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2023 AL Central Preview: Chicago White Sox

This sure is a baseball team

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Cincinnati Reds v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

The Chicago White Sox needed a win this offseason. After coming into the previous season heavily favored to win the division, they limped away with a .500 record and owner Jerry Reinsdorf had to fire his friend as manager. So it was important for the front office to generate some positivity going into 2023.

At first, the Sox seemed to be doing what was needed. The early offseason featured some good things, like signing Andrew Benintendi and installing Pedro Grifol as manager. Benintendi, of course, is a known quantity and generated goodwill on his own. Grifol, on the other hand, was a bit more mysterious, though quotes like this from Ned Yost surely helped:

“He understands what made baseball the national pastime for over 100 years, but he also understands the new part of the game, the analytical part that can take players to a little bit of a different level if they can execute.”

But then the White Sox signed Mike Clevinger, who was accused of domestic violence. Even though MLB closed its investigation with no punishment for Clevinger, the situation left a black mark on the White Sox offseason and engendered no sympathy toward the team.

2022 in review

In short, the Chicago White Sox 2022 season was so bad it finally, mercifully ended the managerial tenure of Tony La Russa. It wasn’t all his fault — a number of injuries also contributed — but with the talent that was healthy TLR old-schooled and small-balled his way to underperforming ZiPS projections by seven wins (88 vs. 81) and losing the AL Central to the Guardians by 11 games. Only two position players managed to play more than 100 games and accumulate more than 1.0 fWAR, and neither are with the Sox any longer (José Abreu and Josh Harrison). On the pitching side, the White Sox were more fortunate, seeing Dylan Cease emerge as an ace, but a step back from Lucas Giolito and good-not-great years from other pitchers further hindered the team.

Additions and subtractions

Key addition: LF Andrew Benintendi
Adding Andrew Benintendi to the White Sox outfield is not only a good addition; it is also a net positive for what it subtracts: Eloy Jiménez's defense. Though Benintendi is just an average defender, falling in the 53rd percentile for both outs above average and outfield jump, the team will fare better by moving Jiménez (-18 outs above average for his career) to the DH role full-time. Benintendi has created 10.9 fWAR over the last five seasons, 27th among all outfielders in that time, and Grifol says he has the lefty as his number three hitter right now. ZiPS projects a line of .274/.352/.420 with 3.1 fWAR for Benintendi, and that seems like a pretty nice addition to me.

Other additions: Manager Pedro Grifol, SP Mike Clevinger, RHP Bryan Shaw

Key subtraction: 1B José Abreu
Though he’s now 36, Abreu’s bat still seems to have a lot of life left in it. Time will tell how his golden years in MLB go, but projections seem to believe he can age like Nelson Cruz. ZiPS thinks the first baseman can hit .279/.351/.451 and produce 2.8 fWAR in Houston this year, which is not much different than what it expects Benintendi can do in Abreu’s spot in the Sox batting order. His first base replacement, Andrew Vaughn, might be a candidate to break out. He’ll have to get healthy first, as he was still not swinging a bat due to back soreness as of writing.

Other subtractions: SP Johnny Cueto, OF A.J. Pollock, SP Vincent Velasquez, 2B Josh Harrison, 2B Danny Mendick, RF Adam Engel

Projected lineup

  • SS: Tim Anderson
  • CF: Luis Robert Jr.
  • LF: Andrew Benintendi
  • DH: Eloy Jiménez
  • 3B: Yoán Moncada
  • 1B: Andrew Vaughn
  • C: Yasmani Grandal
  • RF: Oscar Colas
  • 2B: Elvis Andrus
  • Bench: C Seby Zavala, 1B/OF Gavin Sheets, 3B/1B Jake Burger, INF/OF Leury Garcia
Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

When healthy, this is a great lineup with the ability to do a lot of damage, but the healthy qualifier is a big and recurring one (condolences to all Eloy Jiménez fans). Last year and in 2021, the Sox had just three hitters make enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title, with injuries robbing their stars of playing time. Unlike Cleveland, however, who absorbed injuries with young players making vital contributions, the White Sox roster lacks strength in depth. This was true the last two seasons and I expect it to remain true this year. If Chicago can keep potentially generational stars like Tim Anderson and Luis Robert healthy they can be quite successful, but if they have to rely upon Leury Garcia and Gavin Sheets again they will struggle to compete.

Anderson, to me, is the biggest cog in this lineup. He’s a potential superstar and could blow past his 2.6 fWAR projection from ZiPS. But as just one of the nine, the White Sox's lack of depth matters just as much as his going supernova. One particularly interesting player to me is Oscar Colas. In terms of raw power, MLB and FanGraphs agree he has 60-grade potential, but the FG scouting report rates his game power at 45 and notes “there are justifiable questions about whether he’ll hit enough.” If he can hit and stay healthy, it will go a long way toward the success of the Sox this season; if he struggles, it will drag down the bottom half of the Sox batting order.

Projected pitching staff

  • SP1: Dylan Cease
  • SP2: Lance Lynn
  • SP3: Lucas Giolito
  • SP4: Mike Clevinger
  • SP5: Michael Kopech
  • Bullpen: Kendall Graveman, Aaron Bummer, Joe Kellyer, Reynaldo López, Jake Diekman, José Ruiz, Nick Avila, Jimmy Lambert
Projections via FanGraphs’ Roster Resource

One through five, the White Sox have a top-notch rotation. Cease has ace stuff, Lynn was top 6 in Cy Young voting 2019 to 2021, Giolito is up-and-down often but generally an exceptional middle-of-the-rotation arm, Michael Kopech isn’t what he was pre-surgery but still has MLB quality, and Clevinger will be looking to prove he’s more than an off-field distraction if he is healthy. Without closer Liam Hendriks, however, the Sox bullpen looks suspect. There are useful guys like Joe Kelly and Reynaldo López among them, but until someone steps up and wows there could be a falloff in quality when the Sox starters exit.

Spring training is a silly thing and paying attention to stats in these exhibitions is like keeping score in a game of Calvinball. But giving up 11 runs in an outing is something people take notice of, especially when Cease does it. With a fastball sitting around 96 MPH and the third-best slider in baseball (by pitch value/100), the righty has everything it takes to be dominant — if he can put it all together. Last year he had first- and second-half splits in xFIP of 2.92 and 4.27, respectively, thanks in part to batters being more aggressive against him early in the count, just like the Royals were when they tagged him for 11 runs this spring. Whether Cease figures it out or has been figured out is a storyline to watch and could be another big determining factor in how the Sox fare in 2023.