Playing Pepper 2023: Chicago White Sox

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Chicago White Sox
81-81, second in the AL Central
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Dylan Cease (4.4)
Top hitter by fWAR: Jose Abreu (3.9)

It feels like we’ve talked often about the wealth of talent the White Sox have built up but there’s not been a lot to show for it.  Is this the year, with a new manager, that they can break through and go deep into October?  We’ve got a lot of folks who are knowledgeable about the South Side to give us answers!

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Jordan Lazowski Sox on 35th jlazowski14

C70: The White Sox were kinda quiet this winter. What are your feelings about how the winter went and how the team looks going into the season?

Jordan: If you venture over to White Sox Twitter anytime soon, you probably won’t find too much optimism there in regards to how the winter went. Indeed, the White Sox were rather quiet overall this winter, especially when considering their general manager, Rick Hahn, alluded to all possibilities – including a large team shakeup – as being on the table when evaluating the failures of 2022. Hahn even went so far as to say that the trade market may end up being “more fruitful” than throwing money at the problem this offseason. Instead, the team’s three major moves – signing Andrew Benintendi, Mike Clevinger, and Elvis Andrus – all involved throwing money at the problem. Now, while no one will complain about this, most White Sox fans still walked away feeling underwhelmed.

I have a bit more positive outlook on the Benintendi signing than most – I think he complements the lineup well, assuming their home run power will return to the usual suspects. White Sox fans who were looking for the team to make a move that signals a clear use of analytics and a clear connection between the front office and coaching staff should really enjoy this move. With Benintendi, the White Sox clearly see the power upside of pulling him out of Kansas City – which is one of the worst parks for lefties in the power department in baseball. However, coming off a season in which he hit just five home runs presents questions of whether that power will show up wherever he plays. At the end of the day, I like what he adds to the team.

I have fewer things to say about both Clevinger and Andrus. I liked the idea of signing Clevinger the player – a fifth starter with ace upside. However, given what we’ve learned over the past few months, it’s fair to question whether Clevinger the person should’ve prevented the White Sox from signing him in the first place. Elvis Andrus fills a hole at second base, at least in the short-term, so as not to need to rely on relatively inexperienced players at the position. At current, neither moves the needle much, but rather prevents giant holes from still existing on the team.

One other point in the team’s favor: the number of minor league relievers they signed/traded for this offseason (Nick Avila, Gregory Santos, Franklin German, among others). This is what smart teams do: build their bullpen from within. This isn’t something the White Sox did in the Tony La Russa era of this ball club. However, to counter this, it’s worth mentioning the elephant in the room: the departure of Jose Abreu to Houston, signaling the franchise’s full belief in Andrew Vaughn‘s readiness to be the first baseman of the future on the South Side. It’s a decision I supported, but also, it’s a divisive one to make on the status of a franchise icon after a failure like the 2022 season.

Overall, I’m not willing to say I’m happy with how the offseason went, nor am I thrilled with their pitching depth. But as time passes, I have ended up more “fine” with the offseason than most.

C70: How much impact will Pedro Grifol in the manager’s seat have on a team that took a step back in 2022?

Jordan: I discussed the team’s offseason moves in the previous question without even addressing what may be their most important move: making Pedro Grifol their newest manager and (mostly) cleaning house on the coaching staff.

Perhaps it’s the Spring Training Kool-Aid, but I’m really buying into the changes that Grifol and his staff are making. There seems to be an energy, intensity level, attention to detail, and overall culture shift occurring in Glendale that seems to have gone undervalued over the past few seasons. From his very first press conference, Grifol has been direct about needing to earn back fans’ trust, instilling an understanding of analytics in each player, and ensuring players play with passion and enthusiasm for the game. Grifol brings a culture shift to an organization that desperately needed one, and in doing so, is also helping the team catch up as it relates to their analytics department.

He has two major decisions early on that I believe will say a lot about the depth of the culture shift that he’s bringing to the South Side:

1) What he decides to do about Leury Garcia. Garcia has been with the team since 2013 and is heading into year two of a three-year extension. However, there are players who deserve a roster spot more than him. Will Grifol work with the front office to truly ensure the best 26 players break camp with the team?
2) How he holds players accountable in season, whether it be for poor performance, lack of hustle, or basic mistakes in general. Essentially, how will he practice what he preaches?

Overall, I’m excited to see what Pedro Grifol brings to the South Side, and I think he can have an incredibly positive impact. However, before I gush on too long, his biggest evaluations from fans will likely come from his in-season and in-game decision-making. So, let’s check back on this one in a few months too. But, in terms of the impact he could have, I think we’re already seeing just how important a change it was to bring in Grifol and challenge the status quo in a way.

C70: Tim Anderson has a club option for 2024 that I assume will be picked up. Do you expect the club to try to negotiate an extension instead? What do you expect out of him this year after his season was cut short last year?

Jordan: I would also expect that Anderson’s option would be picked up, as it is well below market value for a player of his caliber.

