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The ten best developments of the 2016 White Sox season

A look back at the most important improvements to the future of the White Sox franchise during the 2016 season.

Does this guy make this list? You bet he does!
Does this guy make this list? You bet he does!
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season for the Chicago White Sox was largely a disappointment and there's not really much debating it. However, after a rough year of baseball, it's important to look back and see some positives that happened along the way to keep some enthusiasm about the future.

I've compiled this list of what I'm calling the ten best "developments" of the 2016 season.  These are players, events, and attributes that we feel better about now than we did back at the beginning of the season. Though Chris Sale and Jose Quintana both threw another season of stellar baseball, you won't find them on this list because our opinion of the ability of each hasn't changed much since March.

Honorable Mentions:

None. As you will see, I wanted to stretch the list to ten and that actually proved somewhat difficult. If there's something you feel I've overlooked, please feel free to mention it in the comments.

10. Dan Jennings' turn as a high-leverage reliever

Bullpen injuries and a trade of Zach Duke led to Dan Jennings becoming third in the bullpen pecking order down the stretch. What could've been a frightening transition actually turned out okay, as Jennings kept the ball on the ground and (more importantly) in the park. Jennings allowed just a .336 slugging percentage to opposing hitters this season and while there's almost certainly regression in store for his absurdly low home run rate, he showed mettle and held his own when given increased responsibility. This isn't to say that Jennings should be penciled in as the "seventh inning guy"; the peripherals are still too scary. However, at the very least it's now sensible to count on him as a quality bullpen depth piece, and that's something, I guess.

9. Melky Cabrera's bounceback campaign:

Melky Cabrera had a poor start to his White Sox career in the first half of 2015. Though he hit the ball hard, it would always seem to find a glove. Most of that was bad luck, but the one troubling part about it was that he had just 12 extra-base hits and two home runs through June.

This year, Melky produced from start to finish and his isolated power (ISO) rebounded from .121 to a healthier .159. His defense in left was still very bad, but by two metrics (WARP, fWAR), Cabrera was below replacement-level in 2015 and it was fair to wonder just what the White Sox would get from Melky for the rest of his contract. At the very least, Cabrera re-established himself as a productive bat and should give the White Sox more of the same in 2017, even if he's being paid a little more than he's worth.

8. Omar Narvaez' strike zone command

One of the pleasant surprises of the second half of the season was the emergence of Omar Narvaez as a legitimate name for the catcher depth charts of the future. In 117 plate appearances, Narvaez walked just as often as he struck out and generally gave the White Sox quality at-bats. He's not going to be running away with a starting job anytime soon due to a lack of power, but as a backup catcher, a team could do a lot worse than a league-minimum guy with good bat-to-ball skills and a clear sense of when to swing. Narvaez was a little below-average as a receiver, but he was competent enough and caught for Carlos Rodon during his most successful stretch of the year. It's probably safe to pencil this guy into the 25-man roster next year as we wait for the White Sox to find a guy to carry the bulk of the catching work.

7. Miguel Gonzalez: A number-four starter for free

Often in baseball, one team's trash can be another team's treasure. When the White Sox signed Miguel Gonzalez to a minor-league deal amidst reports of reduced velocity, it didn't seem like something that would mean all that much. However, Gonzalez battled hard when John Danks' ineffectiveness gave him a chance and he wound up throwing 135 innings of 3.73 ERA baseball with some real gems along the way. Gonzalez' velocity turned out to be fine and by advanced metrics, 2016 was the best season of his career. This might rank a little higher if he had more than one year of team control remaining.

6. Nate Jones, relief ace

The White Sox handed out a reasonable extension to Nate Jones before the season began and Jones rewarded them with 70 innings of excellent relief pitching. Jones was a top-20 or so reliever in baseball this year and with David Robertson's apparent decline, that's a much-needed development. As the best fireman on the team, Jones racked up strikeouts and weak contact while getting through the season healthy. October baseball has been showing us the growing importance of elite relievers and should the White Sox make it back to the playoffs, they'll be delighted to have Jones in tow.

5. Tyler Saladino looks like a pretty good utility player

Saladino quickly became a fan-favorite this year with his strong glove, Catatafish mustache, and knack for clutch hits. A look at his peripherals suggests that the only difference between 2015 Saladino and 2016 Saladino was BABIP, but that's making it sound like luck. The truth is, Saladino hit the ball much harder and popped up much less in 2016, so a lot of his gains were real.

