2014 Chicago White Sox Spring Training Preview
Did Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn do enough this offseason to turn a team that went 63-99 in 2013 into a playoff contender?
It would be nice to say that he did, but the reality is that while the White Sox will be an improved team in 2014, they will likely fall short of reaching the playoffs. That is not a pessimistic assessment. It is a pragmatic one.
To be sure, significant strides have been made, and the team Hahn has put together figures to be better on the basepaths and at the plate. And as most fans know, both of those areas needed significant improvement. Now the defense is still questionable, but the GM addressed quite a few needs in a short amount of time.
Starting this week, White Sox fans will get their first taste of what’s to come. Let’s take an in-depth look at what to expect during spring training.
Unless otherwise noted, statistical information is taken from Baseball-Reference.com. Depth chart information courtesy of MLBDepthCharts.com. Transaction information was pulled from WhiteSox.com. Injury information was retrieved from CBSSports.com.
Hahn has overhauled the roster this offseason. A more appropriate appraisal, actually, is that he hasn’t stopped reshaping the team in his image.
Here is a breakdown of the major moves regarding the 40-man roster Hahn has made since the non-waiver trade deadline last season:
|Jose Abreu, 1B||Jake Peavy, RHP|
|Matt Davidson, 3B||Matt Thornton, LHP|
|Avisail Garcia, OF||Addison Reed, RHP|
|Adam Eaton, OF||Gavin Floyd, RHP|
|Adrian Nieto, C||Hector Santiago, LHP|
|Felipe Paulino, RHP||Brent Morel, 3B|
|Ronald Belisario, RHP||Jesse Crain, RHP|
|Scott Downs, LHP||Alex Rios, OF|
|Jake Elmore, IF|
|Eric Surkamp, LHP|
There are so many changes taking place in such a short amount of time that it can be hard to process. But taking a deep look at what Hahn is doing is revelatory. He is breaking the mold that the franchise has used to build the roster each of the past few seasons.
The days of paying inflated salaries to fill perceived voids on the roster (see Adam Dunn) seem to have been replaced by a model dedicated to bringing in youth and focusing on player development. Look no further than the acquisitions of Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson via trade and the signing of Jose Abreu for examples.
This is not to say that Hahn will not sign a big-name free agent at some point down the road, but he is laying the foundation before that happens.
ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield wrote the White Sox “have quietly had a terrific offseason.” Gordan Beckham said, via the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane, the team will “be a lot better just in terms of the shake-up.”
They will be better, for sure, but not because of a simple “shake-up.” It runs much deeper than that, Gordon.
Injury Updates Entering Camp
Apparently the White Sox are 100 percent healthy and ready to go for spring training. That is according to MLB.com at least, which gives the team a clean bill of health. We all know that is not true.
Here is a look at a few of the health concerns as camp gets set to kick off:
Tyler Flowers was hitting .195 and had only collected 94 strikeouts in only 84 games last season when he was shut down so that he could undergo surgery on his right shoulder. The procedure, which was deemed successful, was to have a recovery period of up to three months, according to Daryl Van Schouwen from the Chicago Sun-Times.
Flowers is probable for the start of spring training.
Felipe Paulino comes to the White Sox with a bit of baggage. That is to say, he hasn’t pitched in a major league game since he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2012, via MLB.com’s Scott Merkin.
Slated to occupy a spot in the starting rotation, Paulino is supposed to be ready to go for the start of spring training.
Jeff Keppinger was a disappointment after signing a three-year, $12 million deal prior to the 2013 season. In 423 at-bats, the third baseman compiled a .253/.283/.317 slash line and was generally unimpressive in the field.
Although he did improve as the season went on, a contributing factor to the ineffectiveness was a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery last September, according to Merkin. Keppinger’s status is listed as questionable for the beginning of spring training.
Coaching Staff Analysis
There are no hot seats on the South Side, but there is some big news.
To start, manager Robin Ventura signed a multi-year extension this offseason. And to hear Hahn speak about Ventura when the deal was announced during SoxFest 2014, this may not be the last extension he signs, via the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane:
His communication, his ability to teach at the big league level, his enthusiasm, his baseball intellect—all of the things we were looking for in a manager—were the same at our highest highs and our lowest lows. And that level of stability is what we want from a leader in the dugout.
