A Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Chicago White Sox at Spring Training
The Chicago White Sox are less than one week away from the beginning of Cactus League play, and it can’t come soon enough.
Cactus League play is when White Sox fans will finally get a chance to see some of the fresh faces take the field for the first time. It is also when the makeup of each position group begins to solidify.
And that is one of the biggest unknowns heading into the 2014 season.
What, for example, is going to happen at third base? What is the final composition of the outfield going to look like? And who are the two catchers going to be?
The outcome of those battles will have far-reaching consequences for manager Robin Ventura and the rest of the White Sox coaching staff.
Let’s take a look at a positional breakdown as the second week of spring training gets set to start.
Breaking Down Each Position
Each of the forthcoming slides will be broken up into three separate areas.
First, the 2013 metrics from each position will be detailed. Now instead of listing each stat in order, I isolated some of the more important ones:
- Batting average
- On-base plus slugging (OPS)
- Isolated power (IsoP), which is the difference between batting average and slugging
- Isolated discipline (IsoD), which is the difference between batting average and OPB
- sOPS+, which is the OPS ranking relative to the league average with the average being 100
Then, the players who are projected to be on the Opening Day roster will be examined. Finally, those who are on the 40-man roster—or who were non-roster invitees to spring training—but will likely begin the season in the minor leagues will be discussed.
Because of the way the roster is currently constructed, some positions will only have one player listed as being on the Opening Day roster.
Never fear, all will be explained.
Starter: Jose Abreu
From all accounts, Jose Abreu is living up to the hype. Ventura noted that “he has more of a professional approach for being a big guy, hitting the ball the other way, more aware of his pitch,” according to MLB.com’s Scott Merkin. “That’s the stuff you like to see. ... He knows how to practice.”
Much is expected of Abreu after signing a six-year, $68 million deal this offseason. Whether or not he will be the second coming of Frank Thomas is entirely unknown. Bleacher Report’s Mike Rosenbaum put it best when he wrote “it’s difficult to envision him not making an impact” in 2014.
On the Opening Day Roster
After hitting a meager .244 with 12 home runs, 54 RBI and a .699 OPS last season, Paul Konerko decided that he had enough left to play one final season with the White Sox. How much he contributes is not known, but he will be counted on to serve as a mentor to Abreu and form the right-handed hitting half of the platoon Ventura will employ at designated hitter and first base.
Adam Dunn’s time on the South Side is nearing its end. After compiling a .197/.317/.405 slash line with 588 strikeouts in 422 games in a White Sox uniform, that time cannot come soon enough for many fans.
One thing to keep an eye on is that Dunn is taking fly balls in the outfield this spring. That could be a prelude to playing time there when the White Sox play in National League ballparks, or it could be to keep him active while Abreu gobbles up a majority of the time at first during team drills.
Regardless, if Dunn sees time in the outfield, the season is already lost.
In the minors on Opening Day
Andy Wilkins is in a tough spot. He has very nice power (60 home runs since 2011 in the minor leagues) and generates runs (152 wRC+, per FanGraphs), but plays for an organization with too many first baseman and strikes out around 20 percent of the time.
He could find time with the White Sox at some point this season, but any extended action will likely have to wait until 2015, at the earliest.
Mike McDade was claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Indians last May and appeared in 94 games for the Charlotte Knights. He was rather unimpressive, finishing with 10 home runs and a .703 OPS in 354 at-bats.
His first spring with the White Sox will be a show-me one. After all, the franchise already has Wilkins and Dan Black on the Triple-A roster. Without a solid showing, his tenure with the team could be a short one.
Likely Starter: Conor Gillaspie 75 %
Conor Gillaspie has the one thing that should secure a spot on the 25-man roster. Namely, he can hit left-handed and is not too terribly bad at it. Not exactly a ringing endorsement but a fair one.
Consider that in 345 at-bats against right-handed pitching, he hit 12 home runs and had a .153 IsoP. On the other hand, he hit .159 and had a .095 IsoP versus left-handed throwers. True, he works best in a platoon system, but the balance he provides to the lineup cannot be understated.
Potential Starter: Matt Davidson 25 %
Matt Davidson is the future at third base. He has raw power to all fields and, as MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo noted, he isn’t afraid to “take a walk when pitchers won’t challenge him.” He isn’t projected to hit for a very high average, but his power fits the bill at third base.
That future doesn’t start right now, though. At least, it’s not likely to.
Consider that if Davidson makes the team, Gillaspie is out of options and will likely find himself a new home. It is doubtful the front office wants to let Gillaspie walk when they can just as easily send Davidson to Triple-A for a short time to work on his defense and keep his arbitration clock stuck where it was when last season ended.
The front office can’t keep him down on the farm forever, though. If he doesn't make the 25-man roster this spring, is only a matter of time before he gets the call.
On the Opening Day roster
According to CSNChicago.com’s Dan Hayes, Jeff Keppinger had a lot on his mind last season. Well, let’s hope that the family problems Hayes mentioned were the reason for his abysmal performance during his first season with the White Sox.
