The supply of predictions is limitless. From pure, algorithm-based projection systems to your co-worker parroting whatever he has heard on the radio, sources of speculation for how the 2014 season will play out abound. You are free to take a look at what FanGraphs thinks will happen this season based on ZiPs. Another source, PinnacleSports.com sets the White Sox Over/Under for 2014 at 76.5. The SportingNews’ Jesse Spector has the White Sox at 77 wins. Clay Davenport has them pegged for 79 wins. And so on.
I asked the small sliver of the Twitter world that follows me what they thought and got the following guesses: “78 to 81”; 83, 77, 83, 72, and - the most likely to be accurate, one Michael Engel of RoyalsPodcast.com - ventured the guess of “at LEAST ten.”
Other than Mr. Engel’s guess of “anywhere between 10 and 162”, we can see a pretty clear pattern here. Absurdly unscientific, I realize, but this pattern corresponds with my own independent speculation prior to checking with other sources.
Something I find intriguing about this pseudo-consensus at the team-wide level is that the path to this result seems fraught with profound variance at an individual level. A look around the White Sox roster shows that for a number of players a huge range of outcomes are possible. Not an exhaustive list, but let’s look at some examples:
1. Jose Abreu: The Cuban import is perhaps the biggest question mark of all. What do stat lines not unlike those of prime Barry Bonds mean when posted against roughly High A ball competition? Is his bat actually slow? Will he have trouble catching up to major league stuff? If so, how much does that scale back his value?
Keith Law recently wrote that Abreu’s swing looks great and that he is looking more fit and better in the field than he anticipated. Abreu has also made pretty decent contact, although hasn’t been drawing walks thus far in Spring Training. Then again, Spring Training stats don’t really mean anything beyond the fact that he didn’t come in and get blown away immediately.
Is Abreu going to profile like, say, Nelson Cruz at the plate? More walks? Less average? At this point it is still anybody’s guess, and the quality of the 2014 White Sox will likely be influenced heavily by where on the spectrum of possibilities Mr. Abreu falls.
Regardless of how it works out, I still applaud the move. The White Sox needed offense wherever they could get it, and frankly looking at the free agent market, Abreu’s price hardly looks extravagant - after all, it’s roughly the same AAV as Ubaldo Jimenez got - and it did not cost them a draft pick. Moreover, even though there are significant reasons to doubt it, it is not impossible that Abreu turns out to be a star level bat.
2. Matt Davidson: Here is a player that looks like he will be adequate defensively at third base, certainly has power, and appears likely to have enough patience. It is an open question as to how much he’s going to be able to square up the ball.
In many ways, we encounter similar difficulties to those that we have projecting Abreu. The ability to simply put bat on ball at the major league level is an extremely specific skill. We must be cautious in assessing Davidson’s minor league statistics as so many of them came in the context of extreme hitters parks up through the PCL.
Even if he can eventually handle major league pitching - making enough contact to leverage his patience and power to be an average-to-above-average 3B - there is the additional question of when that will happen. It’s possible he is ready right now, but he may need a few more weeks or months in AAA to get used to non-PCL hitting environments.
The injuries to Jeff Keppinger and Gordon Beckham may actually clear up some roster room at the major league level and buy the White Sox some time to keep weighing what they are going to do to clear up their logjam at 3B/2B. As things currently stand, it would seem that Marcus Semien is ahead of him due to his ability to play multiple positions.
Barring incident, Matt Davidson is the one the White Sox want to be their regular third baseman for the next few years. He just needs to show that he is ready for the task, and the White Sox need to figure out what they’re going to do with their infield clutter when he is ready. Notably, this makes what production the White Sox will get from the position quite murky as far as 2014 is concerned.
3. Avisail Garcia: Garcia had a successful second half last year after coming over in the Jake Peavy - Jose Iglesias three team deal. I was initially disappointed that he was the return for a year-and-a-half of Jake Peavy, as it appeared the White Sox were prioritizing saving money instead of maxing out the talent they would get back in their demi-firesale.
The reasons for my skepticism and the reasons for the White Sox wanting him are all still here.
Garcia has a lot going for him. He’s very young and a very good athlete. It looks like he will be a plus defensive right fielder, and he has had success at the minor league level. The problem is his approach. He has ~300 PAs at the major league level and has posted an IsoD of .030. This doesn’t even deviate that much from his minor league track record of .035. That’s to be expected from a guy who has struck out ~500 times against only ~100 walks in 2,500 minor league PAs.
Again, Garcia has always been young for his level, and the fact that he has managed to post strong averages and decent power numbers is admirable. Given his defense, he doesn’t have to be an elite bat in order to be a solid starting outfielder. But, there are reasons to doubt just how good he can be until he shows otherwise.
It’s possible that Avisail has some pretty ugly growing pains this year as the league makes adjustments to him. And even though Garcia looks like he will be a major league regular, but again, we are trying to figure out how the White Sox will be in 2014 and to that end: How good is Avisail really going to be in 2014?
If he replicates his minor league track record above, say, AA, and we ding him a bit for the difficulty of the majors, I think it's realistic for Avisail to post something like .275/.310/.440. That would be fine. But there are a lot of possibilities above and below that mark in the short term.
4. Everyone In The Rotation Who Isn’t Chris Sale.
Spring Training stats as a rule don’t really matter. Jose Quintana has really had an appalling spring, though, with 24 earned runs, 17 hits, and 7 walks allowed in only 6 innings. 17 hits against 18 outs. Yuck.
I would be less anxious about a more established pitcher, but Quintana did emerge from nowhere as a minor league free agent to post a year and a half of good results. While the most recent sample is in fact a very good season, as recently as 2012 Quintana was being tabbed as an emergency 5th starter, not as the #2 guy in a rotation.
Erik Johnson comes from a much higher pedigree, ranking as a Top 100 Prospect in all of baseball for several publications coming into this season. As far as 2014 goes, he is still a rookie, and it is unknown what the adjustment period will look like for him. He seems fairly low risk, although Johnson flashed different variations on his slider last year, and the slower version seemed to miss a lot more bats.
John Danks and Felipe Paulino are both individuals who have shown talent for years, and are removed from success by varying amounts of injury and time. They have looked good so far this spring, at least.
The depth behind these four is also a bit questionable, with unproven, low ceiling commodities like Andre Rienzo and Eric Surkamp as the most likely names to be called in case of injury or double header.
There are scenarios where all four of these guys have good seasons. There are scenarios where none of them do. Then there is everything in between.
Conclusion: This is a team that has potential - far more than it did a calendar year ago. There is also the potential for disaster, with any number of hitters collapsing (after 2011 I am always concerned that Adam Dunn will wake up one day and his bat will never again come into contact with a baseball), hitting delays in their development, or just not quite putting it all together. Even more problematic, there aren’t a whole lot of viable backup plans. Plus, any injuries to the rotation, or ineffectiveness on the part of individuals who have reasons to anticipate ineffectiveness, and suddenly this pitching staff doesn’t look too hot.
The net effect of all of these forces and possibilities twisting in the ether? Everyone seems to agree they’ll win 75 games or so. A 12-win improvement on 2013. Somehow this thing that is the 2014 White Sox inspires confident consensus despite being composed of chaos.