Possible 2020 realignment: How it affects the White Sox

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Sports of all types are obviously on the back burner during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Major League Baseball and its players’ union are discussing a couple of ways to salvage a season that once appeared likely to be lost altogether.


The Arizona Proposal

Last week, Jeff Passan of ESPN caused a stir with a column that detailed what was being called the “Arizona Proposal.”

Passan wrote that MLB and the MLBPA were “increasingly focused” on a plan to start the 2020 season as early as May in the midst of this global pandemic. The plan, which was written up in great detail, reportedly has the support of multiple high-ranking federal public health officials. The deal would see all 30 major league clubs moving to Arizona and playing games with no fans in attendance.

The state of Arizona possesses 10 spring training facilities, Chase Field (the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks) and other nearby ballparks. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels in relative isolation during off-hours. Federal officials at the CDC have been supportive of the idea and its requirement of strict social distancing.

The Arizona Proposal presents many logistical issues, and there are some apparent hurdles that need clearance before baseball can become the first professional sport to return in America. Major League Baseball referenced the discussions but pushed back against any said plan being in motion.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic weighed in on the proposed topic as well and described the plan as “still in the concept stage” after speaking with sources. While May was initially floated as a return possibility, June seems more realistic. Both Passan and Rosenthal referenced the possibility of significant increases in coronavirus testing capabilities (providing almost immediate results) being something on the horizon.

Many players will be understandably skeptical of separating from their families for an extended period of time. Summer heat in Arizona is also brutal, and will be another obstacle for all involved. The players’ union has stated emphatically that while the athletes would like to play baseball games, the protection of the players is the highest current priority.

Rosenthal noted that one potential bargaining chip for the players would be the expansion of big league rosters. Expanded rosters up to as many as 50 players is an option. While this plan seems like a logistical nightmare to many in and outside the industry, something that has been made clear is that the majority of players would prefer to play in some fashion.

Baseball players could never be described as risk-averse and while the plan doesn’t appear to be set in stone, it’s one option for young athletes to return to some semblance of normalcy in the near future. A plan similar to this one may ultimately be the clearest path to a return for America’s Pastime and the resumption of games on television in some fashion is the only path toward revenue production.


Realignment possibilities

On Friday morning, Bob Nightengale of USA Today noted that MLB is “assessing myriad proposals” but weighing a plan that would completely shift the alignment of the sport for 2020. The proposed plan would eliminate the traditional National and American Leagues with the goal of realigning the six divisions for an abbreviated season.

The proposal would call for all 30 teams returning to their spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida to play regular season games. Putting 15 teams in each state would theoretically reduce travel and minimize risk as much as possible. Divisions would be realigned based on the geography of club’s spring training homes and would mix teams from the National and American Leagues.

In Nightengale’s article, he proposed one realignment structure. This hasn’t been agreed upon, and it’s just one idea, but it’s a feasible snapshot.

GRAPEFRUIT LEAGUE

  • NORTH: New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates
  • SOUTH: Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles
  • EAST: Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins

CACTUS LEAGUE

  • NORTHEAST: Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Oakland A’s
  • WEST: Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels
  • NORTHWEST: Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals

While the “Arizona Proposal” seems a bit farfetched and unlikely to get off the cutting-room floor, this dual-state plan appears much more plausible. The plan would allow for 26 ballparks to be put in play as possible game sites. Of those 26 ballparks, Chase Field in Arizona and Marlins Park and Tropicana Field in Florida all have structures that can be closed. The plan would likely call for frequent doubleheaders, with an uneven number of teams in each league.

One idea would be for teams to play 108 games. Under this proposal, clubs would play teams in their newly-formed divisions 12 times while playing 60 games total (six vs. each interdivisional team) against the rest of the league. It would also potentially give the league a trial run at some rule implementations that are likely coming to the sport at some point.

An automated strike zone could be put into practice on a trial basis for this abbreviated 2020 season. It’s also very likely that the rosters will expand and all 30 clubs will be afforded the use of a designated hitter.

Playoff expansion is also something that fans should be preparing themselves for. Five teams from each league currently make the postseason. The shortened season could provide the opportunity for the sport to increase to seven playoff teams in each league and experiment with its practicality.

Traditionalists will hate the movement of the designated hitter into both leagues, but the pragmatist in me is shocked that it hasn’t happened already. The move opens up 15 more spots for players to be inserted on rosters and it’s something that the union would likely welcome. Pitchers are also terrible at hitting, and have enough to worry about anyway. Playoff expansion would be a boon for television and one way for owners to recoup revenue lost from the season delay. Never let a good crisis go to waste.


White Sox implications

While there is no solid plan in place and the plans discussed were just that, either of these models have implications for the Chicago White Sox, both positive and negative. In the plan that Nightengale brought to light, the division alignment was based on geography. Geography should be a positive for the White Sox in normal AL Central circumstances, as they reside in a division with four smaller markets and should theoretically have spending resources that distinguish them from the others.

In the latest proposal, the White Sox would play 48 games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds — easily the toughest division in the Cactus League. The path to a division title would be arduous, but with 60 games against the rest of the league, playoff expansion still could allow for the White Sox to make the postseason for the first time since 2008.

The White Sox have a young core that wouldn’t be perturbed by the makeshift nature of an abbreviated season. They are exactly the type of club that could thrive in a smaller sample size. With the addition of southpaws Dallas Keuchel and Gio González, the pitching staff is improved. It still wasn’t seen as ideal though and there are some question marks in the bullpen as well. Pitching reinforcements were going to be necessary during a long season, but the organization has amassed a quality group to fill in.

With the late start to the 2020 season, Carlos Rodón and Michael Kopech could have big-league roles that matter for a more significant portion of the season. Pitching prospects like Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert could theoretically help the major league team as well. The White Sox should have health on their side for the first time in awhile if the sport does reignite in the not-too-distant future.

Nobody knows when baseball will start and what the sport will look like once it does. It’s refreshing that the league and its players are thinking about outside-the-box ideas to bring some semblance of normalcy back to the country. Whenever baseball does return, the nation will be ready to consume the product. And the White Sox should factor prominently into the festivities whenever they ultimately begin.


 

Baseball bracketology: 2020 White Sox’s Final Four, Cinderellas, Upsets, and Bubble Watch

 


Selection Sunday has now come and gone, with gone being the operative word, as the entire Men’s and Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournaments were outright canceled due to the global pandemic known as COVID-19.

Pair that with the fact that Major League Baseball’s Opening Day now has no definitive start date, with the initial two-week being delay usurped by the CDC’s recommendation to not conduct nationwide gatherings of more than 50 people for at least eight weeks. That would make the soonest that Opening Day could theoretically happen May 11.

My “bracket” is a little dubious on that date being a reality, but you never know. With all that said, with everyone self-quarantined, working from home, running to the stores with more raw speed than Adam Engel, and finding themselves with more free time than ever, we all could use a respite and also a way to fill the void.

From where I sit behind my keyboard, there’s no better way to do that than fill the vacuum of both no baseball and no March Madness with one composite article.

This clocks in at just more than 4,500 words, but we all have some free time on our hands and we have an itch for White Sox baseball, March Madness, and sports in general. And if not sports, then even text on a screen about sports. So this is broken into sections. Read it in full, or parse it out, consume it in bits, and wash your hands for 20 seconds with hot water for each hot take in-between sections (especially after the Upset section, as you may need to cleanse). We don’t have sports, but we have the game of words and through that we can have some strange version of White Sox March Madness –– in a real world that currently doesn’t have either.

With that said, I’m going to lay out my picks for the Chicago White Sox’s Final Four –– a core of players that will be the most valuable in 2020 –– who may surprise (Cinderellas) or underperform (Upsets), projected regression that may not happen, (think the annual trendy expert upset pick), and outline which prospects will see the big lights this season (“on the bubble”).


I tried my hand at a similar piece over at another publication back in 2016. Like any bracket, I had my share of red (losses), but also some notable prognostications in the green (wins) as well.

My Final Four consisted of Chris Sale, José Abreu, Todd Frazier and Jose Quintana.

Sale made it to the final weekend, turning in an 3.34 ERA All-Star season and setting career highs in wins (17) and innings pitched (226 ⅔) that may have been driven by his league-leading six complete games. He’d ultimately finish fifth in Cy Young voting and notch MVP votes despite being on a non-playoff team. 

Abreu got bounced after the Sweet 16. He had a decent enough year, but it took a potent second half to bounce back from a fairly dreadful first two months to salvage his season. He failed to hit the 30-home run mark or make the All-Star team but still ripped 100 RBIs for his fourth straight season and finished with a respectable .820 OPS.

Frazier didn’t make it out of the Sweet 16, either. He made a lot of shots –– 40 home runs, to be exact –– but overall did not live up to expectations or his seed line. His final line was .225/.302/.464, with clear shortfalls in average and OBP. He was worth 2.8 fWAR, which fell short of a projected four-win season.

Quintana, my outside Final Four pick, delivered in earnest. He joined Chris Sale at the All-Star game, put together a 3.20 ERA over 200-plus innings, got a 10th place Cy Young vote and had what to date has been the best season of his career.

I also identified two Cinderellas: Adam Eaton and Carlos Rodón.

Eaton surely did not disappoint. He actually edged Sale and led the 2016 White Sox in fWAR with a 5.9 mark. He got on base at a .362 clip, swiped 14 bags, but most importantly flashed an absurd glove after a position shift to right field –– propped up by an arm that could hit triple-digits on release and nail runners like clockwork. He also led the AL in triples and garnered a 19th-place MVP vote at years end.

Rodón didn’t quite have a “breakout” year, but he did have what unfortunately remains the best season of his White Sox career thus far by racketing up 168 innings over 28 starts while posting playable numbers in a 4.04 ERA and 9.2 K/9 in what was really his first big-league season as a full-time starter.

For upsets, I thought Adam LaRoche would be downed by a back injury. It turns out he got “upset” by something entirely different: His 14 year-old son Drake LaRoche not being allowed in the clubhouse. This set off what was quite truly an international firestorm when he retired over the matter, and it oddly sparked a broader discussion about the place of children in the workplace. You can’t make this stuff up, and no my bracket did not have the details –– only that he’d have an early exit.

I had Jacob Turner upsetting John Danks for a rotation spot, predicting that the White Sox would actually eat Danks’ contract midseason in the midst of contention, a bold call considering the conventional Jerry Reinsdorf behavior. I was dead wrong about Turner, who was absolutely atrocious during just two starts and 24 ⅔ innings pitched in a starter/bullpen hybrid role. Turn down the backlight on your screen so as not to burn your eyes when you read about his 6.57 ERA, near 2.000 WHIP, and a 5.8 BB/9 to just 6.6 K/9. Chicago did release and eat the rest of Danks’ $15.75 million salary in May, so this pick was mixed.

