Rick Hahn has had enough. With Jerry Reinsdorf’s blessing, Hahn was given substantial resources to try and pull the Chicago White Sox out of the miserable funk they have been in over the last two seasons. Frankly, the White Sox have been in a state of mediocrity ever since their 2005 World Series victory. With one first-place finish and a quick playoff exit, the White Sox have not been much of a player in the perennially weak AL Central. Now, as the Central Division keeps improving, the White Sox had to step up their game and that’s what Hahn did this offseason.
Three teams in the AL Central finished with at least 85 wins and the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, and Cleveland Indians took turns beating up on the Minnesota Twins and the White Sox this past season. Chicago had the worst divisional record at 33-43 and finished 17 games off the pace. Only the Twins and Texas Rangers allowed more runs per game than the White Sox.
The 2014 season started with some promise. Big free agent signing Jose Abreu came as advertised and the White Sox started the year with a 30-30 record over their first 60 games. After moving to 31-30, the White Sox were never over .500 again and lost 89 games. They were 42-59 over their final 101 games and their 9-19 month of August allowed their season win total under to come in without much of a sweat. Those that read last season’s win total season will remember that it was one of my strongest plays of the season.
The talent level on the team has increased significantly and MLB handicappers will have taken note of the changes that the White Sox made. Apparently the oddsmakers at Atlantis Sportsbook have taken note as they opened the White Sox 2015 season win total at 82. Westgate Superbook had slightly lower expectations at 81 and BetOnline was the first offshore to open with a total of 80.5. BetOnline has since moved to 81.5.
Key additions: Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche, Zach Duke, Emilio Bonifacio, Dan Jennings, Gordon Beckham
Key losses: Paul Konerko, Matt Lindstrom, Ronald Belisario, Josh Phegley, Marcus Semien, Andre Rienzo
That’s a lot of talent coming in and not a whole lot going out. The White Sox made a big splash early in the season when Illinois native Jeff Samardzija returned to his home state, but this time in the American League. The White Sox sent Josh Phegley and Marcus Semien to Oakland in the deal and they are optimistic that they can get Samardzija to sign an extension.
The next day, Hahn spent money on the top closer on the free agent market, snagging David Robertson for four years. The White Sox were 28-24 in one-run games last season, but their bullpen was atrocious overall. Robertson is the big name, but relievers like Dan Jennings and Zach Duke may be even more important because they can bridge the gap and provide reliable middle relief. That was a major problem area last season.
Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera provide an instant offensive upgrade and some protection for Jose Abreu. Emilio Bonifacio has a special skill set as a bat-to-ball super utility guy with some speed. Considering the White Sox had so many needs on the infield, Bonifacio’s versatility is a tremendous fit.
Paul Konerko retired, leaving a brilliant career behind. Matt Lindstrom battled with injuries and Ronald Belisario battled with inconsistency. Looking at Jennings and Duke as replacements for Lindstrom and Belisario is a clear win for Hahn and the White Sox.
Why bet the over?
It’s hard to find a team that had a better offseason than the Chicago White Sox. Not only is there a significant upgrade of talent on the team, but that has a trickle-down effect to the players that were already in the organization. The psyche of this team is going to be significantly different. Chris Sale no longer has to bear the burden of being the only well above average starting pitcher in the rotation. The starting rotation can go all out for five or six innings as opposed to trying to bob and weave deep into the game to avoid blown leads or avoid close games turning into blowouts. Jose Abreu has help in the lineup. The White Sox made a lot of great moves and Rick Hahn may be the executive of the year if it all pans out.
As a team, the Chicago White Sox recorded 664 weighted runs created, which is a way of showing how many runs a player or team created based off of the wOBA statistic. wOBA stands for weighted on-base average, which is line on-base percentage, but it accurately values doubles higher than singles, singles higher than walks, and so on. Jose Abreu’s wRC was 115. As a team, the White Sox had a wRC value of 664. Four players had a higher wRC than Abreu – Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Bautista, and Victor Martinez. Trout won AL MVP, Martinez finished second, and McCutchen finished third in NL MVP voting. The White Sox were 12th in baseball in wRC and Abreu accounted for over 17 percent of their offense in that category.
