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Rival Recap: the Chicago White Sox off season

Another look at what’s changed around the division since October.

Chicago White Sox Workout Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

This winter, the Chicago White Sox had one of the most talked-about off seasons in recent memory.

Each year, there seems to be a different sub-.500 team that does a little bit more than expected, and suddenly they’re everybody’s dark horse pick for the upcoming campaign.

The Padres come to mind; in 2015, they acquired Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, Derek Norris, Brandon Morrow, and James Shields. They finished 18 games back. They signed Manny Machado, perhaps last year’s biggest non-Harper free agent, and finished last.

With apologies to Padres fans, the point I’m making is that neither one major signing nor a bevy of high-upside one-year deals has produced a contender out of a franchise that’s tried both approaches within the last five years.

Of course, roster construction can always be hit-and-miss — there are plenty of teams in baseball’s history who were supposed to be great and failed, or who won championships after preseason predictions had them as bottom-feeders. (Twins fans know this one well; both our championships came after last- or second-to-last-place finishes the year prior.)

Why, then, has everybody been talking about the White Sox as though they spent their time between seasons punching tickets to first place in the Central Division? Are the personnel changes on the South Side really significant enough to make a safe bet on the Hitmen to make the playoffs this season?

Well, that’s what we’ll be looking at today. Here’s a review of who “those guys” lost after last October, who came in their stead, and whether or not objects in the rear-view really ARE closer than they appear.

Notable Departures

There’s been a fair amount of turnover for the White Sox over the last few months. Starter Ivan Nova went to Detroit in free agency; Hector Santiago and Dylan Covey, too, left the pitching department.

Guys like Ryan Goins and Charles Tilson, who each played in about fifty games, elected free agency. Outfielders Jon Jay and Ryan Cordell went the same way.

Catcher Wellington Castillo was sent to the Texas Rangers.

A lot of these folks were bench bats at best. However, a lot of the strategy this off season for Chicago seemed to be shedding Quadruple-A-type depth players, and filling the bench of 2020 with the starters of 2019.

The Big Additions

All right. Let’s go in chronological order here.

Chicago began their major off season moves by signing Yasmani Grandal to a four-year contract. The 31-year-old catcher had just put up a 5.2 fWAR season with the Brewers, which is pretty much par for the course. Grandal has a great eye, plenty of pop, and well-regarded framing ability.

A day later, the Sox handed out a three-year psuedo-extension to Jose Abreu, who has been more or less the face of their franchise for the better part of a decade. Abreu will be in town through 2022; he had another 30-homer season last year, but also posted a career-high 21.9 K%.

Next came Gio Gonzalez, who didn’t pitch a full season in 2019, but had a 3.50 ERA when he was out there. He’s also just two years removed from a 2.96 ERA with the Nationals, and has been good for 30+ starts almost every season since becoming a full-time starter in 2010. (That same day, Cheslor Cuthbert got a minor-league deal, if that sort of thing interests you.)

If Gio didn’t excite you enough, two days later, former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel was signing a deal to come play for the Pale Hose. Keuchel, of course, remained infamously unsigned until midseason, but still made 19 starts for the Braves and kept up a groundball rate of just over 60%. While Gonzalez inked a one-year deal, Keuchel is on a three-year contract with Chicago.

Less than a week later, on Christmas Day, it was Edwin Encarnacion being welcomed onto the team. It’s hard to believe that Edwin’s been in the league since 2005, but his extra-base consistency (414 career homers now) has earned him another big-league deal at the age of 37. Encarnacion is no stranger to the division, and provides a serious positional upgrade for Chicago; four players are listed as DHs on their Baseball Reference page, and three of them hit under .190.

The cherry on top was reliever Steve Cishek, the former Marlins closer who’s been putting up seriously consistent numbers for the better part of ten years. Both Cishek and Encarnacion are on one-year deals.

After the new year, a litany of minor-league signings were added to the fold, featuring folks like Andrew Romine, Drew Anderson, and former Twin Adalberto Mejia. It’s also worth mentioning their acquisition of Nomar Mazara, who was the major-league return in that aforementioned trade with the Rangers.

So, should we be worried?

Here’s the deal.

In isolation, those five main players outlined above do not a sudden contender make. Grandal is the youngest of those major acquisitions, and he’s already 31. Everyone but him and Keuchel is on a one-year contract.

However, these deals didn’t happen in isolation. They happened around a five-year contract for Yoan Moncada, who officially arrived on the scene last year. They happened around a six-year agreement with Luis Robert, one of the best prospects in baseball, who signed a long-term deal before playing a major-league game. They’ve got Lucas Giolito in the rotation, with guys like Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease gearing up to make similar impacts.

If bringing in a few veterans to supplement an exciting, potential-filled core sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the strategy that led the Twins to 101 wins last season.

Of course, a lot went right for Minnesota last year. Guys like Nelson Cruz had incredible seasons toward the tail end of their careers, and a lot of the young guns broke out at exactly the same time. Even with all that, Cleveland only finished eight games back.

Theoretically, the Chicago White Sox have to jump both of those teams to punch a playoff ticket, unless you’re comfortable betting on someone like the Yankees, Rays, Astros, or Athletics to miss the postseason and clear the way for a Wild Card berth. Even that would be a challenge, because last year’s American League wild cards won 96 and 97 games each. The White Sox won 72.

Still, there’s an idea that rebuilds arrive early rather than late (see: the 2017 Twins, whose young core snuck into the playoffs before an underwhelming 2018.) The Sox have been the talk of the town this winter because they’d be perhaps the least surprising team to be a surprise contender.

Mostly, the uncertainty surrounding how much of the 2020 season will be played makes it harder to discount Chicago. If we’re looking at a 100-game season, then all it might take for the White Sox to make the postseason is one hot month.


Should we be worried about the Chicago White Sox?

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