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This winter is a key offseason for the Chicago White Sox

The White Sox have some long-lasting decisions to make this offseason because the AL Central is, well....complicated.

Oakland Athletics v Chicago White Sox Photo by Tasos Katopodis /Getty Images

The American League Central is an overlooked, and often under-respected division. Cleveland had a run as one of the top AL teams, making it so far as Game Seven of the Wrold Series, and the Twins were in the playoffs for a hot-minute last season, but overall, the division is not included in the upper-eschelon of competitiveness as the AL East, AL West, or NL West. Having only one team this season with a positive run differential only furthers the point.

Since the Royals dual-World Series runs in 2014 and 2015, they have taken major steps back, never finishing above .500 or closer than 13.5 games in the division since their World Series victory over the Mets. Over the last few years, they have been going backwards, becoming less relevant every season.

The Tigers have had their ups-and-downs over the last 15 years, serving as perennial contenders for a good half-decade. Their inconsistency and old age however, caught up with them in 2015, when after having won the division for five consecutive seasons, they finished in dead last, 20 games out of first place, with a 74-87 record. The future is grim since then GM, Dave Dombrowski sold the future to get the late Mike Ilitch another taste of the Commissioners Trophy; but it was not meant to be, and Dombrowski left a stripped farm system to join the Red Sox (and subsequently lead them to another World Championship).

Last season the Twins made an unexpected playoff run, led by centerfielding phenom Byron Buxton. Minnesota performed better than expected in 2017, but never caught really came close to catching Cleveland, a clearly superior team. Although they did manage to earn their way to the American League wild card game, the playoff run was short-lived. The Twins sunk back into mediocrity a year later, and the blink-of-an-eye playoff appearance faded into a distant memory. Despite a second-place finish in the Central this season, the Twins disappointing performance in 2018 is not encouraging heading into 2019. The Twins do have a track-record of exceeding expectations, and then underwhelming in a short period of time, so while 2019 could be another bounce-back year, few would bet on that happening.

The Indians are coming off three consecutive AL Central wins, but rumors abound that they are considering lowering their payroll and trading some major impact players.

What a shame it would be if the Indians essentially threw in the towel to make other super-teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, or Dodgers even better than they already are. We can discuss at length what utter garbage this would be if it came to pass, and how if Cleveland is going to start dismantling a cost-effective and proven 100-win team, ownership should be forced to sell the team, but I digress. Whether or not this happens remains to be seen.

This leaves us with the Chicago White Sox. A team that started a rebuild a couple years ago, has young talent, and some highly touted prospects, but that has been mired in mediocrity, or worse, for the past decade.

Chicago probably picked the right time for a rebuild considering Cleveland has owned the division the last few seasons, but the sooner they can get back to being competitive, the better, because the AL Central is a wide-open horse race going into 2019 and beyond.

The White Sox have only committed $71.2 million to their opening day payroll heading into the 2019 season. It is their lowest total since 2004, and about 40 percent less than what they had previously been spending. With a huge free agent crop with plenty of impact positional players, the time to setup the next generation of White Sox may be upon them.

The key to success for the White Sox is probably two-fold, as they need one or two impact positional players, and as importantly, need to get creative with their starting pitching staff. Today we’ll focus on the lineup.

Despite spending evidence to the contrary, the White Sox are a big market team, with a history of being in the top-ten of payroll in the not-too-distant-past (i.e. when they were good). The checkbook has seemingly gone into the shadows with the team struggling, but at some point, Chicago is going to make a big acquisition.

Last season the White Sox outfield was atrocious. They mustered a combined .232/.318/.402 slash line, including the league’s worst walk rate (5.5 percent). Overall, their outfield was so bad, they managed to cost the White Sox wins, as they collectively finished the year with a negative fWAR.

The damage was not limited to one disaster, but was confounded by fill-ins and regulars alike. Trayce Thompson, who played in 48 games, put together a -4 wRC+, while everyday center fielder Adam Engel had a .279 OBP, hit only six home runs, and was barely above replacement-level. Not encouraging.

A team winning the Manny Machado and Bryce Harper sweepstakes is unlikely to happen, but if the White Sox took a chance on one of them (Harper would probably be the better fit), and modestly upgraded other parts of the lineup, they could move off their current 70-projected wins, and get closer to the .500 mark. As we’ve seen in recent years, a true-talent .500 team can make some noise in a pennant race, and opens up the possibility for late-season additions that can push a team over the hump. The 2018 Mariners won 89 games and by every metric, were a ~.500 team, they ultimately fell short of the Athletics and Astros but made some noise for the better part of the year.

As mentioned above, those pesky 2017 Twins were in a similar spot, and had they not played the Yankees (whom they seem to never be able to beat in a big game) perhaps things would have fallen differently. It’s not a yearly occurrence, but a .500 team can more easily sneak into the playoffs and do some damage than they could previously.

The White Sox have a decision to make: do they go for it in 2018 amidst a potential opening in the AL Central, or do they wait it out and see what happens over the next two to three years?

An argument can be made for both, but some of the best free agent outfielders in 2020 include the likes of Corey Dickerson, Marcell Ozuna, Nick Castellanos, and a myriad of over-the-hill veterans. While most of these options look like they would certainly an improvement over what they had in 2018, and what they have penciled in for 2019, the time to strike may be this offseason.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano