Fears of regression; hopes of progression

The White Sox are holding a press conference this afternoon to announce the acquisitions of Jeff Samardizja, Melky Cabrera, and David Robertson. That is good news; three good players, filling holes at three important positions.

There is, reasonably, a lot of excitement around the White Sox which Collin talked about earlier today. I think a good portion of the excitement going around is due to seeing the White Sox as a much improved-but-fatally-flawed team in 2014 that has now fixed many of these flaws. Seeing most of those glaring holes filled by offseason acquisitions (the three being announced today as well as Adam LaRoche, Zach Duke, and Dan Jennings), another by a presumably healthy Avisaíl Garcia, and it seems like the White Sox should improve even more. The White Sox ran mostly replacement level-players at those positions in 2014 and won 73 games; surely expecting at least 12 WAR out of those positions, and therefore at least 85 wins in 2015, is reasonable right?

Unfortunately, baseball does not work that way, which is why I think there is a sizeable disconnect between fan expectation and, say, STEAMER projections of the White Sox (let the record show that I am not a STEAMER fan). Even putting aside the pretty significant problem with “adding up the WARs”, it’s a silly expectation. Players do not always hold their performance year-to-year, and it’s likely some of the gains in 2014 will not stick for 2015.

Probably the largest reason for this is the near-inevitability of injury and/or regression. For example, as much as I love Jose Abreu and Chris Sale, counting on them to each match their incredible years in 2014 may not be reasonable. That’s not say they won’t repeat (I think there is a good argument Sale is the favorite for AL Cy Young in 2015), but more so that there is a pretty good likelihood that some degree of regression occurs.

This problem is confounded by very thin depth in the White Sox system. If their team plays a whole year as is, they may be a contender, but if even one of their stars get injured, or a mid-tier player like Tyler Flowers or Conor Gillaspie regresses to the point where they are no longer playable, there just is not anyone available in-house to step up. The White Sox as currently constructed are heavily reliant on health and stability, and the fact that full teams never stay healthy and regression-free throughout a 162 game season makes their prospects dimmer.

That being said, the 2015 White Sox are not solely at risk for negative variation. On the contrary, the factor that may make them most exciting for next season is the potential for breakout from some of their key players. In particular, Avisaíl Garcia and Carlos Rodon. Both Garcia and Rodon have the tools to be players that make a large contribution in 2015. If Garcia can hold his improved plate discipline from down the stretch (8.3 BB%, 17.7 K%) and tap into the power that he has intermittently demonstrated he will be a very valuable player. If Rodon can hone his command of his stuff, which scouts compare favorably to Chris Sale’s at a similar point in development, he could allow the Sox to have an embarrassment of riches in the rotation. If these things happen, division contention is a lot more reasonable.

These are, of course, big ifs. The White Sox are not in a position where they can win a division without some luck in their favor. However, the corollary to that is that they are in a position to contend with good breaks, which is something worth being excited about.