Winter report card: Chicago White Sox
With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
Chicago White Sox
2012 Results: 85-77, 2nd place in AL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RHP Brian Bruney, IF Orlando Hudson, RHP Philip Humber, 1B Dan Johnson, RHP Brandon Kloess, LHP Francisco Liriano, IF Jose Lopez, RHP Brett Myers, C A.J. Pierzynski, 3B Kevin Youkilis
Key arrivals: IF Jeff Keppinger, RHP Matt Lindstrom, IF Angel Sanchez, OF Blake Tekotte, RHP Ramon Troncoso
In the seven years since they won a world championship, the White Sox have alternated seasons of contention and respectability with those of sub-.500 mediocrity. After losing 83 games in 2011 — a season that brought the curtain down on Ozzie Guillen’s run on the South Side — they rebounded last year under rookie manager Robin Ventura, and held first place for most of June, July, August and September. Alas, they lost 11 of their final 15 games, surrendered first place in the AL Central for good with just a week remaining in the season and had to watch the Tigers, who wrestled away the AL Central, charge all the way to the World Series.
With Guillen now a distant memory and longtime sparring partner Kenny Williams handing over the general manager reins to understudy Rick Hahn in November (Williams is now an executive vice president), there hasn’t been a whole lot of noise out of the Sox this winter. Their major in-season fortifications from 2012 — Hudson, Liriano, Myers and Youkilis — have all departed via free agency, though only the latter two will really be missed. Myers did solid work out of the bullpen (35 appearances, 3.12 ERA) after being acquired from Houston but received an offer to return to the rotation from Cleveland. Youkilis, who after being traded from Boston modestly filled in the third base sinkhole (.236/.346/.425 in 80 games), has departed for the Yankees.
The bigger news is the loss of Pierzynski, a mainstay behind the plate for Chicago since 2005; his departure leaves Paul Konerko as the last man standing from that World Series-winning squad. The Sox opted to let Pierzynski depart after a monster year with the bat (.278/.326/.501 with a career-high 27 homers), more because of his age (36) than anything else; it’s not like matching the one-year, $7.5 million deal he received from the Rangers would have been a huge stretch of the budget.
With Pierzynksi leaving, 27-year-old Tyler Flowers will take over the starting job, but he’ll be a significant step backwards unless he can improve upon last year’s line at the plate (.213/.296/.412 with seven homers in 153 PA) and approximate Pierzynski’s ability behind it. In a 2012 study that was recently nominated for a SABR Analytics Research Award, Baseball Prospectus’ Max Marchi estimated that only one other catcher (Jose Molina) made a bigger difference to his teams over the previous four seasons than Pierzynski did when it came to the parts of catching that aren’t captured in value metrics such as WAR and WARP — pitch framing, pitch blocking and pitcher handling. Currently, 30-year-old Hector Gimenez is the only other catcher on the roster with major league experience, but that’s all of 20 major league plate appearances; look for the Sox to add a more experienced backup backstop before camp opens.
Even with Youkilis’ work, the White Sox received just a .201/.286/.314 performance from their third basemen in 2012, so just about anything they could have done would have been an improvement. Even so, the signing of Jeff Keppinger to a three-year, $12 million deal — their biggest addition of the offseason — appears to be an incomplete solution. The 32-year-old righty hit .325/.367/.439 in 418 PA for the Rays last year thanks largely to a .332 batting average on balls in play, 52 points above his 2011 mark and 38 points above his career mark. Over the years, he has shown himself to be an excellent lefty-masher (.325/.360/.480 in 373 PA since 2010) but barely adequate against righties (.285/.334/.373 in 1,018 PA during that time, driven by a career-best performance in 2012), and questionable with the glove to boot. A platoon partner would appear to be in order but the roster lacks one; holdover Brett Morel, also a righty, is a career .223/.266/.318 hitter in 454 PA against same-siders, and Rule 5 pick Sanchez, who spent last year in the minors after part-time duty with the Astros in 2010-2011, is scarcely better in that department (.248/.289/.310 in 459 PA).
