SPORTS

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April 24, 2022

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6:11 p.m.

World Series or Bust: The Chicago White Sox Season Preview

Championship contention “windows” are a feeble thing. Consider our crosstown rivals on the North Side. After winning the World Series in 2016, the Chicago Cubs were expected to go on a run of championships led by young infield stars Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, and Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs never got back to the Fall Classic and now find themselves rebuilding, with none of those stars still on the roster. The Chicago White Sox, on the other hand, are in the midst of their contention window right now and cannot afford to let their moment pass by without taking advantage of it. With a star-studded mix of young players and veteran leaders, the White Sox possess an all-round team that has a great chance of going all the way. Let’s take a look at the Southsiders and see if they can be the last team standing in November.  

Offseason Grade: B 

Major League Trades: RP Craig Kimbrel to the Los Angeles Dodgers for OF AJ Pollock; C Zack Collins to the Toronto Blue Jays for C Reese McGuire.  

Free Agency Signings: RP Kendall Graveman, RP Joe Kelly, IF/OF Leury García, 2B Josh Harrison, SP/RP Vincent Velasquez, SP Johnny Cueto. 

It had been a poor start to the offseason for General Manager Rick Hahn. While the bullpen was improved with the additions of veterans Joe Kelly and Kendall Graveman, he was not able to add an outfielder or bring Cy Young Award candidate Carlos Rodón back (signed with the Giants). Then, about a week ago, Hahn finally made the big trade everyone had been expecting, trading reliever Craig Kimbrel to the Dodgers for former all-star and world champion outfielder A. J. Pollock. Kimbrel is one of the greatest closers to ever do it, and trading for him at the time the deal was made was a no-brainer. However, his role on the White Sox was not nearly as defined as it needed to be for Kimbrel to be successful. Kimbrel is a ninth inning pitcher through and through and using him as a middle reliever in the seventh and eighth inning was simply not working in the White Sox’s favor. Keeping that in mind, to acquire an everyday outfielder with a slash line of .297/.355/.536 in 2021 and above average defense in return for Kimbrel is a big win for Hahn and the Sox. Additionally, bringing back cult hero Leury García and acquiring two-time all-star Josh Harrison to platoon at second base creates a bevy of options in the lineup as the season progresses. Although no significant starting pitching was added in the past month, I think that this offseason can be considered to be satisfactory with the additions that were made. 

Now, here are some positional previews.  

Catcher: Yasmani Grandal is an analytical dreamboat and probably the best offensive catcher in Major League Baseball. His high walk rate, on-base percentage, and power numbers are his greatest strengths, and he provides an average presence defensively behind the plate. In spite of his fairly pedestrian Spring Training performance (.200/.259/.360 slash line), Grandal has the potential to hit 40 home runs and be one of the best power hitters in the American League if he can stay healthy. Acquiring Reese McGuire from the Blue Jays for Zack Collins to back Grandal up was a great move from Rick Hahn, and his defensive presence will be highly valuable in the event of injuries to Grandal or others, which might lead Grandal to be used as a Designated Hitter.  

First Baseman: José Abreu is one of the greatest players to ever step to the plate on the South Side, and last year was yet another display of why that was the case. The 35-year-old enters the final year of his contract in Chicago after his fifth 30–home run, 100–runs batted in (RBI) season. Analytics do scoff at RBIs being used in looking at a player’s performance, but with the potent lineup that surrounds Abreu, having a reliable presence at the three-hole is essential, and “Pito” is a run-producing machine. Given his outstanding Spring Training performance, where he has more walks (8) and extra-base hits (5) than strikeouts (4) and has produced an OPS of over 1.000, expect another great season at the plate from the franchise legend.  

Second Baseman: Josh Harrison, who was signed to a one-year, $5.5 million contract in the offseason will likely be the starter at this position. He’s an above-average contact hitter with very low strikeout numbers, an average defender (as his 0 defensive runs above average in 2021 suggests), and a good veteran locker room presence. He started out 2-for-20 in Spring Training but has gone 4-for-7 in his last three games, showing that he has come up to speed with the organization as of late. 

Leury García: The best moment of the 2021 season for the White Sox came in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Houston Astros. Down 5–3 in the game and 2–0 in the series, and with their backs against the wall, Leury García sent a slider into deep center field for a three-run home run, sending the home crowd into pandemonium at Guaranteed Rate Field and giving the Southsiders a lead they would not give up for the rest of the game. García is the longest tenured player on the Sox, entering his tenth year with the ball club, and a cult hero. He can play every spot on the field outside of catcher and first base, and after signing a three-year, $16 million contract extension with the Sox, expectations for the switch hitter are relatively high to improve his offensive production and live up to his reputation amongst White Sox fans.  

Third Baseman: Yoán Moncada has third base locked down for the foreseeable future for the Chicago White Sox. He is going to miss the first few weeks of the season due to a strained oblique, and Jake Burger, who is a capable replacement, will likely take his spot for this period. Moncada is a former top prospect who came to the Sox in the Chris Sale trade and has been a valuable piece through his years on the South Side in spite of never quite living up to his all-star potential. He has had a dismal Spring Training, but with his high walk rate, high defensive upside (a stellar 2021 season at the hot corner is the best example of this), and power-hitting ability, I would expect him to repeat last season’s performance, where he was one of the five best players at his position according to WAR (Wins Above Replacement).  