Saladino was about a 1.5-win player in roughly a half-season's worth of playing time and there's a lot of temptation to extrapolate that. However, we saw in 2015 what over-exposure can do to Saladino, so expectations should be tempered about him being able to lock down an everyday role. Still, the performance was encouraging, especially when he took the second base job full time after Brett Lawrie's injury. Saladino was good enough to make reasonable men wonder whether his play and Lawrie's health could make the latter expendable. Should Lawrie return to his post next season, the White Sox look like they have themselves a great infield supersub who can provide real value with his glove, bat, and legs. It's been awhile since the Sox have had a fifth infielder this good.

4. Strong debuts from the 2016 draft class

The White Sox put an emphasis on strike zone command when drafting hitters and it looks like they delivered. Zack Collins (21% walk rate), Jameson Fisher, (12%), and Alex Call (10%) seem to have a clue what they're doing at the plate, which is a refreshing change for White Sox prospects. Sure, some of that is attributable to wild pitchers in the low minors, but it didn't hurt that Collins posted an isolated power north of .200 and Fisher and Call hit over .300. It's going to be fun to watch these guys develop over the next few years.

Possibly the most exciting development since the names were announced is that of second-rounder Alec Hansen, who could turn out to be the steal of the draft. Hansen put up an absurd 44 percent strikeout rate in rookie ball, and while there's a lot of trials and tribulations between Great Falls and Guaranteed Rate Field, it's not hard to see why many considered him a potential number-one overall pick at one point.

Throw in the strong possibility that Zack Burdi will be lighting up the radar gun in Chicago early next season and all five of the White Sox' top picks from the 2016 draft have shown encouraging signs. Good minor league stats are not a proven indicator of future success, but they're objectively better than the alternative.

3. Adam Eaton's defense

The 2016 White Sox featured Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, but unless you want to build a case around the strikes that the catchers couldn't get for Sale, Adam Eaton's the not-so-trivial answer to the question of which player was the team's most valuable this year.

Eaton was worth at least six wins by each of the three major valuation metrics and at least two of those wins came from his excellent defense in right field. When a center fielder shifts to a corner, excellent range like Eaton's is to be expected, but no one could have predicted his arm would produce as much value as it did. Eaton's 18 outfield assists led all of baseball, as he was stellar at gunning down runners with strong, accurate throws. That pace is probably not sustainable; outfield assists are largely the product of opportunity and future opponents will likely be wise enough to give Eaton less opportunity. However, there's certainly some value in scaring guys away from running.

Adam Eaton was already a very good player before this season, but the position change has helped him become a star.

2. Carlos Rodon's hidden improvement

Carlos Rodon threw 165 innings this year, but his 4.04 ERA wasn't all that impressive. What was his value based on runs allowed?

  • Carlos Rodon bWAR: 1.7

Okay, that's average-ish over a full season, but that doesn't tell the whole story. What about a peripherals-based metric?

  • Carlos Rodon fWAR: 2.7

Hey, that's pretty good! But wait, didn't he have to put up with atrocious pitch framing?

Holy cow! And that's just through July 17th! What about a metric that takes Dioner Navarro's pathetic glove work into account?

  • Carlos Rodon WARP: 3.6

Well I'll be. We can't assume this level of endurance and health for Rodon just yet, but that'd be a 4.4 WARP pace over a 200-inning season. That's an All-Star. Here's some pitchers that finished really close to 4.4 WARP this year:

  • Kyle Hendricks: 4.4 WARP
  • Carlos Carrasco: 4.5 WARP
  • Jose Quintana (!!!): 4.5 WARP
Those are good pitchers!

1. Tim Anderson's breakout season

When looking at this season's results from the White Sox minor league system, there's plenty of examples to point to if you want to call the year a disappointment. Just keep one thing in mind: the single most important prospect entering the 2016 season had a great year. In March 2016, if you could have picked just one thing to go right with the White Sox farm system this year, it would have been Tim Anderson having a season just like the one he had.

Anderson started this year in Charlotte with questions about how his defense would hold up and how he'd be able to handle advanced breaking pitches. He ended the year as a major league shortstop with plus defense (FRAA can go jump off a bridge) whose knack for hard contact more than offset foreseeable issues with strike zone command. Anderson made more errors than one would've liked, but he's made steady progress in cleaning up his game and all the extra plays he can make with his range and arm make the occasional gaffes worth it.

It was a crucial year for the White Sox' top prospect and he achieved probably somewhere close to the 90th percentile outcome. There's plenty of room for Anderson to grow, but the current model is already at minimum an average major leaguer. That's a huge win for the future of the franchise.