2014 Preview: Chicago White Sox

Who is  Jose Dariel Abreu?

The 2013 White Sox were bereft of offense and GM Ken Williams looked this offseason to add top offensive talent without breaking the bank too much. Also, since the team is rebuilding, they wanted to add a player that was younger. Jose Dariel Abreu hit on all of those criteria and the White Sox are looking towards Abreu to have the same impact as Cuban hitting stars Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig.

The massive Abreu has been a power threat in Cuba since he broke into the Serie Nacional at 21. He has been a force since 2010; three times going over 30 home runs in a shorter Cuban season and has exhibited a very good eye. There are a lot of comparisons to Ryan Howard because of his 6’2 260 build and that comparison is a very apt one. Howard walked a good amount and hit for a lot of power, but also struck out a lot, something that Abreu will probably be a victim of as well. That is why it would be smart if the White Sox find some way to construct the lineup as to not have Abreu and Dunn directly next to each other as there would be two strikeout threats in a row.

On the other hand, like with Howard and Dunn, Abreu has elite power. The White Sox would love to see that kind of power in the lineup, as Abreu will be tasked to take the offensive load that was once given to Paul Konerko. He is very raw, but against top talent in the World Baseball Classic, Abreu was very good in 2013, with three home runs and a .360 batting average. Abreu is not your typical rookie at 27 so the White Sox should be ready to plug him in at first base and he should be very successful. A .270 average with 25 home runs is a good starting point for Abreu, with a good chance that he is closer to 30 or 35 home runs. For a team that was offensively lackluster and devoid of power last year, the White Sox would be thrilled with those numbers from the big Cuban Abreu.

When do the White Sox make a move to get some starting pitching?

The White Sox had veteran, yet shaky, starting pitching last year and that did not work out for them as well as they hoped, as they were a statistically average pitching staff. For the 2014 season, the White Sox are taking another angle and trying to go a bit younger with the pitching staff to see if there is depth in the lower parts of the organization. The White Sox already have an excellent starting pitcher in Chris Sale, but if they are going to compete in the American League, they really need to find at least one more starter that they can really trust.

There are not a lot of good pieces for the White Sox to trade and there is not much in the minor leagues for the White Sox to develop, so the White Sox may need to get creative in the way that they find more pitching. Chris Sale is a true ace and Jose Quintana has looked good in his time in the major leagues, but John Danks’ injuries and a lack of development from such pitchers as Charlie Leesman has left the White Sox with Felipe Paulino and Erik Johnson at the back of the rotation. Johnson is a building piece for the future and may be the best player to come out of the improving White Sox farm system, but Paulino is just an arm to throw out there every five days and should not be relied upon for major contributions. The White Sox should start in their minor leagues to find guys to add to the rotation and two guys that should get the first look are Eric Surkamp and Nestor Molina.

Eric Surkamp was a sixth round pick in the 2008 by the Giants out of NC State and was successful coming up through the system for the Giants, posting a 2.73 ERA in 467 1/3 innings between High-A and Triple-A. After a 2011 where Surkamp had a sub-2 ERA between High-A San Jose and Double-A Richmond, he had some elbow troubles, resulting in Tommy John surgery. Before the surgery, Surkamp posted a K/9 of 10.6 and between Triple A and the majors this year; his K/9 was 6.6. Surkamp was already not in the favor of the Giants as he struggled with the strike zone in a brief audition in 2011 and after getting injured in 2012 and not regaining his sharpness in 2013, the Giants cut him loose for the White Sox to sign.

Unfortunately for Surkamp, his first appearance with the White Sox in Spring Training was not good, as he allowed 5 hits and 3 runs in 2 innings of work. The White Sox need to send him back down to Charlotte this season and allow him to regain some of his sharpness before they give him a chance in the majors. The Giants have had a very good track record of promoting young pitchers that have shown success in the minor leagues and they may have rushed Surkamp a bit considering that success. A change of scenery and more of a focus on the process than results will be critical for Surkamp to regain the success that he had in the past.

