For White Sox, hot start is the fulcrum for 2016

Mar 23, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Chicago White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton (1) hits a pitch during the third inning against the San Diego Padres at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 23, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Chicago White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton (1) hits a pitch during the third inning against the San Diego Padres at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Every team has a fulcrum, something that is central to its overall performance. For the Chicago White Sox, there are obvious names to float in this category. Between Chris Sale possessing the ability to lock down twenty wins just by himself or the thought of Jose Abreu going on an MVP tear, the White Sox have plenty of candidates who could define their season.

Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports /

Then there’s the idea that the differences really lay in the margins. Will Avisail Garcia not pillage his value in the field and tap into his raw power enough to be above replacement? Can Mat Latos return to form and  be regarded as more than just a back-end rotation plug? What about Carson Fulmer; a wildcard who could see Chicago’s rotation or be lights out in the bullpen during the stretch run?

All of these things are a potential fulcrum in at least some capacity, but in 2016, I think the real fulcrum isn’t a player at all. Rather, it is a month. It is the month of April.

The 2016 season lays in the balance of how the White Sox perform out of the gate. Simple as that.

Last year’s poor start set a tone that seeped into the rest of the year, and it was a hole from which the White Sox never fully recovered.

In fact, one could make an argument that all you really had to do to consume the entire 2015 season was watch the first game.

Let’s think about that for a second. The White Sox were obliterated by the Kansas City Royals on Opening Day by a score of 10-1. That gap parlayed throughout the rest of the season, as the Royals would go on to snag the AL Central crown as Chicago floundered into baseball purgatory.

Here are a few other ridiculously small samples that projected the rest of the way:

Jeff Samardzija was lit up in a game that was really a harbinger of things to come.

There were extracurricular fireworks between Lorenzo Cain and Jeff Samardzija, something that would escalate into one of 2015’s only entertaining moments just weeks later.

Jose Abreu mashed a home run and just missed hitting a second when it edged foul. Abreu would go on to be the club’s best hitter, slashing .290/.437/.502 and leading the team with 30 home runs.

Adam LaRoche went 0-f0r-4 with two Ks. He went on to have the worst season of his career.

Essentially, Opening Day was a microcosm of the entire campaign and it only worsened as the White Sox quickly fell to an 0-4 record behind shoddy fundamentals. Panic started to surround the darlings of the offseason and the team collapsed under the inherent pressure of preseason playoff expectations.

Two early games defined Robin’s image, including a ill-advised 0-2 bunt call for Adam Eaton on April 15th and a botched video replay challenge just two days later.

The optics on the entire ballclub changed in a matter of two weeks, and the takeaway that this was a dismal offense with an inept manager and barrage of underperforming newcomers rang true the rest of the year. There’s no greater risk to 2016 than the idea that they’ll be repeat offenders and collapse early yet again.

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Just look at how this team’s key cogs started the year in 2015:

Eaton was “good” for a .192/.241/.256 line in April.

Melky Cabrera had a .620 OPS in April, but cratered to a .220/.258/.260 line in May.

Chris Sale had a 5.32 ERA over four April starts.

Jeff Samardzija had a 4.78 ERA over five April starts.

Needless to say, the season was torpedoed before it really even began. A similar occurrence in 2016 could be even more devastating.

The White Sox won’t exactly have the easiest schedule to start the season. Starting on April 4th, they’ll play a total of sixteen road games in April, with an additional seven games at U.S. Cellular field. That’s a total of 27 games, meaning they’ll have just one off day the whole month (April 12th).

It’s not like the competition will be a breeze either. In a parity filled American League, there really isn’t a weak link that you can bank on getting cushion wins against. You could make a case Oakland is that team, but playing at Coliseum has historically be a challenge for the South Siders.

Six out of their first ten games will be against division opponents, and in what is projected to be an insanely tight AL Central, there’s no such thing as brushing away losses under the premise “it’s early…”

Non division play will feature the likes of the Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles. All of these teams have the face value look of a contender, and could very well be the wedge between Chicago and a wildcard berth.

This quicksand schedule has the potential to sink the White Sox in the standings from the get-go.

Now I don’t anticipate the magnitude of underperformance we saw last year, but the White Sox have exhibited a trend of starting cold.

Here are their April records for the last five seasons:

2015: 8-11

2014: 14-15

2013: 10-15

2012: 11-11

2011: 10-18

Clearly, they have a propensity to plant themselves into an uphill battle but there are a few reasons I think it’s even more crucial for the White Sox to start stronger this year than ever before.

The main reason is that it would prevent the perpetuation of the LaRoche narrative. You can totally see it right? The White Sox start off 10-17 and the headlines read “Clubhouse Controversy Spills into the Season” and maybe we even see more Chris Sale quotes like this one from Bob Nightengale’s spring piece:

"“There was no problem in here. We were a steam engine going ahead. We had some positive energy going. There was absolutely no problem in here whatsoever with anyone. And (Williams) kind of created a problem.“We’re missing two big pieces to our puzzle, plain and simple. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s going to be the main reason (if the team struggles), or anything like that, but he’s definitely going to be missed, and we’re not going to get him back.’’"

What I found more frustrating than any other aspect of the LaRoche saga, was that players were already using it as a cop out to hedge for potential underperformance. To me, that’s indicative of an underlying anxiety surrounding expectations.

It’s no secret that 2016 will be a defining year for the White Sox one way or the other. Everyone in that clubhouse and front office knows that this reshaping process has culminated into this season. This is the final test for this oft-cited cost-controlled core.

Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

If the White Sox don’t perform, expect sweeping changes to permeate throughout the entire organization. This could mean a Chris Sale trade in July. This should absolutely mean Robin Ventura‘s termination. The irritating loyalty paradigm means Kenny Williams could be safe, but the accountability onus will be placed on Rick Hahn down to every lower level scout.

If the LaRoche fiasco revealed anything, it’s that some of the renewed clubhouse positivity could maybe be a mere facade. If it isn’t a facade, then it is apparently in such fragile condition that any sort of adversity could upend the entire status quo.

The rift between players and management clearly runs deeper than what happened with LaRoche, so all the ingredients are in place for this season to become a tire fire. I think the ballclub isn’t as well-oiled as we’d like to think. In fact, I think this whole season is sitting in oil and it’ll take one spark to cause the entire thing to combust. That spark could very well be a bad April, which is why they need to prevent a poor start at all costs.

This doesn’t mean I think they lack the personnel to contend. I think they absolutely can be in the mix this season. The issue is that the gravity of the implications riding on how this season goes is so extreme that it’s added another layer of pressure. The LaRoche incident proved just how fast things could unravel.

That’s why the White Sox need to kill any of these narratives before they get off the ground. They also need to build up a level of confidence that can immediately extinguish any internal pessimism.

Baseball is a game of momentum. There’s no other way to frame it. This can intuitively work in the inverse as well. If the White Sox are firing on all cylinders from the second that first pitch is barreling towards Adam Eaton, then I think we’ll see confidence increase exponentially and wins pile up in accordance.

For the past few years, the White Sox have played a listless brand of baseball that has tainted the season’s outlook before the calendar even flips to May. The fulcrum of this season is starting off hot, because if this team catches fire, I think they can go the distance. If they’re dismal, we may be waiting for 2017’s Opening Day before we even say hello to June.