Ventura certainly hasn’t done anything to lose his job, but extending him after a disastrous season is a bit curious. Nonetheless, he will be sitting on the far right side of the home dugout for at least the next few seasons.
Steverson, formerly in the Oakland Athletics organization, is tasked with doing the nearly impossible—keeping White Sox bats on the shoulder long enough to either draw a walk or get a pitch they can drive. His position is not an envious one.
Consider that, as Jim Margalus from South Side Sox noted, the White Sox were “in the bottom half of the American League with their out of zone swing percentage” in 2013. So they swing at a lot of pitches outside the zone? What about it?
Well, the problem isn’t so much that they swing at too many pitches outside of the zone (32.3 percent), it’s that they don’t hit the ball (66.1 percent contact percentage) when they swing. The Kansas City Royals also swing at way to many pitches outside the zone (32.4 percent), but they make contact 71.0 percent of the time, per FanGraphs.
What that tells us is that Royals hitters are more selective at the bad pitches they swing at. There is a difference in a ball two inches outside the strike zone and a pitch in the dirt. And that is the White Sox’s problem—too many swings at too many pitches that are simply unhittable.
Then again, the White Sox can’t get too much worse at the dish, and every second Steverson focuses on being patient is a second longer than they did under Manto.
1. Adam Eaton, CF
2. Alexei Ramirez, SS
3. Alejandro De Aza, LF
4. Jose Abreu, 1B
5. Avisail Garcia, RF
6. Adam Dunn, DH
7. Matt Davidson, 3B
8. Gordon Beckham, 2B
9. Tyler Flowers, C
Adrian Nieto, C
Jeff Keppinger, IF
Paul Konerko, 1B/DH
Dayan Viciedo, LF
Hahn said that he wanted Ventura to have “more options,” via CSN Chicago’s Dan Hayes. Mission accomplished. Only problem is, the White Sox lineup is now one of the bigger question marks facing Ventura.
Consider that at minimum, there will be platoons in place in left field and at designated hitter. Third base could also end up being a position that shares at-bats if Matt Davidson fails to make the team out of spring training and Ventura is forced to choose between Jeff Keppinger and Conor Gillaspie depending on the pitching matchup.
The number of platoon systems in place will wreak havoc on the lineup.
Let’s look at left field as an example. If Dayan Viciedo gets the start against a left-handed pitcher, he will not be batting third (which is where I have Alejandro De Aza batting) because of his inconsistent swing. That would mean Ventura would have to move someone like Avisail Garcia up to the 3-hole while Viciedo bats seventh.
And since De Aza is out of the lineup, then it stands to reason that Adam Dunn will be sitting on the bench as well. So what does Ventura do with that scenario? Sure, he could hit Paul Konerko third, but depending on how he is playing at the time, that may not be the best idea.
This is what spring training is for, though. Ventura will use this time to play around with batting orders as he prepares to put together the most complete lineup possible. And it is possible.
One of the most interesting things to watch this spring is how well Jose Abreu adjusts to major league pitching. If Abreu shows that he belongs, there is a spot at the top of the order for him, but if he falters, expect to see the big first baseman bat further down in the lineup.
Quite frankly, the only things that are a given are Adam Eaton’s spot as the leadoff hitter and Tyler Flowers’ spot on the bottom. The middle of the lineup is anyone’s guess.
1. Chris Sale, LH
2. Jose Quintana, LH
3. Felipe Paulino, RH
4. John Danks, LH
5. Erik Johnson, RH
The top two spots in the rotation will go to Chris Sale (3.07 ERA, 1.073 WHIP, 226 K) and Jose Quintana (3.51 ERA, 1.220 WHIP, 164 K). After that, it gets a little murky. Hahn was a bit more diplomatic in his assessment, calling the situation “interesting,” per the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Cane.
See Felipe Pauling is not a No. 3 starter, but neither are John Danks and Erik Johnson (yet). With three starters who are back-of-the-rotation guys, it makes the most sense to break up the monotony of left-handers at the top with Paulino. Then again, he is coming off a pair of surgeries and has quite a bit to prove, according to ESPN.com’s Doug Padilla.
