On the upcoming episode of the South Side Sox Podcast, Josh and I are going to think through the fulcrum of the 2016 White Sox.
"Fulcrum" is kind of a gooey term, but it's basically the player who can most swing a team -- for better or worse -- based on how he could theoretically perform within the range of his own projections.
It's not to be confused with the most important players. If Chris Sale pulls a Jeff Samardzija or Jose Abreu an Adam LaRoche, the team is most likely screwed. However, both of those down years would also register as whopping surprises.
With fulcrums, though, a miserable season wouldn't come out of the blue -- or be caused by injury -- and yet it could still do quite a bit a damage. Starting them is a risky proposition. However, if they're able to squeeze out an 80th-percentile performance, the Sox would stand to reap massive rewards.
Last year, I pointed to Avisail Garcia as the team's fulcrum. At his floor, he was an overrated prospect who wouldn't be able to stick in the majors. At his ceiling, he was an above-average corner outfielder with an All-Star Game appearance or two in him. With nobody to challenge him for playing time, the Sox needed him to hit on his more favorable projections. He didn't come close to realizing the potential the Sox say he has, and they struggled to score runs as a result.
I suppose Garcia could retain this title for one more season since he should get nearly as much playing time, although it could be split between right field and DH. However, once a player hits on his worst projection for no obvious reason (like an injury), the hopes on the high end should be lowered accordingly.
Plus, there are a bunch of new players who have some wild variance in their past performance, and they haven't yet delivered a disappointment to White Sox fans in person to sour us. Let's give them a chance.
Under these guidelines, I see seven candidates for this title. Or maybe it's a cross to bear, as he would be the player on whom the depth of the White Sox' production most hinges.
Reasonably good: He normalizes his walk-to-strikeout ratio to hike his OBP back to league average (or a little above), hits 15 to 20 homers, and makes a smooth transition from third base to second base, even if he isn't Carlos Sanchez. If you'd like to phrase it in wins above replacement, he's a comfortable 2 WAR.
Reasonably bad: That walk-to-strikeout ratio is a harbinger for further offensive decline, his numbers slide to 2012 Gordon Beckham levels, and he's overextended at second base. That combination makes him like 2014 Beckham: replacement level.
Reasonably good: His recent habit of alternating good years with scary ones rolls into 2016, to the Sox' benefit. Everybody can attribute his sub-Mendoza average and poor framing numbers to injuries as he resembles an average catcher behind the plate, and an above-average platoon bat next to it. Another 2 WAR season at age 29.
Reasonably bad: His slide continues. His elevated walk rate is due to an inability to capitalize on hittable pitches, and his framing numbers remain disappointing due to concessions made to concussions. All in all, he's below replacement-level, with Dioner Navarro becoming the everyday catcher.
Reasonably good: Cabrera stabilizes as the hitter he was through the last four months of 2015 (.288/.330/.449), maybe even hiking the batting average over .300. He remains a below-average left fielder, but one who doesn't fall prey to crippling brain farts and steals a few outs with his arm, and improves the team's overall defense by being able to produce at DH. That player has been worth 3 WAR before.
Reasonably bad: The Cabrera of the first two months returns, maybe not for a season-killing two-month block, but for shorter, more frequent bursts. His OPS drops into the .600s, which means he's not the answer at DH, and his defense more closely resembles Dayan Viciedo's, too. A below-replacement level player.
Reasonably good: He enjoys a triumphant return to the AL Central as a glove-first center fielder in a hitter's park. His days as a 5-WAR outfielder are over, but he brings his average back up to .250 thanks to strategic benching and reaches double digits in homers for the first time since 2013. That's good for two or three wins above replacement.
Reasonably bad: Like Lawrie, his walk and strikeout rates went in the wrong direction for a reason, undermining his ability to approach league-average levels for an up-the-middle player. His defense slips a little, and while he isn't the abomination that showed up in Seattle (a 54 OPS+), he doesn't exactly resemble a cut above Garcia in the outfield as a result, because his WAR starts with "0."
Reasonably good: After hitting a wall as an everyday shortstop with the Dodgers, Rollins is rejuvenated by a reduced workload. He lifts his OBP to league-average levels, gets a power bump from a homer-friendly park, plays average-enough defense and, in the end, contributes 2 WAR or so to a surprisingly productive shortstop combination.
Reasonably bad: 2015 was the beginning of the end, and 2016 is the end. Tim Anderson is called upon in June, and his production is necessary.
Reasonably good: His last eight starts of 2015 served as a sign of things to come -- maybe not in terms of a sub-2.00 ERA, but more for going deeper into games. He throws 190 innings with an ERA below 3.50, giving the Sox three credible studs in their rotation, and he's too good to be in this contest next year.
Reasonably bad: Rodon's last eight starts are a product of his relationship with Tyler Flowers, and with new catchers, he reverts to his previous form -- some nasty starts, some short outings. He throws 170 innings with an ERA on the other side of 4.00, which is still quite useful, but not enough to cover for others. The back end of the rotation would have to stand up for itself.
Reasonably good: Maybe he's not the guy he was with the Padres or Reds, but he's a healthier version of what he showed the Marlins. After a rocky start, he settled down to give Miami a 3.74 ERA over his last 11 starts. If you want to be even bolder, you can frame his 2.96 ERA in six starts after a trip to the DL, but that's a stretch. Either way, he's an above-average fourth starter, similar to what Edwin Jackson gave the Sox in 2011. Ideally they don't have to trade Latos in a losing season, and he ends up delivering 180 innings with an ERA slightly below 4.00.
Reasonably bad: Herm Schneider and Don Cooper can't make a healthy delivery an effective one, and Latos can't keep himself from becoming another clubhouse nuisance, resulting in the team cutting him loose midseason after 60 unremarkable innings.