They say you shouldn't mess with success. However, Bernie Horowitz doesn't run the Chicago White Sox, so many people were surprised when GM Kenny Williams handed over the reins to Rick Hahn following the 2012 season.
You probably don't realize it, but for the first thirteen seasons of this millennium, the White Sox were one of the consistently good teams in baseball. They were above .500 in all but three of those years, and they won a title in 2005. One might be tempted to give Williams the credit for that impressive output, and one might also fault Hahn for the team's pitiful 2013 display; this would be most unwise.
The horrid 2013 notwithstanding, Hahn's tenure has seen the White Sox transform into an erudite organization, through a few trades and a key international signing. While their newfound sagacity won't result in victories in 2014, the years beyond that might see a return to the competitive days of yore.
2013 Season in Review
The baseball cognoscenti didn't expect the White Sox to do well in 2014 — PECOTA saw 77 wins in their future, and FanGraphs's 80-win forecast wasn't much better — but then again, the White Sox are never expected to do well. In 2013, however, they finally lived down to expectations, sputtering their way to their worst winning percentage (.389) since 1929.
The onus for their failure falls on their position players, who performed reprehensibly in 2013: Their WAR of 3.2 was the third-worst mark in baseball, besting only the Astros and the Marlins. From veterans (combined WAR of -3.3 from Jeff Keppinger and Paul Konerko) to youngsters (Avisail Garcia, Dayan Viciedo, Tyler Flowers, and Josh Phegley — more on those former two later — were all sub-replacement-level), all of the hitters with non-A names* came up short.
Unaffected by the putridity of their hitting counterparts, the South Siders' pitching excelled — their starters and relievers had the 15th-best WAR (11.6) and the third-best WAR (5.8), respectively, in the majors. The obvious name is Chris Sale, whose 5.1 WAR was the ninth-best in the majors. He wasn't alone, though; Jose Quintana — whatever he is — built off his 2012 success on his way to 3.7 WAR, and the since-departed Hector Santiago and Jake Peavy provided respectable numbers (1.5 and 1.1 WAR, respectively) in limited action (130.2 and 80.0 innings, respectively). In the bullpen, Nate Jones, Jesse Crain, Addison Reed, and Matt Lindstrom each contributed at least a win. Nevertheless, the solid pitching couldn't compensate for the unsatisfactory hitting; hence, only 63 wins on the year.
Key Offseason Moves
I think this is the deal that has the potential to turn out to be the best move any team made all winter, even though it comes with some pretty decent sized risk.
Abreu's not adept with the glove or on the basepaths (generally factors for some worry); he's already 27, so he might have passed his peak; and he played in Cuba for the last several years, which makes him difficult to project (although that hasn't stopped people from trying). Despite all of these factors, Cameron and others loved this deal, which speaks to how impressive Abreu's hitting prowess should be. ZiPS foresees him overcoming his fielding incompetence, to the tune of 2.6 WAR. If he can sustain two-win production for the six years of this contract, it'll be worthwhile, and he could easily surpass that.
Traded Hector Santiago and Brandon Jacobs in a three-team trade; received Adam Eaton. As readers of this blog should know, ERA pales in comparison to other skill estimators for pitchers; thus, Santiago's 4.65 2013 xFIP is probably more indicative of his talent than his 3.56 2013 ERA. Hahn managed to capitalize on Santiago's luck and paired him with a fringe major leaguer to get a bona fide player in return. While Eaton's 2013 (-0.5 WAR in 277 PAs) left much to be desired, hives (which he had for the majority of last year) probably played a role in it; now that he's fully recovered, he should be able to recapture his potential. His immediate projection (1.6 zWAR for 2014) is modest, but don't be fooled — in the long run, this trade will be a clear win for the Sox.
