2011 Record: 79-83, 3rd AL Central
2011 Prediction: 86-76, 2nd AL Central
Impact Player: SS Alexei Ramirez
Impact Pitcher: LHP Jon Danks
Best Reliever: LHP Matt Thornton
Top Prospect: RHP Addison Reed
The White Sox entered last season with a very deep rotation and a capable lineup and looked to be sure-fire contenders in the weak AL Central. They were coming of an 88-win season in 2010 and had added one of the most prolific sluggers in the game in Adam Dunn to be their new DH and occasional first baseman. A weakened and injury-riddled Twins team and an oddly-constructed Tigers team appeared to be the only real test for them in 2011, but they just never got it going.
Dunn finished with one of the worst slash lines in Major League history, going .159/.292/.277 with only 11 home runs. He was coming off seven straight seasons where he hit at least 38 home runs, a feat accomplished by only two other players in history: Rafael Palmeiro and Babe Ruth. Centerfielder Alex Rios and Dunn were ahead of only Orlando Cabrera in all of baseball in wRC+.
The White Sox ended up finishing with just 79 wins, marking the third time in five years that they had lost more games than they won. GM Kenny Williams continued his schizophrenic approach to roster construction when he announced that he was going to embark on a rebuild. He sent closer Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays for prospect Nestor Molina and then vehemently stated he was not rebuilding (despite the optics). Then he traded middle reliever Jason Frasor back to Toronto for two more prospects on the same weekend that he sent rightfielder Carlos Quentin to San Diego. The weird offseason got weirder when he told everyone he was shopping number one pitcher John Danks, only to sign him to a five-year contract extension. So are the White Sox rebuilding? Your guess is as good as mine.
The one thing we do know about the White Sox is that they have perhaps the worst farm system ever. If they are rebuilding, it could be a long, arduous process.
Despite finishing seventh in the AL in runs allowed as a team, White Sox starters led the American League in fWAR at 20.2, trailing only the Phillies. Danks put up his usual solid peripherals; in fact he increased his strikeout-rate and bettered his walk-rate from 2010, but saw his traditional stats plummet. He finished with a 4.33 ERA and missed a few starts due to injury. His inflated numbers can be blamed on an increased line-drive rate which, if corrected, should bring his numbers back in line with his career norms. The five-year, $65-million contract extension he signed was perplexing considering Chicago could really have used the prospects he would have netted on the trade market, but he’s an acceptable top-end starter.
Gavin Floyd led the team in fWAR at 3.6 and put up very similar numbers to Danks. The White Sox were also said to be shopping him (Boston was the most rumoured team), but like Danks, they decided to keep him. Floyd is under contract for two more seasons at a reasonable price tag so there shouldn’t be any shortage of takers come trade deadline time if the Pale Hose are out of it.
Jake Peavy just cannot stay healthy. The fact that he’s pitching at all at this point is impressive, but he shouldn’t be relied upon to pitch much more than 100 innings. Like Danks and Floyd, Peavy underpitched his peripherals in 2011 finishing with a 4.92 ERA despite a 3.52 xFIP and a respectable 2.9 fWAR in just 111.2 innings.
Phil Humber was a pleasant surprise for Chicago last season pitching to a 3.75 ERA, 3.86 xFIP and 3.5 fWAR in 163 innings. The 29-year-old was once one of the top pitching prospects in the game with the Mets and Twins, but had never thrown more than 21.2 innings at the Major League level until last season. Pitching coach Don Cooper (a certified wizard) introduced a slider to Humber’s repertoire which gathered a rather impressive 19.25 whiff-percentage. Although his batted-ball average was a bit low, there’s no reason to think that Humber can’t come close to repeating his 2011 performance.
With franchise stalwart Mark Buehrle following ex-manager Ozzie Guillen to South Florida, the White Sox will turn to lefty Chris Sale to take his place in the rotation. Sale pitched last season (his first full one) in the bullpen and was dominating. He combined a high strike-out rate with an above-average groundball percentage to great success; if he can repeat that in the rotation, he’ll be a top-end starter, but there’s no guaranteeing that. He’ll likely have his innings monitored as well.