Lindstrom, who signed a one-year, $2.8 million deal, is the only other major league free agent the Sox have added. The 32-year-old put up a 2.68 ERA while striking out 7.7 per nine in 47 innings split between the Orioles and Diamondbacks; he missed seven weeks in the first half with a finger tendon injury. He’ll fit into the middle of the bullpen. Troncoso is the most notable among the minor league deal longshots. He’s a former Dodger mainstay whom then-Los Angeles manager Joe Torre wore out in 2009; his ERAs rose substantially in 2010 and 2011 while his innings totals fell, and he spent all of last year getting torched for a 6.67 ERA at Triple-A Albuquerque.
Given those modest additions, the real question is whether the rotation will hold together, and there the Sox are crossing their fingers and hoping for continued health from a front four where questions abound. In late October, they reworked Jake Peavy’s steep 2013 pact ($22 million option, $4 million buyout) into a two-year, $29 million extension with a vesting option for a third year. The 32-year-old righty put up a 3.37 ERA in 219 innings last year, his first season of more than 200 innings since 2007, and his first of more than 112 since 2008. He’ll join Chris Sale at the front of the rotation; despite concerns that his violent delivery wouldn’t withstand the grind of starting, the 23-year-old lefty threw 192 innings of 3.05 ERA ball, but he did regress significantly as the innings mounted (2.19 ERA before the All-Star break, 4.03 after).
Gavin Floyd, who served two stints on the disabled list due to elbow troubles and threw just 168 innings — down from an average of 195 over the previous four seasons — nonetheless had his $9.5 million option picked up. John Danks, who was limited to nine starts due to shoulder woes that culminated in August surgery to repair a torn shoulder capsule and clean up his rotator cuff, received a raise from $8 million to $14.25 million. He’s supposed to be ready for the start of spring training, and while the team is pleased with his progress, the true test won’t come until he ramps up his pitch count. Jose Quintana, who had a nice rookie year, is the fifth starter, with Dylan Axelrod the most likely fill-in if there’s an injury; the return of Stewart, provided 30 innings of 6.00 ERA ball before being traded to Boston last June, merely adds a warm body to the organization.
Unfinished business: More middling returns. In addition to third base, the Sox received sub-.300 on-base percentages at both second base and shortstop, but they’re headed into another season with Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez in place as the starters. The 31-year-old Ramirez, who’s signed through 2015 and still has $27.5 million remaining on his deal, is well above average with the glove and at least has a recent track record of offensive adequacy, but the same can’t be said for the 26-year-old Beckham. The eighth pick of the 2008 draft, he made a strong debut in 2009 but has hit a cumulative .238/.303/.362 since then, including .234/.296/.371 last year, and his defense has been a mixed bag at best according to the various metrics. He has averaged just 0.7 WARP over the past three years and will still make $2.9 million in 2013, his first year of arbitration eligibility.
Chicago may have done better to make a trade or test an admittedly thin free agent market, where Kelly Johnson ranked as the best available player once Marco Scutaro reupped with the Giants. Even so, Johnson has had two down years in a row, including last season with the Blue Jays (.225/.313/.365), and he just signed with the Rays, so Hahn will have to take another approach if he wants an upgrade. Hudson may represent the best remaining option; the 34-year-old hit just .197/.262/.307 in 131 PA after being acquired by the White Sox, but his performance couldn’t have been helped by being asked to play third base, where he made the first 25 starts of his career. His numbers have been sliding since 2008, but even the Petco-suppressed .246/.329/.352 he hit for the Padres in 2011 would be an improvement over Beckham.
Preliminary grade: C-. The decision to let Pierzynski walk was questionable, but the White Sox haven’t done anything foolish this winter, and so long as their rotation holds together, they should be the Tigers’ closest competition in the AL Central. Still, that’s a relatively low bar to clear, and a few smart late-winter upgrades could shore up this roster considerably.