My two players on the bubble, Tim Anderson and Carson Fulmer, both made it to the majors, so there’s that.

Now that I’ve proven at least a modicum of credibility in my baseball bracketology, here’s a similar exercise for 2020. It is going to be semi-challenging given the uncertainty of baseball this season and how disrupted conditioning and a late and shortened season may impact performance and sample sizes, but here goes.


Final Four

C Yasmani Grandal

This was a move White Sox fans have been waiting for ever since A.J. Pierzynski was forced out of town only to be supplanted by the polarizing Tyler Flowers. Not only was the four-year, $73 million dollar Grandal deal the largest free agent outlay in White Sox history, but the backstop has been an absolute turnstile for essentially the last four seasons. There’s not better way I can demonstrate how much of an upgrade Grandal will be than this:

That 5.2 fWAR made Grandal the second-most valuable catcher in the majors last year and would have also made him the second-most valuable player in Chicago by that same metric. He posted an absurd 17.2% walk rate, per FanGraphs, which helped him achieve a .380 OBP.

Pair that with a career-high 28 home runs and a glove that gets rave reviews from both the pitch-framing eye test and advanced metrics, to say nothing of his ability to be a beacon for a staff, and Grandal looks like he’ll be a linchpin for the White Sox and deliver a massive season. If we weren’t looking at a truncated year, I’d say 25-30 home runs would be in the cards.

Either way, Grandal will provide pop and on-base percentage from both sides of the plate and be the perfect steward for Chicago’s rotation. He’s what we’d call a blue-blood No.1 seed –– a lock –– and your best bet to reach Chicago’s Final Four from a composite value perspective.

LF Eloy Jiménez

Jiménez had his first taste of big-league action from the jump last season after signing a winter extension. He ended up missing some time with a pair of IL stints, one for a right ankle sprain and another one for sustaining a nerve contusion in his arm during an outfield collision.

Through 122 games, Jiménez still managed to break the 30-home run mark with 31 bombs, and some of them were truly tape-measure shots. There was a little swing-and-miss to his game (26.6% K-rate) but he slashed .267/.315/.513 on the whole with a .246 ISO.

Jiménez is like that upstart program that is suddenly elevated with a slew of top recruits but is felled by injuries and exits earlier than expected. Not in 2020. The roster of prolific batting tools will be coming back, so to speak, and with an expectation of health.

Jiménez barely tapped into the value of Guaranteed Rate Field as a hitter’s park last season (.748 home OPS compared to an .892 away) which is an aberration that is unlikely to be in play again. His torrid pace to end the season (.340/.383/.710 slash line with nine home runs in September) could very well be a prelude of what’s to come. Eloy will simply mash in 2020.

SS Tim Anderson 

Anderson had a breakout campaign last season in a full-fledged attempt to #changethegame You could call it akin to mid-major that ends up leaving a lot of red in its wake and rubs teams and their fans the wrong way in its run to the Final Four; but at the same time also exhilarates a whole new brand of play and ends the tourney with much more name recognition. Anderson invented the “Javelin Bat Flip,” after all.

In 2020, he’ll make good on last year’s run and be a favorite to repeat the performance. Anderson got his title game of sorts last season by leading all of baseball with a .335 batting average. That hardware came with 32 doubles and 18 home runs in just 123 games, as the shortstop battled an ankle sprain.

Had he not missed the time, he likely would have produced his second consecutive 20/20 season. Anderson ended up being worth 3.5 fWAR last year despite the injury bug and the fact that he was actually negative on the other side of the game, committing a league leading 26 errors –– many of the throwing variety.

Expect the Chicago shortstop to clean that up this season as defense has been mentioned publicly as a priority for him, and no one on the club has a more tenacious work ethic. People looking for an upset might point to the fact Anderson walked at just a 2.9% clip and posted an unsustainable .399 BABIP.

But Anderson has proven that he’s going to play his game, from the javelin bat flips to his aggressive approach at the plate. Net-net, his game plays up due to plus raw speed, plus plate coverage, and the fact that he hits the ball to all fields with minimal infield fly outs –– all ingredients that will aid in his maintaining at least an above-average BABIP.

Regression there could be offset by someone who hasn’t even turned 27 yet and likely still has more playable power in his game. Once again, if this were a full season, a 25/25 year could have been on the table, with an outside shot at a 30/30 year if he really broke out.

Given Moncada’s in-game speed has not played as much in the way of base stealing, Anderson along with Robert could be Chicago’s best shot at a 30/30 player. The shortened season makes it much more unlikely, but expect Anderson to be a star nonetheless and both cut down the errors and the nets as his visibility as a face of the game becomes even more high-profile.

3B Yoán Moncada

Moncada was like Anderson last season in the sense that he was more of a No. 3-to-4 seed that made his way to the final weekend. Imagine a very talented team that doesn’t see things click as a group until their junior season.

That’s what happened for Moncada last year as he slashed .315/.367/.548 en route to a team-leading 5.7 fWAR, in part thanks to a glove that played up at third base as opposed to the keystone. He cut his strikeout rate from an abysmal 33.4% in 2018 to a very playable 27.5% in 2019.

Moncada smashed 25 home runs, 34 doubles, and five triples despite missing a chunk of time with a hamstring strain. There are some regression worries due to a high BABIP, which will be addressed later, but there’s more ceiling for Moncada in 2020 — and that should be a scary thought for opponents.

He showed a solid walk rate during his pro ball days in the minors and in his 2017 debut (12.6 %) which fell to just 7.2% in 2020. With excellent plate discipline, there’s certainly reason to believe that number reverts a little closer to above-average range or at least the double-digits, which will raise his OBP. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old will likely continue to show even more in-game power, as he can certainly hit moonshots and the long ball should come with more regularity.

Finally, someone with 70-grade speed should quite frankly be swiping more bags. Moncada made just 13 attempts last year despite a 76% success rate. Moncada should be swiping 20 bags with ease in a full season and possibly even in a shortened season.

So tapping into more in-game power, more playable speed, and just natural growth for the White Sox’s most tool-ridden and physical specimen outside of Robert, Moncada will have more than “One Shining Moment” in 2020 and potentially make an MVP bid. He is the odds-on No. 1 seed for 2020.

Cinderellas

SP Reynaldo López

López makes for a very interesting cinderella pick as he could very well “bust” some brackets in 2020, especially brackets that are labeling him a “bust.” Will 2020 truly be the year of “hindsight is 2020” for these fans and pundits alike? Here are a few reasons why the slipper, or rather cleat, may fit for López.

He absolutely has the former prospect pedigree. Coming up with the Nationals, some evaluators painted López as even more of a star than his often more-touted teammate Lucas Giolito. That seemed to prove true as he flashed nastier stuff than a struggling Giolito and ended 2018 –– his first full season as a big league starter –– on a high note.

Rather than López carrying that over into 2019 for a breakout, it was instead Giolito who had a surge, and López ended up being an unmitigated disaster –– “good” for a 5.38 ERA over 33 starts and an unforgiving FIP of 5.04 that wasn’t noticeably better.

López quite frankly was all over the plate, even showing lack of concentration at times. His HR/9 clocked in at 1.71, which is eye-popping bad, while he also walked more than three batters per nine innings. There wasn’t obvious bad luck either, as he had a pretty in-line .316 BABIP against and a 69.2% strand rate.

So what could possibly be the positives? Well the raw stuff is certainly still there. López’s fastball velocity still runs up regularly over 95 mph while his curveball can still look sharp at times. His K/9 was actually a full batter improvement from 2018, settling at 8.27 per nine, and despite his struggles he’s been durable with two consecutive seasons of more than 180 innings pitched and such durability has led to two straight two-WAR seasons as well. So it’s not all entirely bad.

Sometimes these things just take time. Grandal has already been reported to have a positive effect on López, apparently identifying some ways López can leverage his off-speed stuff better; this being one of the paramount reasons Grandal was a good add.

We’ll see if it carries over into the season, but for López the stuff is there and so is the durability. Now it’s all about that elusive control and command, which if realized, could give the White Sox a very solid power righty. If not, maybe he’s a two-pitch pitcher who plays up in the pen. The 2020 season will be a litmus test, but one worth giving for sure.

OF Adam Engel

Engel has been a trendy Cinderella for years. When you get body and tool comps to Mike Trout, that tends to happen. These types of comps are always unfair, but not unusual this time of year when a team is regarded as “the Butler, VCU, or Davidson of year X.”

I don’t think Engel will be a Cinderella in the traditional sense, where he parlays his myriad of tools, build, and athleticism into some huge Elite Eight run as a double-digit seed, but he can be a Cinderella in the sense that he carves out a niche on this roster.

The glove has always been playable — more than playable actually; in fact, plus. He’s the perfect roving outfielder to come in as a late defensive replacement or pinch-runner where his plus speed can play up late in a game during a crucial moment.

It’s not worth getting into the annual narrative of mechanical adjustments and swing changes, but the fact remains that Engel can fill a role in 2020 and be of value. It was a small sample, but Engel hit .313/.360/.482 versus LHP in 2019 and he’s always been better against southpaws in his career. Not as flashy as that line, more like a .679 OPS type, but still –– better.

Given Nomar Mazara will be manning right field, Engel could be a serviceable platoon partner for him and generate additional value defensively and on the basepaths, with some occasional pop here and there.

Once he’s no longer overexposed in a starting role, Engel may go from a liability to a competent utility piece, and that would certainly be a Cinderella story for someone who otherwise would be on the fringe of being out of the game entirely. Maybe 2020, is Adam Engel’s Sweet 16 –– where he was once regarded as an intriguing prospect.

Upsets

Upsets: you love them and you hate them, depending on your bracket and allegiance of course, but they always happen. In this context, upsets are always negative –– well, mostly. You’ll see a few qualifiers. Upset will be ranked as most likely to happen to least likely as described by traditional NCAA Tourney seed vernacular. A 16-over-1 is historically unlikely while a 10-over-7 is a relatively safe bet and really anything 12-over-5 and less isn’t mind-blowing, at least to those who dig into the numbers.

Roster Spot Crunch (10) over Zack Collins (7)

With the signing of Grandal, the White Sox now have not one but two All-Star catchers on their roster when you factor in holdover James McCann. The fact that Abreu is still manning first base, Grandal can also play that corner infield spot, and the additional fact that Edwin Encarnación was signed with the explicit intent of full-time DH duties, the roster composition is not looking kind to Collins, a former Top 10 draft pick back in 2016 who has hit for power and OBP in the minors but whose profile has been dampened by a poor hit tool and subpar defensive outlook as a backstop. The shortened season means even less chance for opportunity, as a limited schedule may not be as taxing for players. Factor in that with the logic of getting Collins regular ABs at Charlotte, and he does not look to get a lot of time under the bright lights in 2020.

