Complete 2014 Chicago White Sox Season Preview
The 2013 Chicago White Sox were bloated. They were slow, underperformed, error prone and, worst of all, no fun to watch.
In the roughly nine months since then, the 25-man roster has been transformed. The White Sox now have speed and guile in center field. Yet another franchise first baseman was brought in, and a third baseman with legitimate potential is waiting for his chance.
To be sure, sacrifices were made, but when they lift the lid on the upcoming campaign, everything is going to be different. It has to be.
Let’s take a look at what the 2014 season holds.
Spring Training Recap
For the most part, everything went according to plan this spring.
As expected, Matt Davidson will start the season at Triple-A. Meanwhile, Adam Dunn is hitting his usual .205, Jose Abreu appears as good as advertised (even better in the field) and Conor Gillaspie is playing above his grade level—yet again. And other than a couple of bad outings throughout camp, the starting rotation seems to be in order.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t a couple of surprises.
First off, Marcus Semien is an animal.
See, even though he rapidly advanced through the minor leagues last year and was impressive—.261/.286/.406, four doubles, two home runs, seven RBI—after getting called up in September, few thought he would dominate Cactus League pitching the way he has.
On the spring, Semien has compiled a .348/.455/.522 slash line and showed his versatility in the field by playing three positions. He delivered exactly the type of follow-up performance that was needed to cement his position at the top of the prospect list.
Another thing that was somewhat surprising was Charlie Leesman’s early assignment to Triple-A. Considering that he pitched quite well—1.69 ERA, 0.938 WHIP, 5 K, 5.1 IP—this spring and is a versatile left-hander, it made sense to have him on the roster. Donnie Veal is out of options, though, so his fate may well have been sealed when camp began.
Steve from South Side Sox correctly noted that making the move early on “will allow Leesman to get innings built up to be a starting pitcher for Charlotte this year.” We shall see what role he has moving forward, but he is probably best utilized as a long-reliever/spot starter.
All told, spring training was an exercise in acclimation. All of the fresh faces had a chance to get comfortable with the coaching staff, and players like Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn were able to get used to their new roles.
Injury Updates Entering Opening Day
The injuries piled up for the White Sox during spring training.
Matt Lindstrom suffered from a strained oblique early in camp and began throwing bullpen sessions just two weeks ago. After making his first appearance of the spring last Friday, though, he does appear to be in line to start the regular season. Either way, Lindstrom’s health is certainly something to keep an eye on.
Gordon Beckham suffered a similar injury two weeks ago and is still working his way back into health. It could be an arduous road for the second baseman as strained oblique muscles “are known for being tricky to overcome,” per the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane. He has resumed baseball activities, but will open the season on the disabled list.
Jeff Keppinger, meanwhile, could start the season on the DL because his surgically repaired right shoulder is slow to heal, per CSNChicago’s Dan Hayes. The injury, which is impacting his ability to throw, could become problematic if he does not begin to respond.
Jose Abreu has been bothered by troublesome ankles for some time now. And after trying to fight through the pain on his own, manager Robin Ventura decided to take matters into his own hands. Per Merkin:
He had it about a week ago and we let him get through it. He still felt a little bit of it there so we are going to give him two days to rest it.
Nothing that concerns him going on the disabled list or anything like that, but to kind of flush it out and get him feeling a little better before we head out of here.
It flared up and we are going to give him a couple of days to just feel better and get over it. He's pretty close to being ready anyway. You don't want him starting the season feeling sore at any point.
All told, the White Sox had quite a few injuries. The good news is that no one ruptured a biceps tendon or had to undergo Tommy John surgery.
1. Adam Eaton, CF
2. Alejandro De Aza, LF
3. Jose Abreu, 1B
4. Paul Konerko, DH
5. Avisail Garcia, RF
6. Alexei Ramirez, SS
7. Conor Gillaspie, 3B
8. Marcus Semien, 2B
9. Tyler Flowers, C
Adrian Nieto, C
Leury Garcia, UT
Adam Dunn, 1B/DH
Dayan Viciedo, OF
The White Sox lineup is the unknown variable here.
Sure, Adam Eaton will bat leadoff and Jose Abreu will hit third, but after that, the order will vary from day-to-day, thanks to the structure of the 25-man roster.
To start, there will be platoons in left field and at designated hitter. The platoon in left is thanks to having two outfielders in Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza on the roster, who are kind of good at their jobs but bad enough in certain areas that the organization can’t count on them full-time. At designated hitter, Adam Dunn will share time with Paul Konerko, who was presumably brought back to take a roster spot from a utility infielder and to serve as a mentor for Abreu.
The way the problem manifests itself is that if De Aza bats second against right-handers, who will hit in the two-hole when a righty is on the hill? Certainly not Viciedo. Granted, there's more to it than whether or not a right-hander or left-hander is on the mound, but it is not as though manager Robin Ventura can just swap players in the order.
And when Jeff Keppinger returns from the disabled list and (if) Marcus Semien is sent to Triple-A, who will give Alexei Ramirez a break at shortstop? Because of Konerko’s presence, the only feasible option would be Beckham, but the White Sox have long been hesitant to give Beckham any extended playing time at short.
