2012 MLB Spring Training: Chicago White Sox Season Preview

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMarch 5, 2012

2012 MLB Spring Training: Chicago White Sox Season Preview

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    The Chicago White Sox went all in in 2011.

    They busted.

    When that happens, those who had losing hands are supposed to walk away from the table. Of the people principally responsible for the collapse, though, only two—manager Ozzie Guillen, hitting coach Greg Walker and pitcher Mark Buehrle—actually exited.

    Those left—GM Kenny Williams, owner Jerry Reinsdorf, first baseman Paul Konerko, pitching coach Don Cooper and a few others—have more or less bought back into the tournament. They are diminished by their losses and humbled by their failure, but there their chips rest on the felt all over again.

    Things will only deteriorate from here. Retaining Williams and Cooper was a mistake by Reinsdorf. Not trading Konerko, John Danks or Gavin Floyd over the winter was a mistake by Williams. The White Sox's future looks bleak, maybe even black.

    On the other hand, one could argue the team has nowhere to go but up. It will be a lonely adventure in a mostly empty ballpark for the White Sox this season, but it will be an adventure, nonetheless. Here's a complete preview of the year they'll call: "The Do-Over."

    This is the sixth of 30 team previews in 30 days, leading up to the start of the 2012 MLB regular season.

    Check out ArizonaAtlanta, Baltimore, Boston and the Cubs.

    Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Matt Trueblood offers insight on all facets of each club, profiles their manager, raise key questions, identifies risers and fallers and lays out run matrices for each team based on his proprietary 2012 projections. Check back daily for the next team in the series, or follow Trueblood on Twitter:

The Lineup

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    How it Goes

    1. Alejandro De Aza (CF)
    2. Alexei Ramirez (SS)
    3. Paul Konerko (1B)
    4. Adam Dunn (DH)
    5. Alex Rios (LF)
    6. Dayan Viciedo (RF)
    7. A.J. Pierzynski (C)
    8. Gordon Beckham (2B)
    9. Brent Morel (3B)

    What it Does

    De Aza impressed last season, but he is not to be confused with a prospect upon whom Sox fans should rely on for anything this season. If he had managed his .329/.400/.520 batting line the first time he reached MLB (with the Marlins in 2007), it would be worth a second look. However, he didn't, and turned 27 years old last year. He also hit .404 on balls in play, which is not sustainable.

    Speaking of unsustainable, Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham almost can't be that bad offensively two years in a row. Adam Dunn and Alex Rios certainly can't be.

    Konerko is the shining light of the offense, but did hit just .273/.378/.432 from June 24 onward last season.

The Rotation

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    Who They Are

    1. John Danks
    2. Gavin Floyd
    3. Jake Peavy
    4. Phil Humber
    5. Chris Sale

    How They Stack Up

    It feels like moments ago that the Sox had a six-man rotation going, because Guillen could not bring himself to demote any of the solid options to the bullpen. Now, the team would be very hard-pressed just to fill out such a rotation. They certainly would not want to do so. They can only hope they have the depth to work around Peavy's inevitable injury problems and a likely cap on Sale's innings.

The Bullpen

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    Who Comes in

    1. Addison Reed
    2. Matt Thornton
    3. Jesse Crain
    4. Will Ohman
    5. Dylan Axelrod
    6. Jhan Marinez
    7. Zach Stewart

    What Comes of it

    As the best (and perhaps only) prospect in the Sox's system, Reed deserves a long look at the closer's role. Thornton fell apart there once before, and Crain is helpless against left-handed batters.

    Ohman is the misfit of this group. He has no pedigree and no chance of starting. He's a middle-relief lefty, a veteran but not an especially respected one. The other three are young pitchers with good stuff, but are blocked from starting either by control issues or the sheer talent level of the current rotation.

The Bench

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    Who They Are

    1. Brent Lillibridge
    2. Tyler Flowers
    3. Kosuke Fukudome
    4. Eduardo Escobar

    How They Roll

    Last season was good to Lillibridge, who flashed some power and made some stunning catches at critical moments. His super-sub role should expand this season, but he's not likely ever to move into a full-time job, barring multiple injuries to the positional core of the team.

    Flowers finally blossomed a bit in 2011, so he will push for playing time from Opening Day onward. He needs to prove his defense and game-calling can keep up with his bat, though, and that his contact rate will not devolve so badly as to cripple him at the plate.

    Signing Fukudome to a one-year deal with a team option was a savvy move by GM Ken Williams. If there was one thing the Sox needed, it was someone capable of reliably getting on base. Fukudome could win playing time in a platoon, or on an irregular rotation at the expense of all three starting outfielders. Escobar is a minimum-salary, minimum-exposure guy, but a good infield glove.

Top 5 Others

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    Who's Waiting

    1. Ozzie Martinez
    2. Deunte Heath
    3. Hector Santiago
    4. Nestor Molina
    5. Delwyn Young

    What They're Waiting For

    Martinez could be on the roster and starting at second base by Memorial Day, if Gordon Beckham doesn't figure things out. Heath is a live arm, having struck out 117 in 102.2 innings in Triple-A last season, but his ceiling is in middle relief. Control is a major issue for him as well.