Bullpen Role (11) over (6) Carlos Rodón

This would be an upset in the sense that Rodón was not taken with the No. 3 overall pick out of N.C. State back in the 2014 draft to be used as a bullpen piece. He was drafted to be a front-end starter. But Rodón has been a disappointment no matter how you frame it. Save for a 2016 season in which he made 28 starts to compile 165 innings of respectable 4.04 ERA ball with a 9.2 K/9 as a 23 year-old, it’s all been a massive slide from there.

You can blame injuries, underperformance, or a combination of the two, but Rodón has just not gotten it done from the mound. After those 165 innings in 2016, he’s thrown just 224 ⅔ combined in the three years since with a 4.33 ERA, 4.66 FIP, and 4.1 BB/9 over that span.

Now coming off Tommy John Surgery and with a shortened season ahead and a crowded rotation, it makes loads of sense to take Rodón’s fastball and slider, which have looked like a deadly combo in the past, and see how they play in the bullpen.

A lefty coming out of the pen with nasty stuff could be just the trick for Rodón. It would be less taxing on his arm and possibly lead to actual, tangible value. Chicago has just one year of control on the pitcher after 2020; they might as well get something out of him.

As a Scott Boras client, Rodón seems like a change of scenery guy when he hits free agency. Rodón and Boras may be “upset” by this upset, but White Sox fans may be pleasantly surprised. And if he does turn into Chicago’s version of Andrew Miller –– a modern-day, two- or three-inning bullpen slicer with explosive stuff –– then he may have an even better chance at a payday.

Win-Win.

Shortened Season (13) over Luis Robert (4)

Robert is dripping with talent. If well-rounded prospects are tool sheds, then he’s five top-of-the-line toolboxes inside of a tool shed. Robert may be the best player of the whole critical mass when all is said and done.

He has the bat, mammoth power, leopard speed, and platinum glove. But Robert also has zero big league experience and despite video game numbers in Charlotte, the hit tool is still a bit raw. It is quite possible there will be a lag, a period of adjustment.

The 2020 season had a good chance to shake out as a coming-out party for Robert with real Rookie of the Year potential, but a shortened season won’t help in masking early struggles. If those make up a disproportionate portion of the 2020 campaign, then Robert’s road to true stardom may have to wait until 2021.

COVID-19 (15) over Major League Baseball (2)

There’s something that’s been eating at my mind, and that’s the possibility that baseball doesn’t happen at all. With every waking day, the value of social distancing and flattening the curve with COVID-19 rises even more to the forefront. And with it usually comes new CDC recommendations on limiting crowds to smaller numbers and for longer periods.

Speculation is abound and there’s been some lines of thinking that baseball may not start until midsummer and that even if it does, it may have to occur without fans or with limited attendance. The systems to properly screen and re-integrate into society may simply not be in place.

There’s also conjecture that if baseball were to be canceled entirely by the league due to a “national emergency,” the MLBPA may not be able to stave off contracts being invalidated. That’s a win on overhead for the owners.

Sure, there’s boatloads of money on the table to be lost. Out of sight, out of mind is at play, too. But at some point –– especially if a decent chunk of games would have to be played with no fans –– then the ROI, not the revenue, but the actual income over fixed operating costs may be very minimal — or worse, projected to be negative.

If that’s what the tea leaves start to say, then there is at least a chance the owners lobby with Major League Baseball to pull the plug on the 2020 season entirely. This would be an upset for the ages, but it’s not one to write off entirely.

The Trendy Upset That Won’t Happen

BABIP (12) over Yoán Moncada (5)

Every year there is one team that all the pundits pick to shock the world, and the shock is that it doesn’t happen. In recent years, think any South Dakota State team with Mike Daum on it, or a New Mexico St. team that could always crash the boards but instead crashed dreams of bracket perfection instead (Thanks Aggies!)

The trendy upset pick this year in the baseball world is that the league leader in BABIP, Moncada, will see massive regression and that this said underlying number was a key driver of his breakout season.

Moncada had a .406 BABIP last year, up from a .344 BABIP the year prior. That screams regression, until you look at the fact that Moncada also lowered his infield fly ball rate, raised his hard contact rate, and increased his line drive rate. Those are all immediate explanations for why he had a higher BABIP, and again, his baseline in a down year was .344.

Want to dive deeper into the stats? He increased his exit velocity between 2018 and 2019 from 90.6 to 92.8 (seventh in baseball) and his barrel % from 9.6 to 12.2, per Baseball Savant. That barrel % is nearly twice the league average of 6.3.

Moncada also brings other drivers that can make a BABIP more sustainable, like hitting to all fields, possessing raw speed to leg out infield hits, and the fact that he actually is hitting the ball out of the park way more than before. You don’t have to worry too much about your BABIP when your ball isn’t in play as often, and it’s less in play for the good reasons like home runs and walks, not the bad one: strikeouts.

Another interesting note: speaking of those infield hits, Moncada had an 8.9% rate in 2018 and only a 4.6% in 2019, so he may actually leg out more infield hits in 2020, making the sustainability of a higher BABIP all the more buyable.

The bottom line is this –– even if Moncada’s BABIP recedes, his overall ceiling may not. The best is yet to come and over-inflating one statistic that isn’t as alarming as it seems will do a disservice to your baseball bracket. Avoid this trendy upset pick.

On the Bubble

2B Nick Madrigal (IN)

Madrigal was likely going to be here by mid-April at the latest. The high-IQ player who simply does not strike out is an easy at-large bid despite the small stature. Service time considerations and how they will apply to a shortened 2020 are still up in the air, but it won’t matter with Madrigal. The mature rookie with the slick glove will be manning second at some point.

1B Andrew Vaughn (OUT)

Vaughn has impressed mightily in his initial taste of pro ball. He is an extremely polished college bat who may be the best pure hitter in the whole organization. He truly could be a 60 hit/60 power guy which could shake out to a perennial near-.300 average and consistent 30-bomb player. But the shortened season will make a September (November?) call-up unlikely even if Chicago is in contention. He just won’t have enough requisite ABs in the minors to make the jump.

SP Dane Dunning (OUT)

The crowded rotation already put Dunning in a dangerous position on the bubble, and that’s without even referencing that he’ll be coming back from Tommy John surgery. He’ll need more than just a tuneup in the minors before seeing the big leagues. He may find his way in if there are injuries, or the season actually starts in May rather than July, but if not, Dunning will have to wait until 2021 to hear his name called.

SP Michael Kopech (IN)

You could actually say Kopech is in a somewhat similar boat as Dunning given the developing circumstances, but he’s had his time in the minors –– and a short stint in the bigs –– so it’s more about purely rehabbing. While we’ll see less of Kopech in 2020 than we would have without COVID-19, we will see Kopech –– or the lightning power arm I like to call “Zeus” –– in 2020 at some point. If not, it will be a major snub.


I hope this fulfilled the gaping black hole that’s a result of the lack of sports during what is an unprecedented global crisis. From me to you the reader, stay safe, stay healthy, and remember: There are sunnier days ahead. Days where the sun will be beaming down on ballplayers.

Patience is a virtue, and hope is currently our best medicine.

 

Arm swing, and Louisville things, with Zack Burdi

Back on track: Burdi’s solid showing so far this spring puts him back in line for a 2020 or 2021 call-up. (Sean Williams/South Side Hit Pen)


As part of a series of spring roster moves, the White Sox optioned Zack Burdi to Double-A Birmingham on Wednesday. Although Burdi will not break camp with the big club, his impressive spring showing has re-established him as a top arm in the White Sox system. 

In four scoreless appearances, Burdi recorded four strikeouts while only allowing two total baserunners. After spending the better part of three years working his way back from multiple injuries, just being back facing hitters had to be a moral victory for the former first-rounder out of the University of Louisville. However, moral victories are not Burdi’s end goal, and he was nice enough to take some time to talk last weekend about his rehab process and some of the mechanical changes he’s made that will hopefully pay off long-term.


Rehab process

I remember watching both Zack and his brother, Nick, a relief pitcher for the Pirates, shutting down overmatched opponents in their days at the University of Louisville. Nick is having an extremely impressive spring as well coming off of severe injury, having allowed just one earned run with with eight strikeouts in 4 ⅔ IP. Both Burdis were regarded as lockdown relief prospects, and both have run into some brutal luck with injuries.

“It’s kind of ironic that we were rehabbing at about the same time both times we have gotten injured,” Burdi told South Side Hit Pen. “[Nick] had Tommy John in May 2017 and I had TJ in July 2017, so we went through rehab together, and then we both had injuries last year also. It has definitely been nice to have someone in a similar situation to lean on while we were rehabbing. It obviously was tough mentally as well as physically, but we just tried to stay positive and believe that long-term, some good would come out of it.”

Hopefully, the arduous rehab process will make success that much sweeter for both of these two (as long as Nick’s doesn’t come against the White Sox).

By the way, Zack and I have a few things in common, background-wise …

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Mechanical changes

This spring, I noticed that Zack’s arm action seemed different from what I remembered. Here are a few videos of his mechanics prior to his injuries:

And here is recent video from spring training 2020:

As you can probably tell, Burdi’s arm swing is a lot shorter, something that Lucas Giolito found success with last year. After realizing this, I was interested in the reasoning behind this change for Burdi, and whether Giolito’s success played a factor in that decision.

“[The mechanical change] started after my injury in 2017,” Burdi says. “After [Tommy John], I talked with many different coaches, and we came to the conclusion that my arm swing was too long. It’s been a continual process since then to shorten my arm action to try and keep [my arm] in a better position so it wouldn’t lag behind the rest of my motion, causing me to have to work to catch up. After Giolito’s similar mechanical change last year and the success he had, I talked with him about the change I was making, and he gave me some of the drills he used to help develop and reinforce his new mechanics. From the feedback I’ve gotten and how I feel so far, it’s a lot cleaner arm action and has helped my timing down the mound.”

To my untrained eye, and from what Giolito said last year, this new arm action should not only help Zack put less stress on his arm, but will also help with command (as it seems more compact and repeatable) and hiding the ball from the hitter a bit more. So far, the results have been promising, despite the small sample. Although Burdi’s velocity has been 95-97 rather than the typical 99-100 mph he was sitting at prior to surgery, he has showcased good movement and command of all his pitches.

