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2022 BYB AL Central Preview: The Chicago White Sox are the target in Tiger Town

If September’s benches-clearing incident was any indication, this rivalry could explode in 2022.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, we opened our MLB Opening Week coverage of this year’s AL Central by covering the Kansas City Royals, a team with compelling pieces but huge question marks within their pitching staff. Of course, one could say the same about the Tigers. But today, we crank up the heat.

Here at Bless You Boys, we had 11 staff members submit predictions ahead of the 2022 MLB season. 11/11 of us chose the Chicago White Sox to win the division. Inevitably, the unanimous decision means that the Twins or Guardians are going to swoop in and take the crown this season (more on both this weekend; let’s focus on today’s opponent). It also means, of course, that our editorial team unanimously fears and respects this White Sox squad’s talent. We may be overly optimistic about the Tigers’ chances against the rest of the AL Central, but everyone knows the White Sox are a big problem.

So, who are these south side sons of guns, how badly do we need to temper our expectations, and how do the Tigers resume superiority within a great best midwestern rivalry?

To begin, we must turn to the past.

The 2021 Chicago White Sox, in a few paragraphs

Record: 93-69 (1st in AL Central)
Pythagorean W-L: 97-65; 796 Runs, 636 Runs Allowed

Last season’s White Sox squad had six 4+ fWAR players, as well as two additional players who would have hit at least 4 wins above replacement had they played a full season. You know the names: Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, and, Chicago’s 2021 fWAR leader, Carlos Rodón (now with the San Francisco Giants).

Last year’s Tigers, meanwhile, saw one player eclipse 3 fWAR: Jeimer Candelario. His 3.2 fWAR was a career high to date. A second 2022 Tiger, Eduardo Rodriguez, reached 3.8 fWAR with the Red Sox last season, but even he has never eclipsed 4+ fWAR in his career.

Also notable from the 2021 White Sox was a very impressive bullpen unit, led by baseball’s best closer last season, Liam Hendriks. The Liam Hendriks Experience will tour again in 2022 for the South Side, supported by opening act Aaron Bummer (62 games with very favorable underlying metrics last season). It is, however, worth noting that 23-year-old Garrett Crochet, a hugely important 6’6” do-it-all lefty out of the Sox bullpen, will miss the 2022 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Between the marquee bats, the impressive rotation arms, and a relief pitcher who walks 2.6 percent of hitters, the White Sox are well set up for the foreseeable future, even after a disappointing 3-1 ALDS loss to the 2021 American League champion Houston Astros.

Notable 2021-22 Offseason Moves

Let me make this totally clear: I am not saying, nor will I ever say, that the White Sox are invincible.

The White Sox sat smack dab in the middle of MLB’s 2021 payroll standings, spending just under $141 million thanks in large part to the team’s young and affordable talent. So, many figured that the White Sox would target one of the noteworthy infielders on this year’s trade market, especially after they haphazardly sent Nick Madrigal across town to the Cubs for Craig Kimbrel.

Marcus Semien went to Texas. Javier Baez went to Detroit. Kris Bryant went to Colorado. Carlos Correa went to Minnesota. Perhaps the White Sox will be glad they do not have a majority of these contracts in a couple of years — well, except Correa; that was almost as big of a miss as losing out on A.J. Hinch.

But really: Josh Harrison? Josh Harrison is your answer at second base? I understand he rediscovered himself a fair bit in Washington, but… you’re so close. Turning Kimbrel into AJ Pollock might balance that out in the short term, but in the process, the bullpen also got weaker. Losing Crochet for the full season has their relief group looking a little thinner.

To add insult to injury, the White Sox bizarrely non-tendered Carlos Rodon after he was Chicago’s most productive player in 2021. Now, I would have respected this decision if he landed in, say, Pittsburgh, but the fact that the upstart San Francisco Giants pounced on him immediately after is not a good look for general manager Rick Hahn. The oft-injured lefty is always a risk, but on a short term deal, remains a great fit for a contender.

It’s hard to characterize this offseason as anything except disappointing for the White Sox. Acquisitions, at best, will sit at the bottom third of the lineup (such as new right fielder A.J. Pollock), or in a set-up role (referring to Kendall Graveman, who started 2021 hot but cooled off down the stretch). The weight of 2022’s success will hinge on whether the White Sox mainstays can replicate their unified 2021 production. The offense will be a force, but the pitching staff is a little more suspect this season.

2022 Outlook

Steamer projections expected the White Sox to cool off a bit from their highly productive 2021 campaign. Three players — Luis Robert, Yoán Moncada, and Yasmani Grandal — are projected to approach or eclipse 4 fWAR this season, half as many as last season. And that was before the injury bug struck Chicago’s clubhouse.

Starting pitcher Lance Lynn will be until at least mid-May with an oblique strain. Meanwhile, news broke on Thursday that Yoán Moncada will miss three weeks with an oblique strain. And, as mentioned, Garrett Crochet will miss all of the 2022 season. This Sox organization also currently lacks impact prospects at the upper end of their farm system, although it’s worth noting second-year player Andrew Vaughn still possesses very high upside and only turned 24 on Sunday.

Unfortunately for Detroit, a fair chunk of the marquee positions on this team are still filled by highly competent young players. The mean Steamer projection for a member of the White Sox lineup or starting rotation, 14 players total, is 2.75 fWAR. The Tigers do not have a single bat projected above that mark, and they only have one pitcher projected there: Eduardo Rodriguez.

Of course, the projections think the Tigers are going 74-88. From my perspective, the Tigers have eight bats on their roster who I feel quite positive about entering 2022. The rotation, meanwhile, seems poised to have at least 1-2 players find a new level in their game. The big question, especially after a slew of spring training injuries, is whether pitching coach Chris Fetter can squeeze some more overachievement out of the bullpen group. We’ll also take AJ HInch over Tony La Russa, while we’re on the subject. How much those things translate to wins is obviously debatable.

The White Sox are a good team with a potentially excellent lineup and pitching staff, and they are in prime position to repeat as AL Central champions this season. They also have noticeable chinks in their AL Central champion armor, and we as a staff are virtually unanimous that the Tigers will outperform their Steamer projections. Baseball being what it is, the possibility of an upset seems notably better this season, but it would certainly be a big upset.

Between new challenges from the Tigers and Twins, as well as slight regression after an underwhelming offseason, I’m going to forecast a mild to moderate regression for the 2022 White Sox, and a very interesting season for the Tigers-Sox rivalry and the AL Central race in general. The Tigers will need a lot to go their way to catch the White Sox this season, but if they can get out to a good start this season, they’re capable of giving the reigning champs a run for their money.