    Santiago posted a solid 3.60 ERA in 23 starts in the minors last season, and as a reliever with the parent club, allowed only three baserunners (none scored) in 5.1 frames. He's likely to get the first call from Chicago if and when the team needs a spare start due to injury early in the season.

    Later on, Molina might get that call. He made only five starts at Double-A last year, after spending most of the season in the Florida State League. However, his polish and command (148 strikeouts, 16 walks in 130 innings last year) suggest he's on the fast track. Young is a positional fill-in, a sort of poor man's Lillibridge.

The Leader

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    Lacking the experience or traditional credentials that would normally qualify him for top-step dugout duty, Robin Ventura got his gig mostly thanks to his reputation as a good baseball mind. He's a complete mystery, but then, the White Sox had a strong, charismatic and dominating presence in Ozzie Guillen before Ventura, and it ended very badly. This reeks of the same reactionary illogic that landed Mike Quade the job as manager of the 2011 Chicago Cubs, but it might work out very differently.

Three Up

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    Who's on the Rise

    1. Alejandro De Aza
    2. Addison Reed
    3. Adam Dunn

    And Why

    De Aza isn't going to hit .400 on balls in play again. He's not an impact player. He is, however, a potentially solid big-league regular, at least in the short term, and is getting by far the best chance he has ever gotten.

    Reed should be the closer by Opening Day, and certainly will be so by the All-Star break. He's far and away the top prospect in the White Sox's system, and by May, he will not even qualify for inclusion in that ranking. He should, however, be a solid big-league contributor right away.

    For Dunn, it's partially a simple matter of regression to the mean. It's also worth noting that this is a long-time professional hitter, and that prior to the emergency appendectomy that sidelined him last April, he looked good and had four hits and four walks in 19 plate appearances. That's a tiny sample, but the point is this: Dunn didn't store his baseball talent in his appendix. He will bounce back. Last season he simply saw too many adjustments needing to be made at once.

Three Down

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    Who's Going the Wrong Way

    1. A.J. Pierzynski
    2. Jake Peavy
    3. Matt Thornton

    And Why

    If any of these three play above expectations, they're likely to finish the 2012 season somewhere else. Happily for White Sox fans with special attachments to any of them, none of these players are likely to play well.

    Pierzynski continues to refuse walks as a matter of principle, though he does make a ton of contact. His power is half what it was a few years ago, and as his offense fades, his defensive weakness (he's maybe the worst defensive backstop in baseball, in terms of arm strength and pitch blocking) becomes glaring.

    Peavy and Thornton combined for a shade under 170 innings in 2010, and a shade over it in 2011. I project them for only 156 innings of work in 2012, and neither will be especially good. Peavy's injuries have sapped what was once special stuff, and he doesn't have the special command to cover that deficiency. Thornton lost a touch of velocity and a whole bunch of strikeouts in 2011, and has more or less lost everything but his fastball. One-pitch pitchers don't do very well in general, even in relief.

Five Questions

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    1. How long is Kenny Williams' leash?

    After a catastrophic and tumultuous 2011 season, GM Kenny Williams offered owner Jerry Reinsdorf his resignation. Reinsdorf did not accept it. Now Williams needs to prove he has a clear vision for the future of this team. If they are rebuilding, they need to commit more soundly to that movement. If they are trying to contend, they need to start rebuilding instead. 

    Last year, Cubs GM Jim Hendry was fired in July, effective in mid-August. Williams might be in the same boat if this season goes as expected.

    2. How will Robin Ventura manage?

    A thorough enigma, Ventura walks into a somewhat tenuous dugout setting. There are veterans in the clubhouse who were fiercely loyal to departed manager Ozzie Guillen, and Ventura has no skins on the wall to which to point at if those players are disinclined to follow him blindly.

    More importantly, Ventura needs to deal with pitching coach Don Cooper. Considered perhaps the best pitching coach in the game after Dave Duncan's departure from the Cardinals, Cooper is as established and powerful as any non-manager in the game. If he and Ventura butt heads, Ventura may not get the better end of the conflict. He has many constituencies to serve, and none will come to his heel easily.

    3. Is a fire sale forthcoming?

    By the trade deadline, Chicago figures to be out of the running for even the weak AL Central title. If and when that happens, they may be well-advised to trade as many of their useful players as possible in order to reload a woeful farm system that seriously damages their long-term prognosis for contention.

    4. How long can Paul Konerko keep it up?

    Konerko's late-career revival is a terrific story—a good guy getting some good breaks and reaping the rewards of good work. However, he slipped backward in the second half of 2011, and it's fair to imagine precipitous decline is setting in for good.

    5. Can this team surprise people?

    In short, yes. I do not expect Chicago to be any good in 2012, but it's far from impossible that they could bounce back. Adam Dunn and Alex Rios will most likely improve. The only question is by how much.

Cumulative Runs & Final Thoughts

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    Runs Above Average:

    Unit RAA
    Lineup 14.96
    Rotation 36.4
    Bullpen 9.0
    Bench -1.11

    Total: 59.25

    It could be that the Sox will bounce back and win 85-87 games in 2012, but it will take a Herculean managerial effort by Ventura to make that happen. Barring that, the positive steps my system projects for Dunn, Sale and Reed will not materialize, or else, will not matter.