As the season ramps up, Burdi should be able to keep gradually increasing towards the century mark in terms of velocity. Either way, he has the stuff to get big outs, and if that happens, Burdi could be an X-factor in a (hopefully) second half pennant push for the South Siders.


p.s. — For my Louisville readers (or if you’re ever visiting the ‘Ville), check out some of me and Zack’s favorite hot spots — you won’t be disappointed!

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Michael Kopech can transform the White Sox in 2020

Powerful stuff: Kopech lit up the radar gun in his one-inning comeback from Tommy John surgery on Tuesday. (Tiffany Wintz/South Side Hit Pen)


On Dec. 6, 2016, the Chicago White Sox made one of the biggest trades in the franchise’s history, a move that they hoped would eventually make this team a perennial contender not just in the American League Central, but for World Series championships.

Chris Sale was the face of the franchise, a five-time All-Star, and a perennial Cy Young candidate in Chicago. He ranks third all-time in White Sox history with a WHIP of 1.065, fourth in hits per nine (7.48), first in strikeouts per nine (10.09), and sixth in strikeouts with 1,244 in just 1,110 innings.

But on that day in December, the White Sox traded the former first-round pick to the Boston Red Sox for Michael Kopech, Yoán Moncada, Luis Basabe, and Victor Diaz.

It was a trade that absolutely had to pay off for the White Sox. When you trade someone like Sale, you have to make sure you’re getting back elite-level talent.

At the time, the White Sox certainly felt like they were getting at least two players who would shape the future of this franchise in Kopech and Moncada. Before the 2017 season, Moncada was ranked as the second-best prospect in all of baseball by many publications, while Kopech ranked as high as No. 10 before the 2018 season.

These two were tabbed as the ones to take this team back to the promised land.

After a couple of subpar years, Moncada finally looks like that guy. And the White Sox have made that official by giving him a nice contract extension.

As we all know, Kopech was on the verge of making his mark in 2018 before injury struck and Tommy John surgery followed.

Since that time, we’ve been waiting for the talented right-handed pitcher — who is still just 23 years old — to get back on the mound and remind us why the White Sox gave up the face of their franchise for him.

That finally happened on Tuesday, as Kopech made his spring training debut. You could tell it was a big moment for the big righty as he was amped up, throwing several fastballs at 100 mph and higher, including a fastball painted on the outside corner at 101 to end the first inning with his only strikeout.

I won’t read too much into one inning from Kopech, but his fastball and breaking ball looked really sharp.


Kopech’s handling in 2020

Tuesday was obviously a big first step in his return, but the White Sox are going to rightfully be cautious with their prized arm in 2020.

We already know Kopech will be on an innings limit this season; the only question is what that limit will be. He’s never thrown more than 141 innings in a season, so I would guess that’s the number we’re looking at in 2020.

There are several ways the White Sox can handle this Kopech’s workload:

1) Put him in the rotation and let him start every fifth day until he hits his limit

This is the least likely scenario, and one I hope they don’t employ. The White Sox are hoping to play meaningful games deep into the season, and I’d rather save Kopech’s bullets.

2) Use him as an opener to start the season

I’m not exactly sure who you pair him with, but with the opener craze, perhaps Kopech starts games but goes only two or three innings. Maybe someone like Reynaldo López follows him up.

I don’t love this idea, but it makes sense, as you keep Kopech as a starter and slowly work him into things — kind of like an extended spring training.

3) Use him in the bullpen

Kopech could move to the bullpen in 2020 and be deployed as a multi-inning guy to help limit his innings.

I don’t love the idea of moving Kopech to the bullpen, but it might be the best way to utilize him effectively and limit his innings. But it may hamper his development as a starter and throws him out of rhythm not knowing when he’ll pitch.

At the same time, having someone coming out of the bullpen who can regularly hit 100 mph in short stints with a nasty breaking ball is quite deadly.

4) Lastly, you could start him in the minors and let him build his strength up there 

This is my least favorite option, but it also makes sense to let him get his feet wet again in the minors before throwing him into the fire. This also fits a model of service-time gaming that most MLB teams employ these days.

The downside? If Kopech looks great in spring training, fans will be pretty upset if he’s wasting those bullets at Triple-A.


As someone who is also an Atlanta fan, the Braves faced a similar situation in 2012 with Kris Medlen.

Medlen had basically missed the entire 2011 season after having Tommy John surgery, so the Braves used him in the bullpen to start the season. Medlen made 38 appearances as a reliever that season with a 2.48 ERA in 54 ⅓ innings with 36 strikeouts (he wasn’t nearly the power pitcher Kopech is).

And then in the second half, the Braves moved Medlen into the starting rotation and he went on one of the greatest stretches in the history of baseball, posting a 0.97 ERA in 83 ⅔ innings (12 starts) with 84 strikeouts.

Overall that season, Medlen had a 1.57 ERA in 138 innings with 120 strikeouts appearing in a total of 50 games.

I’m not saying Kopech will have that same type of success, but I remember how huge it was for the Braves that year, as they went on to win 94 games. Kopech could be that same type of weapon for the White Sox this season — depending on how he handles a bullpen role.

Something to keep in mind in this example is that Medlen had 175 ⅓ big league innings under his belt already, while Kopech only has 14 ⅓ . But with the White Sox already having five solid options in the starting rotation to start the season, there is no reason to rush Kopech in there.

The best plan is to let Kopech work out of the bullpen in the first half, and then move him into the rotation in the second half (or when the need arises) to help limit his innings and get the most out of him.

As far as what to expect from Kopech in 2020, I would expect to see someone who looks completely dominant one outing and can’t find the zone the next. We all know command is the last thing to return post-Tommy John surgery. Kopech is going to have outings his year when he just can’t locate his pitches.

But for the most part, especially as a reliever, he has enough dominant stuff to get by and be an effective pitcher for the White Sox. And if everything goes well, Kopech has the ability to transform this season for Chicago and help lead them to the postseason, like Medlen did for the Braves.

Just like we all envisioned when that trade was made in 2016.

 

 

 

Yermín Mercedes, on the road to the Majors

Happy to be here: But determined to mash. (Sean Williams/South Side Hit Pen)


Yermín Mercedes is having the time of his life right now. He is currently slashing .350/.381/.850 with a three homers, including that mammoth grand slam above and a two-run shot that capped scoring at San Diego on Sunday. Nobody seems to be having more fun than him, and because of his bat and personality some Sox fans are clamoring for him to break camp with the White Sox.

But is that a smart decision, or even realistic? First off, let’s start with how far along Mercedes has come in a short amount of time.

The White Sox selected him in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2017 from the Baltimore Orioles. His first contract was with the Washington Nationals, but they released him in 2014. That season, Mercedes spent time playing in two different independent leagues and earned his way back to affiliate ball with the Orioles. In total, from 2011-17, he only played 12 games in the high minors (Double-A, the highest level he reached).

Now, it wasn’t because of his bat that Mercedes was slowly moving up the minors — in terms of wRC+, he has had at minimum, an above-average season at each level, every single year; It was because of his defensive abilities.

From 2011-17, in affiliated ball, Mercedes was a catcher the majority of the time, when he was actually on the field— he would spend some time at first base and even got cups of coffee at both corner outfield spots, but if not catching, he was mostly a DH, which is probably why the Orioles did not protect him in the Rule 5 draft. In Mercedes’ final season with Baltimore, he only caught about 37% of games he played in, which was lower than his 2016 rate. That did change with the White Sox, though.

Maybe it was because the Sox did not really have fantastic catchers in their system (especially defensive catchers), but Mercedes’ time behind the plate ramped up. In 2018 with the Winston-Salem Dash, Mercedes played 77% of his games behind the plate, but again got some time out at first base. Last season, between Birmingham and Charlotte, the number fell to about 61%. That rate is still better than what he was getting with Baltimore and the Nationals, but it still did fall — and in Charlotte, Mercedes even added a couple games at third base.

Advanced numbers in the minors are not easy to find, and advanced catching statistics are even harder. Baseball Prospectus, which does keep track of advanced catching stats in the minors, actually liked Mercedes in 2018 and 2019. But coming off a season with only 61% of games played at catcher still is concerning as to how the club actually views him defensively. Mercedes caught in five of his first eight games this spring, but it is clear that the reason he’s on the 40-man roster and the cusp on the majors is because of the bat.

Yeah, the video is from 2017 but who cares, Mercedes has been able to hit at every level. But 2019 and so far into 2020 have been special.

Mercedes started out 2019 in Double-A with Birmingham, and was probably there too long. He slashed .327/.389/.497 for a 157 wRC+. Just so you all know, that wRC+ was actually slightly better than Luis Robert’s wRC+ (155) in Birmingham and rated 11th overall in the Southern League (min. 150 plate appearances). Mercedes crushed the ball in Birmingham. The power was there with .170 ISO, but remember, Double-A does not use the MLB ball, so Mercedes was not able to fully realize his power potential till Triple-A — and boy did it skyrocket.

Even with the MLB ball, Charlotte is a power-friendly park, but with it, it’s downright unfair for pitchers. As you saw in the video above, all Mercedes has to do is flick his wrists on pitches low and below the zone to clear the fence. His ISO with Charlotte in 2019 was a whopping .337, with 17 homers in just 53 games. Again, that .337 was not his batting average — it was his ISO, .337! In the International League, that number was tied at the top with a couple of notable power names, Aristides Aquino of the Reds, and Luis Robert (min. 200 plate appearances).

Obviously Mercedes’ success with the bat has continued this offseason. It did not stop with 12 games in the Dominican Winter League, and has continued in spring training. The only thing stopping Mercedes’ march to the majors right now is his lack of defensive ability. He is, for all intents and purposes, a 27-year-old designated hitter prospect on a team that already has Edwin Encarnación and José Abreu as defensive liabilities. On top of that, it seems like the former first round pick, Zack Collins, will get every opportunity to show he belongs, even if he also has concerns defensively.

Mercedes’ path to the majors has always been a hard one, but at least it is not improbable anymore. According to J.J. Cooper from Baseball America, it was just up to luck he was even able to stay in professional baseball after being released by the Nationals. In a story from November 2019, Cooper writes, “if [Mercedes] wasn’t a catcher, that likely would have been the end of the story. But because he was a catcher, he’d been brought over to the States for spring training before he was released. (Teams always need large numbers of catchers to catch bullpens at camp). Because he was in the States and had a visa, he was able to latch on to play in the independent Pecos League.”

Mercedes’ story is a wonderful one, and he will be on the South Side at some point this season. It may not be on Opening Day, but the inevitable injury will come and he should be one of the first up, especially if that injury is to Encarnación. It is possible Collins finally wears out his stay and Mercedes can come in and save the team with his bat, but the White Sox do love to give their top prospects and draft picks every chance they can. It is very possible the last two spots for this team go to Collins and Carson Fulmer, both guys who are at low points in terms of prospect luster.

