Monday, March 31, 2014

Why Not 2014? Why the White Sox Just May Surprise Critics

Jose Abreu looks to lead the Sox to the postseason
      If you didn't pay attention during the 2012 season, and merely judged the White Sox entirely on preseason projections, then to your knowledge the 2012 Chicago White Sox were a last place team with 95 losses. Nice job Sports Illustrated. Instead, with less than two weeks left in the season the White Sox had a solid handle on the Central Division crown. Granted, they did fade during the stretch run, but nevertheless they silenced many critics. Last year was the polar oppossite. While many predicted the Sox to hover around .500 and be competitive in at least some capacity, they ended up free falling to a listless 99 losses. So what to make of 2014? Experts put the Sox at around 70-75 wins, and at the bottom of the American League Central. Once again, the White Sox are under the radar, excluded from even dark horse conversations. The good news is, that's how they like it.
     The White Sox have always been a team that defies expectations, whether good or bad. Just look at 2005 and 2011 as proof. The White Sox are an entirely different team in 2014. Just because Tyler Flowers is still stationed behind the plate doesn't mean that bright spots haven't been added elsewhere. One of the greatest additions is center fielder Adam Eaton. The speedy outfielder was a preseason Rookie of the Year candidate before an arm injury sidelined him for a good portion of 2013. There's no reason to think that Eaton can't be an on-base machine in 2014. His Spring Training numbers were good enough to infuse some hope that the White Sox may have finally found a true table setter. The other plus to Adam Eaton are the intangibles he brings to the ballclub. Many wondered how a team could have an 8, 9, and 10 game losing streak all in the same season. The answer is that there was a considerable amount of apathy in the dugout. Whether it was Alex Rios running to first base as those he were a marathon runner doing a cool down or Alexei Ramirez missing easy groundballs, the focus was evidently missing in last year's roster. Eaton, with his competitive edge, should serve as a sparkplug, energizing the troops if a multigame slide should ensue.
     It's not just Eaton either. Offseason addition Jose Abreu, a big name slugger out of Cuba, is determined to live up to his 6-year $68 million contract. From all reports, Abreu is a class act who is diligent in his practice and focus both on and off the field. With that type of attitude, Jose Abreu has the potential to hit .300 with 30 home runs. Even 40 from the prolific power hitter isn't out of the question. With Abreu manning first base, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko will essentially platoon at DH. Dunn has similar splits, but does post a better average against righties and certainly produces most of his power against them. Konerko happened to produce a .300+ average against lefties in 2013 even during an injury riddled season. Alex Rios has been replaced with Avisail Garcia. Although Rios had stretches in which his bat carried the team, the right fielder also had periods in which his prolonged slumps contributed to the power outage of the entire line-up. The 22-year old Garcia has much more upside than Rios, and although he needs to improve his plate discipline, he did hit .305 in his short time with the White Sox last season. Suddenly, the middle of the order looks significantly different.

2013 Line-up (First five hitters)

1. Alejandro De Aza
2. Alexei Ramirez
3. Alex Rios
4. Paul Konerko
5. Adam Dunn

  The problem with this line-up was De Aza was a poor leadoff hitter. He sacrificed average for power, and although he hit 17 home runs, his strike out rate spiked. In contrast, Alexei Ramirez completely lost his power capabilities last season and struggled to move anyone into scoring position for the big hitters behind him. While Alex Rios overall was a bright spot in the three hole, Konerko and Dunn were a poor combination at 4 and 5 in the order. By not having these two players in a platoon, Konerko was forced to face righties, leading to a .240 avg., while Dunn was hopeless against lefties. In fact, by the beginning of June, Adam Dunn as a clean up hitter was hitting .197. It doesn't matter if your clean up hitter is as historically good as Mike Trout or as bad as Tyler Flowers, but if either one is hitting .197 three months into the season, then they can't bat fourth. Simply put, Adam Dunn should not have been hitting fourth. Thankfully, that does not look like it will be the case this year. While the 2014 batting order is mere speculation at this point, it could look something like this.

2014 Line-up (First five hitters)

1. Adam Eaton*
2. Marcus Semien*
3. Jose Abreu*
4. Avisail Garcia*
5. Adam Dunn/Paul Konerko

*Player not on 2013 opening day roster.

Granted, Marcus Semien is only temporary, at least until Gordon Beckham comes off the 15 day DL. However, Semien had a very strong Spring, posting a batting average above .300 and flashing the leather at second base. Already, Adam Eaton changes the dynamic of this order, and followed by Semien, both should be on base enough for Jose Abreu to do some serious damage. The slugger got off to a slow start this spring, but finished by hitting in the upper .300s over his last ten games and showing off some of his power potential. All things considered, Abreu is an upgrade over Alex Rios. Now, instead of having two likely outs in the 4 and 5 spots, the White Sox have Avisail Garcia (Known as "little Miggy") behind Abreu to offer some line-up protection. Batting 5th, Adam Dunn and Konerko will be far more effective in a platoon, and it's possible that if Konerko is anything like he was in May 2012 (.399 avg. and an ops above 1.000) he might just get played a little more than the $15 million DH sharing the position with him. The rest of the batting order offers more to be desired. It is a make or break season for Gordon Beckham, who will likely have second base back under his control when he is healthy. Similarily, both Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo will take turns manning left field. While De Aza will most likely be a trade chip, it is time for Viciedo to make his case that he belongs in the new core. The Viciedo who hit 25 home runs in 2012 needs to return in order for him to justify remaining on the South Side. While Matt Davidson will start the season at AAA, the White Sox will need to rely on lefty Connor Gillaspie to provide some left handed pop deep in the batting order. The once top propsect with a short and quick swing may turn himself into a viable trade piece once Davidson is a little more seasoned.
   Interestingly enough, analysts are more optimistic about the offsensive side of the White Sox than the rotation. This is strange considering the rotation was fairly durable last year. Chris Sale is one of the top arms in the game, while Jose Quintana is making his own case as solid young starter. Rookie Erik Johnson will get the chance to prove that he is yet another pitching gem to emerge from a White Sox farm system that has a strong track record. The success of the rotation will ultimately rely on how John Danks and Felipe Paulino bounce back from injuries. John Danks looked sharp in Spring Training and may finally justify his $15 million price tag. We'll see. The bullpen is also constructed with question marks and young arms, but has a lot of upside. Nate Jones or Daniel Webb should have little problem replacing Addison Reed on the rubber in the 9th.
     The fact is, 2013 was filled with anamolies. The White Sox fell off the board defensively, and lost 36 one-run games. This statistic is the one that gives me the most optimism. It is hard to believe that the additions of Abreu, Garcia, Eaton, and eventually Davidson won't have enough of an impact to sway some of those one-run losses into wins this year. Even if just half were turned into wins, the Sox would touch .500. That's not even mentioning that 75% of all Sox games were decided by three runs or less last season. There's no denying that a lot has to go right for the Sox to contend in 2014, and there will inevitably be growing pains. However, analysts may just be a little off-base with their predictions, well at least if Alejandro De Aza isn't off base as much as he was last year. So on March 30th, the day before the White Sox open the season I ask myself what I asked before 2012. "Why not this year?" I ask "Why not 2014?" Maybe, they'll just pull a Red Sox.