The American League equivalent of the San Diego Padres, the White Sox were among the purported winners of last off season. Hindsight shows that the White Sox plan heading into 2015 was incomplete at best. With medium to massive holes at second base, third base, and catcher, it would have taken some good fortune indeed for the team to achieve its overall goal of reaching the playoffs. Add unexpectedly mediocre performances from Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia with complete cratering from Adam LaRoche and Alexei Ramirez to the more obvious flaws, and the Sox were doomed fairly early on.
The team ultimately limped to a 76-86 record-- shockingly, four games better than their Pythagorean record. The pitching staff was solid, but the offense was miserable. The Sox have made a significant effort to upgrade their trouble spots from last year. They acquired All Star third baseman Todd Frazier in an interesting three way trade with Cincinnati and the Dodgers. They also gave up a relatively modest package to secure Brett Lawrie from Oakland. They also remade their catching situation with a veteran platoon of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro.
Beyond the new acquisitions, let's take a look at three internal options the White Sox are hoping they can count on for 2016.
Top Candidate: Carlos Rodon. The third overall pick in the 2014 draft out of North Carolina State, Rodon rocketed through the minors as quickly as analysts expected, and the White Sox hoped. The truth is that the Sox were lucky to have had the opportunity to select him at all. Viewed as the prohibitive favorite to be taken at the top of his draft class for nearly a full year, Rodon was merely excellent in his junior season for the Wolfpack. His strikeout rate dropped from his stellar sophomore year, he surrendered an extra hit here and there, and questions arose surrounding his college workload. These factors, combined with his leverage and bonus demands, created a strange set of circumstances where the player with perhaps the best combination of ceiling and floor in the draft was surpassed by two even riskier prep arms. Within a year it became clear the White Sox would be one of the undisputed winners of the 2014 first round.
Rodon made his Major League debut on April 21, and his first start on May 9. He stuck in the rotation for the remainder of the season working 139.1 innings and finishing with a solid 3.75 ERA. Rodon's peripherals mostly matched his ERA as he finished with a 3.87 FIP rooted in a solid 8.9 K/9, but frightening 4.6 BB/9. He relied heavily on his explosive fastball which averaged 93 mph while touching 98, and a devastating upper-80s slider. He threw his change up just 9% of the time, leaving him exposed against right-handed bats who hit .268/.367/.431 against him compared to just .189/.294/.230 for lefties.
There are several reasons to expect a Rodon breakout in 2016. His ability to navigate the dangers of the American League as a rookie was very impressive. It is easy to imagine one year of experience paying huge dividends for a player with Rodon's spectacular raw talent. Conquest of his two biggest issues-- walks and lefties-- seems within his grasp. His walk rate was already showing improvement in the second half when it dropped to 3.7 per nine over his final 73 innings. The single biggest key is probably development of, or trust in, his change. The pitch is typically graded at least average suggesting he should be able to use it to help keep right-handers at bay going forward. Rodon's imminent development into a second elite power lefty to follow Chris Sale is perhaps the biggest reason to be optimistic that the South Siders could turn out to be a surprise contender in 2016.
Dare to Dream: Erik Johnson. Following an excellent 2013 season in which he easily handled Double A and Triple A before earning a five-start audition with the big club, Johnson appeared ready to take a permanent spot in the Chicago starting rotation and run with it. Johnson was given a Grade B+ from John heading into 2014, and was an industry-consensus top-100 prospect that off season. He broke camp with the Sox that season and was decidedly mediocre in April. He was optioned back to Charlotte in May and the wheels came off. His stuff flattened out, his strikeout and walk rates headed the wrong direction, and he was lit up to the tune of a 6.73 ERA before being mercifully shut down in August with a sore shoulder.
As Tom Verducci explained in his November article from Sports Illustrated, Johnson was at a career crossroads heading into 2015. He headed back to Charlotte and returned to form. In 132.2 innings at Triple A, Johnson finished with a 2.57 FIP on the strength of 9.2 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9-- the best peripheral ratios he had shown since 2012 at High A Winston Salem. He returned to the Majors and made six starts over the last month. His peripherals were better than his 2014 disaster, but still short of his dominant Triple A stint earlier in the year.
Johnson's fastball and slider have both seen a drop in velocity since the peak of his prospect status in 2013. While he may not have the pure stuff to pitch at the front of a big league rotation, cost-controlled starters capable of providing league average innings make the world go round. White Sox fans can #daretodream that Johnson is ready to be just that in 2016.
Rookie Watch: Tim Anderson. Unique, exciting, divisive, fascinating: all of those terms can be used to describe the top prospect in the Chicago system. The 17th overall selection in the 2013 draft out of East Central Community College in Mississippi, Anderson began his professional career as spectacularly athletic and spectacularly raw after having focused primarily on basketball throughout his amateur athletic career.
Despite his lack of baseball experience, Anderson has been an above average offensive player at every stop on his minor league journey. His offensive game is built on great bat speed, the ability to generate hard contact, and plus foot speed. He strikes out more than you would like for a guy who rarely walks, and will probably struggle to produce average power even at maturity.
The White Sox insist Anderson is their shortstop of the future. Less biased assessments of his defensive prowess leave that question up for debate. His premium quick-twitch athleticism gives him a chance, but he makes too many errors, and may lack the fundamental foundation necessary to be adequate at the Major League level.
The White Sox seem intent on putting their money where their mouth is (or keeping it in their pocket) as their refusal to scoop up free agent Ian Desmond (while they have Tyler Saladino penciled in at short) would seem to indicate they want to leave Anderson with a clear path to the starting job. Under those circumstances, it would appear Anderson can set his own timetable with a strong performance this spring. Whether or not he is ready by opening day is one thing, but I fully expect to see Anderson on the south side at some point in 2016.
Final Notes: The White Sox probably have a better chance of contending in the American League Central than most people realize. Their pitching staff is solid, and potentially fairly deep if everyone is healthy. The offense will have to rely on some degree of rebound from veterans like LaRoche and Cabrera, but the additions of Frazier and Lawrie leave the lineup with fewer gaping holes than it has had the past few years.
See my thoughts on Lawrie from my first piece in this series on the Athletics.
There is still a bit more wishing and hoping with this roster than I am generally comfortable with, but every team in the division has their own warts. As we get set to begin a new season, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic on the south side of Chicago.