Mercedes’ path is still an uphill climb to the majors, but nobody can say any longer that he doesn’t deserve it.

Dallas Keuchel, and the elephant in the room

 


Dallas Keuchel was the first of the 2017 Houston Astros to speak after baseball issued its report on the illegal sign-stealing operation. Going first, especially in apologies, does wonders for reputation, but in this case, going first just meant Keuchel did not have to go through the firestorm his former teammates created for themselves at the start of spring training.

Keuchel’s apology was clearly not as bad as fake good guy/player Alex Bregman’s and definitely better than the fake MVP José Altuve, but Keuchel will forever be a part of that team and their fake World Series rings. Thus, Keuchel still was rationalizing his success. And though it was not widely covered — probably because he was at Soxfest — Keuchel still had atrocious and unprofessional answers, which continued to get worse.

Let’s start with Mike Fiers, because apparently being a whistleblower or somebody who takes a risk to expose details on certain injustices is a bad thing now. If anybody is more mad at Fiers than other Astros players (like David Ortiz, for example), there is something wrong with you.

Was Fiers involved in the cheating? Yes.
Did he benefit from the cheating when he was there? Yes.
Did he and the Oakland A’s try to tell MLB about it in 2018? Yes.
Because MLB did nothing, did Fiers take a direct route to blow the whistle on the Astros and go to the press to force MLB to do something? Yes.

Without Mike Fiers, would any of this have come to light? Well, judging by the reaction of everybody involved in the cheating and the fact MLB did nothing when they were informed, no. Fiers did baseball and their fans a huge service after he was involved in a great disservice in 2017. As fans, he should be applauded, and none of those other Astros, including Keuchel, should be applauded for anything.

Keuchel is among the current and former Astros angry for getting caught cheating, and now their legacy and standing is broken.

This isn’t a new scenario. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa will forever be stained by steroid usage. Bonds and Clemens are still active on the Hall of Fame ballot, while McGwire and Sosa seemingly will fall short of induction. Steroids will forever be the first thing noted about any of those players in the history books, just as is the case for the Eight Men Out of 1919 Black Sox infamy.

Keuchel and the rest of those 2017 World Series winners, including major award winners like Altuve, know that they and their accomplishments are tainted forever. That is seemingly the true reason for their contempt for Fiers. Instead of being called a Cy Young winner, a World Series champion, a multi-time Gold Glover, and All-Star, Keuchel will be reduced to “cheater.” All of those other accolades will just be footnotes, and that’s the real reason why the Astros are hiding behind the old trope of “nobody brings locker room talk out of the locker room” to illustrate their disgust with Fiers. Just because Keuchel is not as tone deaf as say Carlos Correa (it is hard to be), does not mean he should get a pass in Chicago, even if he is now on the White Sox.

Now, some might say that because Keuchel is a pitcher he did not benefit from the cheating, and that the true cheaters are Bregman, Altuve and Correa because the sign-stealing and trash-banging helped them directly. That’s true to a degree, because if there were a cheating scale, those hitters would be at the top. But what about an indirect or passive advantage for Astros pitchers? The easy one is the simplest stat category: the win. If the hitters are doing better, they are scoring more runs, which helps starting pitchers get wins. However, in this era of advanced attention to metrics, the win does not really illustrate the true edge a pitcher might have.

Then, Jonathan Lucroy came illustrated everything he and his battery mates had to do every time they were in Houston.

From an ESPN story by Joon Lee, Lucroy says of the illegal sign-stealing, it “was a mental challenge to really overcome that. It’s easier said than done. But it’s a shame, and I’m glad it came out and it came to light.”

Lucroy went into more depth about how some pitchers could not handle the extra stress of being in Houston: “[Pitchers] don’t want to sit there and try to think about decoding your signs and thinking about your indicators and all the different things that you’re doing. They want to sit there and just worry about executing. Some guys can handle it and some guys can’t. It was very difficult to do. The guys were calling time and stepping out of the box as you take time to put your sign sequence down, and it was making games long and leaving guys out there. Their system, not only did it work with them having the signs and being able to see them, but it made our guys sit out there longer. You had to put down a more complex set of signs and everything. I’m glad it’s been taken care of. It was out of hand and it affected the games in a lot of different ways.”

In other words, yeah, pitchers on the Astros had an advantage at home because they did not have to deal with rampant, illegal, and amoral cheaters in the other dugout. (At least none that we know of yet.) Keuchel could go out there on the mound and, as Lucroy says, just execute. Meanwhile, to keep the A’s example going, Sean Manaea has to worry about new signs all the time while knowing there was a possibility his opponent could crack the code and pass information to batters via illegal means.

As Lucroy said, some pitchers could handle it and some could not, but what is true throughout is that Astros pitchers did not have the same mental stresses their opposition did. Imagine every time an Astros batter got a hit or clobbered a pitch for a homer, you had to go back to the mound wondering if they’d cracked your pitch code? How could that not be on your mind with every pitch and every failure, and how is that not an advantage for Astros pitchers who don’t have to deal with such stress?

A multitude of baseball teams probably cheated with sign-stealing in some way at the same time the Astros won the 2017 World Series. We know the Red Sox did in 2018 to some extent, though unlike the Astros, we do not know if they cheated in the playoffs because no report has come out yet. But even assuming that there are probably a bunch of teams who have cheated in some form or fashion doesn’t make what the Astros did OK.

Sure, 2005 happened, the Astros got swept even though every game was close … maybe the organization felt the need to get the extra edge. However the cheating plan was hatched, it doesn’t mean Houston deserves to recognized as 2017 World Series champions.

No, Dallas Keuchel, you and your teammates did not earn that World Series, you stole it, and MLB doesn’t even care enough to make you give it back.

But as always, Tim Anderson, the Captain, is right there if you need anything.

Minor key: The last bullpen spot

Eighth spot to lose: Improbably, a combination of factors give Carson Fulmer the inside track on the final White Sox bullpen spot. (@Carson_Fulmer)


For some pitchers, a relief role is the path to glory and riches. For others, it’s a last stand, a last-ditch attempt to cling to the majors. The Chicago White Sox feature both extremes in their Cactus League bullpen at present, and all manner of pitchers in-between.

The former was taken care of this past weekend. Aaron Bummer’s job security wasn’t in question this spring, but the organization assured so in a big way after announcing a long-term pact with the lefty reliever on Saturday.

The White Sox are loathe to go through the arbitration process with their players, but this contract is a big win for the team beyond dodging that process with Bummer. The 26-year-old was selected in the 19th round of the 2014 draft out of Nebraska and underwent Tommy John surgery as a minor leaguer. After posting a 2.13 ERA with a 72% ground ball rate in 67 ⅔ innings in 2019, boasting a 1.3 fWAR powered by an elite sinker, Bummer has arrived as a fixture in the Pale Hose bullpen going forward.

Bullpens are fickle, and deals like this one are uncommon as a result. But the deal guarantees a payout of only $16 million, and the decision-makers likely see that as a pittance in the face of four years of arbitration under super two status for a pitcher like Bummer, who’s seen as a major spoke in the wheel. Regression could obviously occur, but Bummer’s current status and future promise is a massive scouting win for the organization, which should rightfully celebrate his arrival as a dependable big league reliever.


Judgment Day: Carson Fulmer

Carson Fulmer was the third-ranked player in the 2015  draft according to MLB Pipeline. In Doug Laumann’s final year at the helm, the White Sox used the eighth overall pick in an otherwise poor class on the righthander from Vanderbilt. Many observers praised the organization for selecting another quick-moving pitcher and nabbing the “best college starter” in the class.

Pipeline lauded Fulmer for his competitiveness and placed a 70-grade on his fastball with a 60-grade curveball. The 6´0´´ righty threw his fastball in the 93-97 mph range and had been named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Fulmer displayed an electric arm, with a power breaking ball. Carson lacked prototypical size and possessed a tough-to-repeat, highly unorthodox delivery. Many evaluators questioned his command and control, wondering if he would end up in the bullpen down the road.

Fulmer didn’t throw enough strikes in college, and he hasn’t thrown enough strikes as a professional, either. Now hanging onto a roster spot tenuously, at risk of changing organizations, Fulmer’s future hinges on his ability to throw strikes this spring. The 26-year-old posted a 6.26 ERA in 27 big league innings last year, and that was after reworking his delivery in the offseason. He did average 13.5 K/9 with the Charlotte Knights with a 3.24 FIP — but also walked more than five hitters per nine as well.

Fulmer is the likely favorite to earn the eighth and final spot in the White Sox’s bullpen this spring. He’s out of options, and while losing him wouldn’t seem drastic, his draft status likely affords him one last shot in Chicago. He had a horrendous debut (two walks, two Ks, HBP, getting yanked mid-inning) in Sunday’s White Sox spring training opener, but Cactus League stats are a poor way to determine roster decisions; paying attention to how Fulmer looks and feels may end up being more appropriate. Fulmer’s cloudy future should be an interesting storyline to monitor, though, on a pitching staff lacking drama.


Easy decisions

With a 26-man roster taking effect in 2020, the White Sox will begin the season with eight relievers. Roster churn will bring a lot of new faces through Chicago during the course of the years, but the group likely to open the season won’t feature many surprises. The southpaw-hungry pen gives 26-year-old Jace Fry an easy spot, along with Bummer. Fry is a former third-rounder looking to bounce back in 2020, and controlling his walks will play a significant part in that quest.

Alex Colomé and Kelvin Herrera are back for another spin at the back end of the 2020 bullpen. They are both slated to make real money this year and will likely see high-leverage innings early in the season. Colomé is looking to keep thwarting his ugly peripherals, while Herrera just needs to remain healthy. Steve Cishek was signed as a free agent this offseason, and he should serve as quite an insurance policy for Rick Renteria.

Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero will likely receive spots as well. Marshall threw 50 ⅓ innings in 2019 and posted a 2.49 ERA. His walk rate increased, but he didn’t allow homers and kept the ball on the ground for the most part. The organization will pay the 29-year-old $1.1 million in 2020. Cordero was claimed off of waivers during the 2019 campaign and threw 37 ⅓ innings for the White Sox in 2019. The 6´4´´, 220-pounder throws very hard but doesn’t strike out many hitters. The sleeveless man posted a 2.89 ERA and is also out of minor league options, giving him an edge for  the big league roster.


Competition at camp

The White Sox released an extensive list of non-roster invites to spring training that included veteran journeymen along with pitching prospects from their own system. Zack Burdi, Matt Foster, Ian Hamilton and José Ruiz are members of the 40-man roster and the likeliest competition for the final spot on the big league roster. Ruiz has big-time power stuff, and threw 40 innings in Chicago in 2019. He’s not the front-runner for a spot breaking camp, but he’s definitely an option. The 25-year-old posted a 5.36 ERA in the majors.

