The Chicago White Sox were set to head into 2016 with renewed expectations, at least to an extent. While they seemed to ignore several prominent free agent, or trade, options that could have improved their ballclub, they did make several additions to a lineup that now looks completely overhauled from last year. These moves, of course, focused on lower risk additions rather than the marquee moves that Rick Hahn made in the winter of 2014-2015.
Unfortunately, whatever positives came with those changes were overshadowed with the far-too-extensive Adam LaRoche nonsense, which has left a dark mark lingering over Camelback Ranch this spring. A team that already had their work cut out for them in order to make the playoffs now has to shake off the stigma that comes along with that fiasco, as they fight to stay out of the cellar of a difficult American League Central. While moving past that should be somewhat easy for them internally, they may still head into the 2016 season with more questions than answers.
Depth Chart (as of 3/30)
C: Alex Avila
1B: Jose Abreu
2B: Brett Lawrie
SS: Jimmy Rollins
3B: Todd Frazier
LF: Adam Eaton
CF: Austin Jackson
RF: Avisail Garcia
DH: Melky Cabrera
SP: Chris Sale
SP: Jose Quintana
SP: Carlos Rodon
SP: Mat Latos
SP: John Danks
CL: David Robertson
New Faces: Brett Lawrie, Todd Frazier, Austin Jackson, Mat Latos, Jimmy Rollins, Alex Avila, Dioner Navarro, Travis Ishikawa
Departures: Tyler Flowers, Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche, Conor Gillaspie, Trayce Thompson, Frankie Montas
Position Battles: Catcher could be an intriguing position for the White Sox throughout 2016. It’s undoubtedly upgraded after slinking through the 2015 season with Tyler Flowers behind the dish, as the Sox added both Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro. Avila has dealt with back problems this spring, and hasn’t been good offensively when he’s been in the lineup. Whether or not that bodes well for Navarro, though, remains to be seen. When Avila is healthy, this will likely be more of a platoon situation until someone can latch on to the starting job on a more permanent basis.
Shortstop features its own murky picture as the new season opens up. The Sox brought in veteran Jimmy Rollins to compete with Tyler Saladino, though nobody has exactly run away with the gig this far in the spring. Both were below average offensive players last year, though Rollins was quite a bit better even then. His .246 BABIP certainly held him back, and running into a bit better luck could benefit him. Again, though, we could be looking at more of a platoon situation until someone actually takes the job. It’s worth noting that Rollins has had the offensive edge during spring training, and, given his status as a more established veteran, he could be the guy to get the first real shot.
Injury Concerns: Even with as much of a disaster as their 2015 season was, it was a year in which the roster remained largely healthy, at least in terms of avoiding significant injuries. The projected top three in the rotation, in Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon, should be in top form to start the year, from a physical perspective. Mat Latos has battled injuries over the course of the last couple of years, so it’ll be interesting to see if the trend continues, as far as Chicago’s ability to maintain health.
In the lineup, Brett Lawrie played in a career high 149 games and only two projected starters (Rollins & Austin Jackson) appeared in less than 150. The exception to this could be Alex Avila, who dealt with injury last year and has had his own back issues this spring. One hopes that those spring issues aren’t something of the nagging variety.
Key Player: We know about Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, and even Todd Frazier. But Carlos Rodon’s growth is going to be paramount if the White Sox are going to contend in 2016. We know he has electric stuff, with that mid-90s fastball and an absolutely devastating slider. But he needs to develop his pitches beyond that, as well as reign in his control issues (4.59 BB/9). If he can continue improving that command, as well as progressively work that changeup in as regularly as possible, he’s going to be an absolute force on the bump as early as this year. Doing so would certainly put the White Sox in the conversation for the best 1-3 starting pitchers in the American League.
Underrated Asset: I’ve been a big Brett Lawrie guy for a while, and one hopes that this might be the stop for him where he finally figures it out. There were certainly flashes in Oakland last year. He maintained a pretty solid line drive rate, while making soft contact less than 17 percent of the time, a marginal improvement from the previous two years. He could stand to walk more and strike out less, but the uptick in power (.148 ISO) could be a sign of good things to come, especially at U.S. Cellular Field. A healthy season with improved numbers in many respects could definitely be a springboard into 2016 for Lawrie.
Burning Question: Do the White Sox have the offense to keep up with the rest of their division?
The White Sox were 28th in the league in runs scored last year, with the other four teams in the division inside the top 18 in the league. They made some additions here, almost completely overhauling their infield, but the offensive impact of Lawrie, Rollins, and Avila remains to be seen. Todd Frazier will obviously help. But that trio, as well as the likes of Austin Jackson and Avisail Garcia in the outfield, will have to be at least average offensively in order for the Sox to make the strides that they’re hoping to on offense.
Best Case Scenario: As negative a tone as I’ve maintained throughout this preview, it is possible for the White Sox to contend in 2016. They likely have the starting pitching to do it, if Rodon can continue to develop and Mat Latos and John Danks can at least be average. Pitching overall, including the bullpen, should be improved thanks to improved defense alone. Austin Jackson may be an offensive disappointment, but he’s a strong defender. Moving Eaton over to left will also prove beneficial. Todd Frazier is an above average fielder at third, and any improvement from Lawrie will be welcome. The key is the offense. They’ll have to get continued improvement from Lawrie, as well as have Jackson be a somewhat regular contributor. Melky Cabrera, the de facto DH, will have to bounce back. Offensive questions abound, but if they can plate runs, they have the pitching and the improved defense to contend in a division that is tough, but could also go in any number of ways.
Worst Case Scenario: How a worst case scenario would play out for the White Sox isn’t exactly a mystery. It probably looks something like last year. Continued struggles out of the bullpen, failure to score runs, and poor defensive play cost the Sox last year. And while they did overhaul much of their lineup, it doesn’t necessarily mean a turnaround in 2016. They’re banking on guys like Lawrie and Rollins, as well as Austin Jackson, to continue to improve, or in Rollins’ case, bounce back. It’s a dangerous proposition, to be sure, as there isn’t a clear cut source of offense behind Abreu, Frazier, and Eaton. If they don’t get secondary production, it ultimately won’t matter what the pitching or defense do.
Realistic Prediction: The White Sox are going to be better. They made additions to address some of their shortcomings, particularly on defense. But with such low-risk additions, it’s hard to see them improving significantly where they really need it: on offense. This is at least true on paper. They could be a streaky team, but even if the pitching comes along as it should, it’s difficult to see them above .500, though they should linger there quite a bit. If they can add an offensive piece or two as the year wears on, they could definitely be in better standing than that mark.