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White Sox Retool…. But They Better Not Be Done

It’s definitely not often that I write about the Chicago White Sox, but when I do, it’s usually about Kenny Williams’ incompetence or Robin Ventrua rapidly loosing the ‘good manager velour.’ But in the last 24 hours, the ChiSox morphed from a team perennially fighting to stay out of last place to a team with legitimate contention aspirations. Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson will go a long way towards solidifying the Sox’ pitching staff and improving the team.

Despite their 89 loss season in 2014, Chicago has quite a bit going for it. They have one of the top shortstops in baseball in Alexi Ramirez (though that may say more about the state of shortstop play in the MLB right now), a solid top of the order centerfielder in Adam Eaton, the reigning unanimous rookie of the year and one of the best young power threats in baseball in Jose Abreu, and a top 3 pitcher in the league in Chris Sale.

A couple weeks ago, they added Adam Laroche to the mix, too. I’m not the biggest Laroche fan, but he fits really well with this team. He’s a defensively capable first basemen who hits for power and will be a great left handed counterpart to Abreu. With Ramirez, Abreu, and Laroche, the Sox have a potent middle of the order. But even that pales in comparison to their new starting staff.

Chris Sale we know about so I’ll gloss over him. He’s absolutely dominant, a legitimate Cy Young contender this year and the best lefty this side of Clayton Kershaw in the whole league. Contrary to popular thought, however, he wasn’t all alone in the Sox rotation last year. Fellow lefty Jose Quintana has really come into his own as a legitimate starter in the AL. Last season, he threw 200 innings with an ERA just north of 3. He struck out 178 hitters and gave up less than a hit per inning, indicating how good his stuff can be. He’s a real good number three to have.

Quintana is the three starter because Jeff Samardzija is definitely the new number 2. Much has been written about Jeff and the relatively small number of pitches he’s thrown in his career and he strikes me more as a guy I’d want to have for consistency’s sake over the long term than someone intended to provide a huge spark in any given year.  By that, I mean that he’s a guy who seems to be turning in a solid career, who may never get his due credit. However, last year’s 1.07 WHIP, 2.99 ERA, and 202 ks in 219 innings are no joke. Samardzija is perfectly capable of leading a staff and coupled with Sale’s dominance, the White Sox now have a 1-2 punch that should stack up against anyone in the league.  They even have a number three that would create a good matchup against most other starting staffs. Problem is, there’s not much after that.

In fact, depth is really the name of the game for Chicago. Sale, Abreu, Samardzija, Laroche. These are all big names and big players who are among the elite. Even newly signed David Robertson gives the bullpen a marquee headliner. The problem on the South Side is that once you get past the stars, the talent falls off in a real hurry. The White Sox lack depth in their lineup, in their rotation, and in their bullpen. Right now, that keeps them from running with the big dogs in the division.

Let’s start in the rotation. In a year in which pitching dominated, a huge number of starters saw their ERA’s fall dramatically. Neither John Danks nor Hector Noesi could keep theirs below 4 and three quarters. Danks had nearly a 1.5 WHIP last season! Samardzija is a great addition to the top of the rotation, but if Danks and Noesi make an equal number of starts as Samardzija and Sale, the White Sox are working against themselves. Both their 4 and 5 starters are below average and will be exposed while pitching in the same division as the Tigers, Royals, and Indians.

Now, the bullpen. Robertson is really good, though really expensive, and he’ll nail down the ninth inning most games, but someone has got to get him the ball. Though Jake Petrika was good last season, the White Sox bullpen had the 3rd worst ERA in the Majors at 4.38, better only than the Rockies in Coors Field and the dreadful Astros. I’m not convinced Zach Duke and Robertson can fix that.

The biggest problem for Chicago is in the lineup. As I mentioned, Eaton, Ramirez, Abreu, and Laroche are a quality top four in the order, but there isn’t much behind them. Dayan Viciedo is not a starting leftfielder on a good team, Avisail Garcia has potential but hasn’t figured it out yet, Carlos Sanchez has played 28 major league games, and third base and catcher are absolute black holes. This is not a lineup that can score with the Tigers, Angels, Red Sox, Rays, Orioles, or even the Royals. Not yet anyway.

Let me be clear, I think the White Sox have made some great moves. They’ve improved a lot and have rapidly accelerated their rebuilding schedule. But right now they are in that no man’s land, destined to finish third or fourth despite being pretty good. Just look at the Blue Jays, Indians, and Mariners for that one. If they keep going, keep upgrading and augmenting, they can fill their holes and really challenge the increasingly old and inflexible Tigers and upstart Royals. I’m excited to see what happens.

-Max Frankel

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