We all know the recent history of the Chicago White Sox is uglier than those collared uniforms they wore in the late 1970s: Seven consecutive losing MLB seasons, one of four teams in the 2010s not to make a postseason appearance and no playoff series victories since they won the World Series in 2005.
They at least appear determined to aim higher in 2020. The White Sox added to their offseason haul on Saturday night, with ESPN’s Jeff Passan reporting the club has agreed to a three-year, $55.5 million deal with former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, who went 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA for the Braves in 19 starts in 2019.
The White Sox just signed fellow lefty Gio Gonzalez to a one-year, $5 million contract, in addition to earlier signing catcher Yasmani Grandal and trading for right fielder Nomar Mazara from the Rangers. They also re-signed first baseman Jose Abreu. Their projected payroll now sits at about $130 million compared to $114 million last season.
After going 72-90 in 2019, are these additions enough to make the White Sox a contender? Grandal, coming off a .246/.380/468 season with 28 home runs, is the big signing, but this is mostly improving in small ways around the edges, and I say that as a fan of Keuchel. The money is a little surprising given that nobody wanted him a year ago and he didn’t sign with the Braves until June, but he still factors as an upgrade in a rotation that had a 5.30 ERA last season.
Let’s see how the White Sox look right now:
A few notes here. Robert and Madrigal aren’t on the 40-man roster yet, so they’ll likely serve a two-week apprenticeship in the minors to start the season, but both are pretty much big league-ready. Robert started 2019 in High-A and ended it in Triple-A, where he had a .974 OPS in 47 games. Madrigal, the fourth overall pick in 2018, also climbed from High-A to Triple-A, hitting .311 across three levels with the dead ball era totals of 44 walks and just 16 strikeouts.
Mazara has some superficially decent numbers, hitting .268 with 19 home runs last year for the Rangers, but he has been worth 1.8 WAR … over four seasons. He has been a below-average defender who doesn’t walk. Unless the White Sox can unlock some power with a swing and approach change, he doesn’t really help much (although he’s still an improvement over the mess the White Sox had out there last year).
The lineup is certainly fun and intriguing and the hope is Moncada continues to improve and Jimenez develops into a feared bopper in the middle of the lineup after hitting 31 home runs as a rookie. Tim Anderson is certainly exciting and won the batting title after hitting .335 in a breakout season, but given his overly aggressive approach, he’s also near the top of any list of players most likely to regress in 2020 (he had a .399 average on balls in play, not sustainable season to season). It would certainly be nice if the Sox up the payroll to $145 million and fill that DH hole with Nicholas Castellanos or Edwin Encarnacion. I don’t project this as a top-five lineup in the AL just yet (the White Sox were 13th in runs a year ago), although if Robert and Madrigal produce from the get-go and they add a DH there is potential for a big improvement.
The bigger unknown is the rotation. Keuchel and Gonzalez are risks in that they don’t fit the prototype of what most teams are looking for these days: high velocity, high spin, four-seamers up in the zone. But both veterans know how to pitch. With Keuchel, you know what you’re going to get: ground balls and that bulldog mentality. His OPS allowed, however, has increased from .619 to .704 to .764 the past three seasons, although the Happy Fun Ball affected everybody in 2019. There isn’t No. 1 or No. 2 upside here, but he’s a safe bet to post an ERA around 4.00 and chew up innings.
Gonzalez was one of the most durable starters in the game until last season, when he made 17 starts and pitched just 87 innings. He has lived on the edge the past of couple seasons, averaging 4.1 walks per nine while his strikeout rate has dipped. He never has been a command guy, but the fact that he got just $5 million suggests the lack of interest in him. He could end up being a huge bargain, but there is also high flameout potential here given his age and peripheral numbers.
Similar to how the lineup will need Robert and Madrigal to produce, the success of the rotation leans heavily on Lopez and Kopech. Lopez has a plus fastball, but the secondary stuff is still lacking. The slider is his big swing-and-miss pitch, but wasn’t a dominant offering (batters hit .244/.262/.482 against it). Advanced metrics point to some limits on his upside: below-average spin rate on his fastball and low spin on his curveball. And his changeup got hit hardest of all.
Kopech has the upside that Lopez lacks, but is coming off Tommy John surgery in September 2018, after he had made his major league debut. He struck out 170 in 126⅓ innings at Triple-A that season, maintaining that high strikeout rate even after he dialed down his fastball a bit to throw more strikes. Even if he comes back strong he’ll be on an innings limit, so the Sox will need rotation depth.
The White Sox will be a popular sleeper pick. I still have them behind the Twins and Indians and I’m not convinced they’re more than a .500 team at the moment, but I’m also lower on the White Sox than most. One thing for sure, however: This will be the most interesting White Sox team in 15 years, and with young talent in Moncada, Jimenez, Anderson, Robert and Madrigal it will be one of the top must-watch teams of 2020.