By Collin Whitchurch
The Chicago White Sox enter Spring Training in much the same situation they found themselves a year ago, seemingly improved but with enough question marks to make one wonder if they’ve truly done enough to end a postseason drought that has now reached seven years.
Last offseason, splashy acquisitions in Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson and Adam LaRoche amounted to a whopping three win increase — 73 to 76 wins — which left them with another fourth-place finish while watching a division rival, the Kansas City Royals, win the World Series.
“I have one year on my contract, that’s not a secret,’’ manager Robin Ventura said this winter. “Regardless of that I would want to win just as many games early on; whether it was 10 years [under contract], it doesn’t matter. We all want to get off to a good start. That much is for sure.’’
The core of this White Sox roster is both young and cheap enough that it didn’t make much sense for the front office, headed by general manager Rick Hahn, to go into rebuild mode despite the lack of success they’ve found in recent years. In Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, the White Sox have four players who are among the best at their respective positions and are both cheap (the four will make $27M combined in 2016, or $3M less than the Red Sox will pay David Price), and young (Abreu, the eldest of the four, is 29).
Still, with the necessary franchise cornerstones in place and a payroll that annually ranks around the middle of the league, the White Sox mostly sat out of free agency, instead finding improvements in the form of trades. The main attraction came in the form of Todd Frazier, a 30-year-old third baseman coming off back-to-back All-Star selections with the Cincinnati Reds who is under team control through 2017 with a reasonable salary (he will make $8.25M in 2016). Frazier, who was acquired in a three-team trade that saw the White Sox ship youngsters Frankie Montas, Trayce Thompson and Micah Johnson to the Dodgers, is expected to fill a hole at third base that the White Sox have had since Joe Crede left town eight years ago.
The White Sox also plugged their glaring hole in second base by acquiring Brett Lawrie from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for two low-end pitching prospects. Similarly to third base, second base has been an offensive minus for the White Sox going all the way back to the years after Ray Durham left town.
The only notable free agent acquisitions came in the form of Mat Latos, a one-time front end starter in Cincinnati who will hopefully provide rotation depth after two years of declining results as he battled injuries, and catcher Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila, who the Sox hope will be an offensive improvement from Tyler Flowers in a likely platoon scenario.
What about the outfield?
Two-thirds of the White Sox outfield is set in Eaton and Cabrera, the latter of whom struggled in 2015 but is a good candidate to bounce back. The third guy as of this writing is Avisail Garcia, a 24-year-old acquired three years ago in the Jake Peavy deal who has shown no signs of being a competent major leaguer through the first ~1,000 plate appearances of his career.
The White Sox sat back and watched free agent options Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton come off the board, and while another solid option in Dexter Fowler remains a free agent, it appears as of right now that the White Sox will enter 2016 hoping the young Venezuelan right fielder who was a net minus last year both offensively and defensively can turn the corner toward being a good major league player.
Filling out the 25
Sure Things: Catchers: Alex Avila, Dioner Navarro; Infielders: Jose Abreu, Brett Lawrie, Tyler Saladino, Todd Frazier, Carlos Sanchez; Outfielders: Melky Cabrera, Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia; Designated Hitter: Adam LaRoche; Pitchers: Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon, John Danks, Mat Latos, David Robertson, Zach Putnam, Jake Petricka, Zach Duke, Dan Jennings, Nate Jones; Matt Albers, Tommy Kahnle.
The Last Two: Barring another late addition such as Dexter Fowler, the White Sox will likely have to decide between the incumbent J.B. Shuck and Jerry Sands for the backup outfielder spot. The likes of Leury Garcia and Mike Olt will be in the mix as additional backup infielders after Sanchez. Meanwhile, the White Sox will have to decide what to do with Erik Johnson, assuming Latos is the fifth starter, and other bullpen/rotation possibilities if something happens include Jacob Turner, Daniel Webb and Scott Carroll.
FanGraphs projects the White Sox to go 81-81 this season, and with the five-win variance that projection models allow, it’s entirely possible the Sox are in the hunt in both the AL Central and Wild Card race throughout the season. The Atlantis Casino in Reno, Nev., has the White Sox over/under win total at 80.5. Our projection: 85-77.