You would think that a first-year Cuban player would wear down in his first season in the bigs, right? Abreu posted a .292/.342/.630/.972 slash in the first half. In the second half, Abreu posted a .350/.435/.513/.948 slash. The power numbers went down, but he also walked 4.4 percent more often and hit more line drives and fewer home runs. Abreu is an elite level hitter and there’s nothing to believe that he won’t repeat last season’s performance.
Abreu finally has help. Adam LaRoche is a 25 HR threat that has a career .272/.353/.489/.842 slash line against right-handed pitching. The White Sox were 10th in the American League in wRC+ against right-handed pitching and ninth in wOBA. LaRoche is also a patient hitter. Only the Mariners, Orioles, and Royals walked less than the White Sox last season by BB%. As a team in a very good hitter’s park, and one of the best power parks for right-handed hitters, any additional baserunners are a major plus and LaRoche will get on base.
There were some addition by subtraction moves for the White Sox as well. They released Dayan Viciedo, who was one of the worst everyday Major Leaguers last season, accounting for a negative fWAR. Gordon Beckham is inexplicably back with the White Sox, but with Emilio Bonifacio and the emergence of Conor Gillaspie as a serviceable bat-to-ball third baseman, Beckham will not get 422 plate appearances. Paul Konerko’s playing career was done and kudos to him for recognizing that and not desperately clinging to the pipe dream of returning to productivity.
Adam Eaton is an interesting player that underachieved per the advanced metrics last season. Eaton is a much better defensive outfielder than some of the metrics suggested, though he did save 12 runs defensively, and he puts the bat on the ball. Regression will come to his .359 BABIP, but he’s still a guy capable of hitting .280 with a league average walk rate and that’s valuable at the top of the order.
Speaking of defense, Tyler Flowers can’t hit, but he’s a solid defensive catcher. Not having Dayan Viciedo puttering around the outfield will be an enormous upgrade to the team. Jose Abreu is a better first baseman than the metrics suggested. Alexei Ramirez is serviceable and Gillaspie may improve this season. Bonifacio is a good defender at several positions. The White Sox can help their pitching staff a lot by improving in this category.
The 2014 pitching staff was very interesting to look at statistically. Chris Sale was worth 5.4 fWAR in just 26 starts and Jose Quintana had his best season ever with 5.3 fWAR in 32 starts. Zach Putnam and John Danks were next…with 0.8 fWAR each. This is why the addition of Jeff Samardzija is so important. The league is full of league average or worse fourth and fifth starters. Having three well above average starters to anchor the rotation is a big luxury.
There are some potential signs of regression from Samardzija, but he’s still going to be a three-win or better pitcher in all likelihood. Samardzija has the best control season of his career with a 4.7 K/BB ratio. A lack of offense killed his win-loss record, but he posted a 2.99 ERA, a 3.20 FIP, and a 3.07 xFIP. The FIP and xFIP were both career highs and the 2.99 ERA was the best that he has posted as a starter. The velocity stayed consistent and most of the plate discipline percentages were in line with his career numbers as a starter. He’s a reliable addition to this rotation and that immediately makes the White Sox better.
Chris Sale is one of the game’s best pitchers. Missing six or seven starts cost Sale at least one win above replacement player and his fWAR/game extrapolated to 32 starts would have put him at 6.6. Only Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw would have exceeded that total. Sale will turn 26 just before Opening Day, which means that he is just now hitting his prime in his fourth full season as a starter. It’s interesting to note that Sale threw more changeups than sliders for the first time in his career last season and he threw the changeup a little bit harder. This could be a big benefit to both his short-term and long-term health.
The tutelage of Don Cooper has been huge for the development of Jose Quintana. Quintana posted a career year with a 3.32 ERA, a 2.81 FIP, and a 3.37 xFIP in his second straight season of 200+ innings. Over the last few seasons, Quintana reduced the usage of his cutter/slider to focus more on the offspeed stuff like the curve and the change. His pitch sequencing has improved and most of the improvements that Quintana has made look sustainable, though his home run total will spike back up in 2015. He’s still going to be well above average in this rotation.
