The White Sox had one of the most active offseasons in the history of the franchise. Between signing numerous free agents, locking up two prospects to longer-term deals, and trading for a back-of-the-lineup upgrade, the White Sox appear to be on their way to perennial playoff contenders, and are officially at the end of their rebuild.
Competing for the division in 2020 is probably on the earlier-side of what most people expected, but in a wide-open AL Central that includes two bottom-feeding teams in the Tigers and Royals, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the pennant race will unfold.
Chicago has not finished a season with a winning record since 2012, and during those seven seasons, they have remained remarkably noncompetitive. Last year the White Sox went 72-89, and finished 28 ½ games behind the juggernaut Twins. Though there were patches of future success, including modest five-game winning streak (woo-hoo!) and a major step-forward for starting pitcher Lucas Giolito, the Sox lost a whopping 30(!) games by five or more runs.
This season, PECOTA projects Chicago to win 82-83 games, putting them within spitting distance of the middle-of-the-pack AL wild card contenders that includes teams like the Rays, Red Sox, and Athletics. A ten game improvement over 2019 would be a fantastic story for the South Siders, but considering all the moves they made, it’s not unreasonable they outperform their projections, and with a little luck, end up in the thick of it for a playoff spot.
Uncharacteristic of a team that has penny-pinched for decades, the White Sox went on a free agent spending spree earlier this off-season, filling holes in every area. Although the raw numbers are underwhelming and below what most of the top talent in MLB receives, the White Sox did dish-out the largest contract they’ve ever signed in team history when they signed catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million deal. Uninspiring compared to what most other teams have done to bring in top players, but still, it’s a start.
Grandal projects to be a near-five win player in 2020, and is likely to be the most productive player in the lineup. He will be a clear upgrade over last year’s backstop James McCann, who in his own right had a breakout season himself, and could be a trade chip in-season.
The White Sox plugged-up a major hole at DH by signing Edwin Encarnacion who, despite his age, will serve as a much better option than what the Sox fielded last year. Last season the position was entirely a black-hole for Chicago, as all White Sox’ DH’s combined to slash an absolutely pitiful .197/.275/.342.
Adding further change to the bottom of the lineup, Chicago also traded for outfielder Nomar Mazara, who at 24 years-old, still has the upside to reach his former projected potential.
Although Mazara has struggled since the Rangers called him up in 2016, the White Sox are betting on his ability to maintain his 2019 career highs in both slugging (.469) and ISO (.200). It’s a reasonable gamble that would look bad if management had not done anything else, but in combination with the other additions in the lineup, looks like a good low-risk move with decent upside.
In addition to the free agent and trade additions, the White Sox also extended two pieces they think will be part of the team’s next winning cycle. Chicago extended franchise slugger Jose Abreu (who may split time at first and DH with Encarnacion on occasion), and 22-year-old prospect outfielder Luis Robert, who is penciled in as the starting center fielder.
The additions will complement Yoan Moncada, who had a strong 2019 season despite a 27 percent strikeout rate, and Eloy Jimenez, who at the age of 23 will still experience the ups-and-downs typical of a sophomore season.
The White Sox also made significant changes to their rotation. They opened the pocketbook to sign two free agent pitchers, inking southpaws Dallas Keuchel, who took a half-year pillow-contract with the Braves in 2019, and veteran journeyman Gio Gonzalez. Keuchel and Gonzalez will make a nice one-two punch behind Lucas Giolito, who had a major breakout in his age-24 season, where he posted 176 ⅔ strong innings.
Giolito’s strikeout rate really popped last season, as he K’d nearly ⅓ of all batters he faced. He lowered his walk-rate from 2019, getting it down to a reasonable 8.1 percent, and ended up with a strong FIP- of 74 and ERA- of 76.
Lastly, the White Sox went out and signed veteran reliever Steve Cishek to supplement what they already have in Alex Colome and lefty Aaron Bummer. Colome, who relies on his cutter, showed variability last year (as do most relievers, to be fair), but Chicago has him penciled in as their opening day closer. Cishek adds some depth to an adequate but not great bullpen.
The changes the White Sox made on both sides of the ball are significant, and this team will barely look like the 2019 team that lagged behind the competition all season. On top of all the aforementioned changes, there’s a high likelihood that ultra-high-contact hitting second baseman Nick Madrigal will be playing second base every day by Memorial Day.
All told, you have a team that’s barely recognizable from the 2019 squad, which is very much a good thing and a welcome change from the last decade-plus of futility. This team will be remarkably better than last season, with the upside to potentially compete for a wild card spot.
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