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The AL Central is the White Sox’ to lose

Chicago just needs to not screw up

Los Angeles Angels v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

I typically approach season previews by trying to answer the question, “How well-positioned is this team for a playoff berth?” With the AL Central, that question is already answered. The fourth law of thermodynamics is that there can only be one good team in the AL Central at any given time. In 2021, it looked like the White Sox and Twins might both be good, and, well, you saw what happened to the Twins. That wasn’t just a collapse. That was the planets aligning to maintain a delicate equilibrium.

It appears that the White Sox are the sole good team in the AL Central. Our staff unanimously predicted Chicago to win the division. Unless they massively screw up, they’ll do so easily. The White Sox might massively screw up.

How they might massively screw up isn’t exactly obvious. The White Sox don’t have any clear weaknesses. The starting nine is a deep group. The rotation is solid. The bullpen is excellent. The White Sox have a sturdy three-branch system of checks and balances, and when has something like that ever broken down?

When looking ahead at the 2022 season, it’s better to evaluate the White Sox on how well-equipped they are for a playoff run. Last year, they coasted into October but the Astros bounced them in four games. That isn’t indicative of their talent, though. The White Sox aren’t just good for an AL Central team. They’re a good team period. But in the ALDS they looked like a team that hadn’t had to try in several months and were still shaking off the rust.

A rotation led by Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, and Carlos Rodón should have fared better in a best-of-five even against an offensive powerhouse like the Houston Astros. Rodón is off to foggier pastures, of course, but his departure paves the way for Michael Kopech to return to the rotation.

In 69 13 innings, Kopech struck out 103 batters while walking a modest 24. Kopech’s fastball ranks in the 98th percentile in spin and the 96th percentile in velocity. A full-time move to the rotation might decrease his velo a bit, but his slider is an even better pitch. Kopech’s slider induced a 36 percent whiff rate and kept batters to a .241 wOBA. And Kopech’s not just a two-pitch pitcher. His curveball and changeup have just as much swing-and-miss potential, and he’ll likely use both more often as a starter since he’ll have to face batters more than once. With his arsenal, he shouldn’t have an issue sliding into the rotation.

Dylan Cease took a major step forward in 2021 by cutting down his walk rate. A 9.6 percent mark is still a little high, but it’s a vast improvement over the 13.3 number he posted in 2020. Cease’s newfound control led to more strikeouts as well, and the righty put up a career-best 31.9 percent strikeout rate.

The biggest question in the rotation is whether Dallas Keuchel can bounce back after a down year. The veteran soft-tosser pitched to a 5.23 FIP in 162 innings. Keuchel has never been a strikeout maven, but his 13.2 percent strikeout rate was dead last among qualified starters by three percentage points. If the White Sox get more of the same from Keuchel in 2022, they’ll likely leave him off the postseason roster again, but there’s not a lot of surefire depth behind Keuchel. The White Sox should be looking to shore up their starting depth lest they place their season’s hopes on Vince Velasquez.

The White Sox will be hoping for good health on the offensive side as well. A lineup featuring Luis Robert, Yoán Moncada, José Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yasmani Grandal, and Eloy Jiménez is going to score a billion runs, and the offense ranked sixth in non-pitcher wRC+ in 2021 even with Jiménez, Grandal, and Robert each getting less than 300 plate appearances each. Still, there’s not a lot of help coming if the star players aren’t available. Josh Harrison and Leury García are league average hitters at best, and Adam Engel and Gavin Sheets are projected for a step back.

Andrew Vaughn’s bat hasn’t arrived yet, but he’s still just 24. He was also getting back up to speed after not facing live competition in 2020 due to the minor league season being canceled. Vaughn could certainly break out this year and be a marquee slugger, but he might not fully establish himself until next year or later. Vaughn hit the ball well in 2021, but he didn’t have much to show for it. A 47.3 percent hard-hit rate and a 10.9 percent barrel rate are both good, but that only added up to a .332 xwOBA.

Prediction: 95-67

The White Sox shouldn’t have any problem with the division, and with a top-five offense and pitching staff, they’re set up for a deep playoff run.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.