That is, of course, when Beckham returns from the disabled list. MLB.com's Scott Merkin tweeted the details and what it means for the roster:
Beckham and Keppinger to DL to start season. Semien starting at second. L Garcia utility. No closer yet.— Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin) March 26, 2014
Another thing to consider is the eventual arrival of Matt Davidson. General manager Rick Hahn is going to have to get creative to find a spot for him on the roster.
Perhaps this is a bit premature and Hahn has a move in mind to remedy the situation, but the larger point remains that the batting order will be in flux the entire season.
1. Chris Sale, LHP
2. Felipe Paulino, RHP
3. Jose Quintana, LHP
4. Erik Johnson, RHP
5. John Danks, LHP
Sale, for example, hit three batters during his start against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Quintana gave up nine runs on seven hits to the Oakland A’s in the first inning before getting pulled with no one out. Both starts were wholly forgettable, but each man has a proven track record, so the concern level is relatively low.
In the middle of the rotation, John Danks has a 3.50 ERA with a 1.444 WHIP in 18.0 innings this spring and is pitching admirably. Granted, he has quite a bit of proving to do to White Sox fans, but if he can continue locating as effectively as he has been, 2014 will be a comeback year for the left-hander.
Felipe Paulino has gotten “progressively better” each time out, according to MLB.com’s Scott Merkin. Merkin also noted that the right-hander “added a cut fastball to his repertoire” to much success. If Paulino and rookie Erik Johnson prove capable of going six or seven innings when they take the mound, the rotation is in good shape.
As it stands, starting pitching could be the strength of the White Sox, or it could prove to be the Achilles' heel. Granted, the same could be said across MLB, but this team's fortunes rest on the starters' productions.
Closer: Nate Jones, RHP
SU: Matt Lindstrom, RHP
SU: Scott Downs, LHP
MID: Maikel Cleto, RHP
MID: Daniel Webb, RHP
MID: Donnie Veal, LHP
MID: Ronald Belisario, RHP
Talk about an overhaul in the bullpen. Gone from last season’s group are Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, Addison Reed and Hector Santiago. The collection that general manager Rick Hahn has put together this year could be as good.
Consider that Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario have proven to be top-flight relievers in years past. Downs, for example, had a 1.261 WHIP in 43 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers before being traded, and Belisario posted a 1.070 WHIP over the course of 68 games in 2012.
Yes, each has had a down season recently and struggled this spring, but they can be downright filthy when they are on. Another thing to consider is that, unlike season’s past, there is more than one option in the minor leagues to help the White Sox if one person falters or suffers an injury.
The closer’s role figures to be an intriguing storyline throughout the regular season, but Nate Jones has pitched spectacularly this spring. And even if he does falter, manager Robin Ventura still has multiple options to go to.
Part of the reasoning behind that is the recent acquisition of Maikel Cleto. MLB.com’s Scott Merkin recently noted that Cleo will break camp in a White Sox uniform and "could be a future closing candidate" because of his ability to throw strikes and light up a radar gun." In the same article, Merkin noted that after Mitchell Boggs got waived, David Purvey, Daniel Webb and Zach Putnam will battle for the final spot in the bullpen.
While the final form of the bullpen is unclear, they do have the chance to do some special things if Ventura can find the right combinations.
Prospects to Watch
There were more than a few solid performances this season from players who weren’t expected to begin the season on the 25-man roster. In particular, two infielders stood out.
The first one is Matt Davidson. This comes as no surprise to many White Sox fans, since general manager Rick Hahn traded Addison Reed to acquire the third baseman. Davidson lived up to his reputation with his bat and is working diligently on his fielding.
Davidson had this to say about his glove, via MLB.com’s Scott Merkin:
I think that was a missing little piece that I never really worked on…I don't have the range of a shortstop, but feel like I have good hands and I do move well, but I was not getting a good jump off the ball. Sometimes I was down too early before a batter hit it or not down enough when he hit it, but I'm a lot more comfortable now.
Honestly, once his glove comes around a bit and the alarm on his arbitration clock goes off, the White Sox will find a way to get him into the starting lineup. It is only a matter of time.
The other prospect who stood out was Carlos Sanchez, who played fantastic baseball in Glendale. In 13 at-bats, Sanchez hit .538, drove in four runs and stole two bases before getting optioned to Triple-A Charlotte.
His performance did not go unnoticed. Manager Robin Ventura went so far as to call him “more mature as a player,” while adding that “he has come a long way from last year,” via the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane.
Normally, guys like Jared Mitchell or Micah Johnson would demand more attention. After all, they both played quite well this spring. With the outfield and infield being as crowded as they are, though, it is hard to see either of them getting much in the way of valuable playing time until next season, at the earliest.
While Jose Abreu’s potential production has been the subject of much discussion, there are two other players on the White Sox roster that could have breakout seasons.
First off, Avisail Garcia has everything you want in a ballplayer. He’s fast, has a powerful arm and possesses ample power. That is not why he will have a breakout season, though.