As it stands, the White Sox will look for dominant years from Sale and Quintana and just enough from the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 starters to keep the team in games. It is not an ideal situation, but if two of the other three starters are even moderately successful, the rotation could turn into a bright spot.
And while Pauling, Danks and Johnson are projected to fill out the rotation, Charles Leesman, Andre Rienzo, Eric Surkamp and Dylan Axelrod will also get a look.
Daniel Webb, RHP
Mitchell Boggs, RHP
Nate Jones, RHP
Matt Lindstrom, RHP
Scott Downs, LHP
Charles Leesman, LHP
Ronald Belisario, RHP
With the departures of Addison Reed (traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks), Jesse Crain (signed with the Houston Astros), Matt Thornton (signed with the New York Yankees) and Hector Santiago (traded to the Los Angeles Angels), the 2014 White Sox relief corps will look nothing like the one that opened the season last year.
That is not a bad thing, though. As a unit last season, the White Sox bullpen finished in the lower half of the American League in batting average against (.254), strikeouts (424), ERA (4.00) and saves (40), via ESPN.com. It was a very poor showing from a group that had some quality arms.
One of the bigger questions that will be answered during spring training is who will end up being the closer since Reed is no longer with the team. We will get into that in just a bit, but early options include Matt Lindstrom, Nate Jones and Daniel Webb. Hahn doesn’t seem too concerned, though, because of his faith in pitching coach Don Cooper and the scouting department, according to the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan.
The recent acquisition of Mitchell Boggs adds another dimension to the bullpen. He excelled as a setup man with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012 (2.21 ERA, 1.050 WHIP, 73.1 IP) before failing miserably as their closer last season. He will likely supplant Donnie Veal in the bullpen.
ESPN.com’s Doug Padilla said that they “should be better as a group than they were” in 2013. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, let’s hope so.
Prospects to Watch
As a result of the recent roster upheaval, there are many prospects in the White Sox system who have chances that might not have been afforded to them last season. That makes their performance this spring something to keep an eye on.
Here are two prospects with outside chances of making the 25-man roster followed by other notable youngsters that will be in camp this spring who were broken down by Bleacher Report not too long ago:
Matt Davidson stands at the top of the list of prospects to watch for two reasons.
First, the White Sox gave up a very valuable commodity to get him in Addison Reed. Reed is a young, cost-controlled closer who improved his performance from the previous season and showed no real signs of regression. If Reed is dominant in Arizona and Davidson falters, this trade will be harshly criticized.
The second reason Davidson is a prospect to watch is that he was brought in to lock down third base, which is a position that has troubled the White Sox for some time. Now his chances of making the Opening Day roster are not known, but Ventura did say, via CSN Chicago’s Dan Hayes, that “he has every reason to go in there and try to win the job.”
Even if Davidson doesn’t make the big league club out of spring training, his performance at Triple-A will be widely watched.
Marcus Semien is another player to keep an eye on this season.
He is an exciting second baseman with speed and the ability to get on base, but his chances of making the roster this spring are slim. With three first baseman on the roster, there isn’t much room for the other infield positions.
It does sound like Semien is at least aware of the challenges he faces. MLB.com’s Scott Merkin noted that “the focus for Semien simply is to play baseball and control what he can control.” Unfortunately, his assignment to Triple-A Charlotte may be preordained, which means his production in the minor leagues must be consistent in advance of any promotion.
Other Notable Prospects
Micah Johnson, 2B
Jared Mitchell, OF
Parker Frazier, RHP
Alex Liddi, RHP
Cody Winiarski, RHP
There are quite a few players who could have breakout seasons. Unfortunately, many of those players are breakout candidates only because their performances to this point (think Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham) have been disappointing.
And while it would be fantastic to see Beckham get on base at a .350 clip and have Viciedo hit 25 home runs and drive in 80 runs, we will look at some of the other players who could explode this season.
We will use the player empirical comparison and optimization test algorithm (PECOTA) projections over at Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) as a launching point. The projections are available for public consumption in a column by Scott Lindholm over at CBS Chicago.
The expectations GM Rick Hahn has for Avisail Garcia are quite high. MLB.com’s Scott Merkin quoted him saying that Garcia is one of the guys he believes “can not only beat you with a home run, but also run the bases well and play good defense and ideally get one base.”
