Like the Twins, the White Sox were awful in 2014. They made strides over the winter in improving the team, and in general did a pretty decent job. The big expenditure is a gamble on Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, with Chicago committing to six years for $68 million dollars. There are questions about how well he'll adapt to Major League Baseball, but we'll see about that power soon enough and you have to give credit where it's due: the Sox were aggressive and got their man.
The addition of third base prospect Matt Davidson, who should be ready to take over at third base sooner rather than later and who is certainly more talented than both Jeff Keppinger and Conor Gillespie, gives Chicago another good young bat under team control. Throw him in with Abreu, the newly acquired Adam Eaton, and Avisail Garcia, and you have four talented bats under team control for some time. It's a good start at turning around a team that had been getting old very quickly.
If Chicago's offense is going to be better than average at producing runs, however, those guys will need help. Paul Konerko is taking a retirement tour and seems likely to split time at designated hitter with Adam Dunn, but for consistency the team will lean on a number of other, younger players. Dayan Viciedo's power is legitimate but, much like Trevor Plouffe, needs to find a way to adjust now that pitchers have a complete scouting report on him. Alexei Ramirez is an interesting player, but hasn't been as dynamic since his strong splits versus lefties disappeared four years ago. Gordon Beckham and Tyler Flowers were among baseball's top 100 prospects in 2009 and 2010 respectively, but that potential hasn't materialized.
The Upside: Eaton turns into Chicago's regular leadoff hitter for years and gets driven in by Garcia, Abreu, and Dunn with regularity. Davidson flashes promise when he arrives, while Ramirez and Viciedo recapture some of what makes them intriguing players to begin with. Josh Phegley takes over the catcher position and shines.
The Downside: Old guys are awful, the young guys don't lead the team on their own, and Abreu pulls a Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
The Starting Rotation
Where the success of the Chicago 2014 season truly lies, however, is on their young rotation. John Danks, at 28, is the veteran of the crew, and it's easy to see him as the number three guy on the staff. Chris Sale is an easy number one, turning 25 in ten days, and finishing in the top six in Cy Young voting the last two seasons. Jose Quintana, who just turned 25 in January, looks like a strong number two heading into his third season with the team. After that, however, we get into question marks. Hector Santiago went to Arizona netted the team Eaton, so the remaining rotation spots are up for grabs between the enigmatic Felipe Paulino, Erik Johnson (who Baseball Prospectus ranks as the game's #67 prospect heading into this season but with little Major League experience), and the 26-year old Andre Rienzo. You could do worse, and youth is certainly on Chicago's side, but there's a whole lot of projection and not a lot of stability there. Basically, the opposite of Minnesota's rotation this year.
The Upside: Sale leads Quintanta into a very good 1-2 punch from the top of the rotation, with Paulino and Johnson taking steps forward from 2013. Danks recovers some of the form that made him a promising young pitcher four years ago.
The Downside: Sale will be great but Quintana takes a step backward, Paulino remains an enigma for a reason, Johnson's development is slow, and Danks is nearing the end of his career.
The White Sox made a deft maneuver by spinning Addison Reed, even if he was a good, young pitcher. It was a nice turn of an asset. Nate Jones put up good numbers in a set-up role last season and should excel as the closer this year. Matt Lindstrom is the only other big holdover in the 'pen, and he's certainly a capable and reliable option. Unfortunately the rest of the bullpen isn't as strong, and the Sox could see themselves shuffling middle-inning relievers to get to the hot hand until the eighth.
The Upside: A strong rotation limits the exposure to the bullpen, Ronald Belisario bounces back from an uncomfortable 2013, one or two other guys find their feet to stand behind Jones and Lindstrom.
The Downside: The rotation struggles to regularly get into the sixth or seventh, exposing middle relievers who can't consistently be effective.
Prospects to Watch
The best players are already on the big league roster or vying for a spot. Of the team's best nine players under age 25, only Tim Anderson (shortstop, 20 years old, low-A) isn't with the Sox. Guys who populate the top of most prospect lists for the South Siders - Abreu, Johnson, Davidson, Semien (the top four at Minor League Ball) - will all graduate this season. So...watch the big league team?
As young and talented as Chicago might look, if players scuffle or get injured there isn't any depth to be seen. On the plus side, the guys now on the roster will get the opportunity to play together for a few years before anyone else arrives to compete for a job. This means that, if the young guys produce, the front office will be able to supplement the roster with free agents whose job would be to fill the gaps...instead of turn into the stars of the team. And that's not a bad thing.
If things go well for the White Sox, I could see them playing for a .500 season. If they don't go well, they'll be worse than the Twins. Here are my five players to watch this year:
- Jose Abreu
- Jose Quintana
- Avisail Garcia
- Adam Eaton
- Erik Johnson