Burdi was a first round pick in 2016 and is looking to finally crack into the bigs. The fireballer is healthy for the first time in awhile and could join the White Sox at some point during the 2020 season. Hamilton looked like a serious option at this time last year, but battled a facial fracture and injuries sustained in a car collision in 2019. Foster was a 20th round pick in 2016 and was added to the 40-man this offseason after posting a 3.76 ERA in Charlotte last year.

Kodi Medeiros, Drew Anderson, Bryan Mitchell, Jacob Lindgren, Caleb Frare, Brady Lail and Tayron Guerrero are some other arms who have an outside shot at a roster spot. Southpaws Medeiros, Lindgren and Frare have the benefit of being lefties, in somewhat high demand in the White Sox system. Mitchell, Anderson and Lail all have big league experience, and while they are more likely to pitch for the Knights than the White Sox, they still qualify as options. Guerrero throws extremely hard, but his peripherals leave much to be desired and is no longer a member of the 40-man.


Outside help?

Fulmer has the inside track at a roster spot due to his draft pedigree and option status, but he’s far from a lock. An outside addition via trade or waiver claim should also be considered a possibility in filling that final spot. The White Sox have added non-roster players to the roster prior to Opening Day in the past, and while it could happen again, its unlikely due to the names currently in the mix.

Fulmer’s grip on the final spot is shaky, and there’s a solid chance that his next big league game will be thrown in a different uniform. The ideal situation for the franchise would be someone like Hamilton or Burdi taking the reins and claiming a major league spot.

Who will be the eighth member of the White Sox’s bullpen to start the year? Internally, Ruiz appears to have the best shot at filling that role. From outside the organization, it’s anyone’s guess. The front office has an entire month to sort it out, and this whole exercise may seem futile once we get to March 26.

The biggest surprise would be to have a spring devoid of bullpen surprises.

 

AL Central Big 3: The intangibles

Hammer down: Ricky Renteria, seen here with batting champ Tm Anderson, is looking for some team hardware of his own in 2020. (@WhiteSox)


It’s been quite the interesting offseason in the AL Central.

The White Sox have added a number of solid veterans to its young core, while also granting extensions for veteran slugger José Abreu and phenom outfielder Luis Robert. The Twins added Josh Donaldson to its already potent offense while adding rotation depth in the forms of Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. Cleveland, in the meantime, has basically maintained their status quo with the exception of trading pricey hurler Corey Kluber for reliever Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields Jr. as they hope to maintain their success by simply staying healthy.

Of course, based on last season, there’s quite a bit of separation among the three teams: The Twins are coming off a 101-61 season, Cleveland a 93-69 record, and the White Sox a 72-89 mark. But as there should unquestionably be some better bunching at the top this season (PECOTA projects 93, 86 and 82 wins, respectively), we’re ramping up to the start of Cactus League play with three looks at the Big 3 ball clubs, on offense, pitching and intangibles. 

This final piece will be less data-based and more analytical, as looking into the intangibles that could affect each team’s attempt at a division title.


Minnesota Twins

The Twins, after adding numerous pieces to a team that finished 78-84 in 2018, soared all the way to 101-61 last year. Many teams, after such an improvement, level off the following year in part because it took a bevy of career years to reach those unexpected heights.

Just ask the Chicago Bears. Remember them? The Bears, after undergoing a coaching change and seemingly adding to every position after a difficult 5-11 season in 2017, skyrocketed to 12-4 in 2018 before falling to 8-8 last year. While there are some similarities between the Twins and those Bears, the Twins likely won’t drop to .500 in 2020. This is in part because there’s no salary cap to hinder the addition of potential stars, and also because of the weakness of the bottom two teams in the AL Central (Kansas City and Detroit). While the Twins didn’t get that premier starter they were looking for via free agency, they did add Kenta Maeda and a couple aging, veteran starters who’ll pick up the slack for Michael Pineda (out due to suspension) and Rich Hill (out due to injury). Did I forget to add that they added slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to their record-breaking lineup?

While the Twins obtained their vast improvement on the strength of many career years in 2019, the team should still be a force to be reckoned with. For one, they didn’t rest on their laurels, continuing to add more muscle into its lineup. From the moment he was first introduced as the new Twins manager in October 2019, Rocco Baldelli spoke earnestly about his emphasis on building relationships and creating a fun, comfortable clubhouse environment to empower his players, and those elements laid a strong foundation for his collaboration with his staff and team executives as the 38-year-old skipper learned on the job in his first season at the helm. He’s employed a sabermetric approach that did nothing but aid his young offense, and it’s clear that his players love playing for him. Of course, over time, players may eventually take advantage of his good nature — but don’t expect that to happen right away.

What will happen if the Twins find themselves struggling for a divisional title in 2020? The Twins strike me, based upon their acquisitions via trade and free agency, as a team that would certainly consider trading some of their higher-end prospects to fill holes — holes built into their pitching staff, or created by injuries. Royce Lewis, the first pick in the 2017 draft, is just one such player who could be an attractive commodity despite hitting just .236 in Double-A last year; he’s currently ranked ninth by MLB Pipeline among all prospects and is just 20 years old.

While the Twins may have some prospects who’ll contribute to the squad this year (Lewis Thorpe), many won’t be expected to be key contributors for 2020 and could potentially be considered for trade: Alex Kiriloff, Trevor Larnach, Jordan Balazovic and Nick Gordon are just a few of the team’s prized prospects who could help the Twins add key contributors for their playoff run if need be. The Twins have a Top 10 system, and that’s even after the departure of flamethrower Brusdar Graterol. 


Cleveland

Despite a 93-69 season last year which actually eclipsed its division-winning record of 91-71 the year before, Cleveland seems to be entering a period of decline driven by financial concerns. The team has been rock-solid over the past four years, averaging 95 wins and winning three divisional titles and a league pennant. However, Cleveland’s best pitcher during that stretch (Corey Kluber) was dumped off traded to the Texas Rangers for a reliever and a backup outfielder, and more such miserly moves seem inevitable.

But even though Cleveland may be at the beginning stages of a decline, that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded as a divisional competitor. In fact, they still have the best pitching staff in the division while possessing several outstanding bats including Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, Carlos Santana and Franmil Reyes. If everything goes well for this team, they could easily put together another 90-win season.     

The team is managed by two-time AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona, who has won an impressive 1,667 games during his 19-year tenure with the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Indians. He’s won three pennants and two World Series titles during that span, and it would have been three championships if he hadn’t discovered a way to over-manage the over-managing Joe Maddon in 2016. Francona’s always found ways to win with above-average talent, and players generally enjoy playing for him. It’s difficult to find managers with a more impressive track record. 

But Cleveland does appear to be on the beginning stages of decline, not unlike what the Cubs endured last year. It’s not to say the team is bad — the Tribe still has numerous offensive and pitching weapons at their disposal, along with a venerable manager. Trade rumors regarding Lindor dominated the headlines this offseason, but none came to fruition. Expect those rumors to multiply for Lindor, as well as Carlos Santana and Ramírez, if the Indians get off to a disappointing start. Sometimes, those rumors take a life of their own and distract the players to perform at less-than-optimal values. Fortunately for Cleveland, Francona should be able to help the team avoid such distractions.

The Indians, unlike the Twins, seem unlikely to add significant talent if the team needs additional help at the trade deadline. Aside from the acquisitions of second baseman Cesar Hernandez and Domingo Santana, Cleveland really didn’t add to their team (OK, Emmanuel Clase came via the Kluber trade). There is some talent in the pipeline available for trade, such as third baseman Nolan Jones and Triston McKenzie, in addition to recent draft choices like Daniel Espino, Ethan Hankins and Bo Naylor. However, with Cleveland crying poor, it would be counterintuitive to swap away cheaper young talent in a postseason push.   


Chicago White Sox

The White Sox, as most fans know, have undergone an 11-year playoff drought since last appearing in the postseason in 2008. Now, after a massive rebuild which began in 2016 with the trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, the team now appears to be on the precipice of long-term pennant contention. Youth, and productive youth at that, seems ready to blossom in 2020. Thanks to recent free-agent acquisitions such as Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Gio González and Edwin Encarnación, the team has now added veteran leadership to a young core of Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease. If this young team can gel at the same time, it could easily contend for the divisional title; if not, there should still be enough talent to succeed in 2021 and beyond.

Ricky Renteria, with a career record of 274-373, has by far the worst winning percentage among these three managers. To be fair, he’s really only been given rebuilding teams to work with. Renteria, because of his coaching style that his players enjoy, seems up to the task in perhaps his most pressure-packed role to date. He’s always been considered the type of manager who could take his team from Point A to Point B thanks to his teaching abilities and patience; however, as highlighted by the Cubs’ willingness to fire him in favor of Joe Maddon, he’s been perceived as a manager who isn’t suited for taking a squad from Point B to Point C. While Renteria’s willingness to bunt has been well publicized, it will be extremely interesting to see how he manages a team with such a unique combination of youngsters and seasoned veterans. If he somehow steers this team to a divisional title he could easily be Manager of the Year. If the team struggles to even attain .500, however, questions will only increase regarding his ability to make a good team better.

The White Sox also may be willing to strike a trade to improve their team during their trade deadline by swapping minor leaguers, but there’s a catch. Three of their top four prospects (Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and Michael Kopech) will likely be key contributors in the majors by the deadline, which means that all the White Sox will be able to offer are Andrew Vaughn, Jonathan Stiever, players who struggled in Double-A last year, and players who missed much time due to significant injuries in 2019. If most of these players rebound and post great starts to 2020, the White Sox would indeed have the talent to offer in a megadeal to improve the team at the major league level.

One more caveat: it’s certainly possible that the team doesn’t relinquish much prospect capital at the trade deadline, for the reason being that the White Sox window of contention really doesn’t fly open until 2021. It certainly would be interesting to see what this team would do if dealt the “dilemma” of division title contention one year early!


              

 

     

AL Central Big 3: The pitching

Leading man: The White Sox will need Giolito to be on his A-game, while also needing improvements from its young nucleus of starters, in order to contend for this year’s division title. (@LGio27) 


It’s been quite the interesting offseason in the AL Central.

The White Sox have added a number of solid veterans to its young core, while also granting extensions for veteran slugger José Abreu and phenom outfielder Luis Robert. The Twins added Josh Donaldson to its already potent offense while adding rotation depth in the forms of Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. Cleveland, in the meantime, has basically maintained their status quo with the exception of trading pricey hurler Corey Kluber for reliever Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields Jr. as they hope to maintain their success by simply staying healthy.