It is his ability to take the ball up the middle and the other way that is going to prove to be the difference-maker. To be sure, this is a relatively small sample size, but in 2013, Garcia had a 1.095 OPS to center field and a 1.051 OPS to right, according to FanGraphs. Now his batting average on balls in play was over .375 each way, but his IsoP (difference between batting average and slugging percentage) was over .200 when he didn’t pull the ball, so the hits weren’t of the cheap variety.
From watching Garcia hit, the high fastball seems to be the bane of his existence, but if he can get lay off of that pitch, 2014 will be a breakout season for the right fielder. Don’t forget, U.S. Cellular Field has some of the best power alleys in baseball.
We all know Adam Eaton’s pedigree. He has a career .450 minor league on-base percentage, has great speed and is known as an energetic young fellow. That is not enough to have a breakout season, though.
That takes work.
So this spring, Eaton has been working on his defensive alignments and has devoted “a good portion of spring training to studying Sox pitchers so he can best position himself in center depending on game situations and pitchers’ tendencies,” per Daryl van Schouwen from the Chicago Sun Times.
He has also worked on communicating with other hitters to “somehow find a connection” in the batter’s box and on the bases, via the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane. That is more important than it may seem. After all, baserunning blunders and not knowing the situation haunted the White Sox last season and led to many a missed opportunity.
Now while Eaton has all of the physical tools to have a breakout year, it is his ability to work on the small things that could pay the most dividends. Expect big things.
Top Keys to Success
Two things stand out when looking at potential keys to success.
First, White Sox hitters must find a way to get on base. Consider that last season, the lineup finished 14th in the American League with a .302 on-base percentage and were last with 411 walks. And make no mistake, the paltry 598 runs the offense scored last season were a direct result of their ineptitude of reaching base.
It was an embarrassment that general manager Rick Hahn addressed when he fired hitting coach Jeff Manto and brought in Todd Steverson from the Oakland A’s organization to instill a little patience in the lineup. Hahn also signed Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu, who are both known for their ability to make it to first base via hit or walk.
If the batting order is more efficient reaching base, more runs should ensue, which will lead to more victories and more enjoyable baseball on the South Side.
The other key to winning baseball games is staying healthy. Now Herm Schneider does a wonderful job with the roster, and pitching coach Don Cooper has developed a throwing program that has kept his staff relatively healthy over the years, but injuries will happen, regardless of the precautions put into place.
If the White Sox want to see what they truly have this season, however, guys like Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia and Eaton will need to stay off of the disabled list.
Previewing the Opening Series vs. Minnesota Twins
It’s safe to say the White Sox’s opening series against the Minnesota Twins isn’t going to be a preview of the American League Division Series. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a good time, though.
On Opening Day, the Twins will send Ricky Nolasco to the mound against Chris Sale, who is making his second Opening Day start.
Nolasco, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, had a rough time during spring training. In his first four starts, he compiled a 7.07 ERA, gave up 11 earned runs and had a robust 1.500 WHIP. Sale’s ERA is higher than normal, thanks to a bad outing against the Dodgers, but he has collected 16 strikeouts in 17.2 innings pitched and appears ready to start the season strong.
For the second game, the Twins will send Kevin Correia to the mound to face right-hander Felipe Paulino. Giving the nod to Paulino may come as a surprise to some, but as MLB.com's Scott Merkin noted, the White Sox aren't going by "labels as much as they are trying to give the team its best chance to win every night." In other words, the coaching staff didn't want to stack lefties to start the season.
In the series finale, Mike Pelfrey will be on the bump for the Twins, while Jose Quintana will be the next lefty up. One thing to keep in mind here is that even though Sale and Quintana are separated by a right-hander to start the season, the young left-hander is clearly the No. 2 starter.
Aside from the pitching matchups, the opening series will be the first taste the faithful have to see newly minted starters Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton play at U.S. Cellular Field. If all goes according to plan, those two will be part of the bedrock that takes the White Sox back to the World Series.
One final thing to watch for is what type of lineup manager Robin Ventura trots out against three straight right-handers. How he structures the batting order during the opening series could tell us quite a bit about how he plans to handle the platoons in right and at designated hitter.
2014 White Sox Outlook
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have the White Sox finishing the upcoming season with 75 wins. While that number seems awfully low, it is a relatively realistic expectation.
Consider that no matter how well guys like Adam Eaton, Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia do this season, their production will undoubtedly be offset by Adam Dunn, Tyler Flowers and Gordon Beckham. It is next to impossible for any team to overcome three holes in the batting order.
The pitching is also a concern. Nobody knows, for example, how Erik Johnson will fare this season or if John Danks can pitch up to his capabilities. Chris Sale and Jose Quintana should be fine, but as for the rest, anything is possible.
One thing is certain, though. The White Sox are going in the right direction.
There is a youth movement afoot. They finally have a hitting coach in Todd Steverson that values on-base percentage. And as MLB.com’s Mike Bauman noted, they finally have players in the minor leagues “that will provide assistance in the retooling process.”
Talk about a seismic shift in the organization's landscape.
What a difference a year makes. Imagine what one more will do.
Prediction: 82-80, fourth place finish in the AL Central