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2018 MLB preview: The Chicago White Sox lineup is starting to take shape

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The White Sox might not contend in 2018, but they know who will be around when they’re ready.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

For a team that nearly finished in last place in 2017, the Chicago White Sox didn’t have too bad of an offense. They were just outside the middle of the pack among MLB teams with a 94 wRC+, better than the AL East champion Boston Red Sox. However, that production didn’t entirely translate into runs. They were 12th in the American League with 706 runs scored, and finished second-to-last in home runs. Worse yet, they would have ranked even lower were it not for a late surge that saw them score 4.76 runs per game in September.

White Sox fans are holding onto that final month of the year (and ignoring where they only went .500) in hopes that the 2018 season will offer more promise. However, that’s no guarantee. Although the Sox have an absolutely loaded farm system, they lost a fair amount of solid production from their 2017 club. Gone are Melky Cabrera and Todd Frazier, veterans who both provided above-average contributions at the plate, if not always in the field. Avisail Garcia is due to regress after an out-of-nowhere 137 wRC+ season, and someone else is always bound to underperform or get injured.

However, that drop-off may be more than offset by development from some of their young talent. The Sox will get a full year of second baseman Yoan Moncada, who finished the year with an .818 OPS and five home runs in September. Shortstop Tim Anderson, while more known for his speed and defense, raised his OPS by 100 points after last year’s All-Star Break. Matt Davidson has vowed to make more contact after staying afloat whilst swinging out of his shoes in 2017. Bat-first prospect Nicky Delmonico will get more plate appearances after a strong debut, and free agent signee Welington Castillo is bound to be an offensive upgrade over last year’s catching duo.

Better yet, there may be reinforcements on the way. Chicago has not been shy about aggressively promoting their star prospects when ready, and the Sox could maybe squeeze a few plate appearances out of both Eloy Jimenez and Zach Collins. Things would have to go very well for them to see big league action — they will both start the year at Double-A — but both sluggers have superlative potential with the bat in their hands.

Even if we don’t see Chicago’s newest stars in the bigs this year, the organization is already penciling them into a future batting order, one that may finally lead the Sox back to the postseason. It won’t happen this year, but the pieces are being put into place for a prosperous future.

Offense at a glance

2017 runs scored: 706 | 2016 team wOBA: .313 | 2016 team fWAR: 13.4
2017 projected runs (PECOTA): 741 | 2017 projected WAR (FanGraphs): 11.2
Note: numbers below are based on FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections. Catcher WARP provided by Baseball Prospectus, which incorporates pitch framing into its calculations.

Catcher: Welington Castillo

2017 numbers: .282/.323/.490, 113 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR
2018 projections: .244/.303/.425, 93 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR

Baltimore has quietly become a place for struggling hitters to rehab their value in recent years. First, Nelson Cruz turned one hot season with the Orioles into a $57 million payday. Then, Mark Trumbo cashed in after hitting 47 homers in 2016. Welington Castillo didn’t get quite as much money as those two, but the 30-year-old backstop enjoyed the best offensive season of his career while playing with the Orioles last season, hitting .282/.323/.490. The White Sox signed him to a two-year deal with a team option this winter in hopes that he will add some thump to a catcher position that mostly got by on Omar Narvaez’s on-base skills last year. Castillo is somewhat of a liability defensively — though he did throw out 49 percent of base stealers last year — but could always shift over to the DH spot when needed. I’d consider him a decent bet to repeat last season’s 20-homer output, but the defensive gains he made might be a mirage.

First base: Jose Abreu

2017 numbers: .304/.354/.552, 138 wRC+, 4.1 fWAR
2018 projections: .289/.345/.515, 126 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR

After looking like the next Miguel Cabrera in his rookie season, Abreu tailed off in 2015 and 2016. He still hit 55 home runs and drove in a combined 201 runs in those two seasons, but his .835 OPS felt like failure. There were signs that he had figured things out in 2016, and those came to fruition last year. Despite posting the lowest walk rate of his brief MLB career, Abreu produced a 140 OPS+, the first time it had been that high since 2014. He also got stronger as the year went on, hitting .312/.360/.591 in the second half. His low walk rate and slow footspeed are reasons to doubt him as he approaches his mid-30s, but the Sox only have him under control for the next two years. He’ll stick around through the rebuild — Abreu has been a key mentor for the young Cubans in their system — but the Sox have a crucial decision to make when he hits free agency in 2019.

Second base: Yoan Moncada

2017 numbers: .231/.338/.412, 104 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR
2018 projections: .241/.332/.399, 97 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR

Moncada’s first plate appearance with the White Sox was a microcosm of his 2017, in a way. After a rousing standing ovation from the home crowd, Moncada immediately fell into an 0-2 count. He dug in from there, however, fouling off three pitches before drawing a walk on pitch number nine.

Like that walk, 2017 wasn’t the flashiest of debuts for Moncada, but he shrugged off some early struggles to get the job done in the end. He hit just .105/.261/.263 in his first two weeks with the Sox last July, but rebounded to post a .781 OPS in August, followed by an .818 OPS in September. He struck out 32 percent of the time, continuing a theme from his brief time in the minors, but also showed patience beyond his years in drawing walks nearly 13 percent of the time. The power isn’t quite there yet — although a .181 ISO in 231 MLB plate appearances ain’t too shabby — but his glove is good enough to weather any dry spells in his first full season.