Shortstop: Tim Anderson is one of the faces of MLB: he’s fun, exciting, and a lightning bolt of energy for the Sox. We’ve seen the bat flips and the home-run trots—what White Sox fan will ever forget his walk-off bomb at the Field of Dreams game last season? Sometimes, however, the quality of the player can get lost behind the cover art. T. A. is a baller. The analytics hate his approach at the plate, with the popular sabermetric website Fangraphs describing his production as “bucking convention,” but it’s hard to argue with his recent results with the White Sox. He’s led the American League in batting average since 2019 and won a batting title in the process. He had the lowest walk rate in the Majors in 2021 and swings hard at pretty much everything, but when you make contact as much and as effectively as Anderson does, it’s hard to argue with his methods. He’s also a much-improved defensive player, going from one of the worst defensive shortstops in the MLB just five years ago to an above-average one over the past few years. Tim Anderson *is* the Chicago White Sox, and I expect to see him manning the left side of the infield on the South Side for a long, long time to come.  

Left Fielder: Eloy Jiménez had a dismal 2021 season. It began with a pectoral injury that kept him out of the lineup until July and ended as the worst offensive season of his young career. But even in said season, Jiménez was just about league-average when it came to run creation, which shows just how good the guy is. He has returned to his usual excellence during spring training, with a .306/.342.677 slash line and 3 home runs and 10 RBIs in 11 hits. I expect him to continue this momentum into the regular season, and if Eloy can stay healthy, a 50-homer, 120-RBI, .300 average season is not out of the question. He’s just that good. On days where Jiménez either sits or DHs, the Sox have capable outfielders such as Adam Engel, AJ Pollock and part-timers such as Leury García, Andrew Vaughn, and even Gavin Sheets who can take his spot.  

Center Fielder: If he can stay on the field for a majority of this season, I expect Luis Robert to finish top three in MVP voting in 2022. He’s the best player on the White Sox and an all-round physical freak who can do just about everything at an elite level. In a 2021 season that was shortened due to a hip injury in May, Robert had a .338/.378.567 slash line with six steals and 13 homers in 68 games. He had a WAR of 3.2 in just 68 games, which when extrapolated to an even 150 games, comes to 7.0, a number that would have led the Major Leagues. To go along with his offensive production, Robert plays elite defense in center field. He’s really, really fast (90th percentile sprint speed according to Baseball Savant in 2020), has a rocket arm, and hits the ball really hard very often. Spring training has been a breeze for him; he’s had a slash line of .368/.385/.722 in 36 plate appearances. Even if Robert does regress a little bit, you’d still be getting top 5-7 center fielder level play from him. If he can maintain his level of play over the upcoming years, you might be looking at the best player in baseball, ladies and gentlemen. Is that a hot take? Sure, but at his best, the guy can hit for power like Tatis, make contact like Soto, run like Acuna, and throw like Mookie. All that remains to be seen is whether he can put it all together for an extended period of time.  

Right Fielder: Perhaps the Sox’s biggest need of the offseason was to add a right fielder, and they eventually managed to do so with the addition of AJ Pollock from the Dodgers. While he usually plays in left, Pollock showed during his time as a Dodger that he could adapt to playing a different position in the outfield. He put up a DRS (defensive runs saved over average) of three in 2021, the first positive number he has had in this category since 2012. Offensively, he had an OPS of .891. For the upcoming season, he provides some much-needed reliability and production for the White Sox towards the bottom of their order. 

Designated Hitter/Backups: I would expect Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Sheets, Eloy Jiménez, and Yasmani Grandal to alternate at the DH spot. Reese McGuire would fill in for Grandal at catcher, and if Jimenez were to DH, some combination of Pollock, Vaughn, Adam Engel, and Leury García would fill in at the corner outfield spots. If injuries were to occur, look for Romy González, Jake Burger, and maybe even Yoelqui Céspedes to be called up from the minor leagues.  

Starting Pitchers: With Lance Lynn being out for the next month or two, I see the rotation for the Sox to begin the season being Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech, Dallas Keuchel, and either Johnny Cueto or Reynaldo López. Off-season signing Vince Velasquez has not been good in Spring Training, putting up an ERA of over seven and a BAA (batting average against) of over .300. Pitchers’ numbers in spring training are far more volatile than they are for hitters, but Velasquez simply has not shown that he is deserving of a spot in the rotation. The same can be said for Keuchel, who was, statistically speaking, one of the worst starting pitchers in the American League in 2021 and continued that trend into Spring Training, but Keuchel has previously shown that he can pitch at an elite level, so the Sox can have some hope that he can return to that form. Johnny Cueto was added recently, following the injury to Lynn, and if he can replicate his 2021 season as the fifth starter in the rotation, where he had an ERA of about four, it would be considered a job well done.  