Garcia has the talent to do it, too. Now he is not being projected by PECOTA to have a very good season. It has him compiling a .268/.295/.400 slash line with 15 home runs and 65 RBI. FanGraphs’ Steamer projections are a bit more optimistic, projecting him to produce a .278/.315/.419 slash line but without as many long balls (14) or runs driven in (64).
There is no doubt that Garcia is being counted on to do great things in a White Sox uniform.
Eno Sarris over at FanGraphs recently wrote a piece regarding the difficulty in projecting how Jose Abreu will perform in his first MLB season. His final conclusion was that there is absolutely no real way of forecasting how well Abreu will adjust.
Sarris is right. Predicting what Abreu will do this season is impossible, but that doesn’t mean attempts haven’t been made.
PECOTA has Abreu hitting 12 home runs and driving in 38 with a .262/.326/.464 slash line over the course of only 268 plate appearances. To be sure the plate-appearance total is low, but even if we double the trips to the dish, the numbers aren’t electrifying.
At the other end of the spectrum are the OLIVER and ZiPS forecasts available in the Sarris article. OLIVER projects 600 plate appearances for Abreu and has him finishing with an .868 OPS. The ZiPS formula sees the first baseman getting 538 plate appearances and compiling an .858 OPS.
Hitting boils down to mechanics, though, and Abreu is a pure hitter, according to FanGraphs’ Dan Farnsworth. In his article (which is a must-read), Farnsworth compares Abreu’s swing to Yoenis Cespedes’, Buster Posey’s and Yasiel Puig’s. His conclusion was that the prize of the White Sox’s offseason will be “a top-25 hitter in the major leagues.”
Strong words indeed. Expect great things from Abreu this season.
Position Battle Breakdown: Closer
The Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan dubbed Nate Jones the “stealth favorite” to take over the closer’s role that was vacated when Addison Reed was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Matt Davidson. In that same article, Sullivan quoted Hahn saying that Jones “has the stuff and the intestinal fortitude” for the job.
And while Jones ostensibly makes sense given his repertoire of high-90s fastball and solid off-speed stuff, Daniel Webb is a better option for two reasons.
First, having Jones in a setup role will give manager Robin Ventura more flexibility. The right-hander can pitch in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings and can throw more than one frame when needed. That is an indispensable commodity.
Second, and more importantly, Jones is not very good in high-leverage situations. Consider that with two outs and runners in scoring position, he has a career .297/.402/.459 slash line against and 156 tOPS+ (on-base percentage plus slugging relative to usual split), according to Baseball-Reference.
To be sure, those stats are influenced by the .351 BAbip (batting average on balls in play against), but the bottom line is that hitters are squaring him up when it matters most. That is problematic.
Webb will have to show up during spring training, but don’t be surprised to see him in the closer’s role when the season opens.
Winner: Daniel Webb
Position Battle Breakdown: Third Base
The question is, Conor Gillaspie or Matt Davidson? The answer is multifaceted.
First, is Davidson ready? To paraphrase Hahn, the answer is probably not. CSN Chicago’s Dan Hayes quoted the GM as saying that “whenever his White Sox career does start at the big league level we think he’s going to be here for a long time whether that’s Opening Day 2014 or part way through next season.”
Did Hahn actually use the words “next season”? To be sure, Hahn was just being pragmatic, but a larger point remains. Unlike Adam Eaton, who immediately took over as the everyday center fielder after being acquired, the White Sox are taking their time with Davidson.
There are things other than performance to worry about. As CSN Chicago’s Dan Hayes noted, Jeff Keppinger has two more season left on the three-year deal he signed and Gillaspie (who played quite well in 2013) is out of minor league options. And let’s not forget the roles that arbitration and free agency could play in determining whether or not Davidson opens the season on the South Side.
In other words, financial obligations and contract stipulations could play a larger role in the decision than many fans would like. And while I have Davidson batting seventh in a previous slide based on the depth chart available on MLBDepthCharts, it is an unlikely scenario.
Of course, Davidson could hit .400 with four home runs and seven doubles this spring and make it impossible to justify sending him down to the minor leagues. The chance of that happening, though, is slim.
Winner: Conor Gillaspie