Honestly though, 2013 wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been for Keppinger. After a miserable first half, he came back in the second half to hit more doubles in 155 fewer at-bats and compiled a .269/.303/.366 slash line. It was a remarkable turnaround, actually.
If he truly is in a better spot mentally, 2014 could be the season when he makes good on the White Sox’s investment. He will not only be part of a platoon at third, but he will also serve as the only utility infielder because of Konerko's presence on the roster. Three first basemen mean there can only be one reserve on the infield, and that role will fall to Keppinger.
In the minors on Opening Day
Considering the lack of depth at third base, signing Alex Liddi made quite a bit of sense. He has some power—111 home runs and 219 doubles in the minor leagues—but has struck out 950 times in 881 games.
Liddi’s galloping swing is the reason he hasn’t found any success in the major leagues. In 61 games across three seasons, Liddi has six home runs, a .636 OPS and 73 strikeouts. If he is productive at Triple-A Charlotte this season, he could get called up at the end of the year.
Starter: Alexei Ramirez
Alexei Ramirez had one of the better offensive seasons for a shortstop in all of MLB last season.
Quietly he hit .284, slugged .380, collected 39 doubles, stole 30 bases and finished with a 2.6 WAR. He also provided some much-needed stability to the top of the lineup after being moved up to No. 2 in the batting order.
He has two more seasons plus an option left on his contract with the White Sox, so he could end up getting traded this season. That is, of course, if the team is already out of contention, but if they find themselves in the hunt at the non-waiver trade deadline, you can bet Ramirez will be a large part of the reason why.
In the minors on Opening Day
Marcus Semien enters the 2014 season as MLB.com’s No. 8 White Sox prospect thanks to a blend of power, a touch of speed and an uncanny ability to get on base.
In the minor leagues last year, Johnson finished with a .401 OBP, 98 walks and slugged 19 home runs. His eye at the plate disappeared after getting called up in September, but Semien endeared himself to White Sox fans with his intensity. The next time the young shortstop gets called up, it will be for good.
Following the 2012 season, Carlos Sanchez was the darling of the organization. Last year, however, his production—.241/.293/.296 slash line with 29 walks and 76 strikeouts—came back to the realm of reality. With that came a slip to No. 9 on MLB.com’s White Sox prospect rankings.
Mayo, who compiled the rankings, summed up Sanchez by saying that “he may not have the highest ceiling in the world, but he’s the kind of player who finds his way onto winning ballclubs.” Right now, he needs to focus on making contact.
Starter: Gordon Beckham
Entering his sixth season with the White Sox, Gordon Beckham’s clock is running out. It is a matter of production, which is something the second baseman hasn’t done much of since his rookie season.
Sure, he hit .335 with a .800 OPS during the first half of last season, but it was largely empty production, which he followed up by hitting .216 in the second half of the year. Now, MLB.com’s Merkin pointed out that Beckham’s “2013 production was as hampered by a plethora of injuries as much as anything he did right or wrong at the plate.” But the larger point remains, everyone is still waiting on the young man to deliver on his potential.
In the minors on Opening Day
Fresh off a 2013 Southern League Finals MVP performance, Johnson earned an invitation to spring training. He has explosive speed (84 stolen bases), his defense is improving and he has a knack for getting on base (.373 OBP). His future is quite bright.
While there is no chance he makes the club, look for Johnson to soak up the exposure and take in the coaching in advance of a late-season promotion to the big leagues. That is, of course, if he continues to produce the way he did last season.
We’ll call Leury Garcia a second baseman because he played the position 21 times in 2013. In reality, though, he is a prototypical utility player who can’t hit—.198/.248/.228 in 101 at-bats—but is capable of playing almost anywhere on the field.
In any other season Garcia would be the reserve infielder, but because of Konerko’s presence on the 25-man roster, he will open the season in the minor leagues.
Until someone gets hurt or is traded, the spot which should have gone to Garcia now belongs to Keppinger. Unfortunately, when that roster spot is ready for him, it may be time for the permanent ascension of someone else.
Platoon in left: Alejandro De Aza
Alejandro De Aza has one redeeming quality as a baseball player. He is one of the best pull hitters in the game. Consider that last season, he hit .332, had a 1.023 OPS and a .364 IsoP on balls hit into right field, per FanGraphs.
That’s out of hand.
That also makes him an ideal platoon outfielder. Don’t get me wrong, given his shortcomings in every other facet of his game, if the White Sox were to part ways with him tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Platoon in left: Dayan Viciedo
Like Beckham, Dayan Viciedo has yet to live up to the hype for a lot of reasons. From a loping swing to an utter lack of patience, he is his own worst enemy.
Now it is understandable why the White Sox continue to keep Viciedo around. He is a young, power-hitting corner outfielder with a ton of upside. That said, he needs to show the franchise something this season, or he could find himself on a new team.
Starter in center field: Adam Eaton
The White Sox are only asking Adam Eaton to do a few things. They want him to get on base, not get thrown out, score runs, take good angles and hit the cutoff man. You know, the small things.
Thankfully, he is more than capable of doing the job. In 1,560 plate appearances in the minor leagues, Eaton had a .450 OBP and scored 281 runs. He simply finds a way to get on base and is a solid, if not exceptional, defensive center fielder.