Only the Astros and Rockies had a higher bullpen ERA than the White Sox last season. Only the Rockies had a higher FIP. Nobody had a higher xFIP. The White Sox pen was positively awful last season. The proactive stance taken by Rick Hahn to improve the worst part of the team should pay dividends.
David Robertson is an elite closer with swing-and-miss stuff. Only the Twins had a lower strikeout rate among relievers than the White Sox. Robertson is going to help that in a big way. Six different White Sox recorded saves last season and the role was in a constant state of flux for most of the season. Most sabermetricians want to ignore designated roles in lieu of putting the best pitchers in the highest leverage spots. It’s certainly a good idea, but the practicality of it is in question. Relievers like having defined roles. The best setup men aren’t always the best closers. There’s a different mindset and a different routine. The White Sox fell victim to that last season, along with a lack of talent, and the Robertson signing will set everything in place.
That’s where Zach Duke and Dan Jennings come in. Duke was one of the game’s top left-handed setup men last season and should fall nicely into that role here. Jennings is an underrated bullpen arm that spent last season with the Marlins. There’s nothing particularly flashy and regression is probably coming, but he’s a reliable strikeout guy that keeps the ball on the ground with a fastball/slider combo that actually led to reverse platoon splits.
Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka showed enough chops to be the key right handers in the White Sox pen. Both are extreme ground ball guys that don’t miss a ton of bats, but the White Sox should improve at least a little bit defensively on the infield and have better depth to make some defensive substitutions to protect late leads.
All in all, this is a team that improved a ton on paper and there’s something to be said for that.
Why bet the under?
However, games are not won on paper. The White Sox still have a lot of flaws and they have absolutely no starting pitching depth. Sale-Samardzija-Quintana is a tremendous start to a rotation, but John Danks and either Erik Johnson or Hector Noesi is a terrible back-end of the rotation. Furthermore, that’s just three of the collection of well below average arms that might get starts. The White Sox have a poor minor league system, so there’s no help coming from below in that regard. An injury to Sale, Samardzija, or Quintana is going to cripple this starting rotation and put them right back in the position that they were in last season.
Sale is still a big injury risk, even with the decrease in sliders. He has mechanics that most experts are concerned about and he had elbow issues last season. It may be time to get over the injury concerns, or at least put Sale on the same level as other pitchers, but he’s such an impactful pitcher that it has to be considered.
Look for regression from Jeff Samardzija. He’s still going to be an above average pitcher, but moving to a good hitter’s park is a concern for a guy that has had home run problems in the past. The walk rate is going to spike and more extra base hits will drive up the ERA. It would not be a big shock to see Samardzija regress back into the 3.50 ERA and 3.30 FIP range, if not higher. The White Sox still aren’t a very good defensive team and Samardzija will now be pitching with the pressure of impending free agency. While he is a huge upgrade over what Chicago had, the chances of him being a savior are not all that great.
How good can this team really be offensively? Among players with at least 200 plate appearances, four were above league average. One of those players, Adam Dunn, retired. Jose Abreu posted a .356 BABIP, which is obscenely high for a player with no speed, and Adam Eaton posted a .359 BABIP, which is going to come down regardless of his speed. Odds are good that Conor Gillaspie’s .325 BABIP is coming down as well. Alexei Ramirez’s power bump from 15 home runs from 2012-13 to 15 home runs in 2014 is probably not sustainable for a 33-year-old. Steamer projects a 10 percent decrease in Ramirez’s offensive performance.
Tyler Flowers struck out in 36 percent of his plate appearances and some small sample size bumps elevated his overall numbers. He hit five home runs in September in just 43 plate appearances and he carried a huge April through a good portion of the season. The power may stick around, but the average and on-base percentage will probably regress, leaving him 25 or more percent below league average offensively.
The bullpen has some good lefties, but the right handed bridges to David Robertson are still very shaky. Closer signings are wildly overblown because they are big names with big strikeout totals. The middle relievers are still the key and it’s hard to see these guys have large amounts of success in getting the ball to Robertson with comfortable leads.