Nestor Molina was received by the White Sox in the Sergio Santos and in his two years in the White Sox system has been a bit hit or miss. Originally a super utility player in the Twins and Blue Jays systems, Molina moved to pitcher for good in 2008 and was a good reliever in 2008, 2009, and 2010 when in 2011 he moved to being a starter. He tore up the Florida State League with Dunedin and the Eastern League with New Hampshire, accumulating a 2.21 ERA between the two leagues with a sub-1 WHIP and more than 10 K/9. When the Blue Jays looked to add a bullpen arm, the White Sox asked for the hot Molina. He was only decent in his 2012 season with the White Sox after coming in as one of the top White Sox prospects for the season and had a bit of a lost season in 2013, as lingering shoulder issues led to only 36 1/3 innings.

Looking for a better start at 25, Molina should also get a chance in the Charlotte rotation and needs to play up his decent stuff. He is not able to blow batters away and he gets by more with guile and craftiness than skill; Molina needs to play that up as he did in his developmental years. His ERA was a run worse than his FIP over the past two years in the White Sox system which shows that he needs to cut down on his balls in play. The quick analysis would say that Molina minimized his walks and struck out many more batters while in the Blue Jays organization and he needs to get back to that. He needs to get that elite control that he displayed in 2011 and that will improve his results by leaps and bounds.

There may be a chance for the White Sox to have a solid rotation with Molina and Surkamp at the back end, but each have their own issues that they need to fix in the minor leagues first.

How did the White Sox fix their minor leagues?

Amongst all of the issues with the White Sox, there is one good thing: the minor league system was pretty good last year and there are now a couple minor league prospects that may be on the way to Chicago. Coming into the 2013 season, the White Sox had one of the worst farm systems and there were very little, if any players, who would make it to the majors. The system is not going to be a top system going into 2014, but there were some good things that happened during the 2013 season that have made people more bearish on the White Sox minor league system.

In the draft the White Sox addressed a lot of their biggest issues and will be better for it in the long run. As reported earlier, the White Sox do not have a lot of upper level pitching talent, so the White Sox drafted eleven pitchers in the first 20 rounds with a good mix of high school, junior college, and college talent. With the 17th pick of the first round, the team selected shortstop Tim Anderson out of junior college to take over for Alexi Ramirez. Anderson signed right away and was aggressively placed in the South Atlantic League- this will be discussed a bit later. Second round pick Tyler Danish also made it to Kannapolis last year, a good sign for the White Sox that their top picks were able to get into full season minor league baseball in their introductory seasons.

Kannapolis had some very strong prospects last year, a true indicator that Chicago may have a brighter future. As alluded to earlier, Tim Anderson was drafted and sent to Kannapolis, where he had an OBP of nearly .350 and had 5 triples while stealing 24 bases at a 86% success rate. Anderson’s season in the South Atlantic League was great but Micah Johnson was even better. An SAL All-Star at second base, Johnson stole 61 bases in 77 games with a .422 OBP and 11 triples; he made it all the way up to Double-A Birmingham for a bit at the end of the season, maintaining his speed at every level. It is quite easy to see the White Sox imagining Anderson and Johnson in the middle of their infield and top of their lineup for the future. There were some other impressive performances by some other White Sox hitters in Low-A as well, as Jason Coats had 38 doubles and Michael Johnson had a .388 OBP. A couple pitchers were also solid for the 2013 Intimidators as they had four starting pitchers — Mike Recchia, Jake Cose, Myles Jaye, and Tony Buccifero — that had sub-2.50 ERAs in their stints in the South Atlantic league. Stew Brase was solid out of the bullpen as well with a 2.13 ERA.

Winston Salem had an interesting year for developing prospects. Four of the five pitchers that were mentioned above spent varying amounts of time in Winston Salem and they were not nearly as successful; the quartet of Recchia, Jaye, Cose, and Brase had a 4.25 ERA in 256 1/3 innings in High-A. The big pitching prospect in Winston Salem was former second round pick Chris Beck, who had a 3.11 ERA in the Carolina League before he was promoted to Birmingham for the end of the season. The ERA was solid but Beck did not have a good K: BB ratio (1.36) or a good WHIP (1.34); fortunately he was a bit better in Birmingham to finish up the season, but Beck’s low strikeout rate is a bit alarming.