Based on his rather excellent play in the World Baseball Classic, it looks as though Tim Anderson will be returning to his typical form in 2023. Between his work with Driveline over the offseason and his track record over the past several seasons, I expect Anderson to return to form with better health this season. I’m not a batting average person, but in terms of a basic slash line, a .300 AVG with an .800+ OPS would be a fairly normal expectation, given Anderson’s past performance. With Jose Abreu leaving the team in free agency, there is no better time for Anderson to step up as the heart and soul of the South Siders.

Because of how valuable Anderson has been to this team, I think it would be smart of the club to look to work out an extension for him as well. Based on this year’s free agent market, I think it makes the most sense to look at Dansby Swanson‘s contract as a starting point for what Anderson will look to command should he head to the open market. This is a player that loves Chicago and wants to stay, but also knows his own worth as a ballplayer, so I wouldn’t expect a hometown discount of any sort either.

At the same time, the White Sox will have to balance Anderson’s prospective contract against their future pipeline. Colson Montgomery, the team’s top prospect, is not far from the majors, and his timeline could line up pretty perfectly with the end of Anderson’s contract should he continue to impress in the minors. He makes a natural heir apparent to Anderson, though it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the White Sox to move Montgomery to 2B and keep Anderson for the long term in order to provide consistent stability to the middle of the infield. There has never been a downside to too many good players on the same team.

At the end of the day, Anderson will let the stick talk in 2023 and figure out the rest after. It would be great to see Anderson work out a long-term deal on the South Side, but it’ll likely require the White Sox to pass the $100M threshold in order to do it – something they have yet to do in their history.

C70: When you look at players that may make their debut this season or have limited MLB experience, who stands out as an impact player for 2023?

Jordan: Oscar Colas is definitely the first player that comes to mind here, though I’ll be willing to bet that most Sox fans will mention him if asked. He’s the obvious choice, as he will likely be the team’s Opening Day right fielder and will hopefully be a big part of this team’s future for years to come. He brings left-handed production to the right field position that this team has been missing since Adam Eaton‘s first tenure on the South Side (pre-rebuild!). Indeed, right field has been the Achilles’ Heel of the White Sox for a while, and it looks like they finally have a solution.

However, the player I’ll choose here is Davis Martin. Martin came onto the scene last year as the team’s spot starter at times, and by the end of it, had accumulated 63.1 innings of really good baseball. He has a strong fastball/slider combination that he is starting with, and I’m sure he and pitching coach Ethan Katz have worked to develop him further throughout this offseason. As of right now, he isn’t much more than a borderline fifth starter in the majors. However, with concerns over the health of the team’s pitching staff and depth, Martin has become a crucial sixth man for the team who may see plenty of innings throughout the season. And, given that he has a lot of potential for growth after coming out of relatively nowhere during last season, he has an opportunity to turn those crucial innings into high-performance innings as well, and could even make an argument for a rotation spot in 2024 and beyond if all goes well.

Other players of note here are Romy Gonzalez (INF), Lenyn Sosa (INF), and some of the team’s previously mentioned MiLB reliever signings. However, I am very curious to see how Martin develops throughout this season, as it wouldn’t take much for him to play a crucial role on this team for times throughout the season.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Jordan: The best-case scenario for this team is the one that gets them back in the playoffs and deep into a championship run. Obviously, a World Series championship is the ultimate goal, but there can be success in a season without it resulting in a trophy – at least from my perspective. Especially in Pedro Grifol’s first season on the South Side, it will be important – and almost a requirement – for this team to show tangible progress forward that includes a playoff appearance.

The worst-case scenario is one that plays out similarly to last season: a team that is mired in mediocrity and shows no signs of improvement, life, or sustained success. In that case, the White Sox will enter 2024 with shakeups that likely go from the dugout to the front office, and this rebuild will be labeled as a failure.

The most likely scenario? Perhaps it’s the Kool-Aid again, but I think this is a team that can win 90 games as they did back in 2021 and make the playoffs. From there, anything can happen – though I would love for “anything” to involve at least a trip to the ALCS. After this occurs, the White Sox enter next offseason with money to spend with a lot of holes to fill – however, they enter with a renewed sense of optimism as to what has been built here.

That brings me to my final point about this team. At the end of the day, no matter what the White Sox did this offseason, if players like Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Tim Anderson, and Yasmani Grandal, among others, do not perform up to their career standards, there was no way for this team to make enough impactful moves in the offseason to make up for their lack of production. Indeed, the White Sox made complementary moves more than anything else – perhaps as a vote of faith in the new staff and the current roster, but also with a bit of purse-string clutching.

I do think it’s fair for the White Sox to still believe in what they’ve built after a season full of devastating injuries to key contributors. However, with 3/5 of their projected rotation not guaranteed to be under contract in 2024 (Giolito, Lynn, Clevinger) and two of their projected starting position players not under contract after 2023 (Grandal, Andrus), the pressure has never been higher on this team to get things right. If they don’t, things could look very different throughout the White Sox organization heading into 2024.

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