The White Sox have promising names on paper, but this is still a deeply flawed team. They could, theoretically, top the Royals and sit behind the Indians and Tigers, the two best teams in the division, but a lot of things have to go right. Looking at the White Sox, outside of Sale, Abreu, Robertson, and Quintana, there are a lot of players that lack consistency and can show flashes in small samples. Over the course of 162, that’s a major issue for win totals.
Pick: Under 81.5
There’s one team that everybody is wrong about and I feel like the White Sox could be that team. They were one of the offseason champions with the Samardzija trade and some of their other signings, but there are still a lot of things to worry about with this team. Can they hit outside of Abreu and LaRoche? Can somebody shore up the back end of the rotation? Can somebody get the ball to David Robertson? Ultimately, the White Sox are just in a tough predicament because they play in the AL Central and the Indians are a hot team, the Royals just made a run to the World Series, and the Tigers are still the Tigers, even if they are a mildly watered down version.
The White Sox are building in the right direction, assuming they re-sign Samardzija, but this isn’t a very good minor league system and that’s been evident by how they have had to trade to acquire players like Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson as opposed to home-growing talent. The White Sox still aren’t a great team defensively and have very little depth. They are top-heavy with star power, which is always accounted for, but it’s the supplemental pieces that cash win total bets and the White Sox don’t have those.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
The Chicago White Sox should have sent gift baskets to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and all other parties responsible for the Houston Astros’ move to the American League. The White Sox narrowly avoided 100 losses last season, finishing one-game better than the century mark for defeats. Because of the Astros, the White Sox were only the second-worst team in the American League. The White Sox were above .500 for just seven games as it was all downhill after the team fell to 4-3 on April 9.
It was a season-long exercise in futility for Manager Robin Ventura, whose team had three months in which they won less than 10 games and were 29 games below .500 on the road. About the only consistent thing about Chicago’s season is that they were 18 games below .500 before the All-Star Break and 18 games below .500 after it. The White Sox lost by five or more runs 21 different times and were the only American League team to score less than 600 runs. The White Sox were a big part of the Indians’ magical run to October, as the Tribe beat the White Sox in 17 of the 19 meetings between the two longtime rivals.
The White Sox are projected to be one of baseball’s most improved teams, at least according to the oddsmakers. William Hill opened with the least amount of expectations on the White Sox with a win total of 74.5. Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV put 76 on the board (YES!), and LVH Superbook was the highest at 77.5. Offshore, BetOnline opened at 77.
Key additions: Adam Eaton, Scott Downs, Felipe Paulino, Matt Davidson, Jose Abreu
Key losses: Hector Santiago, Gavin Floyd, Addison Reed
The offseason moves for the White Sox have been made with the future in mind. Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson were acquired in separate transactions with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the former acquired in a three-team deal that included the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Eaton, the 73rd-ranked prospect prior to the 2013 season according to Baseball America, spent 66 games with Arizona in 2013, where his minor league success failed to translate to the Majors. He turned 25 in December, so there’s plenty of time for him to grow into his potential. Davidson showed a bit of pop in his bat during a 31-game audition with the Diamondbacks. Both guys put up impressive numbers in Triple-A with the Pacific Coast League’s Reno Aces, but the PCL is traditionally a very hitter-friendly league due to the ballparks and the weather conditions.
Jose Abreu got a massive contract from the White Sox before even taking a professional swing. Abreu put up video game numbers in Cuba before defecting to the United States to take his talents to the best baseball league in the world. Scouts had little to go on with Abreu, as looking for baseball talent in Cuba is very difficult due to travel restrictions and statistics don’t tell the whole story in places like that. Nevertheless, Abreu has a six-year, $68M contract to live up to. The White Sox hope he is the next Yasiel Puig or Yoenis Cespedes.
Felipe Paulino is a very interesting addition to a club in dire need of starting pitching depth. Over the last two seasons, Paulino made just 17 starts in the Royals organization. He has good stuff, but he’s erratic and his mechanics are to blame for both his control issues and his health issues. He’s reportedly healthy entering Spring Training.
