Over the next couple of weeks, we’re taking a look at some of the most interesting teams in baseball – one contender and one rebuilder from each league. What makes a team “interesting”? Taking advantage of the extreme nature of its ballpark, for a couple of clubs. Bucking some of the game’s most prevalent current trends and having success, for another. Or almost completely breaking from every pattern displayed in a club’s fairly successful recent past. Today, it’s the Chicago White Sox, the most interesting rebuilding team in the American League. It’s interesting in part because it’s been quite awhile since the term “rebuilding” could truly be applied to the inhabitants of US Cellular Field.
THE RECENT HISTORY
Very quietly, the Chicago White Sox were one of the more successful American League clubs between 2000 and 2012. They only reached the postseason three times, winning it all in 2005, but finished under .500 only three times over that span. On two of those three occasions, they were barely under at 79-83. For the vast majority of this period, they ranked among the older teams in the game. What fueled their rise to a decade-plus run as a steady but unspectacular AL contender? It was their last true youth movement, which began way back in the late 1990’s.
In 1998, Magglio Ordonez, then 24, a product of the once-productive Chisox farm system that had delivered Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Ray Durham and Mike Cameron earlier in the nineties, took over in right field. That same year, the club acquired used Cameron to acquire Paul Konerko. Konerko started his long run at first base for the Sox in 1999 at age 23. Another homegrown slugger, Carlos Lee, started his productive run in left field, also at age 23. The following season, two youthful starting pitchers, homegrown lefty Mark Buehrle and righty Jon Garland, stolen from the Cubs for another fungible reliever, Matt Karchner, debuted in their starting rotation at ages 21 and 20, respectively. The Sox won 95 games and their division in 2000, and were well positioned for future success, thanks in large part to the aforementioned five players, ranging in age at that time from 20 to 26. Two more homegrown players, third baseman Joe Crede and center fielder Aaron Rowand, were added to the mix during the 2002 season to further buttress this youthful foundation.
Not all of these players were stars – Garland was basically league average qualitatively, though he ate tons of innings in his prime. Rowand was solid defensively, but really had only two high-quality offensive seasons in his career. Crede’s run of success was cut short by recurring back injuries. And not all of these players were around when the Sox reached the top of the mountain in 2005 – Ordonez had left via free agency to the Tigers the previous winter, less than two months after Lee was dealt to the Brewers for Scott Podsednik. Still, the 2005 World Championship had direct roots in the youth movement that began with Ordonez’ arrival in 1998. Which brings us to…..
THE NEW YOUTH MOVEMENT
It’s one thing to watch the Miami Marlins install multiple rookies – or near-rookies – in their starting lineup at once. It’s quite another to see the normally veteran-laden White Sox do the same. When 2014 is in the record books, it’s quite likely that the Sox will have four such players among their nine primary regular position players.
The centerpiece is Jose Abreu, the massive 6’2″, 258, first baseman, signed to a six-year, $68M deal as a free agent out of Cuba this offseason. Abreu, 27, may not be as athletic as Yoenis Cespedes, but it was he, not Cespedes, or Leonys Martin, or Yulieski Gourriel, who was the most consistently dominant force in Cuba’s Serie Nacional in recent seasons, as well as their most productive offensive player in major international competitions. Some clubs had concerns regarding his relative lack of athleticism and his ability to hit elite level pitching during his free agent courtship, but those whispers seem to have died down this spring, and he has a solid chance to outperform his contract and become a true asset to the Sox.
One of the Sox’ many Achilles’ heels in 2013 was team defense, and in particular, outfield defense. Enter Adam Eaton, 25, acquired this past offseason in a three-way deal that cost them starting pitcher Hector Santiago. Eaton is not a “toolshed”, but is a ballplayer-type that fits the club’s needs perfectly – he’ll get on base at the top of the order and stabilize the outfield defense, allowing Alejandro De Aza to move to a corner platoon or to the fourth outfielder role, where his abilities match up much better. Eaton is a throwback type, one of a dying breed of traditional, profile leadoff men. Even a .350 OBP – he’ll eventually be better than that – and the added defensive stability represents a huge upgrade to the club in areas of critical need.
