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White Sox: Still in the catbird seat

Even twisting projections to benefit Chicago the least, it’s hard to see how anyone in the AL Central overcomes the South Siders in ’22.

Division Series - Astros v White Sox - Game Three
All signs point to a second straight division win and third straight postseason for Tim Anderson and the White Sox.
Ron Vesely/Getty Images

Despite an offseason of heavy spending with, paradoxically, no truly significant additions to the roster, the White Sox still stand head and shoulders above the rest of the AL Central. Even with their most immediate competitors making several major additions, it seems highly unlikely that the South Siders will be seriously challenged in their quest for their first-ever repeat as division champs.

As of March 23, FanGraphs projects the following team WARs in the AL Central:

White Sox: 47.1
Twins: 40.3
Guardians: 36.9
Tigers: 32.7
Royals: 32.4

One could easily look at this, figure the season is in the bag for the White Sox, and start printing playoff tickets. However, before warming up for those victory laps, fans need to be reminded that it’s a long season, and these totals are based on basically the 50% projection for everybody. So in the event the White Sox perform to, say, their 30% projection (for whatever reason, be it injuries or declines), and another team hits their 70% level, suddenly things are a lot less certain.

Having said that, the likelihood of such a combination anomaly is relatively slim, but it does happen every so often. The 2015 Nationals found that out the hard way, when they were projected to dominate the NL East with the return of the league’s best pitching staff and a powerhouse lineup, only to finish 83-79 after everybody not named Bryce Harper (who won the MVP with an all-time great season) or Max Scherzer tanked.

So let’s dive into the hows and whys of each team’s projections, and where each team might have cause for optimism or concern.


WHITE SOX

Our beloved South Siders have a deep unit, with all but three starters on the offensive side projected to at least 2.0 fWAR. The holes in right field and DH have been discussed ad nauseum, and projections are not kind, but if Adam Engel, Andrew Vaughn, and/or Gavin Sheets can have a breakout season, they can really smash the projections. Amazingly, despite a team-high 4.8 fWAR projection, one could argue the system is actually UNDERselling Luis Robert, who has the potential to almost double that amount.

On the pitching side, with three starters projected to more than 3 fWAR, and a strong 2.6 for an innings-limited Michael Kopech, there’s reason for optimism. The money pit that is the White Sox bullpen looks like one of the strongest units in the league, and that’s despite pretty pedestrian prognostications for new arrivals like Joe Kelly and Kendall Graveman.

Of course, there are plenty of causes for concern. Second base, unlike RF and DH, does not have an internal solution that provides significant hope over the mediocre incumbents, who kind of are what they are. The starting pitching is deep, but the loss of a top-three starter could be disastrous given the sixth starter(s) (Reynaldo López, Vince Velazquez) have been notoriously unreliable for years and the minor league options are all pretty bad.

The bottom line is the major league roster is strong, and reasonably deep, but over the grind of the season they will really need somebody from Charlotte to be able to step up and hold the line at various points, and given their farm system is ranked dead last for a reason, the top guys absolutely have to pull their weight.

TWINS

With the signing of superstar shortstop Carlos Correa (5.4 fWAR), the Twins added about 5 fWAR to their projection, leapfrogging the Guardians for second place. While there is still a significant gap between Minnesota and the White Sox, it have separated itself somewhat comfortably from the rest of the division.

Minnesota has done a commendable job of revamping their offense, and players such as Miguel Saño (1.5) and Gary Sanchez (1.2) have shown in the past they are capable of outperforming their projected stats, though they have both dealt with their share of struggles in recent seasons. Top prospect Alex Kiriloff (1.4) did not have a strong debut, which has tempered his projections, but the talent is there to far exceed his modest forecast.

Beyond that, this is one of the few teams that can match the White Sox for position player talent. Jorge Polanco (3.1), Byron Buxton (4.9), Gio Urshela (2.0), Max Kepler (2.9), Luis Arráez (2.0), and Ryan Jeffers (1.3) rounds out a deep pool of hitters. When at full strength, this group should provide a threat to even the most talented pitching staff. And, as with the White Sox, there are multiple players that the projections are arguably low on.