There were two big hitting prospects in Winston Salem and each had odd seasons. Rangel Ravelo was a Low-A all-star in 2012 and started the season there in 2013, struggling through his first 17 games. After that, Ravelo was moved up to Winston Salem and put together a solid season with a .312 average and nearly as many walks (40) as strikeouts (46); a tall and projectable frame might make the 22 year old Ravelo the biggest player to watch in the White Sox organization.

The other big prospect in Winston Salem, in fact the biggest prospect in the system, was 2012 first round pick, outfielder Courtney Hawkins. There were good things that Hawkins did, like having 19 home runs and 10 steals while playing a good centerfield, but there were a couple of things holding the 19 year old athlete back. The two huge issues for Hawkins were the .178 batting average and 160 strikeouts in only 425 plate appearances. There is not a good history for players that have a 37.6% strikeout rate and a 6.8% walk rate — unless they are hitting 45 home runs — but Hawkins was aggressively moved to High-A as an 18 year old in 2012 and the White Sox gave him a full season there at 19 when a lot of his fellow draftees were either in Rookie ball or Low-A. Hawkins should start the season in Double-A, but because he is so young, if he struggles he will not lose any development by moving back to Winston Salem.

Birmingham was the Southern League champions in 2013 and there were a lot of very interesting prospects there. The aforementioned Micah Johnson and Chris Beck were very solid for the team and showed that they could deal with upper level talent. Beck struggled at times in Winston Salem and it was a good thing coming into 2014 that he had a good end to the season in Double-A. Johnson had such success in A-ball that it was great that he was able to get in Double-A and show that his numbers were not a fluke.

There were a couple of players that were very successful for Birmingham because they were a bit too old for the league but they could provide organizational depth. David Cales had a 1.82 ERA in 24.2 innings pitched while in Birmingham; Dan Black had a .881 OPS and 91:98 walk to strikeout ratio; Jake Petricka had a 2.06 ERA in 39.1 innings (which he bested in Charlotte with a 1.17 ERA); and Taylor Thompson was solid in the bullpen with a 2.15 ERA and a 8.2 K/9 (although he was hit very hard in Charlotte).

There were two players in Birmingham that were prospects coming in that fulfilled their expectations and another that developed into being a prospect. Chris Bassitt was a pretty good pitcher in A-ball, but while in Double-A he cut his walks by a bit, worked a bit deeper into the game, and lowered his ERA to 2.27. Erik Johnson came into the Southern League as a big time prospect but no one expected that he would have the season that he did in 2013. After ringing up a 2.23 ERA in Birmingham, Johnson turned it up in Charlotte with a 1.57 ERA. A sub 2 ERA and a sub 1 WHIP with 8.3 K/9 during the 2013 should make Johnson a part of the 2014 White Sox rotation. The Sox hope that Johnson is able to take a place next to Chris Sale at the top of the big league rotation. Marcus Semien played in three different levels in 2013 and there was a reason that he made it to the majors. Semien is a do everything type of player; he plays second, third, and short and hit .290 with more walks (84) than strikeouts (66) and 15 home runs and 20 steals. Semien should also be a part of the 2014 White Sox, using that versatility to fill in for Gordon Beckham, Alexi Ramirez, or Matt Davidson.

For everything good that happened in Birmingham, though, Trayce Thompson disappointed a bit. Thompson was supposed to be the big draw for the Barons, particularly considering that he finished 2012 in Charlotte after having a .899 OPS in Birmingham in 14 games, but he only had a .704 OPS for the season and struck out 139 times. He did have 15 home runs and 25 steals, but his stock may have cooled a bit given his relatively weak season.

