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White Sox have talent and potential to be trouble in AL Central

The Southside Sox were a thorn in the Indians’ side in 2019 and that looks to continue into 2020

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

From now until Opening Day (and a little bit beyond) Let’s Go Tribe will be previewing the 2020 season for the Indians from every angle — position previews, a look at the AL Central, players you should know, and more. See the full preview here.

There is a CBS Morning Tweet from October 2016 that will never not amuse me. It read: “Wrigley Field is prepping this morning for an event Chicago hasn’t seen in 71 years: the World Series.” The source of amusement is the apparent erasure of the 2005 World Series, when that team on the south side of Chicago hosted the Fall Classic and claimed the Commissioner’s Trophy. White Sox fans were appropriately incensed by the oversight, but I can’t say I blame anyone for whom that championship has faded from memory.

The 15 years since that World Series have not exactly been kind to the White Sox. Since 2005, the franchise has endured 10 losing seasons, fired two managers, captured one division crown, and made one postseason appearance. But could 2020 be a turning point?

Chicago certainly made a splash in the offseason, signing free agents Yasmani Grandal, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, and Edwin Encarnación and acquiring outfielder Nomar Mazara via trade. Grandal will play catcher for the White Sox and figure into the rotation at first base and designated hitter, bringing a switch-hitting bat to the lineup after posting career-highs in OBP, OPS, home runs, and walks with the Brewers in 2019.

Although he was sidelined late last season with a broken right wrist and an oblique issue, Encarnación was on pace for another season of 40 home runs. The 37-year-old will serve as a much-needed veteran presence in the White Sox lineup, giving them another power bat in the middle of the order. White Sox designated hitters combined to produce a putrid .197/.275/.342 last season, so Encarnación is already a vast improvement.

Conversely, the trade for Mazara is a bit of a gamble on the part of the White Sox. The 24-year-old corner outfielder has posted fairly pedestrian numbers since making his big league debut four years ago, slashing .261/.320/.469 for his career so far. But Chicago seems hopeful a change of scenery will lead to a breakout season. ZiPS does not seem to share their optimism, expecting him to match his career-high 95 wRC+ and 0.9 WAR from 2018. Steamer is a bit more bullish, seeming to buy into the uptick in his ISO from last season and projecting 106 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR.

Grandal, Encarnación, and Mazara figure to boost a lineup chock full of young talent. Twenty-six-year-old second baseman Tim Anderson won the American League batting title last year, and 24-year-old third baseman Yoan Moncada wasn’t far behind (although his strikeout rate was 27%, which actually represents an improvement from the previous season). The White Sox signed first baseman José Abreu to an extension, and hope to see 23-year-old left fielder Eloy Jiménez take a developmental step forward after an inconsistent rookie season.

Chicago also has top-ranked prospect Luis Robert penciled in at the starting center field spot after signing him to a six-year contract extension in the offseason before he has even had a chance to take a big-league at-bat. Leury García will more than likely open the season as the starting second baseman for the White Sox, but prospect Nick Madrigal is hot on his heels after slashing .331/.398/.424 in 29 games with Triple-A Charlotte last year. Though with young talent there are almost assuredly going to be growing pains, as the White Sox learned last year, posting the lowest walk rate in the AL (6.3%) and the second-highest strikeout rate (26.4%).

In the rotation, the additions of Keuchel and Gonzalez will look to patch up what has been the White Sox’s glaring weakness for years now. Last year’s starters combined to post a 5.30 ERA and ranked near the bottom of the league in K/9 and FIP. The bright spot was unequivocally Lucas Giolito, who looked the part of an ace at various intervals throughout the season before being shut down in mid-September with an oblique injury. The right-hander ditched his sinker and emphasized his changeup and slider to record career-best rates in strikeouts (11.6%) and walks (2.9%). He was particularly dominant against the Indians, delivering the infamous line, ‘‘They weren’t adjusting to it, so we just stuck with that,” in a postgame interview when asked why he attacked the Tribe almost exclusively with changeups.

Keuchel is a former Cy Young winner who had an abbreviated season with the Braves last year, making 19 starts for them after a two-month holdout. He is a reliable source of ground balls, but Keuchel’s walk rate and HR/9 rate both went in the wrong directions last year. The southpaw also struggled against right-handed hitters, who posted a .281 average against Keuchel over 360 at-bats. His Steamer and ZiPS projections are worrisome, especially if he is to be counted on as the White Sox’s No. 2 starter. Both have him posting his worst ERA since 2016.

Gonzalez should be a solid innings eater for Chicago if he can stay healthy, as he has been dealing with left shoulder issues this winter. The back end of the rotation figures to be filled by Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez. The 24-year-old Cease had a rough rookie season with the White Sox, but is hoping mechanical adjustments can help improve the effectiveness of his upper-90s fastball. Lopez has been living life on the edge as a fly ball pitcher for three seasons now, struggling to the tune of a career 4.67 ERA and 4.74 FIP.

The bullpen isn’t great but has a chance to be solid. Alex Colome used a strong first half last season to usurp the closer role from Kelvin Herrera, but his arm faded down the stretch. 26-year-old middle reliever Aaron Bummer signed a five-year contract extension in the offseason on the heels of his first dominant season at the big league level — a 2.13 ERA, 3.49 xFIP, and 1.3 fWAR in 67.2 innings pitched — since his debut in 2017. Chicago signed veteran reliever Steve Cishek to a one-year deal in January to help stabilize their relief corps.

It is important to remember that the White Sox finished 28.5 games back of the division champion Twins a season ago. There is still work to be done to close the gap, even after their offseason shopping spree. PECOTA projects Chicago to win around 82 games this season, which likely isn’t enough to claim the AL Central crown but would put them in contention for a wild card spot. They certainly have the young talent to put together a formidable lineup, but I have my doubts about their patchwork starting rotation holding up, at least in its current state. If they can get any sort of consistency from Giolito, Keuchel, and Gonzalez, look out.