2007 Team Preview: Chicago White Sox

2006 W-L: 90-72 (3rd place)

2006 Pythag: 88-74

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:
Darin Erstad, Gavin Floyd, Nick Masset, John Danks, Toby Hall, David Aardsma, Andy Sisco, Gio Gonzalez, Luis Terrero

Going:
Brandon McCarthy, Freddy Garcia, Neal Cotts, David Riske, Dustin Hermanson

The White Sox In a Nutshell:

In 2005, the stars aligned for the White Sox pitching staff, giving the team one of the best rotations from 1 through 5 in the league to support an extremely powerful offense. That powerful offense hasn't gone anywhere, but the starting rotation went back to wherever it came from.

This offseason, Kenny Williams did most of his work on that very rotation, focusing more on the long-term future than the upcoming season. John Danks, Nick Masset, Gio Gonzalez, and Gavin Floyd may make up a stellar rotation in 2009, but in '07, the loss of Freddy Garcia and the lack of other experienced options will keep the Sox well out of the playoff hunt.

Offense:

Despite Ozzie Guillen's eccentric protestations to the contrary, the White Sox offense is built around the home run. Last year, four guys hit 30 or more longballs, with three more starters at 16 or higher. The team total was best in the league, and it wasn't even close.

What's most striking about this unit, though, is the difference between the power positions and the...shall we say, Podsednik positions. While the Sox were solid at C, 1B, 2B, RF, and DH, and respectable at 3B, the other three spots were just horrendous. Worst of all, Kenny Williams did nothing to solve any of those problems.

The biggest offensive sinkhole was Brian Anderson, a solid defensive center fielder, but now 24 years old and unable to get on base more than 29% of the time. I don't know what the defensive difference would be between Anderson and Rob Mackowiak, but it would have to be huge to justify playing Anderson's 225/290/359 bat over Mackowiak's 290/365/404.

ZiPS predicts that Anderson will recover to 247/312/392, but that's still quite underwhelming. Not much worse than what ZiPS thinks of Scott Podsednik's chances in 2007: 261/331/354, to be exact. Perhaps Williams is willing to punt a couple of positions on offense in exchange for some defensive gain (real or perceived, I'm not sure), but it wouldn't take much to improve on those two weak spots.

Darin Erstad is likely to make the team, but he probably won't constitute an improvement over Anderson or Podsednik, except perhaps a bit on defense. The only chance Chicago has to give their offense a boost is if Josh Fields is gifted the starting job in left field, and he hits almost immediately upon arrival. I'd take my chances with Fields over Podsednik, but it doesn't look likely that Williams and Guillen share my thinking.

Also troublesome is Juan Uribe's production at shortstop. His power almost pushes his OPS up to 700, but his on-base percentage was an absolutely dreadful .257 last year. For those of you keeping score at home, that's only two points better than Sandy Alomar Jr. managed as the Sox backup catcher. As in center field, Chicago may have a better option on their bench, in Alex Cintron.

There's not a lot of hope for improvement at those three weak spots, and there's not much reason for optimism in the rest of the lineup, either. Jim Thome remains something of an injury risk; he'll hit when healthy, but if he only gets 500 PAs instead of 600, that'll hurt. Jermaine Dye is likely to have another solid season, but it's a stretch to predict he'll match his MVP-quality 2006 numbers.

This will still be a good offense; it might well be among the top three in the league again. But it won't improve much (if at all), and as we'll see, the rest of the squad isn't going to pick up the slack.

Starting Rotation

The focus of the Sox offseason was the rotation. Brandon McCarthy (one of only two sixth starters in baseball last year who only got a handful of starts) was shipped off to Texas, while Freddy Garcia (and his salary) went to Philadelphia.

In exchange, Chicago got a nice pile o' prospects: Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez from the Phillies and John Danks and Nick Masset from the Rangers. At the moment, Danks is the frontrunner for this year's #5 slot; it wouldn't surprise me to see Danks, Masset, and Floyd all find themselves making starts at some point during the season. It also wouldn't surprise me if none of them were any good until at least 2008.

More important, though, are the four guys who are coming back. As I mentioned above, the Sox rotation came back to earth from their excellent '05. That isn't to say they're primed for a resurgence. The front five--Garcia, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Javier Vazquez, and Jose Contreras--all had an ERA+ of at least 93 (above average for a starter) and make at least 30 starts. Combined, those five guys made 159 starts.

After a similar performance in '05, health-wise, it looks like the White Sox medical staff may really be doing something right. However, let's not get carried away: they've been both good and lucky. One pop-up chasing collision and you have two replacement-level starters in the rotation, not one; add an injury to the aging Contreras, and it's easy to see this team matching PECOTA's much-ballyhooed 72-win projection.

Of the likely rotation insurance after the front four, only Masset and Charlie Haeger have ZiPS ERA projections under six. If it weren't for the Sox high payroll and Williams's bluster, it'd be easy to view this is a rebuilding year; it would take much more good fortune than it did in '05 to turn this squad into a contender.

I haven't written much about the prospects for the front four simply because, besides the ever-present health risks, there's not much variance in their performance. I expect that every one of them will be somewhere between a 90 and 110 ERA+; Buehrle seems due for a slight bounce back, while Contreras's age suggests to me that he may slip a bit. All in all, I don't see that four-man unit changing very much.

All that said, I don't necessarily think that Williams's offseason moves were bad, just that they weren't geared toward winning in 2007. I don't expect him to admit it, but he must realize this, as well. If even a couple of his young acquisitions turn into a good pitchers, he comes out ahead, but that advantage will show up in the win-loss records of future White Sox teams at the expense of this year's.

The Bullpen

The bullpen has an even bigger range of possible outcomes than the back end of the rotation does. I wrote about the White Sox relievers at some length in this Hardball Times article, so I'll try not to repeat myself too mcuh.

If everybody's healthy (a big "if," as always), Bobby Jenks, Matt Thornton, and Mike MacDougal ought to be solid. Many teams would like a closer and set-up corps like that. However, it's anybody's guess what the Sox get beyond that trio. Again, it looks more like the relief corps of a rebuilding team than that of a contender.

If the White Sox do find themselves in the middle of a race, all those starting prospects may well find themselves in relief duty. Danks, Masset, and perhaps Gonzalez all have the stuff to make it as short relievers, even if that isn't the best use of their talent. For a half-season chasing 90 wins, though, it'd be fun to see what Danks could do in the 7th inning.

All Together Now

As you can probably tell by now, I'm not optimistic about the White Sox chances in 2007. I'm not as pessimistic as PECOTA's 72-90 forecast, but it's easy to see this team on the wrong side of .500 at the end of the year. As it so often does, it'll depend on the health of the starting rotation; while many of Chicago's division rivals have quality starting rotations 7 or 8 men deep, the White Sox are really only reliable down to #4.

Worst of all, like the Reds, who I previewed yesterday, the White Sox don't have a lot of upside on an aging team. While Buerhle or Vazquez could turn in a Cy Young-caliber performance, it's tough to see much improvement coming out of any other part of the club. Improving on last year's 90-win showing (which will probably be necessary to advance out of the AL Central), would require a confluence of fortune even exceeding that favored the World Champions two seasons ago.

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