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2017 MLB preview: The Chicago White Sox lineup could be a pleasant surprise

The White Sox are projected to be a bad offensive team, but could be better than last season.

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago White Sox at Texas Rangers Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

For all of the offensive firepower up and down their batting order, the Chicago White Sox were a very mediocre lineup in 2016. They were 11th in the American League with 686 runs scored despite ranking higher in both team batting average and on-base percentage. Meanwhile, a relative lack of power — they were 12th in team ISO — resulted in a 94 wRC+, also 12th in the league. While it was a step up from 2015, when they finished dead-last in runs scored, it wasn’t enough to pull the Sox above .500.

Conventional thinking would suggest Chicago’s lineup is only going to get worse in 2017. Adam Eaton and his 115 wRC+ are gone. Veterans like Melky Cabrera and Todd Frazier are a year older, and Avisail Garcia is still going to get a boatload of plate appearances.

However, most of the players that remain were not the problem last season. Jose Abreu managed a 118 wRC+ in 695 plate appearances, and seemed to regain his old form during the second half. Cabrera and Frazier were both slightly better than league average. Young players like Tyler Saladino and Tim Anderson could take steps forward as well, and we don’t know what to expect from wild cards like Omar Narvaez and whoever plays center field. Meanwhile, underperforming veterans like Austin Jackson, Dioner Navarro, and Jimmy Rollins are no longer around to sink the team’s offensive value.

Perhaps this is why the Sox are projected to improve a bit offensively. Baseball Prospectus expects them to improve by 21 runs, and any uptick in production from big bats like Abreu and Frazier could push that total even higher.

Offense at a glance

2016 runs scored: 686 | 2016 team wOBA: .314 | 2016 team fWAR: 15.0
2017 projected runs (PECOTA): 709 | 2017 projected WAR (FanGraphs): 8.5
Note: numbers below are based on FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections

Catcher: Omar Narvaez

2016 numbers: .267/.350/.337, 88 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR
2017 projections: .247/.305/.318, 0.4 fWAR

For an unheralded rookie catcher with zero power to his game, Omar Narvaez sure walked a lot last season. He drew walks in 14 of his 117 plate appearances, and hit .267 to boot. This resulted in an 88 wRC+, a figure that Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann would have loved to produce last season.

Unfortunately, Narvaez’s deficiencies at the plate run far deeper than McCann’s. He did not walk nearly as often in the minor leagues last season, including a meager 5.8 percent walk rate in 41 games at Triple-A Charlotte. His batting average has been passable at times, but it’s as empty as can be; Narvaez produced a .075 ISO in the minors last year, a major improvement from 2015’s .038 ISO in High-A ball. He did not swing and miss very often, but major league pitchers will quickly start to realize that Narvaez doesn’t have the thump to punish their mistakes.

First base: Jose Abreu

2016 numbers: .293/.353/.468, 118 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR
2017 projections: .285/.346/.487, 120 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR

After lighting the American League on fire en route to the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year Award, Jose Abreu’s offensive production has fallen off in each of the past two seasons. He still hit 30 home runs and drove in 101 runs in 2015, but a lower average and walk rate dropped his WAR total from 5.7 to 3.0. Things got even worse in 2016, and he fell to just 1.6 fWAR in 159 games.

Fortunately for White Sox fans, Abreu figured something out in the second half. He started to turn on inside pitches more often, and produced an .898 OPS and 142 wRC+ after the All-Star break. We may never see his gaudy 2014 numbers ever again, but he seems primed for a bounce-back season in 2017.

Second base: Tyler Saladino

2016 numbers: .282/.315/.409, 93 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR
2017 projections: .251/.299/.374, 80 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR

Tyler Saladino was one of the biggest winners of Chicago’s decision to rebuild last offseason. Relegated to a utility role when Brett Lawrie was healthy last season — which, admittedly, wasn’t very often — Saladino hit .282/.315/.409 with eight home runs and 11 stolen bases. He doesn’t seem like a 20/20 player, but Saladino will get every chance to prove me (and others) wrong, provided he can hold off Yolmer Sanchez’s advances for more playing time. Saladino might regress a bit, as his .329 batting average on balls in play suggests his 93 wRC+ was a bit fortunate. At worst, he will field the position well; obviously, the White Sox are hoping for more.