Now for the nailed-on starters. Lance Lynn had an outstanding 2021 season and was one of the finalists for the AL Cy Young award, along with Gerrit Cole and Robbie Ray. However, I would expect to see some regression this year from the soon-to-be 35-year-old. His best pitches are all variations of a fastball, and while this has served him well in the recent past, it can be a little predictable. In spite of this, I expect Lynn to have a good season and post an ERA in the early-to-mid 3s while throwing close to 120 innings. 

Michael Kopech is a bit of a wild card. It’s going to be his first season as a full-time starter, and he has never been able to stay on the mound for an extended period of time. With that being said, his talent is off the charts. His fastball can touch 100 miles an hour, and he’s a strikeout artist, landing in the 97th percentile as a reliever in 2021 when it came to strikeout percentage. He also has a wipeout slider that he uses almost 30 percent of the time. When he’s on the mound and pitching, he can truly do it all, with an expected ERA, fastball velocity and xBAA (expected batting average against) all in the 95th percentile. In spite of his limited pitch array (he throws his fastball and slider around 95 percent of the time), I think that he can put up an ERA in the mid threes, solidifying himself as a solid starter in this league before making another big jump in 2023.  

Many have claimed Dylan Cease could be a dark horse Cy Young candidate, and it isn’t hard to see why. In his first season throwing above 100 innings, Cease displayed elite strikeout skills, a deadly 99 mph fastball, and a nasty slider. His production may not have been up to the level that was expected, with an ERA close to four, but the potential is there for all to see. His pitching motion is smooth, and his breaking balls all move a significant amount—his highlight reel is rivaled by few. What Cease needs to do this season is be consistent. He tends to walk a lot of hitters and allows hard contact fairly often, showing that he can sometimes struggle with pitch placement. A full offseason of work with pitching coach Ethan Katz would have been ideal, but that could specifically not happen this season because of the lockout where players and coaches could not interact. Regardless, I expect Cease to be more consistent in 2022 and put up numbers that rival those of aces on other teams. I’d say an ERA in the late twos or the early threes is possible, if not probable.  

And finally, there’s Lucas Giolito. The ace. The model of consistency. If not for a bad start to the 2021 season, there would be far more AL Cy Young consideration being given to Giolito at this point in time. He might not have the thundering fastball of Cease or Kopech, but what you have in Giolito is an all-round pitcher who has developed tremendously since his dismal 2018 season. He possesses the consistency and level-headedness you would expect from an ace, doesn’t give up a lot of hard contact, and has three pitches (fastball, changeup, slider) that he uses over 20 percent of the time, making him highly unpredictable for a hitter to face. Giolito’s also got one of the most unique pitches in the game: a high changeup rarely seen in the major leagues nowadays that he uses quite often to force strikeouts. Simply put, Gio’s elite. He put on about 20 pounds of lower body muscle in the offseason so that he would be able to throw more innings over the course of the season, and I think it will also help him elevate his production. I’d expect him to have an ERA in the mid twos, and the only thing that remains to be seen is how he’ll fare in those tense playoff situations he hasn’t quite experienced before.  

Relievers: The Sox invested heavily in relievers this offseason, and in spite of losing Garrett Crochet to injury and Ryan Tepera and Craig Kimbrel in offseason moves, their bullpen is one of the best in the MLB. Liam Hendriks is an elite closer, the best in the American League, and if he can figure out how to stop giving up the long ball (especially against the Yankees), he’ll likely be the best in the game. Offseason signings Joe Kelly and Kendall Graveman both bring playoff experience, having played in the World Series in the last two years, and they’re both nasty with the ball in their hands. Aaron Bummer had an unlucky 2021 season but was still quite good, and he should take a step up to being one of the best lefty relievers in the American League. Ryan Burr and José Ruiz will probably return to the major leagues after being sent down during the playoffs, while Reynaldo Lopez will likely be the first option in long relief and maybe even have a role to play as a fifth starter following a great comeback season in 2021. Two unknowns will probably be named to the opening day bullpen in Tanner Banks and Kyle Crick. Crick is *nasty*, and may be in play as a permanent bullpen piece for the Sox. Banks is a feel-good story for the Sox, having been called up to the Major Leagues for the first time after eight years in the minors, and his outstanding performance against a stacked Dodgers lineup in Spring Training shows that he is also capable of cementing a spot in the bullpen for the regular season. This is an all-star bullpen with some of the best relievers in the game. Veteran Sox manager Tony La Russa is one of the godfathers of bullpen manipulation, and Rick Hahn has given him quite a lot to work with this season. With the increasingly uncertain starting pitching situation on the backend of the rotation, they will be critical to the Sox’s success throughout the season.  

After reading all of this, you probably want a prediction. I don’t want to disappoint you, but I’m also averse to jinxing my favorite team in the MLB. The AL Central has improved with the Tigers and Twins making some major moves in the off-season and the Guardians and Royals bringing up some big talent from the minors. With all that being said, here’s my prediction: 95 wins, at least one playoff series win. October on the South Side of Chicago is going to be a blast. See you then.