Are the Chicago White Sox Legit?

Posted: 04/20/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

Originally, I had planned on writing posts about Tyler White, Trevor Story, and Eugenio Suarez and their hot starts to the season. I wrote about the first two, but haven’t written about Suarez yet. But while the Reds’ third baseman still has a .866 OPS a couple of weeks into the season, he’s cooled off considerably since when I wanted to write about him. In his first six games, Suarez had four homers and nine RBIs while hitting .435 with a .500 OBP for the 5-1 Reds. Well, let’s chalk that one up to a small sample size; since, he’s 5-for-32 with just a single walk and seven strikeouts as the Reds have lost six of their last nine. I still think Suarez is going to be a fine player, but he probably won’t do much better than he did last season, when he hit 13 homers and posted a .761 OPS with a good average but poor plate discipline. Useful player? Sure. Guy I’m excited to write about? Absolutely not. Instead, let’s talk about the 10-5 Chicago White Sox!

In 2012, the White Sox were close to a playoff spot before losing a small division lead to the Tigers and missing out. Since then, it has been a rough ride for the South Siders. They’ve lost 274 games over the last three years, never going better than 76-86. Their average run differential has been -100 per season. This year, not much was expected. 31 ESPN experts predicted AL Central winners. 15 picked the World Series champs, 11 picked the Indians, three picked the Tigers, and two brave men (Jim Caple and Eddie Matz) picked the Twins. Zero picked the White Sox. 31 ESPN experts picked AL wild cards, and just two, Doug Padilla and Dan Szymborski had the Sox sneaking in. So it’s safe to say that not much was expected out of this team. A little more than two weeks later, the White Sox are one of three teams with double-digit wins. The other two? Their Chicago neighbors and the Nationals. That’s pretty good company.

It’s easy to brush off the early start as a product of a small sample size. The White Sox, after all, have yet to play any teams that are among the supposed elite of the American League. But there’s where point #1 in favor of the Sox comes into play. I think the AL is wiiiiide open. In the National League, there’s a pretty clear oligarchy. The Cubs, Nationals, and Dodgers all look like sure playoff teams, while the Mets also look pretty good. The last playoff spot will likely be one of the Cardinals, Giants, or Pirates. According to Fangraphs, four NL teams have an 80%+ chance at a playoff spot, while seven other teams are at less than 10%. In the AL, quite the opposite is true. The slow-starting Twins are the only team under 10%, while the sub-.500 Red Sox actually have the best chance of making the playoffs at 62.7% (I will note that Fangraphs’ stat models continue to undervalue the Royals). This sets things up perfectly for a team like the White Sox to turn a hot start into a surprising playoff berth. So the opportunity is there. Now the question is: can the Sox keep up their solid play for longer than a couple of weeks?

The team’s leader is Chris Sale. That much is for sure. The 27-year-old is one of the best pitchers in baseball, with four straight top-six finishes in the Cy Young voting. Predictably, Sale’s led the way so far, picking up his fourth consecutive win to start the season today. He has a 1.80 ERA and a .67 WHIP, with three walks and 26 strikeouts in 30 innings. In his last two starts, Sale has faced just 53 batters in 16 innings and hasn’t given up a run. So the White Sox have something that very few others teams have. They also seem to have a much deeper rotation this year than they have in the recent past. Jose Quintana is a very solid #2, as he’s thrown 200+ innings in three consecutive seasons while posting ERAs between 3.32-3.51 every season. Carlos Rodon got hammered in his last start, but the former #3 overall pick has great stuff and had a 3.75 ERA in his rookie year and a 1.81 ERA over his last eight starts of the season. And, three starts into his White Sox career, it looks like free agent acquisition Mat Latos might be returning to form after the 28-year-old had an awful season last year. Latos is 3-0 with a .49 ERA and just six hits allowed, indicating that last year might have been a fluke for a guy in his prime with a career 3.46 ERA. Now, the White Sox still need to find someone to fill the fifth spot, because John Danks simply won’t cut it at this point in his career. But even if the Sox don’t find anyone to provide good innings out of the #5 slot, they have an above-average rotation, assuming Latos really is at the beginning of what is to be a resurgent season.

I’d also expect the bullpen to be pretty good. David Robertson is a tremendous closer who 3.41 ERA last year probably should have been a run lower. Matt Albers doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but he had a 1.21 ERA last season and hasn’t yet given up a run this season. Nate Jones, the owner of a career 9.58 K/9 rate, does strike out a lot of guys and seems capable of taking another step up. He’s throwing his overpowering fastball (96.6 mph on average) more often (75% of the time, career average 60%) and more effectively, setting up his slider as a devastating two strike pitch. I could go on and on, because the bullpen is deep, but you get the idea. There’s a reason that the bullpen ranks first in baseball in ERA and third in WAR.

I expect the pitching staff to be among the best in the AL, which should take a lot of pressure off of an offense that is very different than it was last season. More than half of the lineup is new, with Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie coming in via trade and Jimmy Rollins, Dioner Navarro, Alex Avila and Austin Jackson joining the team as free agents. The team’s three best hitters are holdovers. Adam Eaton is the rare leadoff hitter who can actually get on base; he has a career .355 OBP. Melky Cabrera has been terrific in the last two even years and seems set to bounce back from a disappointing season. Jose Abreu, of course, is the slugger, with 30+ homers in each of his first two seasons. The problem is that the White Sox had all three of those guys last season and still scored the fewest runs in the American League. It’s clear that they’re going to have to get a lot from their new additions, and they just haven’t gotten it so far. Jackson and the two catchers (Navarro and Avila) have been horrific, with 14 combined hits in 93 at bats. Rollins is about as bad of a two-hole hitter as I can remember, while Frazier has been in a slump to start the season. Frazier, whom the White Sox gave up a lot to get from the Reds in December, has got to be considered the key guy here. He’s a streaky hitter who doesn’t get on base much, but he also could be the protection Abreu needs in the lineup. Frazier hit 43 doubles and 35 homers last year, and numbers like that would be a huge boon to Chicago’s chances, especially since their third basemen were atrocious and a revolving door. And maybe the White Sox can get some help top prospect Tim Anderson, a shortstop who currently is in AAA and who would probably be an immediate upgrade over Rollins.

Look, this offense isn’t very good. But does it have to be? Well, it definitely has to be better than last year’s, and I don’t think it could be any worse. I don’t think it has to be even average, though, for the White Sox to make a playoff push, since the pitching staff is so stacked. If the Sox can somehow get average production out of the offense, they could approach 90 wins. But even if they don’t, 85 or so wins may be enough to sneak into the playoffs. Do I think they’ll make the playoffs? I think the odds are still probably still worse than a coin flip. But before the season, I would have said almost definitely not. I think their chances have improved more over the first few weeks than any other team’s have.

  1. charlie says:

    You need to write a story about Leicester City being on the verge of winning the Premier League. Their preseason odds were 2,000 to 1:

    Has there ever been a bigger long shot to win a major sports league title? Wouldn’t that be like the 76ers winning the NBA championship next year?

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