Playing Pepper 2016: Chicago White Sox

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Chicago White Sox
76-86, fourth in the AL Central
Last year’s Pepper

It was another rough year on the south side of the Windy City.  While their National League compatriots were making a run at the best record in baseball, the White Sox never got traction and hung out at the bottom of the division throughout the season.  With the World Series Champions now residing in the AL Central, are their fortunes going to be much brighter?

To find out, we’ve got three ChiSox bloggers with us today.  From Southside Showdown we have Patrick Flowers, who carries the editor title at that fine site.  You’ll find him on Twitter @Pat_Flowers7.  Second, there’s Josh Nelson, one of the editors from South Side Sox.  His Twitter handle is @SSS_joshnelson.  Wrapping it up is James Fegan, who writes at The Catbird Seat and is making his fourth straight Pepper appearance.  He’s on Twitter @JRFegan.

(Note: Southside Showdown will be listed as SS while South Side Sox will be SSS.  Lots of S names here!)

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

SS: While I think that some fans are not on board with the direction that the team is going in, which is a two year “win now” window rather than blowing the whole project up and liquidating our star players for prospects, I believe that we had a positive offseason. I think that the acquisitions of Todd Frazier, and Brett Lawrie have solidified two areas for concern from last season. I also think that the combination of Alex Avila, and Dioner Navarro will provide a much needed offensive upgrade at the catcher position in 2016. Overall if you’re grading the offseason, you have to put the fact that you don’t agree with the direction of the front office out of your mind and evaluate the moves that they made and how they benefit the current direction of the team moving forward.

SSS: The offseason has been interesting. Starting with bringing back Robin Ventura as manager was certainly a head scratcher and a difficult move to justify. Ventura is entering 2016 in lame duck status with a proven manager (Rick Renteria) as bench coach, instantly turns up the heat if the Sox start poorly in 2016, thus creating unneeded distractions. White Sox let go two regulars: Alexei Ramirez and Tyler Flowers. Ramirez did not have a very good 2015, and at $10 million dollar option was just too expensive. But, he ended up signing with the San Diego Padres for $4 million, which is pretty cheap and even at his age, still better than the internal option of Tyler Saladino.

Flowers is regarded as one of the best pitch framers in today’s game and worked wonderfully with Chris Sale. When Carlos Rodon was struggling, the team switched catchers for Rodon (Geovany Soto was catching him), and in his last 8 starts Rodon demonstrated his ceiling. Flowers deserves some credit the last two months, and the Sox let him go to improve offensively, with a new tandem of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro. Yes, the duo are better offensively, but they are quite poor framers and time will tell if that impacts White Sox pitching in 2016.

Plus, Flowers ended up signing for more money than Navarro in Atlanta, so the whole situation is bizarre. What is good, is that the White Sox acquired All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier for cheap, and Brett Lawrie for pretty much nothing. All they gave up is a projected 4th OF (Trayce Thompson) an 8th inning bullpen arm (Frankie Montas) a speedy second baseman who is horrible defensively (Micah Johnson) and some fringe pitching prospects.

These trades highlight the strength of General Manager Rick Hahn, but the questionable decision making continued when they did not sign Justin Upton/Yoenis Cespedes/Alex Gordon to help improve a corner OF spot. Despite the lateness, they still have an option to sign Dexter Fowler who would be an improvement over Avisail Garcia. If they don’t, then this offseason, which has taken some twists and turns, will feel incomplete.

TCS: They got really close! Third base has been a sinkhole for the White Sox franchise almost without interruption since Joe Crede‘s back started giving out on him in 2008, so the addition of Todd Frazier–second half slide concerns and all–is nothing short of a revelation, especially since I wouldn’t bet much on anyone in that return package becoming a starter (Montas should be a very good reliever). Second base and catcher would not have been my top priorities. Carlos Sanchez had a better second half that Avisail Garcia or Adam LaRoche, and Tyler Flowers can’t hit but pitchers love him and his framing numbers are great, but Brett Lawrie and the Avila-Navarro platoon could provide league average offense where the Sox have gone without for a while.

But this offseason is one move away from getting glowing marks. They need another bat, and they would be best-served by moving Garcia–one of the worst defensive outfielders in the league–out of the field. There can be a case made for Garcia still having a chance at developing his bat since he’s only 24, and there can be some hope for a dead cat bounce from LaRoche, but a team that fashions itself a contender cannot enter the season counting on both as full-time starters. They need to sign Dexter Fowler and put these two guys in a platoon. If I’m being greedy, I would ask for another starter to save the back end of the rotation, but we’re a couple weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting and they just need to get around to doing the basics.

