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Opening Day for a White Sox season on the brink

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An offseason overhaul raises plenty of questions, some of which are tough to ask, and all tougher to answer

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

When backed into a rhetorical corner, you probably shouldn't ask questions you don't know the answers to.

For instance, Robin Ventura talking to Paul Sullivan:

"Any time the organization goes through the last few years like we have, you could've just kept everything the way it was," Ventura said. "But the way Rick did it, he flips the switch. Our catchers are different. Our infield is pretty much different.

"It is (an important year) because if it doesn't work with this, where does it go? What are you going to do?"

That's the season's unspoken undercurrent, and it's a menacing one. It hasn't made sense to deal from the White Sox' core of Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Jose Quintana and Adam Eaton. They're too productive for the price, and for too many years, to think they could get equal or greater value in a swap.

But there'll come a point where we can start forecasting the team by the end of a contract, and the talk about blowing up a team shifts from petulant and reactionary to a responsible decision agreed upon by adults.

The Sox aren't quite at that point, but perhaps sensing it was just beyond the horizon, Rick Hahn rented a fog machine in obfuscate the outlook. More than half the lineup is new, and none of these guys are tied to the White Sox beyond 2017:

  • Catcher: Tyler Flowers to Alex Avila
  • Second base: Micah Johnson to Brett Lawrie
  • Third base: Conor Gillaspie to Todd Frazier
  • Shortstop: Alexei Ramirez to Jimmy Rollins
  • DH: Adam LaRoche to Austin Jackson

(Jackson will be in center field, of course, but that's effectively the move since one of the incumbent outfielders will shift to the DH spot.)

There's Frazier, and then there are four mystery men, all of whom could either rebound and provide an outstanding ROI, or entrench themselves in their declines (and it's five if you rope in Mat Latos from the pitching side).

New players normally get a grace period for a transition to a new league, team and/or role, and boy howdy does this team abuse them. However, the White Sox can't really can't waste a lot of time on introductions this time around. I wouldn't say a fast start is crucial given the demanding early schedule, but a professional start is.

Another question Ventura shouldn't ask aloud: If the team doesn't find that gear early, does the manager pay the price? The hiring of Rick Renteria equips the front office with a capable midseason replacement if need be, and while it's a sensible hire on its own merits, it's also a strange acknowledgment of Ventura's lame-duck status.

This team is built on an unusual tension, which is maybe why L'Affaire LaRoche caused so many people to act unreasonably. Maybe it's evidence of a fault line that could rumble again after early adversity, or maybe that explosion allowed all the dangerous pressure to release.

The White Sox are acting like it's the latter, and it might actually be good for them. Not the part about blowing up a minor story so senselessly and exposing troublesome maturity levels, but the part about reordering priorities and implementing leadership, even if it makes some people uncomfortable along the way. The baseball of the last three years was not a product anybody wanted to watch, and breaking out of that rut probably shouldn't be a gentle process.

Whatever the case, the way this team came together -- with one piece breaking off -- isn't scaring off the math. In fact, the projections are more optimistic than a sizable chunk of the fan base, which is another abrupt shift in the dynamic. Maybe we'll look back at the rare over-.500 spring record as the first material representation of the improved quality of play.

This final pre-Opening Day assessment leads me to another rhetorical question that echoes a famous one from Satchel Paige: How good would this team be if you didn't know how good it was? That is, if this were 20 years earlier and you weren't aware of analytics behind projections and aging curves, what would it feel like to you? Would you trust the new name-brand talent around the core, even if some of those guys are coming off down years? Would you think that Ventura doesn't have a Ned Yost renaissance in his future and he's holding the team back? Would you look at the squabbling and say it's a team that has no chemistry, or a team that has some fire for once?

An early stumble could put this team on the path to 75 wins, but I've seen 90-win stars-and-scrubs teams with a more unimpressive collection of Column B, so maybe the projections of 84ish wins is really an accurate target. With so much in flux, I find it more worthwhile to break the season apart into sections, which only lead to more unanswerable questions:

  • Can they show fans (and Hawk Harrelson) something to be excited about in April, even if unevenly?
  • Can they through the early tough schedule and be comfortably in the picture at Memorial Day?
  • Can they actually be in position to add at the trade deadline for once?

We can start focusing on the first one tonight in Oakland. Happy Opening Day, everybody.