Hector Santiago was traded to the Diamondbacks for Eaton and Addison Reed was jettisoned to add Davidson. The White Sox are clearly trying to address their offensive issues and the trade of Reed made sense, as he will start getting more expensive through arbitration as a young closer. Santiago was a marginal pitcher whose combination of fly balls and walks wasn’t overly conducive to pitching at US Cellular Field, but it was a definite hit to the White Sox already thin starting depth.
Why bet the over?
The White Sox, despite having the worst run-scoring offense in the American League, were actually four games worse than their Pythagorean Win-Loss, indicating that they were a bit unlucky at times. The White Sox played 60 one-run games, six more than any other team in the American League. So a hit here or a hit there could have changed the team’s fortunes.
The rotation will be anchored by one of the game’s best in Chris Sale. Sale was outstanding last season with a 3.07 ERA and, more importantly, a 3.17 FIP, indicating that his performance would appear to be sustainable. It’s the second straight season of performance like that from Sale, so you can reasonably expect him to be that good again. He dropped his walk rate while increasing his strikeout rate. Between that and a spike in ground ball rate, Sale’s 2.96 SIERA was the third-best in the American League behind Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez. He’s a legit number one starter.
Jose Quintana is a solid number two for the White Sox. Quintana doesn’t excel in any one category, but he ranked 25th in fWAR among qualified starters. Quintana’s strong walk rate of 6.7 percent makes him a valuable commodity. He induces ground balls and his strikeout rate is trending upward. He added a little bit of velocity last season, which was encouraging since he hadn’t thrown many innings prior to 2012 and this was his first season following a sizable workload.
The rest of the White Sox rotation remains a mystery, but a couple of the candidates show some intrigue. John Danks will be 18 months removed from a very invasive shoulder procedure. While Danks’s overall numbers in 2013 were ugly, what stands out is that his control was solid, issuing just 27 walks in 138.1 innings. Control is usually the last thing to come back for pitchers following major surgery, so Danks was ahead of the curve in that regard. The aforementioned Felipe Paulino has a live arm that shows some promise, if he can stay healthy.
Erik Johnson got his first taste of the Majors last season with a five-start audition late in the year. He has exhibited good control and above average strikeout ability in the minor leagues. It will be interesting to see if that will translate to the next level. The first Brazilian-born pitcher in the Major Leagues, Andre Rienzo, is another candidate for a rotation spot. Like Johnson and most young pitchers, his good strikeout totals in the minors didn’t make the jump, but he throws a heavy sinker that can get ground ball outs at the big league level.
Nate Jones looks like the first candidate to get save opportunities with Addison Reed in Arizona. Jones certainly got unlucky last season as batters had a .330 BABIP against and he only stranded 62.9 percent of baserunners. League average for relievers is in the low-70s, so that number should improve for a guy with Jones’s punchout ability. Jones struck out over 28 percent of the batters he faced last season. Over 50 percent of balls in play stayed on the ground, so Jones should be a consistent reliever for the White Sox.
After Jones, longtime setup man Matt Lindstrom looks to be the primary eighth inning guy. Ronald Belisario was solid for the Dodgers in his 145 appearances over the last two seasons. Downs will serve as the primary matchup lefty. Various other guys like Donnie Veal and Daniel Webb show above average strikeout potential.
The offense appears to have boom or bust potential. There are some very talented youngsters that will grow up on the job for the White Sox this season. Avisail Garcia, the prized piece of the three-team trade with the Tigers and Red Sox that gave Detroit Jose Iglesias, will be called upon to live up to his potential. When Garcia puts the ball in play, he has a knack for hitting it hard and finding open space. Eaton will play a big role for the White Sox, who aren’t expected to contend and will have the luxury of letting their young guys play through slumps. That includes Davidson, if he makes the club out of Spring. Marcus Semien, just 23, is another one of those young players with upside that should play everyday.
The allure of the White Sox lineup lies with Jose Abreu. The big bodied slugger came to the U.S. with comparisons to Ryan Howard. If that’s the case, U.S. Cellular is a good park for him. A lot of scouts seem to peg the worst-case scenario with Abreu between 20-25 home runs, which would be a nice contribution to the lineup. Whether he hits for average or has enough plate discipline to be an all-around productive hitter remains to be seen.