Starter in right field: Avisail Garcia
Konerko said that Avisail Garcia “has the potential to be a monster in this league,” via the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane. Ventura said he is a player you want “to be part of the middle of your lineup,” per ESPN.com's Doug Padilla.
Strong praise from two pragmatic individuals. If they are right, and there isn’t any evidence to the contrary, then right field is a position the White Sox will not have to worry about for some time. He has five tools and appears capable of using each of them.
In the minors on Opening Day
Jordan Danks is on the wrong side of the fence at the moment.
On one hand, he has the speed, power and defense to do the job. On the other hand, he struck out 31.8 percent of the time last year, according to FanGraphs, made several baserunning blunders and failed to take advantage of the considerable playing time he received.
For the moment, a spot on the Opening Day roster is blocked by De Aza.
Jared Mitchell is suddenly a viable part of the outfield conversation thanks to a stellar showing in Arizona Fall League play. After hitting .167 with 123 strikeouts in the minor leagues last year, that is quite a remarkable accomplishment.
MLB.com’s Bernie Pleskoff noted that Mitchell will have to prove the .296 batting averaged he compiled in the AFL was not a fluke, but the future is much brighter for him than it was just a few months ago.
Denis Phipps, Blake Tekotte, Keenyn Walker and Trayce Thompson will also be at spring training.
On the Opening Day roster
Starter: Tyler Flowers
It is sad to say, but after hitting .195 and striking out 94 times in 256 at-bats, “Tyler Flowers probably has the early edge in the competition to be the White Sox starting catcher in 2014,” per CSNChicago.com’s Hayes.
Ventura thinks that a combination of the mental anxieties and nagging injuries were to blame for Flowers’ struggles. So, there is hope that his performance this season will be considerably better, according to Hayes. Let’s hope so.
Taken in the Rule 5 draft this offseason, Adrian Nieto will open the season with the White Sox because, even if he struggles mightily during spring training, it makes sense.
Josh Phegley needs to play every day, and if Nieto is not on the roster, they will have to offer him back to the Washington Nationals for $25,000. In essence, even if Nieto isn’t the long-term solution, they can give Flowers a majority of the at-bats, which will allow Phegley to get as much playing time as possible at Triple-A and deal with the financial ramifications later.
Nieto could end up being the guy the White Sox were looking for. It’s doubtful, but not out of the question. Expect the right-handed hitting backstop to see significant time behind the plate this spring.
In the minors on Opening Day
When Phegley was brought up last season to take over for Flowers, he was destroying International League pitching and was widely viewed as the savior behind the plate. Well, after posting a .206/.223/.299 slash line with 41 strikeouts, it is safe to say that he isn’t. Not yet, anyway.
His swing is too wild to handle major league pitching on a daily basis, and he is not yet capable of lying off the breaking ball. However, there is still hope that he will end up being the man. Extensive time in the minor leagues is the best course of action for Phegley.
Hector Gimenez will also see some time at catcher this spring.
Starter: Chris Sale, LHP
Starter: Jose Quintana, LHP
Starter: John Danks, LHP
Starter: Felipe Paulino, RHP
Starter: Erik Johnson, RHP
Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are locks to be the No. 1 and No. 2 starters. It is that simple. After them, the order of appearance may not necessarily be John Danks, Felipe Paulino and Erik Johnson, but it's likely those will be the guys who take the bump every fifth day, per MLB.com’s Scott Merkin.
Sure, Andre Rienzo is going to state his case this spring, but the rotation is set regardless of how well he pitches in Glendale.
If the White Sox can get solid showings from Danks and Paulino this season, they have a chance to finish in the upper third of the American League as a unit. Health will be the key for this group.
Closer: Daniel Webb, RHP 50%
Potential closer: Nate Jones, RHP 25%
Potential closer: Matt Lindstrom, RHP 25%
Charles Leesman, LHP
Scott Downs, LHP
Mitchell Boggs, RHP
Potential spot in the bullpen: Ronald Belisario 99%
Potential spot in the bullpen: Jake Petricka 1%
Like the rotation, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of competition in the bullpen. Sure, the closer's role is undecided, but between Daniel Webb, Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom, manager Robin Ventura is in good shape as far as options go.
It is going to be a matter of picking the one that performs the best this spring, and as I wrote in a previous column, Webb has a great chance of being that guy based upon the past struggles of both Jones and Lindstrom. It may not be the popular opinion (MLB.com’s Scott Merkin didn’t even mention Webb in a recent post), but the right-hander has everything the role calls for.
Another reason the bullpen appears to be set is the recent acquisition of Mitchell Boggs. His arrival took the guess work out of the final spot. If Boggs had not been brought in, the competition between Dylan Axelrod and Jake Petricka would have been fun to watch.
Really, there is only one hiccup, and that is the visa status of Ronald Belisario. To be sure, he doesn’t need a whole lot of seasoning in order to prepare, but what if he doesn’t join the team at all this season?
Think that won’t happen? Think again. In 2011, he didn’t throw a pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers after “he couldn’t obtain the visa because he had tested positive for cocaine,” per the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane.
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