Prior to the start of the season, we looked at how the Indians matched up against each team in the AL Central as well as the Reds and the Cubs. Now, it’s time to look back and see how close I was in the assessment of the 2017 White Stockings. The original article is in gray italics while the new stuff is black.
For the first time in franchise history, the Indians biggest rivals in Chicago are not the White Sox. While the Cubs and Indians have only built on their World Series rosters, the 4th place finishers in the Central from 2016 have hit the rebuild button. Chicago’s biggest moves this off-season were two blockbusters, sending Chris Sale to Boston and Adam Eaton to Washington for some of the best prospects in all of baseball. They still have a few stars in Jose Quintana and Jose Abreu, but they are sorely lacking in depth and they will likely be expecting very little this year. They have continued to smash that rebuild button, sending Quintana to the Cubs and Tommy Kahnle, Todd Fraizer and David Robertson to New York. It wouldn’t be surprising if they made one or two more deals before the week is out.
There’s a strong argument that the Indians and White Sox had the top two American League pitchers at the end of last season, but with Sale now changing the color of his Sox, Chicago doesn’t have the elite arm on top or the strong top three they’ve had for the past two years. Quintana and Carlos Rodon still provide two top lefties at the beginning of the rotation, but James Shields at number three (5.79 ERA, 6.83 FIP) is a frightening notion and terrible reminder of a poorly timed and incredibly expensive mistake. Miguel Gonzalez and Derek Holland look to finish out the starting five and provide little extra confidence. Gonzalez has been the Sox second best starter with a 0.7 fWAR.
One huge possible upgrade exists with Lucas Giolito, MLB Pipeline’s #3 prospect in all of baseball in 2016, who came from the Nationals for Eaton. He’s coming off a 2.17 ERA in AAA last year with a K/9 of 9.6 and could give the Sox of the future a dominating right handed option to sit opposite of Rodon. Giolito has played the entire season in AAA Charlotte and holds a 5.02 ERA.
Matching up man to man, the Indians have the advantage in all five spots, most obviously with Danny Salazar compared to Shields at #3, then Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin to follow rather than a couple of reclamation projects. This one is a shut out. This is even more accurate since the trade of Quintana left the Sox without a one win pitcher.
The White Sox were a near league average team defensively last year (they sit at -17.1 runs compared to the average defense now), but the majority of their positive play came from Eaton and was, in fact, the main reason he was worth so much in trade. Tim Anderson is a fantastic defensive short stop and Todd Frazier is decent enough at third that with Anderson’s range they should be fine on the left side of the infield. The left side of the outfield is something else entirely as Melky Cabrera was dreadful out there last year and the right side of the infield, with Brett Lawrie and Abreu, was similar. Lawrie has been cut recently, so it’s second base is an unknown as he was previously penciled in as starter. Yolmer Sanchez has been playing second and is the Sox second best defender. Leury Garcia has also helped shore up the outfield with a 16.9 UZR/150. Melky Cabrera is still terrible, if fact the worst defender on the team and, surprisingly, Anderson has been worse than expected.
Any potential rookies could mix things up a bit, but look for the Sox to take a big step back from last year defensively just due to the loss of Eaton (accurate) and they will be nowhere near the Indians (accurate), who have a platinum glove shortstop in Francisco Lindor, two of the best defensive catchers in baseball and saved over 40 more runs than the average team in 2016, fifth best in all of baseball. They haven’t been as good this season, but Bradley Zimmer has started a huge turn around and they’ve already jumped from being a below average defensive team to slightly above average.
One of the remaining Sox stars is their closer, David Robertson. He is also their most tradeable asset. At least one Central team is making all the right moves. With the relief market at it’s current level, the Sox having no chance at contention this season and Robertson being under contract for the next two seasons at a fairly high dollar amount ($25M total), there is both ample reason for the Sox to move him and for others to be interested.
Even with Robertson, the Sox can’t compare with the Indians. Based on bWAR, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero were all superior pitchers to Robertson in 2016 and all are returning for 2017. The White Sox did have quite a few pitchers stand out in the bottom half of the bullpen last year in Nate Jones, Dan Jennings, Jake Petricka, Michael Ynoa and Tommy Kahnle, but they don’t have anyone nearly as dominant as the Tribe’s top two or a full unit as experienced or dependable as the Indians seven will be. While the Indians have been better, with the fourth best bullpen in baseball, the Sox come in 8th, so much better than expected. However, their top three relievers have all been traded as Robertson and Kahnle went to New York and Anthony Swarzak went to Milwaukee. Zach Putnam and Jones have still been solid, but there’s little behind them and the bullpen is very likely about to go from a huge strength of Chicago to their biggest weakness.
The fact that Matt Davidson is currently listed as the DH on the White Sox depth chart is all you need to know about the White Sox offense. Davidson has been slightly better than I expected and yet still at replacement player level. Yes, they have Todd Frazier, (not anymore) who hit 40 home runs last year and will likely be a serious power threat this year and Abreu, who could be an MVP candidate again, but beyond that things look dismal. While not an MVP candidate, Abreu has been the Sox top hitter. The majority of White Sox starters are league average at best and many could be significantly worse. As with the pitching staff, the White Sox have a huge up and comer in Yoan Moncada (the #2 prospect in all of baseball coming into 2017 according to Baseball America), who will likely be a huge part of the Chicago offense for years to come. This year, however, his projections aren’t great and he could spend much of the year in AAA. Moncada was only called up after the Frazier trade, but could be big in the second half.
According to Fangraph’s projections, the White Sox have two 2+ win position players. The Indians have have six. While Michael Brantley remains a huge question mark, Edwin Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis have put together offensive seasons among the best at their position in recent seasons and are expected to do so again. As of now, Avasail Garcia is the only Chicago player above 2.0 wins (and their only All-Star) while the Indians have two (Ramirez and Lindor) with Chisenhall, Zimmer and Encarnacion nearing that level.
We went into the 2016 season thinking that the Central Division would be a tight race with the Indians and Royals on top with the young players of the White Sox and Twins making some noise while the Tigers stuck around for one more try. Instead, the Twins took a huge step back and neither the Tigers or Royals proved competitive. The White Sox could have seen a 78 win season as a positive and looked to build on their core, but instead dealt their top two assets and ensured a season where things will be even worse. If they had kept Sale and Eaton and added another starter, their bullpen and defense were already decent enough that they could have fought to a win total in the mid-80’s and a potential Wild Card. Instead, regression and the loss of their ace have them with a .402 winning percent and sitting 13.5 games back in the division. This is not to say they made the wrong moves, however, as they are now set for the future with a very deep minor league system, also adding Michael Kopech, Victor Diaz, Luis Alexander Basabe, Dane Dunning and Reynaldo Lopez along with Giolito and Moncada. This has been improved to the extreme now by adding the Cubs top prospect in Eloy Jimenez, plus pieces from New York and Milwaukee. The White Sox will be a very good team eventually, but it won’t be the next two seasons.