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2016 Chicago White Sox season preview: Is different better?

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Todd Frazier and a bunch of short-term commitments give roster a new look, and it needs to be enough to support the core for once

Rob Tringali/Getty Images

Two offseasons ago, the White Sox surprising baseball as the American League's most active team. Winning the winter only resulted in three more wins during the summer, mostly because the biggest additions failed to add.

Adam LaRoche flopped, Melky Cabrera almost joined him, and Jeff Samardzija provided more quantity than quality. Even David Robertson, who was the best of the Class of 2015, summed up his season by saying, "I felt like I pitched terrible."

The White Sox weren't exactly expended to upend the AL Central, but they had patched up their biggest problem from 2014 (the bullpen), so improvement had to be inevitable, right? Not quite. I suppose they did climb up to 76 wins, but thanks to an offense that struggled to field even three effective bats at a time -- and a defense that just plain struggled to field -- they didn't get any closer to October.

The Sox could've gone back to the drawing board, but with the core still qualifying as crazy affordable, it didn't make sense to break it all up. Rick Hahn went back to adding, but not with the same vigor.

He did trade for Todd Frazier, the latest, greatest attempt to solve the chasm at third base, in mid-December. That one ranks as one of the biggest transformations of the offseason, and seemed to set the Sox up for one more whopper, especially in the outfield. It never materialized, even if the offseason's sluggish pace begged them to become more active.

Instead, the Sox added around the edges. After spending $135 million worth of contracts on free agents last winter, the added only $18 million in such contracts this time around, with Austin Jackson coming in late to register as the biggest investment ($5 million).

Perhaps the Sox would've been more active had they known Adam LaRoche was willing to forgo $13 million after Kenny Williams told him that his son couldn't spend all of his time around the team anymore. A reasonable request triggered an unreasonable meltdown in the White Sox clubhouse, capturing international headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Then again, the Sox dominated baseball news cycles for the right reasons last year, and it didn't really matter. So hey, it's something different, which is the way you can explain a lot of the White Sox' moves this winter.

Who came, who went?

The White Sox entered the offseason with question marks all over the diamond, and one position that doesn't even take the field. In terms of FanGraphs' WAR, the White Sox ranked at or near the bottom for two-thirds of their lineup card. In this regard, the Sox were proactive, as there are new starters at almost every position:

Rank Old starter New starter
2B 30th Carlos Sanchez Brett Lawrie
SS 27th Alexei Ramirez Jimmy Rollins
3B 29th Conor Gillaspie Todd Frazier
LF 23rd Melky Cabrera Melky Cabrera
RF 28th Avisail Garcia Austin Jackson*
DH** 8th Adam LaRoche \_(ツ)_/¯

(*Jackson will play center with Adam Eaton moving to a corner, but it's the same effect.
**Jose Abreu boosts these numbers due to the time-share. LaRoche drags their first base production down.)

As long as Hahn didn't have an expensive holdover from last year's disappointment to field, he swapped out the parts. This even applied to catcher, which wasn't that big of a problem. When accounting for pitch-receiving, Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto gave the Sox middle-of-the-pack contributions from catcher for a fair price. Yet the Sox still parted ways with both and purchased the rights to an Alex Avila-Dioner Navarro platoon. The Sox are hoping that the increased watchability of their at-bats covers for lost strikes framing.

So with this significant of an overhaul, why did the offseason feel lacking?

Well, the team was well-positioned to benefit from the winter market's glut of alluring outfielders. One of Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton or even Dexter Fowler would've given the Sox a tremendous upgrade in one of their corners, and at a time where importing such an improvement could've had the maximum amount of impact on the division.

From the way both parties refer to the winter, the Sox were closer than anybody to landing Gordon before the Royals upped their offer enough to retain him. There wasn't as much heat around the other outfielders -- Cespedes also chose his home team, but after spending more time on the market. The White Sox' reported offer to Fowler was lacking. There were no such connections with the other outfielders, at least until Jackson showed up for one year and $5 million, the paltriest deal of the bunch.

While the Sox fell short of the offseason goal everybody had for them, they also didn't fulfill their original visions, which Hahn described in November:

"While I expect we’re still going to be in contact with free agents, it’s going to have to be the right fit that will be a difference maker for us to dabble in those waters yet again. Ideally you’re adding younger talent that you can control for a longer period of time that you can grow and be part of a sustainable core.’’

None of the players acquired by the White Sox this winter fit this mold, because all of them will become free agents after the season (Rollins, Jackson, Avila, Navarro, Mat Latos) or the year after (Lawrie, Frazier). Even Robin Ventura is in the last year of his contract, which means another disappointing start could lead to another drastic revision over the coming year. That's about as far from sustainable as it gets.