In the bullpen, lefty Matt Thornton is back to close after another solid season. Although he got off to a slow start, losing his closer’s job to Santos, he finished with a 2.94 xFIP and was tied for eighth in the AL in fWAR among relievers. Setting him up will be veteran Jesse Crain and rookie/top prospect Addison Reed. If Thornton struggles in the closer role again this season, it shouldn’t take rookie manager Robin Ventura long to insert Reed as the closer. It says a lot about both how bad the White Sox system is and how good Reed is that a reliever was ranked their top prospect.
Veteran lefty Will Ohman will be joined by any number of minor-league arms. Jhan Marinez was one of two players acquired in the Ozzie Guillen manager-for-players trade with Miami and has a shot despite pitching last season in AA-Jacksonville with very little command. Deunte Heath, Dylan Axelrod, Zach Stewart, Brian Bruney, and lefties Pedro Hernandez (acquired in the Quentin trade) and Scott Olsen among others could also find their way in to the ‘pen.
Despite some big names in the lineup, the struggles of Dunn, Rios, Gordon Beckham and others dragged the White Sox down. They finished 11th in the AL in runs scored and just ninth in home runs; down from seventh and fourth in 2010 respectively. Rios and Dunn are both under contract for a lot more years and a lot more money and will therefore be trotted out everyday once again in 2011.
Beckham, the second baseman, finished with an on-base percentage under .300 and a wRC+ of just 71. He looked like a future stud in his 2009 rookie campaign but is now two full seasons removed from being even an average hitter. His double play partner, Alexei Ramirez, might be the best player on the team; which is remarkable considering he’s never had an above average offensive season. His defense at short makes him extremely valuable; he was second to only Jhonny Peralta in fWAR among AL short stops, but was seventh in rWAR.
Only two players in the White Sox projected starting nine had a wRC+ above 100 (average) in 2011: first baseman Paul Konerko and projected starting leftfielder Alejandro De Aza. Konerko has been as steady as they come. Despite entering his age 36 season, he had a wOBA of .383 last year and has hit at least 30 home runs in six of the last eight seasons. De Aza, on the other hand, will take over for the departed Juan Pierre on an everyday basis in left. In a 54-game cameo in 2011, De Aza had a .329/.400/.520 slash line and was terrific defensively in all three outfield spots. His .404 BABIP and the fact that he’s already 28 should signify a regression with a larger sample size.
In the other outfield corner will be Dayan Viciedo. Viciedo will be atrocious defensively (he’s a bad corner-infielder by trade) but the White Sox are hoping he’ll make up for it with the stick. The 23-year-old has tremendous power but has yet to show much of it at the Major League level.
At third base will be Brent Morel who will look to improve upon his 73 wRC+ in his sophomore year. He’ll be pushed by Ozzie Martinez (the other player acquired for Guillen) and possibly Viciedo if he can’t hack it in the outfield.
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is back, but has been in decline for a few years now. 26-year-old Tyler Flowers or prospect Josh Phegley could push him out if either one figures out how to hit.
Flowers will start the year as the backup catcher and will be joined by super-utility player Brent Lillibridge who had a .505 slugging percentage with 13 home runs in limited time in 2011. He could push De Aza for the left field job or possibly Beckham and Morel on the infield if either is a complete disaster. Kosuke Fukudome was brought in on a ridiculously team-friendly one-year deal and could supplant either corner outfielder if they struggle. The final spot should go to one of a few infielders: Eduardo Escobar, Ray Olmedo and Martinez are the most likely.
The White Sox seem caught between wanting to contend and wanting to rebuild and have yet to pick a direction. Teams like that don’t often do well and the loss of Buehrle, Quentin and Santos will be felt. Still, the AL Central is the weakest in baseball and if things break right, the White Sox could find themselves in contention. However, a number of bounce-back and career seasons are required and the Pale Hose are woefully short on farm system depth.
2012 Prediction: 74-88, 5th AL Central