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2021 AL Central Preview: Chicago White Sox

Can Tony La Russa lead the White Sox to a title?

Wild Card Round - Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics - Game Two Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Every once in a while, I am reminded that Tony La Russa is the manager of the Chicago White Sox in the year 2021. It’s been five months since his hiring was announced and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. In an era of Major League Baseball that has seen clubs turn to the likes of Rocco Baldelli, David Ross, and Aaron Boone in a bid to bridge the generational gap and connect with today’s younger players, the White Sox handed the managerial reins to a 76-year-old Hall of Famer who retired a decade ago after winning his third World Series.

It’s a puzzling move, to say the least, especially as the White Sox appear to be on the cusp of becoming a perennial contender in the AL Central thanks to their young nucleus of talent. There is no denying that La Russa is one of the most decorated managers in the history of the sport. He was unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame for a reason. But I think it’s safe to say that much has changed since La Russa filled out his last lineup card.

Then again, maybe team owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s thinking is that there is enough talent in place to overcome whatever blind spots La Russa may have. Wishful thinking perhaps, but he has reason to be confident in his club. First baseman José Abreu, last season’s AL MVP, leads an exciting lineup of young talent, including shortstop Tim Anderson, center fielder Luis Robert, and left fielder Eloy Jiménez. Nearly the entire lineup from last season returns and the team traded for Lance Lynn in the offseason to bolster their starting rotation.

The pieces are in place. The potential is there. Can the White Sox fulfill it? They can start by stepping up their game against their chief competition in the AL Central. Chicago was 5-5 against Minnesota and 2-8 against Cleveland last season. They’re going to have to do a lot better than that if they want to claim their first division crown since 2008.

2020 in review

I can’t think of a better summary of the Chicago White Sox’s 2020 season than this: Manager Rick Renteria was fired in the same season that he led the club to their first playoff appearance since 2008 and was named a finalist for American League Manager of the Year.

Parting ways with Renteria has become something of a rite of passage in Chicago at this point. The Cubs gave him the boot after one season in 2014 to clear the way for Joe Maddon, winning a championship two years later. The White Sox seem to be following that same recipe, though I’m not sure they stuck the landing in the hiring of their new manager.

But I digress. We’re here to talk about 2020.

The White Sox had the best record in the American League (32-16) and were riding a six-game winning streak on Sept. 15. Then the proverbial wheels came off, as they proceeded to lose nine of their last 12 games — including a four-game sweep courtesy of Cleveland — to finish third in the AL Central. Where is Ozzie Guillen’s choke sign when you need it?

The offense stalled down the stretch, slashing .199/.273/.371 as a team during the final 12 games of the season. Abreu tried to put the team on his back, producing 171 wRC+ over that span. But the rest of the White Sox’s core seemed to run out of gas. Anderson, en route to his first Silver Slugger award, batted .176 during the team’s season-ending slump. Robert and Yoan Moncada were both also below the Mendoza line over that final stretch.

But the starting rotation began to break down, too. Even staff ace Lucas Giolito had a tough September, posting a 4.18 ERA. It was left up to Dallas Keuchel to carry the load and he recorded a 0.45 ERA in the final month of the regular season to put a bow on an outstanding first season on the South Side. Unfortunately for the White Sox, his efforts were not enough to overcome the struggles of Giolito, Reynaldo López, and Dylan Cease on the mound.

Chicago managed to sneak into the postseason due to the expanded playoffs before being promptly bounced from the first round by the Oakland A’s.

Additions and subtractions

Key addition: RHP Lance Lynn
An argument could be made that signing Liam Hendriks as their new closer was the White Sox’s key addition this offseason, but I beg to differ. Starting pitching has long been the Achilles’ heel of their rebuild, which is why they shipped a pair of pitchers to Texas in exchange for Lynn back in December.

The 33-year-old had a stellar tenure with the Rangers, including a career year in 2019 that saw him reach career highs in K/9 (10.63) and WAR (6.7). I have to imagine that central to his appeal for the White Sox were his remarkable durability and consistency. Over the last two seasons alone, Lynn is the league leader in starts (46) and innings (292.1), and his WAR over that span (9.8) is bested only by Jacob deGrom.

