It cannot be disputed that the Chicago White Sox are set to improve in 2020, as they have added a slew of talent via free agency this winter and anticipate the rapid development of their prized prospect core. Baseball analysts around the country have declared the Sox as one of the winners of the offseason, and many have high expectations for the team in 2020. However, most baseball fans (especially those on the South Side of Chicago) are likely overestimating exactly how much this club has elevated its roster.
The White Sox finished 72-89 last season, 28.5 games behind the AL Central champion Minnesota Twins. Chicago’s -124 run differential was seventh-worst in baseball, which led to their expected win-loss record (69-92) being even worse than their actual mark.
Delving deeper into their 2019 totals does not inspire much optimism, and serves to solidify the fact that the White Sox were absolutely terrible last season. Their 6.3% walk rate ranked dead last in baseball, and their 25.6% strikeout rate was third-worst. And while the contributions of newcomers Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnación are sure to help guide these numbers in the right direction, (they posted 17.2 BB%/22.0 K%, 11.9 BB%/21.2 K% respectively in 2019), two players simply cannot transform an entire team.
Shortstop Tim Anderson was at the heart of these struggles. Despite the fact that many Sox fans seem to believe that he is the second coming of Derek Jeter, Anderson is an average-at-best Major League shortstop whose success in 2019 was almost entirely a fluke. Anderson’s average exit velocity, xwOBA, and hard-hit% each came in below the 50th percentile among all Major League players, per MLB.com’s Baseball Savant. These concerning underlying statistics insinuate that Anderson’s breakout 2019 campaign will not serve as an indicator of his future performance.
Additionally, his league-leading .335 batting average came with a major asterisk. Anderson’s .399 batting average on balls in play will prove to be highly unsustainable, as the MLB average BABIP in 2019 was .298. Nobody can escape the grasp of regression to the mean, and it is inevitably coming for Tim Anderson in 2020. Once Anderson’s batting average dips, as it most certainly will, his value as a batter will see a sharp decline. His 2.9% walk rate was tied for the second-worst among qualified Major League hitters, and a sudden massive improvement in this regard is unlikely.
This all goes without mentioning Anderson’s mediocre defense; he totaled -1 infield outs above average in 2019 per Baseball Savant, ranking 21st among qualified MLB shortstops.
Further, it cannot be reasonably assumed that the White Sox young crop of prospects will be immediately capable of elite plate discipline at the MLB level. Ahead of Spring Training, second baseman Nick Madrigal and outfielder Luis Robert are both expected to compete for starting roles on their Major League club. Each are only 22 years old, and have not once faced an MLB-caliber pitcher, let alone an entire league full of them. There is no doubt that these two, along with a number of young players in the White Sox farm system, are extremely talented, and could very well turn into all-stars. Yet, the fact of the matter is that this growth will take time, and should not be counted on in the short-term.
Another young player who has not yet fully come into his own is Eloy Jiménez, who last year showed decent power during his rookie season, while also making clear that he has a way to go before he can be declared a star. Jiménez blasted 31 homers in 2019, but was worth an unremarkable 1.9 fWAR, which was just the 94th highest total among qualified Major League position players.
Jiménez has tremendous power, but his plate discipline – an aforementioned issue for the entire White Sox position player group – is extremely suspect. He recorded a .315 on-base percentage in 2019, which will not cut it at the Major League level, and is detrimental to the team as a whole. Jiménez, like Tim Anderson, had an awful strikeout to walk ratio, as his K-rate was 26.6%, compared to a walk rate of only 6.0%.
The key difference that separates the two is that while Anderson is an average defender at shortstop, Jiménez is downright atrocious in the outfield. Jiménez ranked 89th among qualified MLB outfielders with -11 outs above average in 2019. To make matters worse, his defense is sure to become even poorer as he ages. He can’t be stashed at designated hitter either because of the aforementioned Encarnación and first baseman José Abreu.
Budding superstar Yoán Moncada and an established stalwart in Abreu, along with the newly acquired Grandal and Encarnación, are set to be strong points in this White Sox position player core. However, its glaring question marks are simply too damning to ignore.
Much has been made of how the White Sox have improved upon a pitching staff whose cumulative ERA (4.91) was 22nd in baseball in 2019. Dallas Keuchel, whom the Sox signed to a three-year, $55.5 million contract in December, has been praised as being exactly the pitcher that this rotation needs. While Keuchel’s steady presence and veteran experience will be beneficial for the young arms on this Sox staff, he is years removed from being an above-average pitcher, let alone a Cy Young Award winner, which he was for the Houston Astros in 2015.
Last season with the Atlanta Braves, Keuchel posted a serviceable 3.75 ERA. However, his 4.72 FIP is far more telling. Keuchel’s fastball velocity and spin rate, strikeout percentage, average exit velocity against, hard-hit percentage, and expected batting and slugging percentages against were all among the bottom half of MLB starting pitchers in 2019. White Sox fans should be thrilled that their team is spending with the intention of fielding a winning club, but signing the aging and increasingly ineffective Keuchel will produce the same result as taking a torch to more than $50 million.
Lucas Giolito is likely the only safe guess as to who will be a reliable starting pitcher in this rotation. Giolito took a massive step forward in 2019, as he tapped into his immense talent with a 5.1 fWAR campaign last season.
Every other member of this starting staff, including the previously mentioned Keuchel, is just as likely to be a liability as they are to be an asset for this club. Dylan Cease is a fireballing righty who boasts wipeout stuff, but has struggled with control and consistency across limited innings thus far. Cease walked 4.32 batters per nine innings in 2019, which would have been the third highest total in MLB if he had pitched enough innings to qualify. Cease will almost certainly become a solid Major League starter in due time, but probably not next season.
Michael Kopech is in a similar boat as Cease when it comes to electric stuff, but he also must overcome the hurdle of having undergone Tommy John surgery in 2018. Kopech’s status for 2020 is still somewhat unclear, but he has publicly stated that he is ready to pitch. Yet, he will most certainly be restricted to an innings limit, and the White Sox will not be able to fully deploy him right away, which will cap his (and the Sox) upside in 2020.
It is widely assumed that the remaining rotation spots for the Sox will be occupied by Reynaldo López and Gio González, who are also far from dependable. López was acquired by the Sox prior to the 2017 season in the Adam Eaton trade, and has not posted a FIP below 4.63 in the three seasons since. González is 34 and in the twilight of his career. He can be counted on as a decent fifth rotation option, but nothing more.
Carlos Rodón, who also underwent Tommy John surgery fairly recently, may also vie for a starting role at some point in the middle months of this coming season. However, it would be foolish at this point to assume that any contribution that Rodón provides in 2020 will be anything more than a bonus, as his health will come with serious uncertainty.
The White Sox bullpen is fine. Their major addition to the group this offseason was Steve Cishek, who was signed to a one-year, $6 million pact in January. Alex Colomé projects to be their closer, with Aaron Bummer, Kelvin Herrera, Jace Fry, Ian Hamilton, and Evan Marshall as setup arms, along with Cishek. Bummer is held in high regard by many, as his powerful sinker is an elite pitch.
Bullpens are fluky and often subject to statistical variance, so who knows, the Sox bullpen could be fantastic. Or it could be awful. We will have to wait and see.
Moreover, this White Sox ball club is unquestionably heading in the right direction towards contention.
They are just not quite there yet.