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The most essential 2015 White Sox: Nos. 20-1

Jose Abreu and Chris Sale wrestle for the top spot

Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

If you're joining this list of the most essential 2015 White Sox in progress, here's what you need to know:

*The first half starts with Maikel Cleto and ends with Jake Petricka

*While "essential" is a somewhat nebulous concept, guidelines include:

  1. Amount/importance of expected production
  2. Replaceability (or lack thereof)
  3. Chance of measurable impact (for prospects)

So let's get to this year's better half.

No. 20: Emilio Bonifacio

The addition of a glove-first utility infielder (Gordon Beckham) and a fourth outfielder who can play center (J.B. Shuck) have diminished the immediate importance of Bonifacio's versatility, but that flexibility will still come into play -- not just in late-game situations, but also if the Sox need to reshape their bench over the course of the season.

No. 19: Geovany Soto

He gives the White Sox their best backup catcher since Ramon Castro, and they'll need him to stay healthy so Tyler Flowers doesn't have to shoulder the entire load behind the plate for another season.

No. 18: Zach Putnam

A less-than-inspiring spring serves as a reminder that his 54⅔ innings last year, while excellent, were only 54⅔ innings. Which then reminds you that he's the second-best righty in the bullpen right now, and they need him to be that good (or close to it) again.

No. 17: Micah Johnson

The Sox are rolling with him as a starter, and while I'd still probably rather see Carlos Sanchez hold down the position with his defense to open the season, Johnson will be more fascinating to watch, for better (speed, excitement) or worse (glove). His ceiling his higher, his floor is lower, and either extreme will influence the team.

No. 16: John Danks
No. 15: Hector Noesi

The order doesn't particularly matter. Danks is what he is, an innings-eating type who has more good days than bad, but the bad days tend to leave a mark. I'm putting Noesi ahead of him because there's a small chance that a full offseason of preparation affords him a bit of a boost.

No. 14: Carlos Rodon

And I'm putting Rodon ahead of either incumbent because his arrival could change the course of the season, even if he has to break in with the bullpen. The Sox shouldn't plan on dominance from Rodon, but the fact that it's even possible makes him loom large in developments beginning in the second half of April.

No. 13: Adam LaRoche

While he's the projected everyday cleanup hitter, he's also going to be the most-time DH, so that puts something of a governor on his ability to provide a ton of value. The combination of age and regression limits his breakout potential by bat alone, but simply doing what he's been doing will suffice.

No. 12: Zach Duke
No. 11: David Robertson

The bullpen's No. 1 lefty will be Robin Ventura's go-to guy in high-leverage situations before the ninth inning, and for more than one out. Robertson will be the go-to guy in the ninth inning, and perhaps the occasional out or two before, since both Robertson and Robin Ventura are no stranger to long saves. Both will play a major role in establishing a hierarchy for the rest of the bullpen to avoid last year's chaos.

No. 10: Conor Gillaspie

Here's where position scarcity comes into play. If Gillaspie repeats his 2014 season -- with Beckham smoothing the roughest edges with late-inning defense and taking away some plate appearances against lefties -- that will be plenty useful. If his last two months of 2014 are a harbinger for this season, it's going to hurt. The Sox are going to break in a rookie or two at second base, and if Gillaspie is a bigger liability than Johnson or Carlos Sanchez, that puts the integrity of the entire infield in a precarious position.

No. 9: Tyler Flowers

We know what Flowers brings to the position -- a good rapport with pitchers, good receiving abilities and above-average power. Those who don't watch Flowers are freaked out by the incredibly high strikeout rate. That definitely leads to a risk of cratering, but first, let's see what he looks like with more rest courtesy of Soto.

No. 8: Melky Cabrera

Cabrera was brought in to be the steady contributor in a high-variance outfield, as well as keep the offense moving between Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu. He doesn't have to clear that high of a bar to constitute an improvement over his predecessors, and if things are going well, he won't complete a fair share of the games he starts. But as we've seen over the last number of seasons, finding an effective No. 2 hitter is harder than it looks.

No. 7: Jeff Samardzija

All three of the big-ticket White Sox starters need to show up this season, but my expectations for Samardzija are tempered by the move from Oakland to U.S. Cellular Field -- at least to the point that I don't expect him to outperform the other two pitchers.

No. 6: Avisail Garcia

We've called him the fulcrum of the White Sox offense -- somebody whose potential could make the lineup a top-third force, and whose risks could restrict it to ordinary production. That doesn't mean Garcia himself can or needs to be an All-Star this season, but the quality and quantity of his plate appearances needs to rise measurably.

No. 5: Alexei Ramirez

Another 158-game season of well-rounded shortstop play would be great, considering the infielders on either side of him stand a significant risk of coming up short.

No. 4: Adam Eaton

The team's best defender and one of its toughest outs needs to avoid prolonged exposure to the disabled list, because both the lineup and the outfield would feel his absence. The Sox are short on top-of-the-order hitters, unless they're willing to throw way more on Johnson's plate than they should.

No. 3: Jose Quintana

Take the comment about Samardzija and increase its importance by 10-15 percent, because Quintana has outpitched him over the past couple of years.

No. 2: Jose Abreu

Some might rank him No. 1, and I wrestled with it for a while. The Sox need Abreu do hit like he did last year, because nobody can come close to matching that production. The tiebreaker: Ultimately, he's a big enough liability at first base that maybe the Sox could get away with prioritizing defense during a short absence. A very short absence.

No. 1: Chris Sale

But I think maximizing Sale's availability is paramount, because he's the best pitcher in the league on a per-start basis. Maybe Rodon could match Sale's ceiling, but it's already risky enough to expect a rookie to provide above-average pitching every fifth day, and that's what the Sox will likely need from him at some point over the course of the year. Let's not saddle him with needing a Cy Young facsimile. The real deal is already there.