.233/.288/.346: The triple-slash line of the White Sox's combined second base, third base, and shortstop spots last season. Compare that to the .260/.318/.396 line put up by those positions overall last year - that's 27 points of batting average, 30 of OBP, and 50 of slugging. Kevin Youkilis (.236/.346/.425) was one of the few bright spots at the trio of positions, but he's gone to New York, replaced by the imported Jeff Keppinger. Gordon Beckham (.234/.296/.371) and Alexei Ramirez (.265/.287/.364) return as middle infield starters, and both desperately need to provide more on-base ability. Continued struggles in this department should push the Sox to turn to other options, both internal and external, to fill these spots. Paul Konerko can't carry the infield all by himself, and this contending team can't afford to punt on multiple positions.
26.5%: The outfield fly percentage of the White Sox pitching staff last season, highest in the majors. US Cellular Field is known as a hitter's haven, and while the offense generally takes some advantage of this (25.3% outfield fly, tenth in baseball), the pitching staff's flyball tendencies don't fit the home park well, resulting in the seventh-highest number of home runs allowed in the majors in 2012. Closer Addison Reed and ace Jake Peavy are extreme flyball pitchers, and most of the rest of the bullpen (Hector Santiago, Brian Omogrosso, Jesse Crain, Donnie Veal) isn't especially adept at keeping the ball on the ground. Improvement in this area would play better to the park, and it would also help maximize the strengths of the punchless middle infield corps, most notably Ramirez, who is a plus defender at shortstop.
Key Offseason Moves
Signed INF Jeff Keppinger to three-year, $12 million deal: Keppinger was a revelation for the Rays last season, hitting .325/.367/.439, easily his best numbers since 2007. Nearing his 33rd birthday, he's unlikely to repeat that again, but he's always made a ton of contact (7.4% K last year, 6.4% career), he works well defensively at third base, and he absolutely destroys lefthanded pitching. The three-year commitment seems excessive for a guy who has only twice been anything near an everyday player and has three near-replacement level seasons in his last five, but the financial investment isn't all that significant, and Keppinger should be a big upgrade on the Brent Morels of the world.
Signed RHP Matt Lindstrom to one-year, $2.8 million deal with $4 million option for 2014: Lindstrom may never have developed into the strikeout monster his raw velocity suggests he could be (career 18.6% K), but his addition is crucial to establishing some groundball ability in the bullpen. Lindstrom had a 50.7% groundball rate and 19.2% outfield fly rate last year, and he's handled hitter-friendly environments (most notably Coors Field) well before. He's also been at least somewhat reliable, especially by reliever standards, with at least 46 games pitched each of the last six years and at least 0.7 WAR in five of those six campaigns. Odds are, then, that the 33-year-old flamethrower proves a worthy investment and adds to a solid bullpen.
Traded minor league RHP Jeff Soptic to San Francisco for 3B Conor Gillaspie: Speaking of flamethrowers, the White Sox deemed Soptic expendable despite a fastball that regularly touches 98 mph. A third-round pick in 2011, the towering righthander has struggled to consistently command his fastball-slider combination as a professional, but he does retain high upside as a potential late-game reliever. In exchange for the intriguing Soptic, the White Sox acquired the relatively boring but solid Gillaspie, who has put up two straight solid years in Triple-A and should be a nice bench option who can spell Keppinger against righthanders. Gillaspie also prevents the team from having to turn to Brent Morel and his career 61 wRC+ in the case of a Keppinger injury, which reinforces the hot corner after the team struggled mightily there last season before Youkilis' arrival.
Traded RHP Brandon Kloess to San Diego for OF Blake Tekotte: Kloess is 28 and has yet to throw an MLB pitch, but he boasts a career 2.48 ERA, including an even-better 2.13 in the upper minors. A former independent leaguer, he should be a nice middle reliever for the Padres. Tekotte once held all-around promise, but his skills have faded over time, and he's notably struck out in 25 of his 55 MLB plate appearances. He's shown power, speed, discipline, and defensive ability at different points in his career, but he had an abysmal 2012 (.243/.284/.402 in a hitter's league) in Triple-A and profiles more as a Triple-A mainstay than a big leaguer as he nears his 26th birthday. The White Sox may have acquired the player with higher upside in this deal, but Kloess is a far safer bet than Tekotte to be a big league producer.
Signed RHP Jake Peavy to two-year, $29 million extension with option for 2015: It's hard to believe Peavy hasn't even turned 32 yet, as he has over 1800 innings to his name. Last year was his first 200-inning season since 2007, and his first 120-inning campaign since 2008, but he's always been good when healthy, and there's reason to believe he'll stay healthy enough to produce the six or so wins above replacement required to make this deal worth it for the White Sox. At the pace he's compiled numbers, he might not even need 300 innings over the two seasons to meet that benchmark.
Signed LHP Chris Sale to five-year, $32.5 million extension with two options: Sale was, of course, a revelation last season, putting up 4.9 WAR and a 192/51 K/BB in 192 innings. If he's healthy for all five years of this contract, the White Sox should profit enormously. With his busy, awkward mechanics, though, health is a big question for Sale going forward. As with Peavy, Sale won't need a perfect attendance record to justify this deal because he's so effective when he's right-again, going by the $5 million/1 WAR standard, a contribution of 6-7 WAR over the life of this deal (or just over 1 WAR/season!) makes this palatable for Chicago. Obviously, the hope is that he'll do much more than that, as this is quite a sizeable commitment to a pre-arbitration player.
The White Sox are largely a veteran team, so many of their roster spots are taken by longtime players such as Paul Konerko, Alex Rios, Matt Thornton, Jake Peavy, and Gavin Floyd. The catcher position turns over from the departed A.J. Pierzynski to Tyler Flowers, who is looking to bounce back from a season in which he hit .213 with a .296 on-base percentage and ghastly 36.6% strikeout rate. Keppinger slots in at third, replacing the departed Kevin Youkilis. Addison Reed will have his first full year in the closer role, Jose Quintana looks to have his first full year in the rotation after a strong 2012, and slider specialist Dylan Axelrod should open the year as the fifth starter with John Danks on the DL. Gordon Beckham returns for yet another try at the second base spot, but he could be quickly supplanted by prospect Carlos Sanchez if Beckham struggles and Sanchez hits well with Triple-A Charlotte.
The White Sox don't enter the season as AL Central favorites, as the Tigers are the unquestioned top dog at this point in time, but Chicago should compete with the up-and-coming Royals for second place in the division. They retain a strong rotation and a solid bullpen and offense, and where they fall in the 80-90 win range will likely depend on injuries and luck.
Erik Johnson starts a game for the team before September. A second-round pick in 2011, Johnson rolled through A-ball in his first pro season, most notably posting a 2.74 ERA and 1.92 FIP in 49 1/3 innings with High-A Winston-Salem. A big guy with incredible polish, Johnson has a 90-92 mph fastball and two very impressive breaking pitches, a hard slider at 85-88 mph and a big curveball in the mid-70s. Even though he has a mere 94 1/3 professional innings, Johnson already has an MLB pitcher's arsenal and command, and there is little room for him to improve on either his pitch quality or selection. He may only have the ceiling of a good fourth starter, but it should become quickly apparent in 2013 that he's already basically reached it. Don't be surprised to see him in the White Sox rotation around the All-Star Break in the case of injury or ineffectiveness of any of the South Siders' starting quintet.