How detrimental were Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko to the Chicago White Sox last season? On the field, the two aging sluggers combined for -1.0 WAR in 659 plate appearances. The two started a combined 48 games in the field, essentially platooning as the team's designated hitter in the other 70 percent of the team's games. Dunn hit a respectable .220/.340/.433 with 20 home runs, but Konerko's swan song ended with a measly .207/.254/.317 batting line.
Dunn and Konerko combined to make $17.5 million last season, a big step down from the $28.5 million they pulled in during the 2013 season. This doesn't seem like a ton of money for a baseball team in today's economic environment, but consider that the White Sox had an Opening Day payroll just north of $90 million in 2014. Dunn and Konerko, the below replacement level DH platoon, were 20 percent of that figure.
It takes this type of context to describe what the White Sox did this offseason, because otherwise it would seem like a complete lie. The White Sox added Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, Zach Duke, and Emilio Bonifacio -- who combined for 13.4 WAR in 2014 -- to their roster this offseason. Their payroll went up by just $25 million, or less than $2 million per win added. If you add in the negative WAR players that were pushed to the margin by these additions, the cost per win diminishes even further.
Was it enough, though? The White Sox were a 73-win team in 2014, and they actually outperformed their pythagorean win expectation by two games. Things add up nicely when you look at 2014 numbers, but year-to-year performance is far from guaranteed in this game. Plus, there are holes on the periphery of the roster that the core talent might not be able to mask. Are John Danks and Hector Noesi capable back-end starters? Is the bullpen going to be able to hand leads to David Robertson? Can the young position players take a step forward? If the answer to one or more of these questions is a 'no,' then the White Sox will once again be an also-ran in the AL Central race.
Many people were blown away by the six-year, $68 million contract that first baseman Jose Abreu received from the White Sox last winter, but the once-jaw-dropping number has now become a bargain. Abreu hit .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs and 107 RBI in 2014, earning all 30 first-place votes for the AL Rookie of the Year award. He only hit seven home runs after the All-Star break, but still clubbed a .948 OPS in 271 plate appearances. Both Steamer and ZiPS are optimistic that he can do it again, projecting him for another four-win season. Despite being a much better defender than Abreu, Adam LaRoche will likely be the team's primary designated hitter in 2015. LaRoche hit .259/.362/.455 with 26 home runs for the Washington Nationals last season, and signed a two-year, $25 million contract with the White Sox in November.
Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez have been locked in a battle for the second base job during spring training, and the war doesn't appear to be over yet. Both players made the Opening Day roster, and Robin Ventura isn't going to announce his starter until Opening Day. Johnson, a 24-year-old lefty bat, hit well in Double-A before struggling to a .684 OPS in 302 Triple-A plate appearances last season. Sanchez, 22, hit .250/.269/.300 in 104 plate appearances at the MLB level last year. He is also the better defender of the two, but all signs point to Johnson claiming the job.
Shortstop Alexei Ramirez was worth 3.0 WAR last year, his fourth season in the last five at that level. While he has his faults -- he can be quite error prone and his walk rate is pretty bad -- he is very durable, with 600 plate appearances in each of the past six seasons. His defensive range started to decline last year, but a 97 wRC+ and 21 stolen bases helped him maintain his value. Third baseman Conor Gillaspie hit a solid .282/.336/.416 in 506 plate appearances last year, but his season was a tale of two halves. He had an .861 OPS in the first half, but dropped off considerably to a .614 OPS after the All-Star break. His platoon splits were pretty significant -- he had an .805 OPS against right-handed pitching -- but there don't seem to be any plans to platoon him with anyone. This may be for a reason, though; Gordon Beckham, the most likely candidate, has a career .687 OPS against lefties.
The White Sox signed centerfielder Adam Eaton to a five-year, $23.5 million extension two weeks ago, showing plenty of faith in a player that has dealt with a myriad of injuries during his brief MLB career. I'm a fan of this move for the Sox, as they could potentially control Eaton through his age 32 season with a couple of team options for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Eaton tore up the minor leagues and got on base at a .362 clip last season. Leftfielder Melky Cabrera should tag-team with Eaton to provide some punch at the top of the lineup. While he's not a great defender, Cabrera hit .301/.351/.458 last season, enough to make him a 2.4 WAR player. Rightfielder Avisail Garcia only played in 46 games last season after sustaining a left shoulder injury on a dive in the outfield. He was performing well before the injury, but hit just .239/.295/.401 in 156 plate appearances after he returned.
Catcher Tyler Flowers moved his batting average north of the Mendoza line last season, hitting .241/.297/.396 in 442 plate appearances. A brutal .401 OPS in June tanked his overall numbers somewhat, but he still finished the year with a 93 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR in 127 games. That WAR figure doesn't include pitch framing numbers (yet), and Flowers was one of the better framers in baseball last year. Geovany Soto locked up a spot on the 25-man roster after hitting .265/.419/.441 in 17 games this spring. His defense has slipped as injuries have piled up, but he threw out four of eight attempted base stealers in the spring and appears to finally be healthy heading into 2015.
