Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Previewing the AL Central: Chicago White Sox

Last year it was the starting rotation of the White Sox that had everyone talking. Peavy, Danks, Floyd, Buehrle, etc. Going into the year, it looked like one of the best rotations in the game...then Floyd had a rough start, Peavy feel apart physically, and Buehrle continued his slow swan-song to retirement. The Sox had a good run in June only for the wheels to fall off shortly after the All-Star Break, which was enjoyable to watch. This year, the Sox come in with a different look and different questions. Now the lineup looks formidable, but the starting pitching has question marks...

2010 Record: 88-74; 2nd place, 6GB the 1st place Minnesota Twins

Key Departures:
The White Sox managed to lose only the dead-weight from their team.

Bobby Jenks - RP/Closer
You could hear the discontent start in the middle of last year and it only got louder as the year went on. First there were questions about Jenks weight, then he gave up a few games here and there and finally there were the physical issues. In reality, it was simply a bad luck year. Jenks has a career .294 BABIP and last year it shot up to .345. and that was despite a substantial increase in GB%. Nothing probably highlights Jenks unluckiness better than looking at his ERA (4.44) vs. his FIP (2.59) and his xFIP (2.62). Jenks was still good for a 1.5WAR but if you asked the average White Sox fan what they thought of Jenks they'd say, "good riddance!" Do I think the Sox will miss Jenks? No. They have Matt Thornton and Chris Sale, both of whom are flame throwers and both of whom could fill the role of closer just fine. The Red Sox though got one heck of a pitcher who will likely do wonders for the Boston bullpen and who could very easily overtake Papelbon as the closer if Pap struggles out of the gate.

Manny Ramirez - LF/DH
I suppose it didn't cost the White Sox that much in the end ($3.8M), but Ramirez did absolutely nothing to earn that money and the Sox were probably more than happy to see him leave after the season was over. Now he's reunited with Johnny Damon ("isn't that special") in Tampa Bay and baseball history will barely remember than Ramirez spent a month with the White Sox. Not much to say here, the White Sox won't miss him.

Andruw Jones - OF/DH
For the playing time that he got last year, Jones actually performed better than I thought he would. He almost hit 20 HRs and he had a respectable .827 OPS. He did nothing to defile himself in the outfield, logging time and playing well at each of the 3 positions. He's moved on the to the Yankees now and wasn't an integral part of the Sox, but he was useful as someone to spell a regular who needed rest. At 33, his defense is still there and the pop in his bat is still there (32 of his 64 hits last season went for extra-bases), but he's not an everyday player, which is sad considering how good he once was.

Key Additions:
Kenny Williams was one of the more active GMs this off-season and I have to hand it to him, besides offering a 3-year deal to Crain, he made some pretty solid moves.

Adam Dunn - RF/1B/DH
I didn't know his nickname was "Big Donkey" (according to Baseball-Reference), but he's certainly as consistent of a masher as there is in the Majors. Since 2004, Dunn has played an average of 158 games per season and has hit an average of 40.28 HRs. That is consistency. Dunn will never be a .300 hitter, but he's a great OBP guy (career .381 mark) and a true slugger (career .521 SLG%). I predict Dunn will fit in great with the White Sox because a) the ballpark is suited to his strengths and b) they will be able to move him around between the field and the DH spot which will preserve his health. The signing cost the White Sox a little coin (4 years/$56M) but at 31 years old, there's no reason to think Dunn won't be valuable through the end of the contract. He provides the left-handed pop they've been looking for and will fit in great with a lineup featuring other bats like Konerko, Rios, Quentin and A. Ramirez.

Jesse Crain - RP
This one stung a little. Crain was easily the most reliable arm in the Twins bullpen last year, re-emerging as a dominant reliever after struggling for a season or so. It's no surprise that Williams wanted Crain, he probably made that decision on Sept. 14th of last year when, with the bases loaded in the bottom of 7th inning in which the Sox were trailing by one run, he saw Crain strike out Konerko and Manny in consecutive at-bats to end the threat. The Twins went on to win that game 9-3 and it was a back-breaker for the Sox. The one thing I don't understand is that Williams gave Crain a 3-year deal...that's almost taboo in baseball. Crain's slider was truly fantastic last year (14.6 runs above avg.) but it was more of an anomaly in his career than anything (previous high on the pitch was 5.8 runs above avg.). Crain could certainly be a good pickup for the Sox, and he may give them an advantage when playing the Twins (maybe), but a three-year deal is foolish.

Will Ohman - RP
This was a good signing for the White Sox because they didn't have to pay too much (2-year/$4M) and because they get a reliable left-handed bullpen arm in return. Ohman's career K/9 numbers aren't shabby (8.87) and he's been fairly consistent over the last several years. The knock on him is that he's wild and his 1.40 career WHIP tells that story. He's nasty against lefties (.200 career avg.) so given the other bullpen pieces the Sox have they'll likely use Ohman as a LOOGY, which he would be good at.

Do the White Sox Have a Farm System?:
I guess the short answer is, "not much of one." It used to be that the Yankees got all of the guff for buying it's the Red Sox that wear that label and I'd like to suggest we start throwing the White Sox into that discussion as well. In the past 4 seasons, the White Sox have brought in the following everyday players: Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios, Jake Peavy, Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez and now Adam Dunn and Edwin Jackson. Let's not forget they also traded for AJ Pierzynski a few years back. Sure they brought the likes of John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez up through the ranks, but the anthem of the White Sox of late has been, buy Major League ready players by leveraging the farm...which they have done, leaving them with a farm system full of marginal talent. Chris Sale, who will likely be a reliever or even perhaps the Closer this year is the last of the top talent the White Sox have in their system. Brent Morel might get a regular shot this year as well, but he performed poorly in 21 Games at the Major League level last year and projects as average at best.

The Future of the White Sox:
Kenny Williams clearly sees the next few years as being the proverbial "window" for the White Sox to win the World Series again. The Sox have the makings of a solid rotation, they have what looks like a spectacular bullpen, and they juiced their lineup a bit with the addition of Adam Dunn. With the additions they've made this off-season, their team payroll has ballooned to nearly $125M with nearly $90M already committed in contracts for next season as well. This is risky for the Sox because unlike the fan loyalty that the Cubs have, if the White Sox aren't winning, they don't draw well. For example, in the last week of the season last year, when the Sox were out of it, they drew less than 20,000 for the first two games of a series against the Red Sox and only averaged about 23,500 fans for a weekend series against Cleveland that ended the year. If for some reason things don't work out this year, the White Sox could be in trouble because regulars like Pierre, Thornton, Edwin Jackson and Mark Buehrle are free-agents at the end of this season and John Danks, Carlos Quentin, and AJ are free-agents following the 2012 season. That's 3/5ths of your starting rotation, your starting left fielder, your starting right-fielder/DH and your starting catcher that you'd either have to re-sign or replace (Buehrle is likely to retire so you'll have to replace him anyway) within the next 2 seasons. If you're relying on your farm system to help replace some of that talent, there simply isn't much there so you either win now or fall off for awhile.

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