Shortstop: Tim Anderson

2017 numbers: .257/.276/.402, 78 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR
2018 projections: .258/.282/.396, 78 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR

Throughout baseball history, only six players have managed at least 2.0 rWAR while striking out 10 times for every walk. Tim Anderson is not one of those players. The 24-year-old was efficient on the basepaths, stealing 15 of 16 bags, and has the athleticism and arm to be an above-average defender at short. But he is also one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball; Anderson swung at nearly 55 percent of the pitches he saw in 2017, the ninth-highest rate in baseball among qualified hitters. This resulted in a putrid 2.1 percent walk rate, which went down as his offensive production ticked upward in the second half. He produced a .732 OPS after the All-Star break, but also hit more grounders and upped his pull rate, so I’m not sure how sustainable those gains will be.

Third base: Yolmer Sanchez

2017 numbers: .267/.319/.413, 94 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR
2018 projections: .248/.298/.385, 81 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR

Sometimes, a change in name or logo is all a team needs to break out of a long funk and look like a contender (see: the Tampa Bay Rays). The man formerly known as Carlos Sanchez did this for the Sox last year, and turned in the best offensive season of his young career. Sanchez was just a tick below average offensively, but doubled his walk rate and played excellent defense at both second and third base. The result was a season that ranges from good (2.1 fWAR) to great (3.5 rWAR) depending on your preferred defensive metrics. His bat still isn’t one you want in the lineup 500 times per year, but he certainly looks the part of an above-average utility player in the future.

Left field: Nicky Delmonico

2017 numbers: .262/.373/.482, 132 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR
2018 projections: .244/.320/.435, 81 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR

Way back when, some thought the Baltimore Orioles would regret trading Delmonico in a deadline deal for for reliever Francisco Rodriguez. K-Rod wasn’t very good in those two months for the O’s, but Delmonico was suspended for 50 games* and released by the Brewers in February 15. The White Sox picked him up shortly after, and he rewarded them with a big 2016 season that put him on the cusp of the majors. He finally got his chance in the big leagues after the trade deadline, and hit a robust .262/.373/.482 over the final two months of the year. There are some signs that he will regress — a career-best walk rate and 27 percent soft contact rate among them — but even falling back to average (or slightly better) production is reward enough for sticking with Delmonico through a rough stretch of his life.

*There’s a lot to that story, which you should read here.

Center field: Adam Engel

2017 numbers: .166/.235/.282, 37 wRC+, -0.7 fWAR
2018 projections: .201/.270/.325, 59 wRC+, -0.3 fWAR

Engel wasn’t really on Chicago’s radar heading into 2017, but a brutal April from Opening Day starter Jacob May opened the door for the then-25-year-old Engel. A former 19th round pick, Engel has true 80-grade speed that helps him cover a ton of ground in center field. He’s a plus defender, although advanced metrics weren’t too impressed with how he fared in the outfield last year. Offensively, Engel is a below-average hitter with next to no power. His 2017 numbers say as much, and a career .741 OPS in the minors suggests there isn’t much room for growth. He drew walks at a health rate in the minors, but could only manage a 5.7 percent rate in the majors last year. He’s more of a fourth or fifth outfielder, but probably won’t have as long of a career as he might have had in previous eras with deeper benches.

Right field: Avisail Garcia

2017 numbers: .330/.380/.506, 137 wRC+, 4.2 fWAR
2018 projections: .282/.338/.445, 59 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR

“Mini Miggy” finally looked the part in 2017, producing a career-best .885 OPS and 4.5 fWAR in 136 games. Garcia made his first All-Star team behind a red-hot first half, then got even better after the break with a .933 OPS. How did he do it? A .392 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) offered a big lift, and is one reason why he is projected to regress so much this year. However, he continued to hit the ball hard, pulled the ball a bit more, and upped his fly ball rate a little bit — all reasons why his ISO went from .140 in 2016 to .176 last year. Garcia will certainly regress some in 2018, but there might be some truth to the gaudy 137 wRC+ he posted last season.

Designated hitter: Matt Davidson

2017 numbers: .220/.260/.452, 83 wRC+, -0.9 fWAR
2018 projections: .208/.270/.397, 75 wRC+, -1.2 fWAR

It took a little while for the former first round pick to surface in the majors, but Davidson made the most of his opportunity, hitting .286/.333/.612 last April. Unfortunately for the Sox, he only produced a .679 OPS in the next five months while striking out 37 percent of the time. He had his moments, including an .817 OPS and seven homers in June, but generally struggled to adjust once MLB pitchers figured out how to pitch to him. He also didn’t walk much, but generally wasn’t too bad at laying off pitches outside the zone. The key is hitting all the pitches he missed within the strike zone. He is focused on putting the ball in play more this spring, but it remains to be seen if he can fix the apparent hole in his swing and let his plus raw power shine through.