Of course, based on last season, there’s quite a bit of separation among the three teams: The Twins are coming off a 101-61 season, Cleveland a 93-69 record, and the White Sox a 72-89 mark. But as there should unquestionably be some better bunching at the top this season (PECOTA projects 93, 86 and 82 wins, respectively), we’re ramping up to the start of Cactus League play with three looks at the Big 3 ball clubs, on offense, pitching and intangibles. 

Projected 2020 stats are per Steamer, and players’ ages listed in parentheses are as of Opening Day.


Minnesota Twins

Starting Rotation
José Berrios (R) 4.48 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 198 IP, 2.71 BB/9, 8.63 K/9, 3.0 fWAR
Jake Odorizzi (R) 4.59 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 172 IP, 3.19 BB/9, 9.36 K/9, 2.3 fWAR
Kenta Maeda (R) 4.66 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 154 IP, 3.23 BB/9, 9.09 K/9, 1.9 fWAR

Homer Bailey (R) 5.02 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 153 IP, 2.92 BB/9, 7.21 K/9, 1.4 fWAR
Randy Dobnak (R) 5.03 ERA, 1.43 WHIP,   90 IP, 2.72 BB/9, 5.50 K/9, 0.7 fWAR

Injured or Suspended Starters
Michael Piñeda (R) 4.63 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 129 IP, 2.22 BB/9, 8.22 K/9, 1.7 fWAR
Rich Hill (L) 4.42 ERA, 1.29 WHIP,   88 IP, 3.25 BB/9, 9.41 K/9, 1.2 fWAR

Aggregate Rotation Numbers: 4.60 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 2.77 BB/9, 7.95 K/9, 12.2 fWAR

Bullpen
Taylor Rogers (L) 3.44 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 65 IP, 2.64 BB/9, 10.65 K/9, 0.9 fWAR
Sergio Romo (R) 4.94 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 67 IP, 3.00 BB/9,   8.35 K/9, 0.1 fWAR
Trevor May (R) 4.13 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 60 IP, 3.65 BB/9, 10.65 K/9, 0.5 fWAR
Tyler Duffey (R) 3.81 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 65 IP, 2.63 BB/9, 10.09 K/9, 0.8 fWAR
Tyler Clippard (R) 4.99 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 55 IP, 3.35 BB/9,   9.13 K/9, 0.0 fWAR
Zack Littell (R) 4.37 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 45 IP, 3.22 BB/9,   8.79 K/9,  0.3 fWAR
Cody Stashak (R) 4.68 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 40 IP, 2.53 BB/9,   8.82 K/9,  0.1 fWAR
Matt Wisler (R) 4.63 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 20 IP, 2.40 BB/9,   8.34 K/9,  0.1 fWAR

Aggregate Relief Numbers: 4.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 3.06 BB/9, 9.50 K/9, 2.8 fWAR

Total Twins Pitching: 4.51 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 2.86 BB/9, 8.43 K /9, 15.0 fWAR   

Certainly, some regression was expected for the Twins on the offensive side, but Steamer is anticipating regression for many Twins pitchers as well — especially in regards to top starters Berrios and Odorizzi. Regression is also expected for new acquisition Maeda, who is leaving the friendly pitching confines of Dodger Stadium. Piñeda won’t return from his league-mandated suspension until mid-May, while Hill won’t return from his offseason surgery until sometime around the All-Star break. In the meantime, a three-way battle will exist for the final spot between Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe. While the Twins bullpen doesn’t feature many big names, it does a competent job by posting impressive strikeout totals and keeping walks down. Aside from their closer, the Twins have no southpaws in the bullpen unless they decide to move Smeltzer there at some point. All Minnesota’s pitching has to do is keep the team in the game, as its offense should be exciting enough (even with the expected regression) to score five runs per game.     


Cleveland

Starting Rotation
Shane Bieber (R) 3.66 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 198 IP, 1.80 BB/9, 9.74 K/9, 4.6 fWAR
Carlos Carrasco (R) 3.80 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 173 IP, 2.19 BB/9,  9.86 K/9, 3.5 fWAR
Aaron Civale (R) 4.81 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 148 IP, 2.31 BB/9, 7.06 K/9, 1.4 fWAR
Zach Plesac (R) 5.07 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 119 IP, 2.91 BB/9, 7.37 K/9, 0.7 fWAR
Logan Allen (L) 4.90 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 101 IP, 3.82 BB/9, 7.80 K/9, 0.5 fWAR

Injured Starters
Mike Clevinger (R) 3.65 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 197 IP, 3.05 BB/9, 10.87 K/9, 3.6 fWAR 

Aggregate Rotation Numbers: 4.18 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.58 BB/9, 9.07 K/9, 14.3 fWAR  

Bullpen
Brad Hand (L) 3.68 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 65 IP, 3.23 BB/9, 11.10 K/9, 0.7 fWAR
Nick Wittgren (R) 4.49 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 65 IP, 3.03 BB/9,  8.66 K/9, 0.1 fWAR

Emmanuel Clase (R) 3.78 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 55 IP, 3.39 BB/9,  9.57 K/9, 0.5 fWAR
Oliver Perez (L) 4.06 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 68 IP, 3.14 BB/9,  9.73 K/9, 0.3 fWAR 
Adam Cimber (R) 4.54 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 60 IP, 2.90 BB/9,  6.67 K/9, 0.0 fWAR
Hunter Wood (R) 4.44 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 35 IP, 3.11 BB/9,  8.93 K/9, 0.1 fWAR
James Karinchak (R) 3.58 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 40 IP, 4.79 BB/9, 12.60 K/9, 0.4 fWAR
Adam Plutko (R) 5.20 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 48 IP, 2.37 BB/9,   7.71 K/9, -0.1 fWAR

Aggregate Relief Numbers: 4.18 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 3.20 BB/9, 9.33 K/9, 2.0 fWAR

Total Cleveland Pitching: 4.18 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 2.80 BB/9, 9.15 K/9, 16.4 fWAR

The top three in Cleveland’s rotation (including Clevinger) is among the best trio of starters in the league, while the bullpen features four guys who strike out more than a man per inning. For obvious reasons, losing Clevinger for any significant period of time will hurt the Indians in the divisional chase; it’s not expected that he’d miss more than three or four weeks to begin the season. In the meantime, the fourth and fifth spots are potentially vulnerable due to limited experience in the majors. If one of Civale or Plesac should struggle, don’t be too surprised to see Plutko inserted into the rotation while James Hoyt gets promoted from Triple-A to fill his spot. Cleveland also has several minor leaguers (including Triston McKenzie) who can help the team if needed, and they have the best rotational depth in the division overall.


Chicago White Sox

Starting Rotation
Lucas Giolito (R) 4.26 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 191 IP, 3.44 BB/9, 10.31 K/9, 3.2 fWAR
Dallas Keuchel (L) 4.38 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 197 IP, 3.00 BB/9,   6.85 K/9, 2.4 fWAR
Reynaldo López (R) 4.96 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 159 IP, 3.18 BB/9,   8.27 K/9, 1.5 fWAR
Dylan Cease (R) 4.52 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 108 IP, 4.17 BB/9,   9.54 K/9, 1.4 fWAR
Gio González (L) 4.89 ERA, 1.47 WHIP,  133 IP, 3.81 BB/9,  7.72 K/9, 1.1 fWAR

Injured Starters
Michael Kopech (R) 4.78 ERA, 1.39 WHIP,   91 IP, 4.29 BB/9, 10.25 K/9, 0.9 fWAR
Carlos Rodón (L) 4.73 ERA, 1.38 WHIP,  37 IP, 3.66 BB/9,   8.65 K/9,  0.4 fWAR

Aggregate Rotation Numbers: 4.59 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 3.53 BB/9, 8.68 K/9, 10.9 fWAR  

Bullpen
Alex Colomé (R) 4.33 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 63 IP, 3.23 BB/9,   9.08 K/9, 0.3 fWAR
Aaron Bummer (L) 3.74 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 65 IP, 3.72 BB/9,   9.33 K/9, 0.7 fWAR
Steve Cishek (R) 4.71 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 65 IP, 3.77 BB/9,    8.63 K/9,  0.0 fWAR
Evan Marshall (R) 4.43 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 60 IP. 3.60 BB/9,   8.18 K/9, 0.2 fWAR
Kelvin Herrera (R) 4.51 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 50 IP, 3.04 BB/9,   8.97 K/9, 0.3 fWAR
Jace Fry (L) 3.86 ERA, 1,38 WHIP, 67 IP, 4.71 BB/9, 10.47 K/9, 0.4 fWAR
Jimmy Cordero (R) 4.40 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 35 IP, 4.36 BB/9,   8.56 K/9, 0.1 fWAR
Carson Fulmer (R) 5.08 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 25 IP, 4.89 BB/9,   9.24 K/9, -0.1 fWAR

Aggregate Relief Numbers: 4.31 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 3.81 BB/9, 9.10 K/9, 1.9 fWAR

Total White Sox Numbers: 4.50 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 3.62 BB/9, 8.81 K/9, 12.8 fWAR

It certainly doesn’t appear that Steamer did the White Sox pitchers many favors with its projections. One can see that Cease and López are expected to gain some improvement in the rotation, but the rest of the rotation is projected to struggle. To be fair, Giolito’s projections are at least closer to his 2019 numbers than to his disastrous 2018. Also, it is incredibly difficult to project rotational pieces who have shown little consistency from year to year. Keuchel and González, unsurprisingly, are expected to decline as they’re both into their 30s. There’s also a chance that Kopech begins the year in the rotation, with González perhaps to be the designated long man after each of his starts. As for the bullpen, the only pitchers expected for improvement (albeit moderate) are Herrera, Fry and Fulmer. It’s interesting to see their projections for Cishek fall to such a degree, but that’s why they play the game. If everyone reaches the ceiling, the White Sox could easily pass the Indians in fWAR by year’s end; however, the likelihood that all cylinders run with perfect profusion, especially for such a young staff, is quite minimal indeed. Fulmer’s listed as the last guy in the pen, if for no other reason that he has no options left; there likely will be heavy competition for this final spot from among Ian Hamilton, José Ruiz, Jacob Lindgren and many others.


When looking at the rotation stats, Cleveland has a clear advantage thanks to its big three of Clevinger, Bieber and Carrasco. The White Sox and Twins rotations are actually quite even, as both teams have solid top-twos but question marks afterward. There’s not much separation among these three teams in the bullpen, but Cleveland appears to have a slight edge on both the White Sox and Twins. If the White Sox staff can avoid free passes, which Steamer doesn’t think it can, the White Sox should definitely beat their overall projections.   