Chris Sale's long limbs and gangly mechanics have led to questions about his durability as a starter throughout his career, and he has seen the disabled list a couple of times in his career for arm-related injuries. However, Sale has withstood the pounding thus far, and accumulated a trio of All-Star appearances and top-six Cy Young finishes to his name before his 26th birthday. He will open the season on the disabled list after breaking his foot in February. Righthander Jeff Samardzija will get the Opening Day nod in Sale's place. Samardzija was worth 4.2 WAR in 219 2/3 innings for the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics last season, a big jump from his previous career-high of 2.9 WAR. A low home run rate in Chicago and a low walk rate in Oakland were the main culprits for the improvement, but his full season numbers don't reveal any red flags for major regression. He is a free agent after the season, so the White Sox could deal him at the trade deadline if they fall too far behind in the playoff picture.
The White Sox were aggressive in rewarding lefthander Jose Quintana for a solid 2013 season, negotiating a five-year, $21 million extension with a pair of team options tacked onto the end. After Quintana's 2014 season, that contract looks like a steal. Quintana was worth 5.0 WAR, allowing a 3.32 ERA and 2.81 FIP in 200 1/3 innings. He improved his strikeout rate (again), lowered his walk rate (again), and cut his home run rate in half. If the White Sox ever decide to score some runs for him -- he leads baseball with 29 no-decisions in the past two years -- he could be a 15-game winner. Former 15-game winner John Danks probably won't ever reach that level again, as he has struggled to stay north of replacement level after having rotator cuff surgery in 2012. He improved his FIP from 2013 to 2014, but a 4.74 ERA and 4.76 FIP are nothing to write home about. He has another $31.5 million left on his contract, so the Sox are stuck hoping that Danks has one more good year remaining in his left arm.
Carlos Rodon, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, was seriously challenging for a spot in the rotation this spring. That's a remarkable achievement in its own right, as he has just 24 1/3 professional innings under his belt. He certainly deserved a shot after a strong spring -- he allowed a 3.06 ERA with 21 strikeouts to five walks -- but the White Sox have already optioned him to the minor leagues. Whether this is simply a service time gambit or an honest commitment to his development remains to be seen. Until Rodon makes his debut, righthander Hector Noesi will round out Chicago's rotation. Noesi, who will start the team's home opener, allowed a 4.39 ERA and 4.85 FIP in 166 innings with the White Sox last year.
The White Sox had all sorts of bullpen problems last season, and were one of three teams with a 'pen that rated below replacement level (the Tigers were also on that list). Their respective approaches for fixing the problem could not be more different, though. The White Sox spent $61 million on David Robertson and Zach Duke in hopes that they would push everyone else down a peg. Robertson gracefully filled the void left by Mariano Rivera in the Bronx last season, saving 39 games with a 3.08 ERA. He had some forearm soreness this spring, but appears to be fine heading into Opening Day. Duke parlayed a change in arm slot into a massive upswing in his strikeout rate, and appears poised to be the new left-handed relief ace in baseball. Righthander Jake Petricka will likely begin the season on the disabled list, opening the door for Zach Putnam, Matt Albers, and Javy Guerra to get some innings.
Down on the farm
The White Sox have had one of the thinnest farm systems in baseball for years, so seeing them jump up the organizational talent rankings is a bit of a surprise. They're not at the top of the heap -- Baseball Prospectus has them 18th, Baseball America 20th -- but it's a far cry from the doldrums they were in before Rick Hahn took over as general manager. Shortstop Tim Anderson and lefthander Carlos Rodon are the crown jewels of the system, as both have the potential to be studs one day. There's a big drop-off after that, though. There are a few interesting prospects, including a pair they received in trades in Matt Davidson and Michael Ynoa, but the next wave of talent doesn't have any star potential.
Player to watch: Carlos Rodon
We bought the hype surrounding Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs in their season preview, so why not continue the trend with their cross-town rivals? Rodon, a North Carolina State product, was arguably the most-hyped college pitcher since Stephen Strasburg. He likely would have been the first overall pick in the 2013 draft after a stellar sophomore season if he had been eligible, and he was in the conversation for the top pick in 2014. His brief stint in the minors and spring training have done nothing to slow down the hype train whatsoever. He will be starting for the White Sox at some point in 2014, the only question is "how soon?" If the Sox truly believe his changeup needs work, we could see him in July. If they believe he's ready, he might be up before May.
There is a lot of talent on this White Sox roster, but they have a razor-thin margin for error given how shaky parts of this team are. Solid performances from Abreu, Sale, Samardzija, and others should help them stay relatively close to the playoff race, but they will need a breakout performance or two if they want to challenge for the AL Central crown.