The White Sox are annually the most difficult team to accurately project. When the pundits and experts think they’ll be contenders, they fall flat on their face. When they think they’ll be terrible—like heading into last season—they end up contending. The South-Siders led the AL Central for four months in 2012 until an 11-17 September derailed their chances at a division title, which Detroit eventually won.
Still, the White Sox were coming off a 79-83 season and had nothing in the farm system. Not many people expected them to win 85 games, but bounce-back years from Adam Dunn and Alex Rios and surprising seasons from pitchers Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and Jose Quintana elevated them to modest contention.
In the winter, General Manager Kenny Williams was “promoted” to Vice-President in order to hand the reins to up-and-coming front office star Rick Hahn. Williams and Hahn have made a concerted effort to rebuild the desolate farm system and it is significantly better than it was a year ago. It still has a long way to go, but high-upside prospects such as outfielders Courtney Hawkins (he of back flip fame) and Trayce Thompson and middle-infielder Carlos Sanchez give the White Sox some young players to potentially build around in the coming years.
The White Sox were a surprisingly good pitching team in 2012 finishing sixth in the AL in runs allowed. Peavy, who signed a two-year, $29-million extension this offseason, threw over 200 innings for the first time since winning the NL Cy Young Award back in 2007 with the Padres and had a solid 3.37 ERA and 4.4 WAR according to FanGraphs.
He joins Sale, who broke out in a big way in 2012, at the top of the White Sox rotation. Despite a rail-thin frame and scary-looking delivery, Sale managed to throw 192 innings with a 3.05 ERA and a 3.78 K/BB ratio. His 4.9 WAR trailed only Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, David Price and Yu Darvish in the AL.
After Peavy and Sale at the top of the rotation are two bounce back candidates in Gavin Floyd and lefty John Danks. Danks signed a five-year extension heading into last season and delivered by getting hurt. He made only nine starts and struggled as his k-rate fell and he gave up way too much hard contact. If he can return to the form that saw him post an average of almost 4 WAR per season from 2008-2011, the White Sox will have a formidable top-three. Floyd, meanwhile, saw his walk-rate and home run rate skyrocket in 2012. If he can correct that in 2013 and pitch more like he did from 2009-2011, he’s a solid mid-rotation arm to slide in after the top three.
Left-hander Jose Quintana was a tremendous find by the White Sox scouting staff last season, signed as a minor-league free agent and called up after only nine starts at AA-Birmingham. He went on to post a 3.76 ERA in 136 1/3 big league innings, limiting walks and inducing his fair share of groundballs. His peripherals suggest some regression, but his batted-ball average and strand rate suggest he didn’t benefit much from outrageous fortune.
The bullpen is anchored by terrific young closer Addison Reed who struggled a bit in 2012 but posted decent peripherals and should continue to get better with more experience. If he falters, lefty Matt Thornton—who has posted the highest WAR for relievers not named Papelbon since 2006—could step in to close out games.
Hard-throwing righthanders Jesse Crain and Nate Jones were both very good in 2012 and they’ll likely be joined by Dylan Axelrod and left-hander Donnie Veal who struck out 19 batters in 13 big-league innings last year. Another hard thrower in Matt Lindstrom was signed in early February after posting a sub-3.00 ERA for Baltimore and Arizona last season. Brian Omogrosso, Jhan Marinez and left-hander Hector Santiago could also be in the bullpen mix.
Somehow, the White Sox scored the fourth-most runs in the AL last season despite a lack of impact stars. First baseman Paul Konerko was his usual steady self in 2012 posting a .298/.371/.486 slash line and 26 home runs and designated hitter Adam Dunn bounced back after a disaster season in 2011. He still hit only .204 but walks and home runs led to a 114 wRC+ and a team-best 41 home runs.
Speaking of bounce back, right fielder Alex Rios went from being one of the worst regulars in the game in 2011 to posting a 125 wRC+ while hitting over .300 and slugging 25 home runs in 2012. His 4.3 WAR led the team. However, expecting back-to-back good seasons from Rios is a fool’s errand as most of us in the Toronto area are well aware.
Center fielder Alejandro de Aza was also very good in 2012—his first year as a regular at age 28—posting above average offensive numbers with a good walk-rate and some pop. It remains to be seen, however, if his .339 batted-ball average is the result of skill or aberration.
Incumbents Dayan Viciedo in left field, Alexei Ramirez at short and Gordon Beckham at second all had underwhelming seasons in 2012, although Viciedo at least hit for power. Both Beckham and Ramirez were awful at the plate and neither appears to be the hitters they were once considered.
The Sox also picked up Jeff Keppinger on a three-year deal to play third base—a real problem spot for Chicago last year. Keppinger is not a sexy pick up, but was terrific in 418 plate appearances with Tampa Bay last year. He’s also versatile and cheap—he’s signed for only $12-million over the next three seasons. Even if he isn’t good enough to play every day at third, he’ll make a good utility infielder and won’t kill them financially.
A.J. Pierzynski looked more like Carleton Fisk in 2012 and used that aberration to score a deal with the Rangers, leaving Tyler Flowers to take over the everyday catching duties for the Pale Hose. Flowers was once considered a bat-first catching prospect who needed to work on his defense. As he gets set to play every day for the first time in his career, the opposite seems to be true. Hector Gimenez, Josh Phegley and Bryan Anderson will compete for the backup job, but if Flower struggles, one of them may end up getting significant playing time.
Newly acquired corner infielder Conor Gillaspie will join Rule V pick Angel Sanchez and journeyman outfielder DeWayne Wise on the bench. Gillaspie could end up platooning at third with Keppinger if the latter stumbles.
The White Sox were sixth in the AL in defensive efficiency in 2012 and are at best an average defensive club. Viciedo in left is a terrible defender, but Rios and de Aza make up for his pylon-like range with above average skills. In the infield, Ramirez and Beckham are solid up-the-middle and Keppinger is generally well-regarded defensively. Flowers is a decent defender who caught a third of the runners who tried to steal on him last year.
Over the last seven seasons since winning the World Series in 2005, the White Sox have alternated between winning seasons and losing seasons never winning or losing more than 90. Because of this, it’s difficult to get a good read on how the team will perform going forward. Even projection systems like PECOTA have had a lot of trouble. This year is no different. If the likes of Rios, Dunn, Peavy and Quintana put up good seasons and they get bounce backs from Danks, Ramirez and Beckham, they could be really good. However, a lot has to go right given the complexion of the roster and the likely regression of many of their key players.
2013 Prediction: 78-84, 3rd AL Central