Pitching, however, is an entirely different matter. Even after trading for Sonny Gray (2.4), there is little upside in the rotation, with Gray the only one projected at more than 1.8 fWAR. Dylan Bundy (1.4) is a fine back-end option, but aside from an outlier 2020 his tendency to give up loud contact gets him in a lot of trouble. Bailey Ober (1.8), and Joe Ryan (1.8) are young pitchers with plus command and control that gives them mid-rotation upside, but neither has an overpowering pitch that seems liable to carry them to ace status (Ober’s entire arsenal actually grades out below average), and Ryan has yet to throw more than 100 innings in a season as a professional (Ober managed 108 13 IP in 2021). Even if top pitching prospects Josh Winder (0.6, but coming off of injury) and Jordan Balazovic (0.1) are able to provide some emergency starts, there’s not enough volume here to carry the day.

The bullpen is basically Taylor Rogers and a bunch of guys who aren’t Taylor Rogers. Tyler Duffey (0.4), Jorge Alcala (0.3), Caleb Thielbar (0.3), and Jharel Cotton (0.1) all have varying degrees of upside, but this unit may struggle to establish a good eighth-inning option in front of Rogers.

And if that bad news doesn’t get White Sox fans salivating, Buxton’s excellent 4.9 fWAR projection is based on him making 567 plate appearances, despite not having reached even 300 PAs since 2017 (when he made a career-high 511). So, yeah, maybe their position talent values are on somewhat shaky ground.

Unfortunately, it does not seem the Twins are done wheeling and dealing, as they are reported to be strongly pursuing A’s pitcher Frankie Montas (3.2) and possibly also Sean Menaea (3.0). Either one would represent a 2-3 WAR upgrade over an incumbent, and adding both would put them in a near dead-heat with the White Sox. Taking into account that both trade options would also project to take innings away from Minnesota’s weak bullpen, the effect could even be further magnified. Cross your fingers that the Twins can’t swing one more deal.

GUARDIANS

As team that has willingly entered a death spiral, the Guardians have the opposite problem of the teams they’re (supposed to be) chasing in that their pitching staff has a solid collection of talent and potential, but their position player group is pretty weak overall. After José Ramírez (6.2), Cleveland’s lineup would be generously described as a collection of mediocre options, with only the position-less Franmil Reyes (2.4) providing anything else resembling a threat offensively.

Beyond those two boppers, the position talent is almost exclusively glove-first guys who project to roughly average production. Myles Straw (2.3), Andres Gimenez (2.3), Amed Rosario (2.0), and Austin Hedges (1.4) ain’t scaring anybody at the plate, but they will help with run prevention. Josh Naylor (1.2) has shown some offensive promise, but he’s a catastrophically bad outfielder and has struggled with injuries that have stunted any potential big-league development. Steven Kwan (1.4) could be a center field version of Nick Madrigal, combining almost supernatural contact skills and solid up-the-middle defense with a lack of raw power that could undermine the entire offensive profile; until he gets reps against MLB pitching it’s anybody’s guess how he’ll turn out.

Though Cleveland has a pretty deep farm system, it lacks a true high-end impact talent in the immediate term, with their high-ceiling guys too far away to make a difference in 2022. They do have an interesting collection of prospects in the high minors (like Kwan) who could make modest improvements, but none really projects to provide a significant jolt over an incumbent.

On the pitching side, only Shane Bieber (4.8) projects to more than 2 fWAR, but both Cal Quantrill (1.4) and Zack Plesac (1.2) have a habit of outperforming their FIPs, which means what they produce stands a good chance of being greater than what the FIP-based fWAR system credits them with. Aaron Civale (1.1) projects well for a back-end starter, and former top prospect Tristan McKenzie (1.2) could provide a huge shot in the arm if he can keep developing and provide more than 120 innings.