Other additions: RHP Liam Hendriks, OF Adam Eaton

Key subtraction: RHP Alex Colomé
Edwin Encarnación and Gio González are the big-name departures, but neither of them provided much value for the White Sox last season. That cannot be said of Colomé. Chicago’s former closer strikeout numbers were down — his 6.45 K/9 was his lowest since 2014 — but he recorded a career-best BABIP (.200), GB% (52.4%), and ERA (9.81). Colomé was also 12-of-13 in save opportunities. He signed with the Twins this offseason.

Other subtractions: DH Edwin Encarnación, RHP Gio González, RHP Dane Dunning, RHP Steve Cishek, LHP Ross Detwiler

Projected lineup

  • SS: Tim Anderson
  • CF: Luis Robert
  • 1B: José Abreu
  • 3B: Yoan Moncada
  • LF: Eloy Jiménez
  • C: Yasmani Grandal
  • RF: Adam Eaton
  • DH: Andrew Vaughn
  • 2B: Nick Madrigal
  • Bench: Jonathan Lucroy, Zack Collins, Leury Garcia, Adam Engel
    Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

Cleveland returns three players from last season who broke the century mark in wRC+. Chicago returns seven, led by Abreu. Anderson has been one of the best hitters in baseball the last two seasons, claiming the league batting title in 2019. Robert was a mixed bag in his rookie season, leading the team in strikeout percentage (32.2%) while mustering a respectable 101 wRC+. Madrigal had fewer troubles in his rookie season as their regular second baseman, slashing .340/.376/.369, and makes for an above-average bottom-of-the-order bat.

Top to bottom, this is an impressive lineup. It benefits from Eloy Jiménez taking another step forward last season with a .296/.332/.559 slash. The lineup will be even more dangerous if Yoan Moncada can recapture some of the magic from his 2019 season when he produced 140 wRC+. He also posted a .406 BABIP that season, so replicating that may not be likely, but he is better than the pedestrian numbers he posted last year.

The two new additions are right fielder Adam Eaton and designated hitter Andrew Vaughn. Eaton is the de facto starter now that Adam Engel has been sidelined with a hamstring injury. Vaughn has had a strong spring and is poised to take over for Encarnación as the designated hitter, even though he hasn’t played above HIgh-A.

Projected pitching staff

  • SP1: Lucas Giolito
  • SP2: Dallas Keuchel
  • SP3: Lance Lynn
  • SP4: Dylan Cease
  • SP5: Carlos Rodón
  • Bullpen: Liam Hendriks, Aaron Bummer, Garret Crochet, Evan Marshall, Michael Kopech, Codi Heuer, Matt Foster, Jace Fry
    Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

Have the White Sox finally cobbled together a good rotation? Lucas Giolito took a step back last year from his outstanding 2019 campaign, but ZiPS is going in all in on him for 2021 with what would be a career-best 5.8 WAR. Projections also look kindly upon Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn, giving the White Sox a top three that should rank among the best in the division.

It’s the final two spots that are less certain. Dylan Cease has had a miserable first two seasons in the big leagues, but the White Sox seem confident that command issues are the only obstacle standing in the way of him living up to his potential as a former sixth-round pick. Rodón saw limited action last season after recovering from Tommy John surgery and his ERA ballooned to 8.22 in four appearances. Chicago non-tendered him this offseason before signing him to a more team-friendly one-year contract in January. Clearly, they like the tools that he has to work with.

But either of them is likely a placeholder until pitching phenom Michael Kopech is ready to complete his transition back to a starting role after a two-year layoff. Until then, he’ll focus on working his full arsenal of pitches into game shape in the White Sox bullpen.

Liam Hendriks takes over as closer and the transition from Colomé should be seamless. Hendricks was brilliant in his final two seasons with the A’s, including a career-high strikeout percentage (13.14%) and a career-best ERA 1.78 last year. He relies heavily on his fastball, but his slider and curveball are nearly unhittable. Opposing batting averages against his slider and curveball last season were .067 and .083, respectively.