In right field from Day One this season will be Avisail Garcia, who won’t turn 23 until June. He is the lottery ticket of the group – a 6’4″, 240, monster who oozes raw tools, who was acquired from the Tigers in the three-way Jake Peavy deal last summer.. His minor league track record doesn’t jump off of the page – a .290-.325-.409 slash line, with only 44 homers in 2213 at-bats over parts of six minor league seasons. Don’t be fooled, however, he has always been among the very youngest players at each level, and tore apart the AAA International League to the tune of .374-.420-.540 in 174 at-bats at age 22 last season. His plate discipline has always been poor (488/95 in the minors, 69/12 in 291 MLB at-bats to date), and will require significant improvement for him to provide true impact at the major league level. His upside, however, is the highest of this group of youngsters.
The last of the “big four”, the only one yet to be written in pen into the Sox’ Opening Day lineup, is third baseman Matt Davidson, 23, acquired this past offseason from the Diamondbacks for closer Addison Reed. Davidson has consistently been ranked in the bottom quarter of Top 100 prospect lists over the past three seasons, and has been averaged around 20 homers per year as one of the younger players at each level as he has progressed, albeit with quite high strikeout rates. He projects as an average hot corner defender at best, and isn’t a cinch to stick there. In my opinion, he’s doesn’t quite grade out as an “impact” guy, instead projecting as an average regular with a chance to hit 20 homers per year in the majors, especially in the relatively cozy confines of US Cellular.
Abreu, Eaton, Garcia and Davidson – will they become the Ordonez, Konerko, Lee, Crede and Rowand of this generation? If they stick and perform at least at MLB average levels – which I suspect they will as a group – they could form a significant portion of the nucleus of the Sox’ next championship-caliber club. One can’t help but notice that none of the four were developed in the White Sox’ minor league system, however. What’s up with that?
POTENTIAL MINOR LEAGUE RESURGENCE
While the Sox have been very competitive at the major league level over the past decade-plus, the same cannot be said about their minor league system. Since 2007, Baseball America has ranked their system in the bottom half of the population of MLB clubs every single year. In five of those eight years, they were ranked among the five worst systems. In my own annual rankings of minor league systems, which separate position player and pitcher rankings and rely heavily on age-adjusted performance, Sox’ pitching prospects have ranked no better than 27th in any of the last five seasons, while their position players have ranked in the top half of the rankings three times over that span.
There is good news on this front, however, as Sox position players jumped to 9th in my rankings in 2013, though that was in part attributable to the acquisition of Avisail Garcia. Still, holdover prospects such as infielders Marcus Semien and Micah Johnson and RHP Erik Johnson all could impact the big league club soon, and their top three 2013 draftees, SS Tim Anderson, RHP Tyler Danish and CF Jacob May all had very impressive professional debuts. On top of this, the White Sox will soon get the rare – for them – pleasure of a very high selection – third overall – in this June’s draft, which is shaping up as quite strong at the top. One of North Carolina State LHP Carlos Rodon, East Carolina RHP Jeff Hoffman, Vanderbilt RHP Tyler Beede, Texas prep RHP Tyler Kolek, California prep SS Jake Gatewood, California prep C Alex Jackson or California prep LHP Brady Aiken, to name seven, is likely to be the their pick, and will likely jump straight to the top of the club’s improving top prospect list.
A BAD TEAM WITH A TRUE STRENGTH
Let’s jump back to the big leagues and the Sox’ depressing 2013 season. By any measure, they were a poor offensive club, ranking dead last in the AL in runs scored, and ahead of only the Marlins in the DH-less NL. If you use batted ball authority as your guide, the Sox still ranked last in the AL in projected offense, though they do jump ahead of a handful more of DH-less NL clubs. Defensively, the story was only marginally better. Again, using batted ball data as a guide to determine the difference between actual and projected performance on batted balls in play (excluding homers), the Sox were out-defended by their opponents by the third largest margin in baseball, behind only the Blue Jays and Mariners, with their largest defensive deficiency in their outfield.
Then there’s the White Sox’ pitching. Very rarely do you see a bottom five MLB team with a true strength, but that’s exactly what the Pale Hose had in 2013. Based on my own team rankings utilizing granular batted-ball data, here’s how the other bottom-fivers ranked overall in offense, pitching and defense: Astros, 27th, 30th, 20th; Marlins, 29th, 22nd, 24th; Cubs, 21st, 20th, 21st, and Twins, 23rd, 29th, 24th. The White Sox ranked 25th in team offense and 28th in team defense – but a lofty 9th in team pitching, 3rd in the American League.