The bullpen situation is arguably worse than Minnesota’s. Though Cleveland retains two solid hands in Emmanuel Clase (1.9) and James Karinchak (1.3), only Nick Sandlin (0.3) projects to even replacement level behind them. Sure, bullpens are fickle year-to-year, but when about 80% of your bullpen projects to a 4.50 ERA or worse, disaster awaits.

At $35 million, the Guardians are running the third-lowest payroll in MLB. They have the ability to add another piece or two that could make a significant improvement in their projections, but most of the impact free agents are now signed and, well, it’s safe to say owner Larry Dolan is happy to lose so long as they’re pocketing millions while doing it.

TIGERS

Considered something of a dark horse in the division, the Tigers surprised onlookers last year by playing better than .500 baseball after a disastrous 8-19 April. While the team doesn’t have a standout star in their projections, they do have a strong all-around unit with potential to outperform projections.

Much of Detroit’s 2022 hopes rest on top prospects Spencer Torkelson (2.4) and Riley Greene (2.1). Both are given relatively strong projections for rookies, and both could just as easily turn into big stars as fall flat out of the gate. Either way, this is where the team is most likely to get a big boost on offense, especially from Greene, who will be replacing the free-falling Nomar Mazara in their outfield setup. Jonathan Schoop should provide a boost over his 2021 numbers just by moving back to 2B from 1B, where his bat and glove are far more appropriate.

Big offseason pickup (sigh, must be nice) Javier Báez (2.9) is another player who has a decent projection that can be improved upon. He has beaten that projection by a wide margin in three of the last four seasons and still has prime years left at only 29 years old. The continued presence of Miguel Cabrera (-0.2), however, looms large on the organization’s fortunes, and their willingness to limit his playing time or even outright release him could make a significant difference depending on who takes those DH reps, as a return to form for the former Triple Crown winner seems highly unlikely.

On the pitching side, there is a very wide variety of potential outcomes. The signing of stable hand Eduardo Rodriguez (3.9) to lead the staff on a reasonable 5/$77m deal (a record sum, by some standards!) bolstered an extremely young pitching staff with a bevy of former top prospects looking to break out at the highest level. Former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize (1.8) and fellow former Top 50 prospects Tarik Skubal (1.8) and Matt Manning (1.0) all have unexceptional projections, but top pedigree. With each of them at roughly one year of service time, a huge leap forward is not out of the question, as each possesses front of the rotation upside.

As for the bullpen, it’s not downright terrible, but it’s not particularly good, either. Detroit has four or five reasonably reliable arms, including hybrid starter/reliever Michael Fulmer, but no dominant go-to option. The concept of bullpen construction continues to elude Detroit’s decision-makers, but keep an eye on rookie Jason Foley (0.0), a fireballer with who can touch triple digits and be a difference-maker if he can improve his slider and command.

At a glance, the Tigers are not particularly scary. However, their major league roster is loaded with high-end talent that could blossom at any given moment, with plenty of reinforcements available in the minors and a history of willingness to add payroll to get over the hump. Don’t expect sleeping Tigers to keep snoozing for long.

ROYALS

Neck-and-neck with the Tigers in the projections, the Royals don’t have quite as much going for them to get their hopes up in 2022 — but they do still have an exciting team. Kansas City’s biggest problem is, while three of its best prospects are close to graduating, two of them play positions pretty well spoken-for already, and the third is probably going to have to jockey for playing time with veteran holdovers.

Super-prospect Bobby Witt Jr. (3.2) projects as the team’s best position player, but with shortstop covered by veteran Adalberto Mondesi (2.6, with value is mostly derived from his glove), Witt looks to get most of his reps at third base, which will put more of a cap on his defensive contributions. Regardless, the prediction for his offense is just a bit above average, so if he’s a star out of the gate (and the team doesn’t jerk around with his service time), Witt could be a huge difference-maker.

