AL Central Preview: Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera Make White Sox a Contender

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Will a busy winter lead to a fruitful summer for Robin Ventura’s bunch?

Spring training is almost here, and the Indians aren’t the only team headed to camp with playoff aspirations. When the season begins in April, 76 of the Tribe’s 162 games will be played against their AL Central rivals. So what exactly has the rest of the division been up to this winter, and how much of a threat are they to Cleveland’s playoff chances?

Today, we’ll look at the Chicago White Sox.

2014 Record: 73-89
Biggest issue heading into the off-season: A weak rotation and an even weaker bullpen.

The last time the White Sox won the division was in 2008. Since then, they’ve only finished above .500 twice. Last season, they ended the year in fourth place, 17 games back from the division champion Detroit Tigers.

After so many tough seasons, it’s easy to overlook Chicago as a formidable opponent. But General Manager Rick Hahn has been busy this winter, and his revamped Sox squad should actually have a shot at the pennant this season.

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The Starting Three
The White Sox’s biggest acquisition was right-hander Jeff Samardzija, the former Cub-turned-Oakland-A who started 33 games last season and ended the year with a 3.20 FIP, 23 percent strikeout rate and just a 4.9 percent walk rate. The A’s traded him to the Sox for utility man Marcus Semien, catcher Josh Phegley and two other unremarkable players.

Samardzija will strengthen a rotation that already includes Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Sale ended the year with a 2.57 FIP and a 5.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Quintana was right behind him with a 2.81 FIP, albeit with a much lower 3.42 K/BB ratio, but he still got the job done. Luckily for the Indians, the Chicago pitching staff quickly goes downhill after those three. Returning starters John Danks and Hector Noesi weren’t very noteworthy last season, and there isn’t much of a reason to believe they’ll significantly improve in 2015. Still, the Tribe should probably hope to avoid the top of the rotation because it’s going to be treacherous to navigate.

An Even More Intimidating Lineup
It isn’t just the rotation that improved this winter. The Sox also signed outfielder Melky Cabrera, who hit .301/.351/.458 with 16 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays last season. Cabrera’s defense is solid, and his career OPS of .754 makes him valuable at the plate as well. In addition to being moderately powerful, Cabrera makes a lot of contact with the ball – his strikeout and walks rates are both below league average – which could be a pretty dangerous combination if the Indians’ horrific defense continues this season.

Cabrera’s bat will also add some protection for Jose Abreu and the returning Avisail Garcia, who were already intimidating figures in the Chicago lineup. Garcia missed most of last season after injuring his shoulder on a diving catch, but expect him to make an impact in 2015.

Apr 11, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (79) during the first inning at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

With the return of infielder Gordon Beckham, the White Sox were forced to designate outfielder Dayan Viciedo. Viciedo, who only hit .231/.281/.405 last season, isn’t much of a loss. Similarly, the retirement of Paul Konerko will have little impact on the field. Newly-signed veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche, with a career OPS of .911 and a history of about 25 home runs per season, will actually be much more valuable to the team than the aging Konerko has been in recent years.

Although catcher is definitely still a weak spot – Tyler Flowers isn’t scaring anyone – the top of the lineup will be solid, with Adam Eaton, Cabrera, Garcia, Abreu and LaRoche capable of doing severe damage to even the best of pitchers. One of the most overlooked Sox signings will probably be that of Emilio Bonifacio. The super-utility man brings a lot of speed and just enough of an ability to get on base to make that speed valuable. His defense and his ability to play just about any position will be extremely helpful to Chicago on the field.

Relief for the Relievers
The White Sox had an embarrassingly bad bullpen last season. As a group, they finished the year with a 4.38 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 1.61. It was hardly even enjoyable to watch when rooting for the opposing team, and starters couldn’t trust their relief corps to hold a lead in any situation.

This year, manager Robin Ventura has a new set of relievers to turn to, starting with former Yankees closer David Robertson. Robertson posted a 2.68 FIP last year, on his way to 39 saves in 63 appearances. Last season, Jake Petricka got the most save opportunities for the Sox, converting 14 of 18 chances and making him their de facto closer. Ronald Belisario saved eight of his 12 chances, and Matt Lindstrom managed to convert 6 of 10 opportunities. In short, the Chicago closing situation was dismal, as were all other aspects of their bullpen. Robertson’s presence will give the pitching staff some much-needed order.

The White Sox also signed left-hander Zach Duke, who appeared in 74 games last year and ended the season with a 2.14 FIP. That allows relievers like Zach Putnam, Petricka, and lefty Dan Jennings to slot down even further in the depth chart. While they won’t have the best bullpen in the league, it would be hard to imagine a scenario where they don’t significantly improve over last season.

The Verdict:
Dave Schoenfield’s ESPN rankings have the White Sox listed as 23rd, but that seems pretty low for a team that has made so many drastic improvements this winter. While the effect of those changes remains to be seen, it wouldn’t be surprising if the White Sox are deep into the fight for the division title in September.

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