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Sunday, February 9, 2014

2014 MLB Team Preview: Chicago White Sox

Last season was one most Sox fans would like to forget.  The team finished dead last in the American League in runs scored and only led the rebuilding Marlins in all of baseball.  This was the major factor in the team losing 99 games and why many fans found the idea of watching the team far too painful a chore to endure.  Why did this team fall so far so fast when just the season before they won 85 games and nearly made the playoffs? It's simple, really: age and injuries.

The Sox made almost no moves going into last season meaning they were banking on the same roster from 2012 to win in 2013.  Obviously that didn't happen. At age 37 the good times finally stopped rolling for Paul Konerko who managed a sorry .244/.313/.355 with just 12 home runs.  Adam Dunn improved but then again, how could he not.  Catcher was a mess with Tyler Flowers disappointing and Alexei Ramirez's power dropped for the third straight year. Gavin Floyd got injured and only pitched five games.  With the team sinking fast in summer Alex Rios, Matt Thornton, and Jake Peavy were all unloaded for prospects. Still the team was locked into many contracts for another season making 2014 seemingly destined to be another horrible year.  But then general manager Rick Hahn went to work.

Now that Paulie's almost done, Abreu is the new face of the Sox.
With Konerko apparently washed up and now an unsigned free agent, and knowing that Adam Dunn a) can't play first worth a flip and b) is now a bad baseball player, the Sox went loco and signed 26 year old Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu to a six year deal worth $68 million.  The Southsiders are not shy about signing Cuban defectors as there are currently two on the team in Alexei Ramirez and Dayan "the Tank" Viciedo.  No one can be sure what to expect from Abreu but the Sox trust their scouts and believe in the translated statistics created by former Baseball Prospectus writer Clay Davenport. A month later the Sox re-signed Konerko to a one year deal to act as a bench player and platoon partner with Dunn.

In a seemingly minor move, Felipe Paulino was signed to an already seemingly full rotation.  I say seemingly because this signing allowed Hahn to make what could be the best move of his young GM career.  It was painfully obvious at the onset of the off-season that the Angels wanted to improve their rotation.  It was also obvious the Diamondbacks have a man-crush on Mark Trumbo.  After weeks of negotiating neither team had come to an agreement on how to help each other.  Enter Rick Hahn and his magic wand.  By sending fourth starter and Hector Santiago - who was a nice project for the team but perhaps coming off a career year - to the Angels, the Sox acquired a young, former highly regarded prospect in center fielder Adam Eaton from the Diamondbacks.  Is he a superstar? Heck no, but he stands to be an improvement and offers something almost no other Sox player has: potential. And to get this for a fourth starter who would now have to fight for a spot in the team's rotation is just a phenomenal piece of work.  Most critics agreed.

Hahn was not done. Smelling blood, Hahn called Arizona again.  Knowing that the acquisition of Trumbo meant someone was going to be crowded out of a job, Hahn offered his closer Addison Reed for top 100 prospect third baseman Matt Davidson.  It's entirely too early to say who will win this trade. Some evaluators believe Reed will be an elite closer one day and some evaluators aren't sold on Davidson being an every day third baseman.  But this is the type of risk the Sox need to be taking.  What's the point of having an upper echelon closer if you're only winning 75 games?  The front office rightly viewed Reed as a luxury and flipped him for something that could possibly grow into an asset.

The late season and winter moves do not make the White Sox contenders.  There are still too many holes on the roster for that to happen.  Instead what has happened is the team went from being abysmal and trying to come up with a rebuilding plan to actually being ahead of the curve on the rebuild.  Take a look at last season's lineup (ages in parenthesis) in comparison to this year's projected lineup:

2013 Pos  2014 Pos
Alejandro de Aza (29) CF Adam Eaton (25) CF
Alexei Ramirez (31) SS Alexei Ramirez (32) SS
Alex Rios (32) RF Avisail Garcia (23) RF
Paul Konerko (37) 1B Jose Abreu (26) 1B
Adam Dunn (33) DH Adam Dunn (34) DH
Gordon Beckham (26) 2B Gordon Beckham (27) 2B
Dayan Viciedo (24) LF Dayan Viciedo (25) LF
Jeff Keppinger (33) 3B Matt Davidson (23) 3B
Tyler Flowers (27) C Josh Phegley (25) C
Average age 30.2 Average age 26.7

As you can see the 2013 lineup featured five players on the wrong side of 30 whereas the future lineup has just one - Adam Dunn who coincidentally is in the final year of his deal.  The White Sox went from being one of the older teams with very little upside to an intriguing group of players whose best years should be ahead of them.  What makes this even more exciting is that Garcia, Abreu, Davidson, and Eaton will all be cost and team controlled for the next five to six seasons so even if there is a flame out or two it's not going to hurt the team's flexibility financially.

I'm not trying to say the White Sox will win a World Series with this group of players.  I don't even see them cracking .500 this year.  But with several young players in the lineup and one of the best pitchers in all of baseball (Sale) only 25 himself, there is reason to be optimistic on the Southside. That's a lot better than what fans were saying last July.