Top 25 prospect MJ Melendez had a breakout season in the high minors, becoming the first catcher to capture the MiLB home run title in more than a quarter-century. But for whatever criticisms exist about Salvador Perez’s issues behind the plate, the Royals are not liable to move their franchise player to DH to accommodate Melendez’s development; barring an injury, Melendez is going to be stashed in Triple-A for further development.

While Melendez could technically get some DH reps, that role is probably going to be reserved for first baseman Nick Pratto, an all-or-nothing power hitter who will split 1B/DH reps with declining veteran Carlos Santana. There’s a wide range of potential outcomes for Pratto, from Joey Gallo slugger to Daniel Palka whiff machine.

Pending the arrival of their next wave of hopeful stars, KC has an assortment of average-ish veteran talent filling out the field, including Whit Merrifield (2.3), Nicky Lopez (2.4), Andrew Benintendi (2.0), Michael A. Taylor (1.2), Santana (0.7), and a rebounding Hunter Dozier (0.5). While Merrifield, Lopez, Taylor, Benintendi, Santana, and Perez all have 3+ fWAR seasons in their profiles, most of the team’s hopes to close the gap with their competitors lay with its rookie class.

The Royals rotation doesn’t project to have a frontline ace, but the overall unit is not terrible despite this. Though Zack Greinke’s (2.1) best days are behind him, he still projects as the staff ace and workhorse. White Sox nemesis Brad Keller (1.7) doesn’t have ace upside, but is a proven middle-of-the-rotation hand. Brady Singer (1.9) reads like an idealized White Sox draft pick; a mid-first round (18th overall) collegiate pitcher with advanced command who had a limited ceiling but a high floor and was advanced quickly through their system to become an immediate contributor. While Singer’s average fastball and lack of a good third pitch still caps his ceiling, he has at least ascended to his floor as a mid-back end starter. Carlos Hernandez (1.0) and Kris Bubic (0.9) also lack upside, but have shuttled between the bullpen and the rotation in their brief careers to date and may benefit from establishing a routine across a full season. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Jackson Kowar lurks in the wings.

In the pen, Scott Barlow (1.3) and Josh Staumont (0.5) are coming off of breakout seasons and may very well crush their projections. Jake Brentz (0.2) and Dylan Coleman (0.4) are two more young arms with upside, but veteran addition and avid provocateur Amir Garrett (0.2) is coming off a disastrous season with the Reds and even in his best years was hardly a dominant force. Seven years after winning the World Series riding one of the best bullpens in history, this group is quite a step down from those salad days.

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It’s clear the White Sox hold a significant advantage in the AL Central, especially if the Twins are unable to make another significant addition before Opening Day. Only Minnesota can challenge Chicago bat-for-bat on offense, and the South Side pitching staff from top to bottom has no peer. Even if the Twins are able to somehow swing a deal for Manaea or Montas without sacrificing pieces from their current roster, their bullpen will remain a bit iffy, especially compared to the White Sox.

It’s a fool’s errand to bet against the White Sox in this division. But if you can get good odds, the Twins and Tigers make for good long shots. I’m particularly intrigued by the Tigers, who have so much young talent with so much variance in possible outcomes that they could instantly rise to be the class of the division just as much as downright stink. Detroit showed in 2021 that it can be a winning team over an extended period of time, and the club has improved on that model.

As for the Guardians and Royals, it’s safe to count them both out. While the Royals have their own collection of up-and-coming talent, unlike Detroit they haven’t really been heavily tested at the highest level and there just isn’t enough talent to expect them to get over the hump. The Guardians, sadly, continue to fritter away talented top-end talent through a maddening refusal to spend that lays bare the lie about some owners’ desire for “competitive balance” when it’s clear they don’t have any intention to compete regardless.

White Sox fans should expect a third straight playoff appearance and a repeat as division champs. Any less would expose GM Rick Hahn’s terrible allocation of resources this offseason amidst a series of opponents not content to stand pat while his team coasts to another title.