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Chicago White Sox 2015 season preview

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SB Nation 2015 MLB Preview The offseason's most active American League team hopes on-paper upgrades translate to on-field production

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The White Sox have struggled to captivate their own fans while losing 99 and 89 games over the last two seasons, so you can't blame the greater baseball-watching world for ignoring them.

Rick Hahn set out to put his team back on the radar by putting a jolt into the league over the winter. The White Sox had the most active offseason of a team not named the Padres with one huge trade and five significant free-agent signings. One of the latter -- four-year, $46 million contract for David Robertson -- was the kind of move you'd expect a team with true aspirations to make. A .500 team can roll the dice on its own closer options.

The question Hahn forced a lot of people to wrestle with: Why do the White Sox think they can contend now?

Those who hadn't taken a good look at the White Sox roster might've noticed a surprising number of high-quality players, including Jose Abreu (who finished fourth in MVP voting) and Chris Sale (third in Cy Young voting).

The problem? The star power was watered down by a lot of underperforming talent (or undertalented performers).

So the theory behind Hahn's offseason was rather simple: If he could deadhead the negative-value players and install good, sturdy professionals in their places, maybe the gains will be even more pronounced.

The Sox stared at an uphill climb -- they needed at least 15 wins to get them in the postseason conversation. However, the alternative was willfully pissing away another year of peak Sale and Abreu, so they went to work.

The six upgrades

  • IN: Jeff Samardzija (3.7 WAR in 2014)
  • OUT: Scott Carroll (-0.4 WAR)

The Sox had to turn to the career minor-leaguer Carroll for 130 innings after three other options for the back end of the rotation failed. Hahn could have improved meaningfully with a smaller move, but instead, he traded four players -- Marcus Semien the only one whose absence hurts -- for Samardzija, who slots neatly in between Sale and Jose Quintana, at least for one year.

  • IN: Melky Cabrera (3.1 WAR)
  • OUT: Dayan Viciedo (-0.9 WAR)

Viciedo was always going to be a liability in the field, which made the degeneration of his offensive approach doubly painful. They gave him all the time in the world for that power to translate into production, but he swung and missed three times, finally forcing the Sox to look elsewhere. They came back with Cabrera, a switch-hitter who has been a valuable top-half-of-the-order hitter whenever he hasn't had a tumor on his spine.

  • IN: Adam LaRoche (2.2 WAR)
  • OUT: Adam Dunn/Paul Konerko (-0.8 WAR)

After carrying three first baseman all season to facilitate Konerko's last wishes, the White Sox are back to their familiar arrangement -- two first basemen, one of whom serves as designated hitter. LaRoche will be the most-time DH, and if his transition to American League life is a clean one, he'll improve the offensive production while occupying just one roster spot.

  • IN: David Robertson (1.2 WAR)
  • OUT: Ronald Belisario (-1.4 WAR)

The Sox picked up the best right-handed reliever on the open market, and he effectively replaced one of last year's worst. A lot of bad luck went into Belisario's 5.56 ERA, but considering he's out of action this spring with the Rays because he hurt himself getting out of a pool, that dark cloud hasn't ditched him yet.

  • IN: Zach Duke (1.2 WAR)
  • OUT: Scott Downs, among others (-0.5 WAR)

The Sox picked up the second-best left-handed reliever on the open market, which gives Robin Ventura one more trustworthy left-handed option than he had in all of 2014. Duke might be in for regression after a breakout season with Milwaukee (2.45 ERA, 74 strikeouts over 59 innings), but even 85 percent of his production would represent a massive upgrade.

  • IN: Emilio Bonifacio (1.0 WAR)
  • OUT: Leury Garcia (-0.4 WAR)

Garcia was the first position player in White Sox history to receive 150 plate appearances and post an OBP -- not batting average, OBP -- under .200 (.192). Bonifacio may be streaky, but at least he has hot weeks to offset the cold ones.

Add them all up, and that's a difference of 16.8 WAR year over year, which is exactly the on-paper improvement needed to justify a spending spree. There are hazards with equating one WAR to one team win, but this illustrates the driving force behind Hahn's offseason nevertheless.

Caution flags

Like any rapid renovation reality show, there's an implicit understanding that the craftsmanship isn't the most thorough, and some areas may need to be tolerated/endured/addressed later. The Sox have areas they'd prefer the cameras to avoid, such as:

Rotation depth: Hector Noesi is the No. 5 starter, and he's still a punch line for most of the league, even though he stopped one revolving door in the rotation with watchable starts for the White Sox. Don Cooper thinks he can improve, but I don't know if I see another big step in him.

