March Madness: White Sox’s Final Four and Cinderellas for 2016
It’s that time of year again. The time basketball savants, college kids with strict allegiances, and even someone who doesn’t know a 16 seed from a one seed take a stab at a filling out a bracket. By the end of the weekend, it’s usually flooded with red marks and scribbles, and you’re left dumbfounded.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, and that doesn’t mean I won’t try to apply the same practice to Chicago White Sox baseball.
After all, it’s not called March Madness for nothing.
So it’s time for a different kind of Bracketology. Here are the White Sox players who will rise and fall in the Big Dance that is the 2016 season.
SP Chris Sale:
Chris Sale is an uncontested number one seed. He’s an ace. The Anthony Davis led Kentucky Wildcats of 2012. The 26 year-old southpaw has an easy path to Chicago’s Final Four. His 3.41 ERA last season means national pundits might sleep on him a bit, but make no mistake; Chris Sale is set for a monster season. His 2.73 FIP in 2015 was the second best of his career. He also posted career best and league leading marks in SO/9 (11.8) and SO/W ratio (6.52). The four-time All-Star has consistently been on the cusp of a truly dominant season. A one month DL stint in 2014 and a rocky second half in 2015 hurt his Cy Young stock but if Sale can lead Chicago to the postseason, he’s a near lock to take home the hardware this year. No need for trepidation here, an upset simply isn’t in the cards.
1B Jose Abreu:
Jose Abreu wouldn’t be a number one seed. His region is too crowded with the Miguel Cabrera‘s and Paul Goldschmidt‘s of the world. That doesn’t mean he can’t make a deep run this season. Jose Abreu burst onto the scene in 2014, winning ROY honors and garnering Top Five MVP votes. His .317/.383/.581 line slipped to .290/.347/.502 in 2015, but slipped isn’t as daunting when it means going from arguably the best hitter in baseball (highest OPS+ in 2014) to simply in the conversation.
The encouraging part of Abreu’s 2015 campaign was the staying power he showed and his improved endurance. Abreu was an on-base machine in the latter half of 2014 but his power declined. In 2015, Abreu parlayed his power across the entire year. He should blend those facets even better in 2016. While the league adjusted to Abreu overtime, the slugger has a chance to counter. For Abreu, we’re not talking about the Sweet Sixteen but rather the Sweet Seventy (extra-base hits that is).
3B Todd Frazier:
Todd Frazier would likely be a little under-seeded by the Selection Committee. He’s an elite player who had an early exit in his conference tournament and that tarnished his resume some. That early exit was his poor second half, in which he posted a .220/.274/.390 line with just ten home runs. But if number one seeded Michigan St. gets bounced early from the Big Ten tournament, are they suddenly left for dead in the national tournament? Absolutely not, and you’d be wise not to write off Todd Frazier either.
So you want to throw salt into his .922 OPS first half, where he collected 25 home runs and 26 doubles before the All-Star Break; go ahead. Throw some salt into his underwhelming .664 OPS second half too and what do you get: His 2015 .255/.309/.498 line with 35 home runs. You can expect that in 2016, just with a more equal production distribution across the season. You can also expect to see a plus glove at third and a media darling that’s equivalent to landing a quote from college coaches Pitino or Krzyzewski. I’m willing to write Todd Frazier into my Final Four with a permanent marker. So should you.
SP Jose Quintana:
Jose Quintana is the forgotten mid-major on Selection Sunday. That’s the problem; he’s actually not even a mid-major but rather a player from a power conference. He’d probably be placed on the 4 or 5 seed line. Respectable enough but an insult to a team that could have had 18 or so wins with any sort of offense. He’s more like a number two seed, just outside of the top-tier but still a contender to make it to the title game.
Quintana ranks 9th in fWAR among all pitchers since 2013. That’s just behind Zack Greinke and ahead of the likes of Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Stephen Strasburg, and Chris Archer. So yes, he is grossly underseeded. Quintana was sixth in quality starts last year, with 25 in 32 tries. For reference, Jake Arietta had 29 quality starts and that translated into 22 wins in 2015. Look up consistency in the dictionary and Quintana’s picture is there. No seriously, I’ve taped it in every Merriam Webster.
The point is that Quintana has an outside but semi-legitimate shot at 20 wins or Cy Young votes in 2016. He has that high of a floor that any sort of run support will take him deeper than just about any arm. So when you see a five seed next to Quintana’s name, know that he deserves the Final Four as much as anyone.
OF Adam Eaton:
For most White Sox fans, it might seem strange to place Eaton under the Cinderella category. I didn’t think this was an accurate perception on him either but after reading some disconcerting takes over the least few days, it’s clear he’d still be a bracket buster. If you’re a fan of the fiction genre, you can read those aforementioned takes here and here.
Anyway, Adam Eaton has created two polarizing camps: Those who are very high on him and those who consistently use him as a scapegoat. This isn’t unlike how the media will be discussing Cinderella picks come Sunday. You’ll hear one person boast that “this is the best sleeper since Butler” and another analyst opine that said team won’t make it out of the round of 64.