C70: The raw numbers indicate that Chris Sale took a step back last year. Is that accurate and will his 2016 be closer to 2014 or 2015?

SS: I don’t believe that Chris Sale took any sort of step back from 2014 to 2015 at all. Some of his numbers, such as his ERA were in fact higher than in previous seasons, I attribute most of that to the fact that the White Sox had one of the most lethargic offenses in all of baseball. It’s extremely difficult to pitch from behind, or with a small lead for most of your outings. Let’s not forget that Sale led the American League in strikeouts in 2015, while setting a franchise record in that category as well.

SSS: “The Condor” did set the all-time season record for strike outs with 274 last year, which was incredible. Defensively, the White Sox were horrible last year and I think trust was a factor for the starting staff. We saw that in games with Jeff Samardzija where the game would implode because of a booted ball. Hence, the mentality was to strike every batter out. While he did set records, you could argue that 2015 was the worst of Sale’s career.

Sale mentioned at SoxFest that he will be focusing on how to get batters out other than the strike out. If he can improve his GB%, he’s going to be more dominating, and he’s already the second best LHP in MLB behind Clayton Kershaw (Yes, Sale is better than David Price).

TCS: Depends on what we’re labeling as raw numbers. Sale had a career-worst ERA, but had career-best strikeout and walk rate, set a franchise record record for strikeouts and had that mid-season wrath of God stretch (12-start stretch from mid-May to mid-July of 131 K in 92 IP with a 1.76 ERA).

But anyone who just cites his FIP or his fWAR and tells you Sale had his best season didn’t watch him. His command disappeared uncharacteristically throughout the year, leading to four separate starts where he allowed six runs or more, and he didn’t look like himself in his immediate return from his bizarre Spring foot injury nor immediately after taking a liner of his leg during a start at Fenway at the end of July.

Whether these maladies were bothering him, or his suspicion that the Twins picked up a tell in his delivery was correct; something wasn’t right. Yet given the pyrotechnics he managed in spite of it, and strong velocity numbers, I’d expect Sale to go right back to competing for the AL Cy Young in 2016.

C70: What would you consider to be the strength of this team?

SS: The teams strength is the starting pitching, unfortunately last season those guys were hampered by the aforementioned lethargy of the White Sox offense. Chris Sale is a definite ace in most rotations across the league. Behind him you have Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon. Quintana will eventually if not this spring be slotted as the number three starter behind Carlos Rodon, who when he further develops the ability to command the strike zone early, will be a stud. He showed that in August and September of last year when he posted ERAs in the low to mid two’s in both months respectively. Quintana is a solid middle of the rotation starter, he can go deep into games and he can make hitters miss as well. While John Danks is probably the weakest link in the chain at this point, expect him to be replaced in the rotation by Carson Fulmer who will more than likely have the same type of fast track path to the White Sox as Carlos Rodon did. If the offense can produce this season, these White Sox starters will have an excellent season in 2016.

SSS: Pitching. Sale is one of the best 5 SP in the game. Jose Quintana is one of the best 25 SP in the game. Carlos Rodon is entering his 2nd season. Scouts believe his stuff could be better than Sale’s. Think about that. The White Sox could essentially have two Chris Sale’s and Jose Quintana. Scary.

John Danks is entering the final year of his contract and whatever innings he can give the Sox, they will take. The final spot in the rotation will be between Erik Johnson and Jacob Turner. Turner was a former first round pick but has suffered many injuries, and Johnson was the AAA International League Pitcher of the Year in 2015, but was horrible in his MLB stint in 2014. Should be interesting who wins that spot. The Sox also have top prospects in Carson Fulmer and Spencer Adams. Adams is a bit aways from the Majors, but Fulmer could see some bullpen action in late 2016.

Speaking of bullpen, this is a much improved group from 2014 (worst in MLB) and they could even be better in 2016. It’ll be tough for teams to score 4+ runs a game against the White Sox. Problem is, its very tough for the Sox offense to score 4+ runs, hence the losing records lately.

TCS: Uh, nothing in particular? They have bits and pieces everywhere but probably won’t be much better than average in any phase of the game. Jose Abreu can be a top-10 hitter when he’s on, Adam Eaton is a very good leadoff man, their bullpen has a lot of interesting guys but David Robertson is the only elite reliever and even he’s coming off a down year. The cream of the crop is probably their very top heavy rotation, which features Sale, the impossibly steady Jose Quintana (look at his last three years!) and Carlos Rodon, who finished the season on a tear (eight-straight starts of six innings or more, two runs or less) and has huge breakout potential.