Their staff’s K and BB totals both sit squarely in the average range, so it must have been something else that they were doing right to push them so high in the rankings. This “something else” was their ability to manage contact. The Sox allowed only 798 line drives last season – over two standard deviations below the major league average of 888. There’s some luck in that number, as line drive rates are highly variable from year-to-year compared to those of other batted-ball types – but there’s also some skill. The Sox also allowed less damage on those line drives compared to the MLB average, ranking only second in that department to the Dodgers. The table below lists the projected production that “should have been” allowed by each club in the major batted-ball categories last season if each club’s actual batted-ball mix was converted into singles, doubles, triples and homers at MLB average rates for their actual speed and angle at point of contact.
|PROJECTED TEAM PITCHING|
|ADJ FOR BIP SPD/ANGLE|
|2013||K||BB||FLY AVG||FLY SLG||LD AVG||LD SLG||GB AVG||GB SLG||TOT AVG||TOT OBP||TOT SLG||PRJ ERA|
What drove the White Sox’ positive 2013 pitching performance? Well, they had a true #1 and a true #2. The true #1, obviously, was Chris Sale. The true #2, less obviously, was fellow lefthander Jose Quintana. Let’s take a look at their 2013 pitching performances in greater detail, isolating their K and BB rates from their batted-ball type frequency and production information, and then piecing it all back together to get a feel for their true respective talent levels.
|Sale||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Quintana||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
The first table lists the batted-ball type frequencies as percentages, in relative terms to MLB average, scaled to 100, and as percentile ranks. Sale’s exceptional K and BB rates (91 and 17 percentile ranks) drove his ace-level performance. Quintana’s ability to induce popups (86 percentile rank) and minimize line drives (9 percentile rank) highlight his frequency table.
The second table lists actual production allowed on the major batted ball types. The “REL PRD” column lists the run value of the actual production allowed relative to MLB average, scaled to 100. The “ADJ PRD” column adjusts that relative figure for ballpark, team defense, luck, etc., to more accurately gauge the pitchers’ true talent. In the three right-most columns, the pitchers’ actual ERA, their calculated component ERA (which weeds out sequencing) and “tru” ERA, which adjusts for ballpark, team defense, luck, etc., are listed. SH and SF are counted as outs, and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation for the purposes of this exercise.
Sale’s production table is relatively uneventful. He got a bit lucky on flies and liners, but that was offset by bad fortune on grounders. Adjusted for context, his adjusted relative production on all BIP was 98, just a tad better than MLB average. Quintana, however, is a different story. Not only did he allow relatively few liners in 2013, he also allowed relatively weakly-hit ones, to the tune of a 90 adjusted relative production figure. Among all of the starting pitcher profiles I’ve studied this offseason, only Madison Bumgarner (87) and Clayton Kershaw (88) allowed weaker line drive contact.
This, along with the high popup rate allows Quintana’s adjusted relative production figure on all BIP to drop to 89, a very strong figure exactly matched by the likes of Gio Gonzalez, Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright last season. Toss in Quintana’s solid K and BB rates, and it’s a truly solid overall package – his “tru” ERA of 3.35 (87 relative to the league) is even better than his actual ERA, and again places him within range of the likes of Gonzalez (84) and Greinke (83) among the MLB starting pitcher population.
Going forward, there is obviously regression potential for Quintana, especially in the areas of line drive frequency and authority. He’s been brutal this spring, and there is some resulting concern for his health, but hey, it’s only spring training, so I wouldn’t get worked up just yet. Bottom line – Jose Quintana, a humble six-year minor league free agent signee out of the Yankees’ system, is a talent, and if healthy, isn’t going away anytime soon. The Sox’ pitching ranking could take somewhat of a hit this season, as Peavy, Reed and Santiago were all sent away to fortify areas of greater need. The Sox do have a solid track record of “coaching up” their pitching, and a top two of Sale and Quintana is a great place to start the building of a quality staff.
The Chicago White Sox will not lose 99 games this season. I wouldn’t quite call them a contender, but a scenario can be constructed in which they sneak into a wildcard spot. I’ll go out on a limb and peg them for third in the AL Central this season, behind the Tigers and Indians, and just ahead of the Royals. It’s a coin flip between the Astros and White Sox for the title of most improved club in baseball, in my opinion. Most likely, this will be remembered as the year that multiple blocks were laid in the foundation of the next very good White Sox club. It should be fun to watch.
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