The White Sox offseason was about as drama-free as the two men who are now minding the store. Rick Hahn, in his first offseason as GM, devoted time to locking down the pieces that will carry the team for the next few years. Jake Peavy was given a two-year contract extension last October. Chris Sale signed a five year deal last week. The only free agent signings were infielder Jeff Keppinger and relief pitcher Matt Lindstrom. His trades were designed to beef up the lineup of the Charlotte Knights.
The Sox were the quietest offseason team in the AL Central this side of the Minnesota Twins. What can we expect when the bell rings in April? Probably the same product as last year.
The White Sox should be competitive in the AL Central. That is to say, they will be fun to watch. But the Detroit Tigers are still the class of the division until proven otherwise. Detroit still has Miguel Cabrera, MLB’s first Triple Crown winner since Yaz in 1967 (somewhere, Hawk Harrelson sheds a tear). The Tigers still have Justin Verlander, who is the Nolan Ryan of our generation. They upgraded their defense in the outfield by signing Torii Hunter and bidding farewell to Delmon Young.
At this point I want to digress by talking about a conversation I had with a Tigers-fan acquaintance outside of the Tribune Tower in December of 2007. The White Sox were in the midst of a notable free agency losing streak. They has just lost out on Torii Hunter, and they were hours away from losing out on Miguel Cabrera (the hot rumor that morning was that the Sox had a trade in place with the Florida Marlins to bring Cabrera north to Chicago. The Tigers swooped in at the last minute with a better offer). I remember saying two things that turned out to be very wrong:
1- “Torii Hunter is going to be old and broken down at the end of that Angels deal!” I thought his knees were shredded by years of running on the hard surface of the Metrodome. He posted an .817 OPS in 2012.
2- “I don’t believe the rumor that Cabrera is headed to the Tigers!”
Now, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera are on the same team.
Detroit also has a good pitching staff behind Verlander in Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez. The bullpen is decent. They are rumored to be in pursuit of Carlos Marmol, probably because they miss the 9th inning heart attacks induced by Jose Valverde.
The infield still has hands of stone, but they should have enough offense to make up for it.
The Tigers have three elite players in the prime of their careers. Their post-season window is open.
The Cleveland Indians made a lot of moves in the offseason, but as we should have learned from Kenny Williams, aggressive moves do not equal success.
They have a new manager in Terry Francona. They signed free agents Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, and Brett Meyers. They traded Shin Soo Choo to Cincinatti for some blue chip pitching prospect and outfielder Drew Stubbs.
Cleveland should be better than last year’s 68-94 finish. The question is, how much better? The Indians pitching staff is still shaky.
The Kansas City Royals are an interesting case. They’ve been on the verge of being “the next Tampa Bay Rays” for a couple of years. KC has Billy Butler, who is one of the best power hitters in the game. They have the highly touted Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. They have Jeremy Guthrie and Luke Hochevar. Now they have James Shields.
The Royals should be better as well. It’s probably too early to craft an advertising campaign around the idea of it being “Our Time.” Actually, last year was too early to craft an advertising campaign around the idea of it being “Our Time.” The bad Royals always gave the White Sox fits. The Sox went 6-12 against the Royals last year. A .500 record would have forced a tiebreaker game with the Tigers. A winning record would have meant a trip to the postseason.
Long story short, the White Sox need to start winning more games against Kansas City.
Remember when the Minnesota Twins were worshipped by everyone in the White Sox organization? Those days are long gone. The Twins haven’t been relevant in the AL Central conversation since 2010. At least the Twins aren’t building marketing campaigns around things said by the manager of the White Sox.
That bring us to…the White Sox. What can we expect out of this team? The success of 2012 can be attributed to the following:
1- The sudden emergence of Chris Sale. He was so good fans quickly forgot about Mark Buherle. He started to falter as the innings built up. The Sox feel so good about his long-term prospects that they just locked him up for 5 years and $35 million.
2- Bounceback years from Jake Peavy, Adam Dunn, and Alex Rios. Of the three, Alex Rios the only player that I could reasonably predict to repeat his performance from 2012. In 5 spring training games, Rios if 5 for 11 with two doubles and a triple. Adam Dunn has two home runs, four walks, and four strikeouts on the spring. Peavy gave up five hits and struck out three in his three innings of spring work.
3- AJ Pierzynski. AJ had a career year in 2012. The White Sox were wise to predict that he would not be able to repeat the performance.
4- Addition by subtraction. Alejandro De Aza produced an OPS of .760 out of the leadoff spot in 2012. Contrast that with the .657 from Juan Pierre in 2011, and you can see why the Sox won an additional six games.
5- The Farm System. Nearly all baseball observers have called the Sox farm system the worst in baseball. There’s a reason, of course. Kenny Williams would either bundle his prospects in trades (the Sox prospects of the mid-00’s now play in Oakland), or promote them to the big club. But the rookies did a good job when called upon in 2012. Jose Quintana did an admirable job of filling in for John Danks. Nate Jones and Donnie Veal were fine additions to the bullpen.
All of these things have to happen again for the Sox to be competitive in 2013. Chris Sale could have an innings workload hangover. Jake Peavy could get hurt. 2011 Adam Dunn could show up. De Aza could get hurt. Pitchers could regress. Here’s how the Sox can compete in 2013:
Third Base: Even with with addition of Kevin Youkilis last June, the aggregate production at the Hot Corner was a tick below replacement level. 3B should be better. The Sox signed the slap hitter Jeff Keppinger. Right now, he’s slotted into 3B. Kepp is 10 for 21 on the spring. But San Francisco Giants castoff Conor Gillaspie is also making a strong case for breaking camp with the White Sox, going 8 for 22 with two homers, two doubles, and a triple. Brent Morel is still “in the conversation,” but his spring slash line of .222/.250/.444 isn’t doing much to pump up the volume.
Gordon Beckham: remember 2009 Gordon Beckham? Remember when he was the future face of the White Sox franchise? I once said the terrible performance in 2007 was worth the trouble because it brought Gordon Beckham into our lives. Now, Minnie Ripperton’s “Memory Lane” races through my mind when I look at the numbers from 2009.
Beckham is still trying to break out of a three year slump. The former Georgia Bulldog is 7 for 28 this spring with a two doubles and a home run. A .700 OPS would be nice coming out of second base. If not, there’s always Keppinger.
Tyler Flowers: T-Flo is a strong catcher who will probably crank more home runs than AJ Pierzynski. That’s nice. But AJ was a contact hitter who didn’t strike out all that often. Tyler Flowers strikes out. A lot. Based on his home run rates in 2012, I predicted he could hit 25-30 HR over the course of a full season’s worth of at bats; but would also strike out over 200 times.
Here’s the good news! He’s got plate discipline. He has four walks and three strikeouts this spring.
John Danks’ health: John Danks is coming off of shoulder surgery. He’s pitched in two games so far, and it’s obvious he still has to build up the velocity on his fastball. A healthy John Danks would be a wonderful thing.
Even with everything going right, I still see the Sox as a second place team in the AL Central. The Tigers are just too good (on paper). I do see the Sox in the hunt for the Wild Card spots. But that could be a tall order. I suspect both WC teams come from the AL West.
I also want to see how Robin Ventura does with one year of experience under his belt. Despite the lack of experience, RV proved himself to be a competent manager.
He’s already smarter than Terry Bevington. That’s a low bar to clear, but you have to take your victories where you can.