately lost his job to A.J. Pollock. Dayan Viciedo only hit 14 home runs after slugging 25 dingers in 2012, but should get plenty of chances to display his immense power in 2014. He has a career .908 OPS against left-handers, and the increased depth allows Ventura to limit Viciedo's at-bats against right-handers.
After putting up ridiculous numbers in a crazy jump in innings pitched during the 2012 season, Chris Sale was lethal for a second consecutive season in 2013. He took serious aim at David Price's "best lefty in the American League" title by allowing a 3.07 ERA and 3.17 FIP in 214 1/3 innings. His 4.91 strikeout-to-walks ratio was second to Price among all AL pitchers, and his 2.89 SIERA ranked third. Left-handed hitters needed not even try, as Sale held them to a .174 wOBA. For reference, Max Scherzer has a career .189 wOBA... as a hitter.
Right-hander Felipe Paulino was excellent in seven starts for the Royals last season, allowing a 1.67 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 37 2/3 innings. He missed most of the 2013 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012, but impressed enough for the White Sox to offer him $1.75 million with a $4 million team option in 2015. The veteran of the rotation at age 30, Paulino will pitch in the team's second game of the season to help split up the three lefties in the rotation. Despite having been around forever, John Danks is still younger than Paulino by almost two years. He missed nearly two months at the start of the 2013 season with a shoulder issue and never got going afterward, allowing a 4.75 ERA and 5.06 FIP in 138 1/3 innings. He has not posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2010, and a big drop in strikeout rate since that heyday is a concern.
Despite an awful spring thus far, left-hander Jose Quintana earned both a starting job and a new contract. The Sox signed Quintana -- who had a 3.51 ERA in 200 innings last season -- to a five year contract extension yesterday with a pair of club options tacked on the end. At $26.5 million, it isn't quite as team friendly as Sale's deal of similar length and terms, but it's a solid move for the club considering they see Quintana as a key component for the future. Right-hander Erik Johnson cracked Baseball Prospectus' top 101 prospect list this year, and may play himself into early extension territory with a solid showing in 2014. He allowed a 1.96 ERA while splitting time between Double- and Triple-A last year before pitching well in a September call-up.
One of the most underrated moves of the offseason might have been White Sox GM Rick Hahn's decision to unload young closer Addison Reed for top 100 prospect Matt Davidson. Reed racked up 69 saves for the Sox over the past two seasons, but like all relievers, was ultimately replaceable. Nate Jones will probably get the first crack at Reed's job, though some Sox fans are hoping that 24 year old Daniel Webb is the closer. Jones allowed a 2.67 FIP thanks to a stellar 3.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2013, but a low strand rate and high BABIP led to a 4.15 ERA in 78 innings. Webb shot through the farm system last year, posting a 1.87 ERA across three levels before a September call-up. Both are your prototypical fastball-slider power arm, and both have the potential to dominate in the ninth inning, though Webb will likely start the season in the minors in lieu of any one of a number of players out of minor league options. Said "out of options" names include Donnie Veal, Maikel Cleto, and the recently claimed Javy Guerra. Matt Lindstrom, Scott Downs, and Ronald Belisario will also see plenty of action.
Player to watch: Chris Sale
Baseball was filled with must-watch pitchers on awful teams in 2013. Sale, Matt Harvey, Felix Hernandez, and Cliff Lee all put together 5.0+ fWAR seasons, and NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez might have been more must-watch than any of them. Sale is particularly interesting because of his mechanics, which have earned him the nickname "The Condor" (and having seen those birds in person last summer, it fits). Conventional wisdom suggests that his left elbow is a ticking time bomb, but he has showed no signs of wear and tear in two full seasons. He improved in just about every aspect in 2013, and has held right-handed hitters to a sub-.700 OPS in both 2012 and '13. He strikes out a batter per inning, doesn't walk anyone, and his treatment of left-handed hitters borders on abusive. Other than pitching in our division, what's not to love?
In just over a year, general manager Rick Hahn has pulled a complete 180 with the White Sox organization. It seems funny to say that the club is in a better position now -- after one of its worst seasons in franchise history -- than it was after 2012, but Hahn's ability to accrue young talent and trim aging veterans from the payroll has already paid dividends. The White Sox will be better in 2014 than they were in 2013, and some of Hahn's moves will be the reason. The Sox will be back in contention sooner rather than later, but don't expect a quantum leap this year.