These aggregate fWAR totals for each team are only based upon each team’s projected Opening Day rosters (plus contributions of those either on the injured or suspended lists), so they don’t include contributions from those expected to begin the season in the minors. Combined with the offensive fWAR numbers published yesterday, the Twins have the best preseason projections among its 26-man roster (44.3 fWAR); Cleveland falls second at 38.7, while the Sox are a close third at 36.9.

This doesn’t man the White Sox should simply give up the season; it just means expectations should be tempered just a bit. It truly appears that the White Sox offense should be just fine; however, the team will only go so far as its pitching this year. A lot may also depend upon the health of these three teams as to who’ll go the furthest. While each will be hoping and anticipating great starts, it’s perhaps most imperative for the Tribe because  a rocky beginning to 2020 could impel the team to rebuild instead of contend. Fortunately for everyone, games aren’t played on paper and/or projections, but are played on the diamond. It should be an exciting an and compelling 2020 campaign!


 

AL Central Big 3: The offenses

Big boost: Thanks in part to the acquisition of Yasmani Grandal, the White Sox now trail only the Twins in fWAR among its offensive roster. (@WhiteSox)


It’s been quite the interesting offseason in the AL Central.

The White Sox have added a number of solid veterans to its young core, while also granting extensions for veteran slugger José Abreu and phenom outfielder Luis Robert. The Twins added Josh Donaldson to its already potent offense while adding rotation depth in the forms of Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. Cleveland, in the meantime, has basically maintained their status quo with the exception of trading pricey hurler Corey Kluber for reliever Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields Jr. as they hope to maintain their success by simply staying healthy.

Of course, based on last season, there’s quite a bit of separation among the three teams: The Twins are coming off a 101-61 season, Cleveland a 93-69 record, and the White Sox a 72-89 mark. But as there should unquestionably be some better bunching at the top this season (PECOTA projects 93, 86 and 82 wins, respectively), we’re ramping up to the start of Cactus League play with three looks at the Big 3 ball clubs, on offense, pitching and intangibles. 

Projected 2020 stats are per Steamer, and players’ ages listed in parentheses are as of Opening Day.


Minnesota Twins

Outfield
Eddie Rosario, LF (27) .284/.320/.499, 30 HR, 86 RBI, 5 SB, 2.4 fWAR
Byron Buxton, CF (26) .262/.317/.461, 20 HR, 73 RBI, 23 SB, 3.2 fWAR
Max Kepler, RF (28) .260/.343/.490, 30 HR, 93 RBI, 6 SB, 3.7 fWAR
Marwin Gonzalez (31) .269/.334/.444, 10 HR, 40 RBI, 1 SB, 0.8 fWAR
Jake Cave (27) .256/.315/.423, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 1 SB, 0.1 fWAR

Infield
Miguel Sano, 1B (26) .246/.337/.519, 37 HR, 97 RBI, 1 SB, 2.3 fWAR
Luis Arraez, 2B (22) .312/.369/.415, 6 HR, 57 RBI, 6 SB, 2.5 fWAR
Jorge Polanco, SS (26) .281/.344/.453, 19 HR, 82 RBI, 7 SB, 2.9 fWAR
Josh Donaldson, 3B (34) .267/.379/.527, 36 HR, 103 RBI, 4 SB, 5.3 fWAR
Ehire Adrianza (30) .256/.317/.389, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB, 0.2 fWAR

Catchers
Mitch Garver (29) .254/.333/.464, 16 HR, 52 RBI, 1 SB, 1.9 fWAR
Alex Avila (33) .214/.342/.379, 7 HR, 23 RBI, 1 SB, 1.1 fWAR

Designated Hitter
Nelson Cruz (39) .282/.363/.547, 40 HR, 114 RBI, 1 SB, 2.9 fWAR

Certainly, some regression is expected after nearly everyone on Minnesota’s roster enjoyed career years offensively in 2019. The above numbers reflect this, especially when looking at Garver’s anticipated drop-off from last year’s .273/.365/.630 slash line with 31 homers. Even so, this is an extremely dangerous offense and arguably the best in the American League. With the acquisition of Donaldson, third catcher and contact maestro Willians Austudillo will likely begin in the minors, but should still receive some playing time if an injury occurs.The only weakness to this offense may be the ability to manufacture runs if they’re not hitting bombs, as the only player who’s projected to steal in double digits is the oft-injured Buxton. The above roster above posted an aggregate 3.5 defensive bWAR last year, spearheaded by Donaldson (1.7) and Buxton (1.3, despite missing 75 games); the defense’s Achilles heel last year was Rosario (-1.1).


Cleveland

Outfield
Domingo Santana, LF (24) .248/.345/.441, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 5 SB, 0.4 fWAR
Oscar Mercado, CF (25) .256/.313/.402, 15 HR, 66 RBI, 15 SB, 1.0 fWAR
Greg Allen, RF (27) .246/.310/.362, 3 HR, 19 RBI, 7 SB, -0.1 fWAR
Jordan Luplow (26) .250/.333/.449, 11 HR, 38 RBI, 4 SB, 0.7 fWAR
Delino DeShields Jr. (27) .231/.313/.338, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 9 SB, 0.2 fWAR

Infield
Carlos Santana, 1B (33) .260/.375/.482, 29 HR, 93 RBI, 3 SB, 2.7 fWAR
Cesar Hernandez, 2B (29) .277/.355/.399, 11 HR, 56 RBI, 9 SB, 2.0 fWAR
Francisco Lindor, SS (26) .289/.354/.531, 35 HR, 95 RBI, 22 SB, 6.0 fWAR
José Ramírez, 3B (27) .277/.362/.523, 31 HR, 101 RBI, 23 SB, 5.1 fWAR|
Christian Arroyo (24) .247/.301/.395, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 1 SB, 0.1 fWAR

Catchers
Roberto Perez (31) .219/.303/.399, 14 HR, 43 RBI, 1 SB, 2.2 fWAR
Sandy Leon (31) .217/.278/.346, 5 HR, 23 RBI, 1 SB, 0.5 fWAR

Designated Hitter
Franmil Reyes (24) .260/.329/.517, 36 HR, 93 RBI, 1 SB, 1.5 fWAR

There’s still some uncertainty in this lineup, particularly in the outfield. Jake Bauers is not expected by FanGraphs to make the Opening Day roster thanks to the recent signing of Domingo Santana, but he still has a shot to beat out either Allen or DeShields in spring training. When Reyes does spend some time in the outfield this year, he and Santana could be the modern-day defensive equivalent of Greg Luzinski and Dave Kingman at the corners. If the Indians get off to a rocky start, expect trade talks regarding Lindor to intensify. Offensively, the strength of this team is clearly the infield with Lindor, Ramírez and Santana. Defensively, this roster posted an aggregate 6.3 defensive bWAR last year, led by Perez (2.6) and Lindor (1.7); the weakest defensive player in 2019 on this year’s roster was easily Domingo Santana, with a -1.9 mark. This team is loaded with switch-hitters and platoon possibilities, so Cleveland could definitely post match-up difficulties to opposing pitchers. With several guys capable of double-digit steals, the Indians should be able to manufacture runs when the offense isn’t entirely clicking.    


Chicago White Sox

Outfield
Eloy Jiménez, LF (24) .279/.329/.520, 33 HR, 95 RBI, 1 SB, 2.7 fWAR
Luis Robert, CF (22) .273/.317/.488, 26 HR, 83 RBI, 23 SB, 2.9 fWAR
Nomar Mazara, RF (24) .255/.318./.467, 25 HR, 77 RBI, 3 SB, 1.4 fWAR
Leury García (29) .261/.300/.374, 8 HR, 39 RBI, 10 SB, 0.4 fWAR
Adam Engel (28) .221/.281/.352, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 3 SB, 0.0 fWAR

Infield
José Abreu, 1B (33) .275/.332/.497, 32 HR, 101 RBI, 3 SB, 1.8 fWAR
Nick Madrigal, 2B (23) .287/.337/.392, 5 HR, 47 RBI, 19 SB, 1.5 fWAR
Tim Anderson, SS (26) .275/.308/.441, 21 HR, 79 RBI, 17 SB, 2.0 fWAR
Yoán Moncada, 3B (24) .267/.340/.475, 27 HR, 86 RBI, 12 SB, 4.0 fWAR
Danny Mendick (26) .243/.310/.376, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 2 SB, 0.2 fWAR

Catchers
Yasmani Grandal (31) .239/.358/.459, 25 HR, 73 RBI, 3 SB, 5.0 fWAR
James McCann (29) .238/.297/.390, 6 HR, 21 RBI, 1 SB, 0.3 fWAR

Designated Hitter
Edwin Encarnación (37) .246/.346/.499, 35 HR, 92 RBI, 2 SB, 1.9 fWAR

Because of their high BABIP last year, Steamer expects Anderson’s and Moncada’s batting averages to drop significantly in 2020. And because of the volatility of rookies and youngsters, it’s hard to project guys like Robert and Madrigal will fare when they make it to the big show. Thus, there’s a great degree of variance between upsides and floors for the White Sox overall. The numbers seem respectable for Robert but a little down for Madrigal; of these three teams, the White Sox are the only team to expect to have two rookies earn regular playing time. The defense posted an aggregate of -0.6 defensive bWAR, despite the additions of Madrigal, Robert and Grandal. Unsurprisingly, the biggest culprits are Jiménez and Abreu, but the White Sox’s defensive value should still be higher in 2020 providing that Anderson commits fewer errors and Moncada continues his improvement at the hot corner. As a side note, while FanGraphs expects García to begin the Opening Day roster as the team’s second baseman, I have Madrigal listed as the starter as there’s a chance he’s given an extension and/or enjoys a solid spring.


As the numbers above reflect a combination of offense and defense, the Twins clearly have the best combined non-pitching roster among these three teams, at 29.3 fWAR. If Minnesota’s hitters avoid their expected regression offensively, that number could easily climb another five points or more. The White Sox actually rank behind the Twins at 24.1 fWAR despite their unproven youth, thanks in part to its dynamic catching tandem of Grandal and McCann. Interestingly, Minnesota’s acquisition of Donaldson essentially makes up the projected fWAR difference between the White Sox and Twins — at least offensively. Cleveland has the weakest roster offensively of the three teams, despite having an excellent infield on paper. That team is hampered by its lack of outfield thump, as the combined 2.2 fWAR in that area brings their expected total to 22.3 (despite having the best defensive numbers and two of the best players in the division). For the White Sox to rank second in the division offensively isn’t a slap in the face, as the Twins are arguably the best offense in the American League, if not all of baseball.