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White Sox set sights on AL Central crown

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Several years removed from perennial contention, the White Sox are on their way back in baseball's new "it" division.

Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers have won the last four AL Central titles. They outlasted the Indians in 2011, the White Sox in 2012, the Indians again in 2013, and finally the Royals this year. At this precise moment in history, it's the Tigers' division and everyone else is just living in it, but that isn't going to last forever. The Tigers are aging and weakening and just about every division rival is trying to be the next Midwestern, DH-loving dynasty.

The Royals are national darlings, but they're losing their ace and were likely playing above their talent during 2014. The Indians look poised to contend in 2015 thanks to a great rotation and a promising great nowhere but good everywhere type of core. The White Sox seemed closer to the Twins than the Tigers, but after an intriguing series of moves appear to be right in the thick of the 2015 discussion.

On Sunday morning, they signed Melky Cabrera to a three year deal worth around $43 million. That will plug a hole in their outfield for around market price and give them another legitimate MLB hitter for the top half of their lineup without tying up payroll for six or seven years. There are plenty of questions about Cabrera as a player, but he's probably above average and shouldn't fall off a cliff in the next three seasons.

So the deal makes sense on its own, but it looks even better in the broader context of their offseason. The Sox also added Zach Duke (3/$15M), Adam LaRoche (2/$25M), David Robertson (4/$46M), and Jeff Samardzija (trade). Put that with odds and ends pieces like J.B. Shuck and Rob Brantley off waivers and no major losses off their 2014 roster and you have yourself a number of upgrades.

They won 73 games a year ago with a BaseRuns expected number of wins at 75. They were a below average team in 2014 and even with the upgrades FanGraphs' model, using Steamer as the projection input, marks them as a 78 win team at the moment. That's ten wins off the Wild Card pace, but Steamer feels a little light on Jose Abreu, Jose Quintana, and perhaps even Melky Cabrera himself. If Avi Garcia grows into his potential a bit and they get something better than replacement level out of their number four or five starter, they're right in the thick of the race.

And that's before they make any further upgrades, which still looks very possible. Put it this way, the White Sox aren't currently the best team in the AL or the AL Central, but they're starting to look like a team poised for long term success much in the way we viewed the Red Sox before 2013.

The White Sox have only a single bad contract on their books (John Danks $15.8M in 2015 and 2016), save for the $4.5 million they're paying Jeff Keppinger for 2015. Their payroll is probably around $110 million as we speak (pending arbitration). Their best players, Abreu, Quintana, and Chris Sale, are locked into very friendly deals for the next few seasons.

If they want to be a team that runs a $130-$140 million payroll, they could be a force for the next several seasons. Could they add a Shields-Scherzer starter with a little creative structuring? Sure. Chase Headley definitely fits. Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, Nori Aoki, or Jake Peavy could make sense. And there are always trade options and the 2016 free agent class.

This is a team with a reasonably competitive roster for 2015 with nothing on the books except good contracts beyond their commitment to John Danks next year. Rick Hahn has made smart move after smart move since taking over as general manager (Hector Santiago became Adam Eaton!), and if they're willing to spend a little more money over the next few years they could be the team that takes over as the Tigers enter the dark years we all expect to arrive in 2017 and beyond.

They have a star at first base. They have one of the game's best pitchers and two very solid number two or three starters. They have a nice little one-two punch in the bullpen. They have mid-level players like Eaton, Cabrera, LaRoche, and Alexei Ramirez. There are holes on their roster, but that's actually what makes them so interesting.

Those gaping holes at second, third, catcher, maybe right field, and the back of the rotation make it easier for them to find upgrades. It's hard to find 3-4 WAR players on the market but there are may more 1-3 win types for them to target and still get the benefits.

If they're interested, there's a clear path for them to the 2015 Wild Card and there's definitely a way to spin this that makes them the team to beat in the AL Central for 2016. Rick Hahn's White Sox aren't acquiring superstars, but they're gathering everything else they need to put around their two or three elite players. And if Carlos Rodon is more Chris Sale than Robbie Ray, they might be looking at another.

A few smart moves don't create a championship team, but the White Sox are on the right path and should have the rest of the division worrying, even if they aren't quite ready to pounce.

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Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, the Site Educator at FanGraphs, and writes enthusiastically at New English D.