Now, if the trade market never materialized after the Frazier deal, then credit Hahn for figuring out a different way to overhaul the roster. Short-term deals on uncertain performers were how the 2005 White Sox happened, so it's not necessarily a bad plan. It just requires the Sox to hit on multiple position-player acquisitions, and this is an area in which their track record is abysmal.

Who's carrying the load?

The reason the White Sox couldn't just blow it up is because they have four players who are on ridiculously affordable contracts, and trading stars at their peak often results in disappointing returns. The whole idea of stars is that they produce enough for multiple roster spots, and that's not something to be taken for granted.

The core remains ever the same, and they'll need to produce:

  • Chris Sale
  • Jose Quintana
  • Jose Abreu
  • Adam Eaton

The good news? The White Sox have a couple players who could make the leap into this group this season. Frazier has an above-average bat and glove, and he's under 30, and he's expected to carry his All-Star production from Cincinnati to Chicago. Carlos Rodon is on the fringe, too, showing No. 1-type numbers over his last eight starts of 2015. His command might be a little too imprecise to get an ace's performance over a whole season, but there's no shame in being a No. 2 starter. Look at the contract Samardzija received from the Giants.

If these guys meet (or come reasonably close) to their expectations, they'll cover for a dead roster spot or two. They can't cover for six dead starting jobs and a bench, which explains the influx of new faces. The White Sox edition of "The Expendables" might have their own considerable flaws, but if they can't be described as "one of the league's worst [X]," the Sox could finally strike the right balance in this approach.

Who could join the fight?

The White Sox farm system took a hit in the organizational rankings due to prospect loss. OK, "loss" maybe isn't the right word for the graduation of Rodon, but they also traded Trayce Thompson and Frankie Montas to the Dodgers in the Frazier deal. Neither player projected comfortably as a starter, but they would look quite good as backup plans on the bench or in the bullpen.

While the Sox have fewer choices among potential impact players in the farm system, they haven't lost their best two.

Tim Anderson: The White Sox' first-round pick from 2013 (17th overall) came into the minor leagues as something of a project. He honed his focus on baseball late and only had one year of junior college before the Sox came calling. Given this background, he has ascended through the system rather quickly. He's shown a proclivity for learning on the fly, reducing his error totals and hitting over a lack of walks even as the competition increases in quality. He'll be the starting shortstop at Triple-A Charlotte, where he'll be expected to continue reducing his errors and learning to lay off crafty breaking balls. He'll have time, as the addition of Rollins (with help from Tyler Saladino) give the Sox a working combination at the MLB level. If Anderson continues adjusting at the same rate, he could give the Sox an option after the All-Star break.

Carson Fulmer: The White Sox have a history of promoting their first-round pitcher picks quickly. While Fulmer was supposed to be behind Chris Sale and Carlos Rodon in terms of immediate potential, he joined the organization with a fastball-curve combo that could work in the bullpen in short order, and the makeup to handle the fast track if his talent demanded it. Don Cooper gave him a cutter and a new changeup grip to play with, and the Sox raved about his performance in the spring. He'll open the season in Birmingham's rotation, but the Sox won't get in his way if he forces the issue. A bullpen addition in September looks like the floor at this point.

Will it work?

After three losing seasons, last year's early-season bed-crapping, the retention of Ventura and the LaRoche-inspired squabbles during spring training, the White Sox don't have the benefit of the doubt.

They might not need it, at least based on the projection system of your choosing. They all see the Sox winning at least 80 games, and two of them see a contender.

"84-78 or fight!" isn't the best battle cry, but it's six wins better than PECOTA predicted for the White Sox last season. The projections basically sat on the cake the White Sox received for winning the offseason, and they ended up being on the correct side of history.

You could even say Baseball Prospectus was optimistic with 78 wins, but I'd consider it the same as the 76 the Sox won (because they were better off losing the last series). At any rate, the math says the Sox are now an 84-win team in an environment when a wild card team gets in with 87. That makes the Sox more of a contender than they have been.

The Sox just have to make sure they don't run themselves out of it. The amount of new faces on the team makes it more difficult to say "SAME OLD WHITE SOX," as long as the new White Sox don't give them a reason to. If they play better in April, if Frazier doesn't collapse into an indistinguishable goo, if they don't botch rundowns or pop-ups and make Ventura list the things the Sox can't do but do anyway ... they'll be quite a bit harder to recognize. And if they can get into June and July as a legit contender, Hahn and the Sox have an extra $13 million to make them more unrecognizable still.