Why the White Sox probably won't be particularly competitive in 2012

For my first entry here as a staff member of Southside Showdown, I thought it appropriate to establish the tone and approach that my readers at White Sox Observer have become familiar with: cynicism and exasperation.

With pitchers and catchers set to report next month, the natural amount of enthusiasm and optimism for a new season is gathering for fans and players of even the most fringe contenders.  To a degree, they’re all correct.  Anyone can win.  Prospects can bloom sooner than expected, rebound years from struggling and/or previously injured veterans can happen, and they can all line up, and the Arizona Diamondbacks can win the 2011 AL West, and you never ever really know.

So before that reaches a fever pitch, it’s important to mull over why staying out of the bottom two slots in the division would be a nice place to put fan expectations for the 2012 White Sox*.  In the case of this post, you can go ahead and swap out “important” with “needlessly defeatist” as you see fit.

*Edited after @VeeckAsInWreck pointed out that should never actually be a team’s goal

Rebound Candidates

Generally, abandoning veteran players with established performance levels, after a single season that saw an unnatural drop in their numbers is a good way to lose out on a lot of value.  This where an obligatory mention of Kenny Williams shipping out Nick Swisher to the Yankees for box of beer koozies after a single down year for his batting average slides in.  Similarly, seeking out such players is good way to secure solid contributors at a reduced price when they recover to their career norms.  Buy low, sell high, don’t do the opposite; it’s a principle with a lot of applications

The White Sox happen to have a lot of these “don’t sell low on him just yet!” types currently on the roster, which would seem to indicate chances for a better output from 2011, but at a certain point, it just means you have a lot of guys who stunk last year in the lineup.

-It’s one thing to not give up on Adam Dunn after his unfathomable .159/.292/.277 triple slash for 2011, it’s another thing to hand him a guaranteed job with no real contingency plan.  Batted-ball luck and league-adjustment cannot account for such a drop in performance, Dunn (who, coincidentally was the oldest he’s ever been last season) was abused with fastballs in away he’s never been throughout his career, and his power lagged accordingly as he failed to line anything up–no one had a higher-percentage of his contact go foul.

Players have down years, but Dunn was so bad, that while his decline follows no sort of typical pattern, his recovery from such depths as a hulking 32 year-old slugger may be only slightly less improbable.  If there is no physical and legit skill decline going on, then the alternative is that he failed to adjust to DH-ing or put too much pressure on himself.  When the optimistic take on a player implicates that he’s a massive head-case, well, that’s trouble.

-Alex Rios is a over a year younger than Dunn, possesses a speed and contact-oriented game that traditionally ages better, and in a luck-neutral scenario, at least 6% more of his balls in play should have fell in for hits.  Despite having a fitfully punchless (lowest isolated-power score since he was a rookie) year, he at least mashed in September to the tune of .307/.341/.533, and gave everyone a glimpse of a competent hitter.

There’s something to be said for scouting though, and anyone who watched Rios observed a horrendously pull-happy approach that pitchers exploited endlessly by working him outside, inducing boatloads of rolled-over groundouts to short.  September was great, but it was also the first month where his OPS was over .800 since June 2010.  He’s pretty far removed from an acceptable performance level.

-It’s funny to think that Gordon Beckham probably has the most optimism centered around him of any of these three, because he’s young and not battling the forces of aging.  He also had the best offensive year of the three, even if it was still a .230/.296/.336 triple-slash.

The problem is that Beckham is on the most steady and sustained downward slope of any White Sox hitter.  His plate discipline, his power, his contact rate, and pretty much any other offensive category or subset has decline precipitously over the last three seasons.

Gordon still has plenty of untapped potential, but Jeff Manto, Robin Ventura, and even Harold Baines aren’t being tasked with snapping him out of a slump, they’re being asked to reverse a free-fall.

All these players have built-in, guaranteed starting jobs by the way, so the possibility of their failure isn’t hedged against.

Filling in Big Shoes

-Chris Sale is top-flight starting pitching prospect, with three legit plus pitches, and looks to be the first White Sox 1st round pick in a loooong time to be worth the belt that holds their pants up.

He’s also effectively replacing Mark Buehrle in the rotation, which he himself might acknowledge as a bit of a challenge.  The difficulty of adjusting to starting will probably make it too hard for Sale to match #56′s average ERA in his first year in the rotation, and organizational concern over his workload will make matching Buehrle’s innings totals nigh impossible.

-Similarly, Dayan Viciedo is skilled replacement for Carlos Quentin, who should at least prove more durable, and possibly provide a little more defensive value thanks to his cannon for an arm.

He’s also being tasked with replacing a player in Quentin who posted a 125 wRC+ last season.  For all his promise, Viciedo has yet to show a blend of the hyper-aggressive approach that allowed him to slug .519 in his first taste of big league ball, and patience he developed last season in order to post an average walk rate (8%).  He’s being asked to do a lot of growing up on the job.

-Finally, there’s Brent Morel.  It’s his second full-time year, and he progressed nicely over the course of 2011, which he’ll need to do, because the year-end .245/.287/.366 triple-slash line he posted isn’t a startable 3rd basemen going forward.  At least some of his September surge (.224/.340/.553 with 8 HR) needs to be real if he’s going to stick around.

Organizational Depth

Of this, there is little.

When people conceive of the consequences of having a terrible farm system, it’s rare that they think of them as being immediate.  But the White Sox hopes for 2012 are crippled simply because they cannot absorb failures from the players listed above or withstand crucial injuries, due to a lack of competent replacements from within.

Sure, as presently constructed, the Sox can offer Dylan Axelrod and Zach Stewart as spot starters, and while there’s nothing but fringey arms after their top-4 relievers, at least there’s a lot of those fringey arms.  Yet there is nothing in the way of positional depth that’s immediately ready.

Beyond the catcher slot, the backup plan for pretty much every position right now is “Brent Lillibridge”.  That’s not a bad guy to have off the bench by any stretch, but the man is stretched thin by responsibilities beyond what he tackled last season.  The consequences of years of farm system neglect have dropped the weight on some unexpected shoulders.

—–

I do not mean to bury the 2012 White Sox, or condemn them to AL Central purgatory.  Baseball is a far too nuanced and unpredictable game for me to confidently rule out the chances of embattled players making necessary adjustments and thriving, or having development schedules you can set your watch to.

It’s just that this year’s team, still flecked with the wreckage of 2011 across their roster, is more dependent on surprise recoveries, players thriving in their first real opportunities, successful returns from injury, and a certain 36 year-old slugger, than probably any team that actually winds up making the playoff this season.

 

That’s not to say there will be no reason to watch.  The late-career renaissance of Paul Konerko should be treasured, Alexei Ramirez’s defense is poetry, Chris Sale’s starts should be appointment viewing, and little Dayan is growing up before our eyes.

Also, they’ll probably still stand a decent shot at beating the Twins and Cubs, which should be plenty for some.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @ JRFegan.  Also check out his full-time, daily blog, White Sox Observer

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Tags: Adam Dunn AL Central AL West Alex Rios Alexei Ramirez Arizona Diamondbacks Baseball Brent Lillibridge Brent Morel Carlos Quentin Chicago Cubs Chris Sale Dayan Viciedo Dylan Axelrod Gordon Beckham Harold Baines Jeff Manto Kenny Williams Mark Buehrle Minnesota Twins New York Yankees Nick Swisher Paul Konerko Robin Ventura White Sox Zach Stewart

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