Since there was not a lot of upper level talent in the Chicago system, Charlotte did not really have any big prospects other than those that were promoted from Birmingham. Carlos Sanchez is not a horrible prospect, but a .241 average in Charlotte and only 16 steals may have slowed a bit of expectations on Sanchez. He did have a solid winter ball appearance in Venezuela and hopefully he can build on that in 2014.

There is still a long way for the White Sox to go in developing a good farm system but there were some things that happened in 2013 that show that help is coming.

What will the White Sox do about their bullpen?

For the past couple seasons the White Sox have struggled and they have been changing up their bullpen frequently. (In fact, one may say that because the White Sox have been changing up their bullpen frequently, they have struggled.) Coming into 2014, there are a lot questions since the team traded away young and mostly reliable closer Addison Reed and starter Hector Santiago to the Diamondbacks for Matt Davidson and Adam Eaton. For the whole scope of the team, this was a great move as Davidson and Eaton should be solid pillars for the future, but the bullpen is now left without a closer. Through a couple of trades and veteran free agent signings, the team has put together what constitutes a makeshift group. When you look through major and minor league bullpens, the one thing that usually survives is hard throwing pitchers; the White Sox have embraced this and have bred very hard throwing pitchers. The next two “young guns” for the White Sox are Nate Jones and Daniel Webb.

Daniel Webb was picked up by the White Sox in the trade that sent Jason Frasor to Toronto in early 2012 and, after a rough 2012 with Kannapolis in the South Atlantic League, Webb quickly rose from High-A to the major leagues in 2013 with a 2.07 ERA and 10.7 K/9. Once in the majors, Webb flashed a fastball that averaged 96 mph and a slider and changeup that played very well off of his hard fastball. He has had some issues with walks thus far during his young career and those need to be fixed before he is able to sustain that success for a long time. He did a good job of not becoming too reliant on his fastball and that needs to continue as he grows. Although he is not currently listed on the White Sox depth chart, it would be a shock if Webb does not break camp with the team and should be the set man by the middle of the season. There have actually been some that say that he will take over at closer for the next player to be analyzed.

Nate Jones alternated between starting and relieving in the minor leagues before he came up to the majors in 2012 as a reliever. His rookie year was a huge success; in 71 innings, Jones had a 2.39 and featured a 98 mph fastball that was electric. This past season, Jones had a mixed bag of a season. He struck out two more batters per nine, walked one less per nine, cut his WHIP 17 points, and, even though he only allowed 2 more hits, saw his ERA jump to 4.15. The answer to why his numbers looked better but he allowed more runs is quite simple: batters had an .879 OPS with runners in scoring position against Jones. Also, there was a 1.51 difference between his FIP and his ERA in 2013; showing that Jones needs to finish off hitters when runners are in scoring position. If Jones is able to keep advancing in his control and becoming more of a strikeout pitcher there will be fewer runners in scoring position. This is easier said than done but Jones had a lot of good indicators of progress last year and he could be a breakout player for the White Sox this year.

Why are the White Sox going to win 70 games?

The White Sox are in a bad place but they are getting better. The minor league system for the White Sox was disastrous and there was not much young talent on the team. The emerging Chris Sale along with Jose Dariel Abreu and Matt Davidson do provide the White Sox young talent. The minor league system thrived last year and there are a couple players like Micah Johnson and Erik Johnson that could be nice producers for the White Sox in the future. This year may not be the team of 2014, but there are some opportunities for the future. The unfortunate thing for the White Sox is that the division is strong and will even get stronger so the White Sox need to make sure that their young players continue to develop.

5 You Know:

1. Chris Sale

2. Jose Quintana

3. Adam Dunn

4. Alejandro De Aza

5. Alexi Ramirez


5 You Will Know:

1. Erik Johnson

2. Matt Davidson

3. Jose Dariel Abreu

4. Marcus Seimen

5. Micah Johnson


5 You Should Remember:

1. Courtney Hawkins

2. Tim Anderson

3. Trayce Thompson

4. Chris Beck

5. Tyler Danish

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