Of course, if Noesi reverts to his laff-riot form, then Carlos Rodon can step in. But while Rodon is a pretty exciting Plan B, Plan C is ... Plan TBD, which is a problem when teams regularly need a rotation Plan D. It's possible Erik Johnson shrugs off a lost year and realizes his former prospect potential, and Frank Montas is a wild card, but everybody else lacks upside.

Defense: The Sox defense is far from iron-clad. In fact, if Alexei Ramirez's range continues to decline, and Micah Johnson starts instead of Carlos Sanchez, Adam Eaton could be the only standout defender on the diamond.

But the idea behind the White Sox offseason also applies to the defense -- maybe they can reduce the negative effects of the worst parts. Cabrera isn't anybody's idea of a Gold Glover, but he might look like one compared to Viciedo. A declining LaRoche is handier around first base than Abreu, so he'll put a dent in those awful 1B metrics a couple times a week. It's reasonable to expect some improvement from Avisail Garcia, who needs reps more than anything. Throw in Gordon Beckham as a legit late-inning defensive replacement for Conor Gillaspie, and again, the Sox have ways to whittle away their ugliest aspects.

Upper-minors help: Sure, there's Rodon, but if Micah Johnson starts the season in Chicago, the Sox will pretty much have all impact-making hands on deck -- unless Matt Davidson, the position-player version of Erik Johnson, also forgets 2014 ever happened. The Sox can't afford any slip-ups from their stars. Abreu, Sale, Eaton, Quintana and Samardzija all need to deliver.

Fulcrums

There are a few White Sox who can make a larger splash than their projections indicate.

Offense: Avisail Garcia
ZiPS: .269/.309/.417, 0.3 WAR

Garcia is a physical marvel with a unique hitting approach that is equal parts ugly (plate discipline) and captivating (all-fields power). He's been so young for every level that you can't fault his precociousness, but between that and the reps missed from his labrum injury, it's hard to get a feel for what he can truly produce, and so the math is nonplussed. But there's some kind of ballplayer here, and the Sox think it's a very good one.

Rotation: Hector Noesi
ZiPS: 139 IP, 5.84 ERA, -1.2 WAR

That projection line is bascially Noesi's career before the White Sox (4-16, 5.81 ERA over 197 innings). So it's like ZiPS looks at Noesi's time with the Sox (8-11, 4.39 ERA over 166 innings) and says, "Do it again, I wasn't watching."

Noesi has the support of his bosses, if only to keep the Rodon heat off him. But even if he can't figure out a way to improve, the Sox would be happy with a repeat of 2014 (at least after April 20, 2014, anyway). Big innings and big flies tarnished his ERA, but he pitched well enough for the Sox to go 14-13 over his 27 starts.

Bullpen: Zach Duke
ZiPS: 53 IP, 3.71 ERA, 0.4 WAR

While Duke transformed into a menace to lefties by lowering his arm slot, he also gave the Brewers reason to leave him in against righties (.242/.288/.298 line allowed). Repeating that specific aspect of his breakout season will be key, because Ventura will probably let Duke handle full innings while they get familiar with each other, and his level of success against the other side in high-leverage situations will make or break ballgames, especially early.

Why not?

After the initial wave of excitement dissipates, the doubts start to seep in. It's one thing for the Sox to improve by 15-17 wins on paper, but that improvement relies on outside players making seamless transitions -- and players who are passing to the other side of 30 to boot. That doesn't always happen, especially in Chicago, where Dunn may be off the books, but not out of mind.

The immediate success in 2014 by guys like Abreu and Eaton alleviate some of those concerns. The more directly applicable solace can be drawn from the fact that the Sox had plenty of payroll to spare after phasing out their old contracts, and none of the new investments in their place are independently crippling. Robertson's contract is a true risk, but none of the other signings are longer than three years, and one of those was considered a relative bargain (Cabrera). Meanwhile, the one big trade sent four young players to Oakland for Samardzija and Michael Ynoa, but the Sox only had big ideas for Semien, and Micah Johnson could very well provide all the cover needed.

Basically, the only downside is disappointment. A pessimistic scenario has the Sox's big moves missing more than hitting, the AL Central is as stout as it looks, and a 78-win season is the result. That would suck, but since they didn't mortgage the improving farm system to finance the dream, most of the suck would be contained to 2015, and Hahn would have room to make modifications the following offseason.

If that's the risk, then why not aim high? Some of the construction shortcuts may turn out to have crippling flaws, but it's not like a total tear-down is any less perilous.

That's why it makes sense for the White Sox to win the American League winter in order to try to win the American League summer. After two silly seasons, they finally have a roster filled with real actual major-league baseball players again. That sounds like faint praise, but enough of that can add up to some non-negligible noise.