John Danks is washed up but at least a dependable No. 5 in his post-shoulder surgery state. Erik Johnson had four MLB-quality pitches once upon a time and has a No. 4 ceiling, but really did not show much to be excited about during his September audition.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

SS: As I briefly touched on already, I believe that Carlos Rodon will make tremendous strides in 2016 for the White Sox. Rodon was fast tracked from the Draft (June of 2014) to his MLB debut (April of 2015) in less that a calendar year. That wasn’t done by mistake by the organization, they targeted Rodon in the draft because he was largely considered to be the most MLB ready player in the 2014 draft. He struggled early on in 2015 with his command of the strike zone, which led to a few negative things for him including the inability to pitch deep into games because of high pitch counts, as well as an abundance of walks that generally led to runs. Even while he struggled with commanding the zone at times, and not effectively locating his fastball Rodon show incredible potential with his exceptional ability to make hitters swing and miss very often. He posted ERAs in the low to mid two’s in both August and September, as well he has opponents batting average against in the low two’s. Rodon has a filthy good slider, an equally formidable fastball, and a developing change-up. Look out for Carlos Rodon to emerge as a top-end of the rotation starting pitcher in his second season.

SSS: Carlos Rodon. I think he’s going to have a breakout year and will be a key factor in establishing hope for 2016. On the offensive side, I expect a bounce back year from Melky Cabrera. He was a bit unlucky to start 2015, especially in April and May. If he can get to a good start, this lineup will be a bit more balance, than just counting on Eaton & Abreu last year.

TCS: That would have to be Rodon. He struggled early in 2015 because he had no ability to spot his fastball, no confidence in his change, and was pretty much hoping hitters would chase his vicious slider without much setup. He started to work his way deeper into games by taking some heat off his fastball to live in the strike zone, and found a lot of success trading whiffs for grounders as he ironed the head wack out of his delivery.

If he can pair his best slider–a potential 70 grade pitch–with some of the stability and control he showed in the second half, then he can make Quintana the third-best pitcher in this rotation very quickly.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

SS: I see the White Sox making a vast improvement in 2016, with the offensive upgrades they made as well as the continued development of the starting rotation. From top to bottom the lineup has plenty of players that can produce and support a great pitching staff including Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, Adam Eaton, and Melky Cabrera. I see them ending up with a 87-75 record and finishing second in the American League Central behind the Kansas City Royals, winning one of the Wild Card spots.

SSS: Right now, I think this is a 81-83 win team, that is behind Kansas City and Minnesota. Detroit has some major pitching issues despite signing Jordan Zimmermann and offensively, they could be a force, and they could spend more time than any other team in baseball on the disabled list. Cleveland, great pitching staff, but who is playing in the outfield? They remind me a lot of the 2015 White Sox who finished with 76 wins.

If the White Sox were to sign Fowler, I would add 2 wins to that projection, and they could be seriously considered as a play-off contender. Right now, they are close, but need a lot of good luck.

TCS: As presently constructed, it’s hard to buy them as much more than an 82-84 win team. The Royals are a projection-defying defensive monster until proven otherwise, and the Indians rotation has the most upside in the division, so the Sox are likely a third-place team with the Tigers core decaying around Justin Upton and Miguel Cabrera, and the Twins finishing last because pitching actually matters.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

SS: My favorite team to watch the White Sox beat is definitely the Tigers, there is plenty of bad blood between the two teams over the years. I’ll never forget watching the massive brawl that the two teams were a part of in 2000. Being a competitive division rivalry over the years it’s always a good time seeing the White Sox beat Detroit.

SSS: In the 90’s it was Cleveland. 2000-2010, the Minnesota Twins. As of late, Detroit because they have been so good. KC has always given the Sox fits.

I would have to say the hate is strongest with the Twins. Even though both teams haven’t been good the last 3 years overall, I still get pumped for Sox/Twins games.

TCS: There have been plenty of villains over my lifetime. The Indians were the Big Bad all throughout the 90’s, limiting Frank Thomas to two playoff appearances (and just two series) in his White Sox career. The Twins were the bane of Ozzie Guillen‘s existence throughout the 2000s, and the Tigers were the monsters of the division for the early part of this decade.

Now, it’s the Royals, who are the Sox stylistic antithesis (The White Sox are always starting pitching-first and everything else second, while the Royals staff ace is Edinson Volquez) and as dominant as they are confounding. Until the Royals’ defensive prowess slackens, or the Sox offense crawls out of the cellar and they stop hemorrhaging runs to Kansas City’s speed attack through defensive incompetence, I’m pretty sure they’re going to continue to get hammered.

I really appreciate Patrick, Josh, and James providing some answers for a team we don’t get to see a lot.  I know we all wish they were the best team in Chicago, though!

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