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2018 MLB team primer: The Chicago White Sox are still a year away from contention

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The White Sox are riding high after a strong finish in 2017, but there is still work to be done before they aim for the postseason.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, I wrote here that the Chicago White Sox would get worse before they got better. In nearly every sense, this was the case. They started out fine, but quickly fell behind the pack in early June. Not long after, they traded Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, and two of their best relievers for another strong prospect return. These deals came amid their worst stretch of the season; during a month-long skid in July and early August, the Sox went 4-23 and lost 10 12 games in the AL Central standings.

After that? The kids did alright. The White Sox finished the season a hair under .500 at 26-27, including a 15-14 September in which they scored nearly five runs per game. Key future pieces like Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, and Yolmer Sanchez all finished strong, while veteran mentor Jose Abreu capped off a four-win season, his first since 2014.

But for all the optimism they and other players — like the care-free Eloy Jimenez and mercurial flamethrower Michael Kopech — can provide, there are still major holes to fix. The White Sox still only finished with a .500 record over those final two months, and sported a negative run differential to boot. None of their pitching prospects have logged significant innings at the major league level yet, and injuries to Carlos Rodon and Jake Burger have already started to take their toll.

This shouldn’t dim anyone’s optimism for the future, though. The White Sox have a fabulously talented farm system, and will soon be able to supplement that young talent in free agency. But to get there, they will have to take a few more lumps in 2018.

Team at a glance

2017 record: 67-95 | 2017 pythag: 70-92 | 2018 farm system rank: 4
Manager: Rick Renteria (2nd year)
SB Nation site: South Side Sox
Key additions: C Welington Castillo, LHP Luis Avilan, RHP Joakim Soria, IF Jose Rondon, LHP Hector Santiago
Key departures: C Geovany Soto, RHP Mike Pelfrey, RHP Jake Petricka, RHP Zach Putnam

Once again, we are left marveling at the work general manager Rick Hahn has done in turning over Chicago’s roster. The Chris Sale and Adam Eaton deals are already starting to pay off for the White Sox, while the return for Jose Quintana — outfielder Eloy Jimenez and pitcher Dylan Cease, namely — was arguably the most impressive of the group.

But the masterstroke might have been the Todd Frazier deal. By packaging two top-flight relievers together, Hahn was able to land two more excellent prospects in outfielder Blake Rutherford and lefthander Ian Clarkin. Rutherford was a consensus top-50 prospect at the time, on par with the top player the Tigers received in the Justin Verlander deal (righty Franklin Perez). Clarkin hasn’t received any top-100 hype, but is a former first rounder that already reminds fans of the since-departed Quintana.

While the big names are gone, the Sox still did well this offseason to add a few more potential trade chips. Welington Castillo was inked to a team-friendly deal despite coming off the best offensive season of his career, and could be flipped to an offensive-starved contender at any time. Relievers Luis Avilan and Joakim Soria were bought for a single prospect — a former seventh rounder without much of a ceiling — and are likely to be gone by July 31. Compared to what our Tigers have done (or not done, more accurately), this is an impressive offseason for the Sox.

Down on the farm

How deep is Chicago’s farm system? Let’s put it like this: they graduated Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, and Reynaldo Lopez from their prospect ranks, and still rank among the top five farm systems in baseball. Their organization is chock full of high-upside talent, led by Dominican slugger Eloy Jimenez. The one-time Cubs prospect dominated High-A ball as a 20-year-old last year, and showed flashes of the same in 18 games at Double-A to close out the season. The rocket-armed Michael Kopech is on the cusp of the majors after a dominant season at Double-A, while fellow righties Alec Hansen and Dylan Cease are a bit further away. Young Cuban outfielder Luis Robert is farther off still, but had a dominant debut in the Dominican Summer League. While the actual depth of the system is a bit of a question mark, there is so much top-end talent in this system that bat-first prospects like Zach Collins and Jake Burger sit in the back half of their top 10.

Player to watch: Yoan Moncada

It has to be, right? Moncada was the highest-rated prospect to be traded since Wil Myers four years before him, but didn’t debut with the same ferocity as the one-time Kansas City Royal. However, for a player that has only been playing pro ball in the U.S. for three years, it wasn’t so bad. Moncada finished the year on a high note, hitting .276/.349/.469 with five of his eight home runs after September 1. He also played solid defense at second, and was worth 1.7 rWAR despite not appearing in a major league game until July 19. He will certainly struggle at times in his first full big league season — especially if he doesn’t clean up last year’s 32 percent strikeout rate — but there will also be points where we see the raw talent that earned him a $31 million signing bonus before he even set foot on American soil.

Outlook

While the 2018 White Sox probably won’t be very good, this season will still be one filled with optimism on the South Side. Their organization is stuffed to the gills with talented prospects, enough so that it’s not hard to envision this team sneaking into the playoff race. If the youngsters develop, the role players overperform, and James Shields does his best Kenny Rogers impression, the Sox could take advantage of a weak AL Central and challenge for a Wild Card spot.

That’s a lot of ifs to get right, though, especially when Miguel Gonzalez is their nominal No. 2 starter. No, the more likely scenario is that these White Sox show some promise in 2018, maybe even out-performing their projections by a few wins. But with so many questions around the roster (especially on the pitching side) and no reason to rush things while Cleveland is perched atop the division, expect this season to be more about moral victories than actual ones for the Sox.