Shortstop: Tim Anderson

2016 numbers: .283/.306/.432, 95 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR
2017 projections: .265/.291/.385, 79 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR

Shortly after Tim Anderson signed his contract extension earlier this month, I compared him to previous early extendees Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Adam Eaton. Anderson definitely feels like the odd man out in that discussion, but the raw potential to close the gap is there. Anderson was a slick defender in a half season of work last year, producing +6 Defensive Runs Saved in under 1,000 innings. His approach at the plate is still quite raw — he didn’t start playing baseball until he was a junior in high school — but he managed to hit .283 with a .149 ISO despite striking out nine times for every walk. That last figure will obviously need to change if he wants to join the bumper crop of young star shortstops, but even the Anderson we saw last season is well worth the money Chicago gave him.

Third base: Todd Frazier

2016 numbers: .225/.302/.464, 102 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR
2017 projections: .241/.310/.447, 101 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR

A lot was made of Mark Trumbo’s meager WAR totals from 2016 despite leading the major leagues with 47 home runs, but Todd Frazier wasn’t far behind. He finally reached the 40-homer plateau last year, his first with the White Sox. Unfortunately, Frazier saw his batting average drop to a career-worst .225. He still played solid defense at third base, but saw his range decrease and his strikeout rate go up. The White Sox are likely hoping they can flip Frazier to a contender around the trade deadline, especially if he keeps on hitting homers in bunches. Unfortunately, baseball’s lukewarm attitude towards one-trick homer ponies last offseason does not bode well for their potential return.

Left field: Melky Cabrera

2016 numbers: .296/.345/.455, 114 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR
2017 projections: .285/.334/.421, 102 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR

For the past six years, Melky Cabrera has been a useful outfield bat. Since arriving in Kansas City at the start of the 2011 season, Cabrera has hit .300/.343/.445 in just over 800 games played. He was slightly off that pace in 2016, batting .296/.345/.455 in 151 games. While he has alternated good and bad years since 2012, Cabrera seems like a safe bet to continue that production in 2017.

The problem? Cabrera’s defense is horrible, and a reason he was worth just 1.6 fWAR last season. Defensive Runs Saved rated Cabrera five runs below average last season; he is at -17 DRS in the outfield for his career. Ultimate Zone Rating is even more cruel, rating Cabrera 52.9 runs (!) below average for his career.

Center field: Jacob May

2016 numbers (AAA): .266/.309/.352, 90 wRC+
2017 projections: .233/.275/.315, 57 wRC+, -0.3 fWAR

Throughout the offseason, many White Sox fans predicted that former St. Louis Cardinals farmhand Charlie Tilson would be the Opening Day starter in center field. Whiel Tilson may eventually start more games than switch-hitter Jacob May, Tilson has been unable to stay healthy. Both players are speed demons who will rely on contact skills and their defensive prowess to be productive, though Tilson comes with a slightly better pedigree. He is projected to hit .255/.300/.370 this season, assuming he is ever healthy enough to take the field. May might not draw enough walks to earn a starter’s role in the future, but he will have a chance to be a pest at the bottom of the order for a little while.

Right field: Avisail Garcia

2016 numbers: .245/.307/.385, 86 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR
2017 projections: .259/.316/.403, 92 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR

Here’s a fact for you: Avisail Garcia is only 25 years old. It seems like “Mini Miggy” has been around for much longer, but it’s easy to forget that he debuted in a Detroit uniform at just 21 years old. Tigers fans who have not paid attention haven’t missed much; Garcia’s .698 OPS in three-plus seasons with the White Sox is only slightly better than what he produced in 139 plate appearances with the Tigers.

Because he is so young, there is still a chance he takes a step forward in the coming seasons. Garcia produced a 107 wRC+ after August 1 last year, and hit six home runs in 150 plate appearances. He won’t remind anyone of the actual Miggy anytime soon, but the White Sox will take any improvement they can get.

Designated hitter: Cody Asche

2016 numbers: .213/.284/.350, 70 wRC+, -0.6 fWAR
2017 projections: .239/.301/.403, 87 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR

The Philadelphia Phillies once hoped that Cody Asche would become a regular contributor in their future lineups. Then-teammate Maikel Franco was the likely heir at third base, forcing Asche into the outfield. He peaked at a 95 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR in 2014, but has been worth -1.6 wins since then. For his career, Asche has hit for a bit more power against right-handed pitching, which is where he will likely spend most of his time in 2017; infielder Matt Davidson is likely to start against lefties.