The Chicago White Sox have shocked baseball for the second time in as many weeks. In a surprise, midnight announcement, the Sox and free agent outfielder Melky Cabrera have reportedly agreed on a three year, $42 million contract.
One of the most sought after free agents remaining on the market, Cabrera hit .301/.351/.458 with 16 home runs and 73 RBI for the Toronto Blue Jays last season. The Blue Jays were one of several teams rumored to be in talks with Cabrera, with the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles also showing varying degrees of interest. The 30 year old Cabrera is a career .286/.339/.415 hitter, but he has hit .309/.351/.458 for three teams in the past four seasons.
Cabrera is the third high profile addition for the Sox in the last six days, and the fourth this offseason. They made a big splash at the Winter Meetings, trading four players to the Oakland Athletics for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Michael Ynoa. The White Sox also signed free agent closer David Robertson to a four year, $46 million contract on the same day. Earlier this offseason, the White Sox signed free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two year, $25 million deal.
These four moves have given the White Sox a solid core of players, pushing them into AL Central contention. Their rotation is spearheaded by ace left-hander Chris Sale, Samardzija, and underrated lefty Jose Quintana. The bullpen was among the worst in baseball last season, but Robertson was one of the best closers in the game. Their offense was a league average unit in 2014, but boasts a solid core in LaRoche, Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and pesky leadoff hitter Adam Eaton.
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn has done an excellent job of rebuilding their club over the past few seasons, making numerous low profile moves that have resulted in significant improvements. He traded closer Addison Reed to the Arizona Diamondbacks for 23 year old third baseman Matt Davidson. He orchestrated a three team deal with the Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Angels that brought Eaton to Chicago. This offseason seems to be more of the same, as he only gave up infielder Marcus Semien and catcher Josh Phegley for Samardzija.
It seems easy to name the White Sox among the division favorites after these moves, but the Sox also have a lot of ground to make up in the division race. They won 73 games last season while the Tigers finished with 90 wins, 17 ahead of the White Sox. Both teams slightly outperformed their respective pythagorean win expectations, but have made substantial changes to their rosters.
The White Sox may not have caught up to the Tigers yet, but have they pushed past the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians? The Royals return most of the same unit that won 89 games last season, but they too outperformed their pythagorean win expectancy. The Royals have also lost James Shields, Billy Butler, and Nori Aoki to free agency, with only Kendrys Morales and bullpen arm Luke Hochevar to show for it.
The Indians, meanwhile, pose an interesting discussion. Their rotation posted the highest strikeout rate in MLB history last season. Young arms like Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer are expected to take a step forward, while Corey Kluber should continue to anchor the rotation as the team's ace. The lineup was slightly better than Chicago's in 2014, and they have added slugger Brandon Moss to the fold. Their bullpen led the AL Central with a 3.12 ERA last season, and their 3.58 FIP was over a half run better than Chicago's league-worst 4.22.
Regardless, the White Sox have made a series of moves that will make the AL Central much more competitive in 2014. Four of the five teams in the division have a legitimate shot at winning it, and all four should expect to be in the playoff race for the entire season.
In other words, it could be a long year for the Minnesota Twins.