The flurry of offseason activity for the White Sox thus far had me whipping out my copy of White Sox Outsider 2013 to peruse the "Transaction Register" section for a bit of contrast. One wonders how Sox fans made it through the 2012-13 offseason with so little to talk about. Aside from extending Jake Peavy, the biggest moves were the trade for Conor Gillaspie and the signings of Jeff Keppinger, Matt Lindstrom, and DeWayne Wise. The "plug the 3B hole and stand pat" approach did, however, make a good deal of sense at the time. Rick Hahn wasn't blessed with a great deal of payroll flexibility in his first offseason as general manager and the team was coming off of a season in which their postseason odds soared in excess of 80% in the middle of September. With plenty of big contracts still on the books and a team that came close to winning the AL Central in the prior year, it's tough to blame the team for throwing a mostly unchanged roster into the fray and hoping for the best against a much-improved Tigers team. A complete revamping of the roster would have been too difficult, not to mention a hard sell.
One 63-99 season later, however, Rick Hahn and the White Sox found themselves in a new situation. Gone was the obligation to pay Paul Konerko, Matt Thornton, and, thanks to some in-season maneuvering, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy. Perhaps just as important, gone were most expectations for the team to compete for the playoffs immediately. The stars aligned for a total rebuild, and even though we're only in late December, Hahn has already delivered in a big way. 4/9ths of last year's league-worst offense has been replaced with younger, higher-upside options and the current infield logjam implies that the turnover may not yet be complete.
I can't remember the last time that change has felt this good.
There's pretty much no question that Hahn has set the White Sox up to better succeed in the long-term through these moves, but what might be overlooked in the shuffle is that the team might have actually set itself up to be something of a surprise team in 2014. Jose Abreu and Matt Davidson are not exactly locks to be above-average players in the short term (particularly the latter), but the bar for improvement over 2013 is pretty low. White Sox third basemen slashed .236/.285/.350 in 2013, and while the line for first basemen was nowhere near as ugly (.251/.341/.410), one needs to take into account that Abreu's presence displaces Konerko's bat from everyday duty, and the rewards are reaped from the DH slot. Roster concerns aside, there's plenty of reason to believe that Adam Dunn and Konerko could combine to form an above-average DH in a straight platoon where neither guy is forced to rack up many plate appearances against a same-handed pitcher. A quick weighted average of 2013's statistics shows the duo combined for an .813 OPS against opposite-handed pitchers. Even if we don't expect quite that in 2014, it's almost a guarantee that whatever Dunn and Konerko do will be a significant improvement on the putrid .219/.290/.384 line produced by 2013 White Sox designated hitters. Add in the fact that center field was something of a replacement-level sinkhole (including defense), and that's three positions filled with young talent and a "can't get much worse" starting point.
Despite all of this improvement, the White Sox are far from the most talented team on paper in the AL Central. However, there's one element the current projected 2014 roster has that the 2013 roster didn't have: variance. Variance, simplified, is the level of uncertainty and randomness in a system. As a general rule of thumb, when you are at a disadvantage in any competition, you want to increase the variance of that competition to boost your chances of winning a single trial, or in this case, a baseball season. 2012 was a near miss for the Sox, but the team lost A.J. Pierzynski's career year and Kevin Youkilis to free agency. Outside of John Danks's return, Dayan Viciedo, and possibly Gordon Beckham, there weren't many places on the roster where the Sox had upside potential to compensate for these losses in 2013. It was largely an offense full of known quantities and limited ceilings where the best-case scenario at many positions was an average player.
For 2014, the story is much different. Abreu, Davidson, Adam Eaton, and Avisail Garcia are not known quantities. They may be a Cuban whose skills don't translate, Josh Fields, a 4th outfielder, and a guy whose lack of plate discipline is his undoing. Or, they could be a quartet of 3-4 win players. It's unreasonable to expect that, but it's just as unreasonable to say it's impossible. Even if the rest of the position players were replacement level, that would represent about a 14 win upgrade over 2013. Then, take into account that the 2013 White Sox ran about 4 wins under expectation based on runs scored and runs allowed and that a standard deviation for win total from a team's "true" quality is about 6. Strong seasons from 4 unproven players and a switch from bad luck to good luck could put the team in the mix for at least a Wild Card slot.
All of this assumes no improvement for the 5 other hitters in the lineup or, more importantly, the defense. White Sox pitchers were 6th in the AL in fWAR last year, but were 11th in run prevention. Some of that discrepancy is home ballpark, but it was more attributable to a somewhat inexplicable team-wide collapse with the leather (despite little roster turnover from the previous year) and possibly some bad luck. The returns from displacing Alejandro De Aza coupled with a general bounce-back to respectability elsewhere on the diamond could be quite significant. Take the Yankees for example. They have a hitter's park, racked up just 1.1 more pitching fWAR, and allowed a whopping 52 fewer runs than the White Sox. That doesn't scan, and points to better times ahead for the South Siders should BobbleFest 2013 turn out to be a one-year blip.
While White Sox fans should be ecstatic about the new long-term outlook for the team, it's important not to discount what Rick Hahn has done for the short-term chances of the Sox. There's hope, albeit slim, for a quick turnaround here and if it sounds nuts, one need only look at the last couple years for concrete examples of teams (Pirates, A's, Orioles) that have made a sudden jump from the cellar to the playoffs riding young talent. Planning "moves that make us better for the present and future" is something of a cliche used by GMs to offer encouragement to the fans about the direction of a team, but Rick Hahn has made that idea a reality for the White Sox, all while making only one significant monetary expenditure (Abreu) and without losing his two best assets (Chris Sale and Jose Quintana). We may not know now what Hahn has in store for the rest of the offseason, but he's given us plenty of reason to watch and wait with optimism and confidence.