Traded Addison Reed to the Diamondbacks in exchange for Matt Davidson. What did Kevin Towers ever do to Rick Hahn? Reed has a career ERA of 4.14, with so-so peripherals (3.78 xFIP), and he's a relief pitcher — the most fickle position in baseball. Davidson has three years on Reed (he's 22, Reed is 25), and he hit well last year in AAA (117 wRC+ in 500 PAs, albeit in the PCL). In general, reliever-for-position-player trades turn out better for the team receiving the batter, and this is no exception. Davidson will start the season in the minors, and he won't help the White Sox much in 2014 (1.7 zWAR in 600 PAs), but he's got the potential to stick as the third baseman for the next great Sox team. Like with the Eaton trade, Chicago fleeced Arizona.
2014 Chicago White Sox Consensus Top 33 Prospects
What is the consensus ranking for each of the White Sox top prospects?
One Two To Watch
If they plan on returning to contention in 2015, the White Sox will have to settle a few intriguing position logjams, one of which is in the outfield. With the aforementioned acquisition of Eaton, the White Sox should have four outfielders on their roster come Opening Day: Eaton, De Aza, Viciedo, and Garcia. Of them, De Aza's the only one with proven success (2+ WAR in each of the last three seasons), and Eaton probably has the highest ceiling (as was discussed above); that leaves Viciedo and Garcia as the ones with the most to prove.
Their profiles are pretty similar: Both are "toolsy" and have power potential, but poor plate discipline and middling (at best) fielding have held them back. Viciedo came up with the Sox, whereas Garcia came over in the Peavy trade. Viciedo's the older of the two (25 to Garcia's 22), and he has more major league experience to go with it (1235 PAs to Garcia's 307). Viciedo's performance last year (-0.1 WAR in 473 PAs) wasn't easy to look at — for fans or for the Sox themselves; Garcia wasn't any better (-0.1 WAR in 168 PAs).
How will this duo do in 2014? Steamer projects a .320 wOBA for Garcia, but the fans foresee a .359 mark — a difference that's the highest in baseball. No such discrepancy exists for Viciedo; the fans (.332 wOBA) are just about as pessimistic as Steamer (.327). Their Steamer and ZiPS WARs reflect this negativity — only Garcia's zWAR is above one.
Again, none of the four outfielders is spectacular — De Aza has the highest zWAR, at 1.8 — but, since the Sox won't do much this season anyway, each of them should get their fair share of playing time. For Viciedo and Garcia, this could be the make-or-break year; they might have to outplay their projections if they want a spot on the roster in 2015.
White Sox By The Numbers
The White Sox were objectively terrible in 2013 — their 63-99 record was the third-worst in the majors. Their pitching shouldn't be held accountable for that, though, as their staff finished with the eighth-most WAR in the majors. How rare is it for a team to have a bottom-five record in spite of top-ten pitchers? In the sixteen years of thirty teams, only two other teams have done that: the 2009 Royals (eighth-best pitching, fourth-worst record), and the 1999 Expos (seventh-best pitching, fifth-worst record).
The Sox as a whole will probably maintain their pathetic 2013 output in 2014 (FanGraphs sees them as the fourth-worst team in baseball), but will the pitching continue its superiority as well? According to FanGraphs's Depth Charts, their starters should be just as effective (16th in MLB, compared to 15 last year), as Erik Johnson and Felipe Paulino can ably make up for Santiago's absence. The bullpen might regress, though — all the way to 16th — which is primarily attributable to the egresses of Reed and Crain. This all adds up to a much more mediocre (and appropriate) 17th-overall ranking for the hurlers in 2014. Overall, this was probably a one-year fluke (though an interesting one at that).
2014 Team Outlook: More Struggles On The South Side
The future looks bright in the Windy City (for both of its teams); sadly, 2014 isn't the future. The Sox won't do much this year; Steamer and PECOTA both project a fourth-place finish, ahead of only the Twins in the always-weak AL Central. Thanks to Hahn, though, the foundation is in place for the next South Siders dynasty. As Tony Blengino wrote last week, the White Sox certainly are interesting; in 2015, that interest might lead to some results.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Ryan Romano writes for Beyond the Box Score, the FanGraphs Community blog, and Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Community, Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC. Cool. Coolcoolcool.