The White Sox are planning to compete for a playoff spot in 2015; this much is clear. There is intense optimism around the team, culminating in a SoxFest that seemed, aside from being a celebration of the 2005 team, a love fest for the moves Rick Hahn & Co. have made this offseason.
This is cool. It’s been a while since the Sox were a contending team, and even longer since they made the playoffs.
The White Sox have a team capable of contending. Despite a good amount of flaws, I believe they have a team that can be as good or better than most AL teams. If things break right, they have a reasonable playoff case.
At this point in the article, I implore you to read that last paragraph back, but instead substitute another AL team’s name in where I wrote White Sox. How many does it not apply to? On the upper end of the spectrum, I see no teams that exceed an assessment of “capable of contending” to become a playoff lock. The Angels, who ran away with the AL West after Oakland’s collapse, rely on a litany of older players and a shaky pitching rotation to play well enough to complement the best baseball player in the world. They’re very good but a couple injuries or collapses from falling behind the pack. The Tigers have won the AL Central each of the last four years, but they’re old and in a similar position. The defending AL East champion Orioles are riding in a similarly leaky boat despite running away with their division last year. The Red Sox are loved by projection systems and added a lot this offseason, but I’m not buying a team with a rotation relying heavily on Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, and Justin Masterson.
Absolute non-contenders exist, but they are scarce. The Astros, despite a couple of moves that should help in the short-term, are still awful. The Twins remain on the outside looking in, and the Rays should re-join them as cellar-dwellers after an incredible run of being largely fantastic for half a decade with a bottom-tier payroll. Maybe the Rangers belong in this group after an awful season last year, but they had such bad luck with injuries that I will not write them off yet. I am tempted to put the Royals here as well after losing their best pitcher and adding nothing of substance, but I’ll give them credit and call them a contender.
Aside from three absolute bottom-feeders, the AL is full of seemingly good-not-great teams. Above all else, it seems anomalous or exceptional performances could rule. In no division is there a team that can easily absorb a collapse or injury of a star; conversely, a breakout from a player on the cusp (or a magical luck-based season) could be the difference in a division.
Last month, Zachary Levine at Baseball Prospectus wrote about (subscription required) how teams not necessarily favored to make the playoffs can benefit by adding players with more variance (he cites the Padres’ offseason as one using this hypothesis) while teams likely to win a division may be less likely to give playing time to such a player. Perhaps this school of thought can be applied to much of the AL (especially the less established teams), seeing as an outcome greatly above projection from an inconsistent or unproven player could transform an entire division.
The White Sox have a couple players that could play this role. As I have mentioned before on here, Avisaíl Garcia and Carlos Rodon are largely unheralded by projection systems and have the potential to be much more than their 50th percentile projection. Were one or both of those players to approach their ceiling, the White Sox would have a much stronger team.
Another aspect where playoff appearances could be earned or lost is through upgrades that occur between now and the trading deadline; whether internally, through trades, or free agency. With a spread of teams unlikely to be large, an upgrade from replacement-level to league average could be invaluable.
In this regard, the destination of James Shields could have enormous implications for the American League. Teams like the White Sox, Tigers, Orioles, Angels, and Blue Jays, all contenders in the AL, have back ends of their rotation with major flaws; signing Shields could somewhat conservatively add 2-3 wins to their 2015 season total and thus greatly alter their ultimate fate.
In the same regard, it could be possible that teams operate aggressively with regards to promotion. If a team like the White Sox sees non-production in a position of weakness, continuing to throw John Danks or Hector Noesi out every fifth day instead of Carlos Rodon could cost them a playoff spot. Ideally, development will trump the present value of an aggressive promotion, but the value of limiting service time could certainly be offset by the immediate value the prospect adds to the big club.
But the aspect of upgrading the Major League roster that should stand to be most affected is the trade market. With few teams out of contention, sellers will be scarce, and thus prices high. Acting sooner rather than later could be extremely valuable, a sentiment almost assuredly shared by Billy Beane last season when he traded highly-regarded prospect Addison Russell for Jeff Samardizja and Jason Hammel on July 4th. This not only demonstrates the going rate for mid-season upgrades but also the value of selling early: a team that might be still somewhat in contention could see more value in trading a star without long control than a low chance at a playoff appearance.
So where does all this leave the White Sox? Frankly, I do not know. I think they have assembled a strong team, with a good possibility of contention. If things break right for them, they can leapfrog multiple teams projected for better seasons and be in a position to play in the postseason. It also could potentially put them in the dangerous position the A’s were in last year, where they ended the year without a playoff win or their top prospect. Ideally, things will go right with Garcia and Rodon, and an extremely risky trade of a guy like Tim Anderson will have not have to be considered. But considering the aggressiveness the team has shown this offseason, I fear the possibility of overly risky decisions being made when the team is not in a great position to contend. Let’s just hope Rodon turns into a stud, Avi breaks out, the second base conundrum works itself out, Gillaspie doesn’t regress too much, and everyone is healthy, allowing the Sox cruise to an AL Central championship. That’d be cool.
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