Adam Dunn is still good for a walk and a home run every now and then. Paul Konerko has something to prove after the worst season of his career. Dunn and Konerko may form a DH platoon, which could prove to be a good move for both guys. Alejandro de Aza remains one of the team’s most consistent performers. At 25, Dayan Viciedo is entering the prime of his career and may be ready to take the next step. Jeff Keppinger remains a solid hitter against lefties, giving him a little bit of value.
Why bet the under?
This is not a very good team. The White Sox will have two above average starters in Sale and Quintana, but it’s a mess after that. Johnson is the top prospect in a weak group, giving him the most upside of anybody else in the mix. Even so, he lacks top-end stuff at the Major League level and will be a pitch-to-contact guy on a team full of below average defenders. Danks hasn’t been overly effective since 2010. Paulino can’t stay healthy and won’t work deep into games even if he is able to stay in the rotation. Rienzo might be league average due to his ground ball rate, but that’s a stretch. Not only are the top five very iffy, there’s very little help behind them in case of injury.
The lineup is full of guys who swing and miss a ton. Part-time catcher Tyler Flowers struck out in over 34 percent of his plate appearances. Adam Dunn also cracked the 30 percent plateau. Garcia, de Aza, and Viciedo all struck out over 20 percent of the time. Expect Abreu in his first Major League season to fall between that 20-25 percent mark himself.
Furthermore, not only do the White Sox strike a lot, they also don’t walk. Only the Brewers walked in a lower percentage of their plate appearances last season. In 2013, 97 of the team’s 148 home runs were solo shots. That’s not going to win many games. Of the 1,475 innings the White Sox played, they scored more than one run in 149 of them. Scoring runs was undoubtedly a struggle for them last season and this year’s lineup doesn’t look much better unless the young kids develop rapidly.
Paul Konerko was hit extremely hard by the aging curve last season. Of players with 400 or more plate appearances, Konerko had the second-lowest fWAR in all of baseball at -1.8. It’s sad to see such a good hitter and exemplary teammate come to this, but at age 38, Konerko is expected to platoon as a DH with Adam Dunn. It may help his production, but as a part-time player with no fielding value, Konerko’s contributions will do little to move the needle.
The bullpen has no proven closer and a bunch of average relievers. With the exception of Jones, there’s nobody that hitters will feel uncomfortable against in the late innings. Belisario has some promise, but a league change and much tougher park to pitch in is likely to inflate his numbers.
A couple other things really stand out. The White Sox were -55 defensive runs saved last season, making them the fifth-worst defensive team by that metric. Another year of that, which seems quite possible, would make life even more difficult for a mediocre pitching staff and an offense without the ability to outhit defensive mistakes and pitching blow-ups.
Another thing that doesn’t appear to be factored into the win total is how bad of a manager Robin Ventura is. Ventura regularly made questionable bullpen moves last season and didn’t seem to handle the team’s failure very well. With a young ballclub, communication will be critically important and Ventura’s personality doesn’t seem to lend itself to effective communication.
Pick: Under 78
Of the first six teams, this is far and away my strongest opinion. This number is so far off in my opinion that I’ve gone over and over again trying to figure out what I missed. The White Sox will strike out a lot, won’t walk much, and will have to hope for home runs with people on base because they’re not going to string hits together to score runs.
The starting rotation is Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and a collection of below average options with a bullpen that doesn’t seem trustworthy with a lead. Add in a team that doesn’t field well and a lot of guys with little Major League experience and you have the recipe for a long season on the South Side. While the Indians are unlikely to go 17-2 against the White Sox again, the Royals and the teams in the AL West should be improved.
It would take a 15-win improvement over this past season for the White Sox to even push this number. There’s no way this club has improved by 15 games, or even 11 games if you go by their Pythagorean W-L record. The White Sox may not even win 70 games, let alone come close to 80. Not with three better teams in the division ahead of them and what little they’ve done to improve the ballclub for 2014.
Take the under here and don’t overthink it.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.