Let me be clear, Adam Eaton will make it beyond the first round in 2016. Based on a general bearish undertone surrounding his game, Eaton would probably draw between an 8-12 seed. Not great, but certainly in the realm of a classic Cinderella whose true-value is much higher. Eaton’s tourney resume has a few bad losses (.497 OPS April, poor defensive metrics) and a nice win over a ranked opponent (.335/.418/.486 2nd half).
With a March Madness sleeper team, an outlier win or two is usually a strong indication of their ceiling come tourney time. For Eaton, that 2nd half is his ceiling and it’s one I think he’ll convert on. For two consecutive years, Eaton has been on fire in the second half. In 2016, I think he’ll keep that pace for most of the year. Watch out; Eaton’s ready to bust some brackets and naysayers in ’16.
SP Carlos Rodon
The prototypical upstart mid-major, Rodon is ready to make some noise in the Big Dance. He’s got the raw talent (think the Stephen Curry led Davidson Wildcats) to truly breakout this year. Per MLB.com’s Scott Merkin, Rodon is working on refining his change up, which could give him a third solid offering behind his fastball and devastating slider.
Early struggles were paved over by an excellent August (2.48 ERA in 5 GS) and September (2.03 ERA in 4 GS). Rod0n also carved up lefties to the tune of a dismal .194/.294/.230 line. That should play well in his Sophomore season.
Rodon’s slider is his secret weapon, and just like how a Cinderella may rely on the three-point shot, Rodon could ride his slider deep into All-Star territory. The slipper fits in 2016.
WHO’LL BE UPSET?
Back Injury (10 seed) over Adam LaRoche (7 seed):
Adam LaRoche will be felled to a back injury. This upset won’t break any televisions, quite the contrary actually. Nothing against LaRoche, who by all accounts is a stand-up guy, but it simply did not work out on the South Side. LaRoche has already been sidelined this Spring with back spasms and there doesn’t appear to be light at the end of the tunnel.
With the recent acquisition of Austin Jackson, LaRoche doesn’t have to cover as many at-bats, especially if Avisail Garcia‘s new swing becomes the real Cinderella story this year.
Whether the injury legitimately sidelines him or he’s the victim of a “phantom DL stint”, I don’t think we’ll see a lot of Adam LaRoche this year. Even if he rebounds, I don’t think he’ll be allocated enough playing time to truly lobby for an increased role.
This was LaRoche’s line versus LHP in 2015: .157/.191./.191 (.382 OPS). If that .382 had been his slugging percentage we might have been disappointed. That was his OPS. Here’s how he hit at the cell: .181/.269/.271 (.540 OPS). At The Cell.
Sure, he’ll be better than that but do you ever really come back from that performance? Can you? This is the type of upset we can put in the books after five minutes. Sometimes a team looks dead right out of the gate. That’s LaRoche in 2016.
Jacob Turner (12 seed) over John Danks (5 seed):
I’m not going to talk too much about Danks, because it’s actually painful. The truth is Dank’s shoulder injury cost him crucial velocity and he’s never been able to mold himself into a Mark Buehrle-lite. We’ve been hearing the same quotes since 2013 about how he can make himself effective in this league. He simply can’t. He might eat 180 innings, but I don’t want to feed him if he’s going to spit out a 4.71 ERA like he did in 2015.
John Danks is a solid 3-4 seed that suffered a team altering injury, but one the Selection Committee failed to adjust for. Danks is not the player he once was and that’s why it’s hard to believe that he’ll still be here by the dog days of Summer. How can the White Sox say they’re contending with a straight face if two of Mat Latos, Erik Johnson, or Cooper’s latest project Jacob Turner show anything and still take a backseat.
It’ll be a sad upset. It’ll sting for Danks and it’ll sting for Jerry Reinsdorf’s wallet, but in the end, it’s for the best.
ON THE BUBBLE
Every year a team hangs around until the last minute and either finds itself awarded with an NCAA bid or a trip to the NIT. Sometimes these fringe teams get in via winning a conference tournament or someone’s kind to them on Sunday, but even if they’re talented they aren’t sure bets to get in. This year the bubble classification belongs to Tim Anderson and Carson Fulmer.
How does Tim Anderson get in: Anderson is truly a year away. He’s going to be an incredibly special player, maybe even a stud at shortstop. The problem is the organization likely knows the best path for the raw infielder out of junior college is to get a full year of reps at Triple-A Charlotte.
There’s no reason to rush Tim Anderson, and I think the Jimmy Rollins signing is a big indication that they want to hedge against expediting his development. Sure, if there’s an injury or he’s lighting up Triple-A we might see him by July or at the very least September. However, there’s little chance his name will be called on Selection Sunday out of Spring Training.
How does Carson Fulmer get in: With a deadly fastball, a plus curveball, and a fiery edge, Fulmer’s stuff could play at closer right now. However, the White Sox employ David Robertson and Chicago’s intent on molding Fulmer into a starter. For that, it wouldn’t hurt for him to see some significant time at Double-A. All offseason, Hahn has alluded to the fact that even seeing Fulmer by 2017 would be a fast path. I think he’ll see the bullpen in September when rosters expand but as a starter he’ll have to wait until next year to hear his name called.
So there you have it. There are your Final Four contenders, Cinderellas, heartbreaking upsets, and bubble player verdicts. March Madness is upon us and what that really means is that April-October? Madness is knocking at the door.