Earlier in the offseason, I declared that the White Sox were favorites in the AL Central, but there was a caveat. The White Sox would only remain favorites until the Twins made some moves in response to Chicago’s acquisitions of Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks. Since then, then Twins have made a bunch of moves. I think I can be forgiven for assuming that a team wouldn’t do much of anything to make themselves better. This is the eighth team preview I’ve written this month, and six of the teams that I have covered did next to nothing or got worse.
The AL Central is more of a toss up now. It’s one of two divisions where FanGraphs’ projections and PECOTA disagree on who is going to win it. FanGraphs gives a slight edge to the White Sox. Chicago has a 46.1 percent chance of taking the division while the Twins have a 40.2 percent chance. PECOTA, however, only gives the White Sox a 12.9 percent chance of winning the Central crown, and it believes the race is really between the favorited Twins and the underdog Cleveland Baseball Team.
FanGraphs has the White Sox winning around 89 games while PECOTA has them winning closer to 82. Outside of the NL Central—a division in which there are no clear favorites nor are there clearly good teams—this is the biggest discrepancy in projected win totals for any team except for the Royals.
Which projection system affirms your biases more depends on a variety of things including how you answer the following questions. How good do you think Cleveland is without Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, and Brad Hand? Did the Twins do enough in bringing back Nelson Cruz and signing J.A. Happ, Alex Colomé, and Andrelton Simmons? Of course, the biggest factors are the White Sox themselves.
PECOTA isn’t as impressed with Luis Robert’s bat as ZiPS or Steamer are. In his rookie season, Robert slashed .233/.302/.436 which was good for a 101 wRC+ which puts him ever so slightly above average. By DRC+, however, Robert’s line fell far short of that. Robert’s 87 DRC+ means that he was about 13 percent worse than league average. For 2021, PECOTA projects Robert for a 95 DRC+, but ZiPS projects him for a 108 wRC+.
Robert has plenty of natural power. Only 10 batters hit a ball harder than Robert’s maximum exit velocity of 115.8 mph. A 32.3 percent strikeout rate is concerning especially when Robert hasn’t really shown a propensity to draw walks. His 8.8 percent walk rate from last year was his highest mark since rookie ball.
Even if Robert’s bat is a notch below average instead of a notch above, his glove still provides plenty of certainty. Robert’s range is so great that it more resembles a mobius strip than an asymmetrical blob. It extends into infinity allowing him to not just make the exceptional plays in center but the routine plays in left, too.
Luis Robert steals a routine fly ball from Eloy Jimenez, Statcasted— David Adler (@_dadler) August 18, 2020
Eloy's distance needed: 39 feet
Robert's distance needed: 103 feet pic.twitter.com/qxCCAcUQGd
The top of the rotation is more or less predictable. Lucas Giolito still figures to be a top-25 starter. Lance Lynn and Dallas Keuchel will be roughly three-win pitchers. There’s always the chance one or more them gets sidelined with injuries or takes a step back, but the real volatility lies at the back of the rotation. Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech are about as high-variance as they come.
With Cease, it’s the question of whether he can overcome his command issues. In 131 1⁄3 major league innings, Cease has walked 11.9 percent of the batters he has faced. He was never much better than that in the minors either.
What makes Cease special is the raw stuff. His fastball averages 97 mph and ranks in the 95th percentile in spin. That didn’t translate to strikeouts in 2020; he only struck out 44 batters in 58 1⁄3 innings. A repeat of that would be disastrous, but that was likely more small sample noise than anything. Cease might have a breakout season ahead of him if he can throw more strikes. If he can’t, he might get relegated to the bullpen.
Kopech has a higher ceiling than Cease but also a lower floor. Kopech hasn’t pitched since 2018 as he missed all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he opted out of the 2020 season. Kopech hasn’t pitched this spring (he’s scheduled to make his first appearance less than 12 hours after this preview went up), and he only made one appearance in the Cactus League before everything went to hell. In that one appearance, he still managed to touch triple digits with the fastball.
What few signs exist point to Kopech having a strong return, but of course, he needs to stay healthy. There’s also the question of how many innings he’ll be able to throw in his first full season in three years. Kopech will most likely split his time between the bullpen and the rotation, but in the best of all possible worlds, Kopech is the difference between first and second place.
In that reality, the White Sox still need contribution from the core. Tim Anderson needs to continue beating the BABIP gods. José Abreu needs to stave off regression. Yoan Moncada needs to cut down on strikeouts. Eloy Jiménez needs to keep doing what he’s doing.
No matter how this season breaks down, the White Sox are headed in the right direction. At least they are in regards to their roster. The same can’t be said of leadership in the dugout. I’ll never understand why Tony La Russa was chosen to lead this particular team (or any team in 2021), but the White Sox can be good enough that it doesn’t matter who’s managing.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.