The 2015 White Sox season was not good. In fact, it may be better described as bad, terrible, disappointing, sad, awful, or any combination thereof, probably best mixed with profanity. After a 2014 season with encouraging signs abound and an offseason full of additions, a team expected to contend finished the 2015 season with each of the following accomplishments:
The worst offense in baseball by wRC+ for non-pitchers
The worst defense in baseball by Fangraphs defensive component
The 4th worst defense in baseball by Fangraphs BsR component
The lowest positional fWAR total since 2013
Bottom 5 production in MLB from 2B, SS, 3B, and RF
5 players with greater than 400 PA and a negative fWAR (Adam LaRoche, Avisail Garcia, Alexei Ramirez, Melky Cabrera, and Carlos Sanchez)
These players made a combined $36 million in 2015. LaRoche, Cabrera, and Ramirez provided less than replacement level production for 29.5% of the White Sox payroll
A 4.96 ERA from big time offseason acquisition and opening day starter Jeff Samardizja
Finished with the 10th worst record in MLB, giving them 3 consecutive top 10 draft picks for the first time since 1986-1988
I could go on, but I'll spare you. This season was probably the most miserable season I've experienced as a White Sox fan, save maybe 2007 (the lack of expectations in 2013-14 make their failures less painful). Positives were about as uncommon as stretches of viable offensive output. If you're struggling to find hope for the future, I don't blame you. But there are some reasons to cheer up, beyond just being happy that this dreadful season is over.
The pitching core is really, really good.
There are not many teams that boast a 1-3 as strong as Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon, especially when you factor in their youth and contract status.
Sale, of course, is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Despite a substandard year by ERA, Sale managed to turn in a historic year, breaking a White Sox record for total strikeouts and becoming a member of an elite club of pitchers who have thrown over 200 IP with more than 11.5 K/9 anda BB/9 under 2.
pitchers who have thrown >200 IP, >11.5 K/9, <2 BB/9 Clayton Kershaw (2015) Chris Sale (2015) Pedro Martinez (1999, 2000)— call me balls (@SpaldingBalls) October 4, 2015
Quintana, while obviously less flashy, managed to lead the staff in ERA en route to his 3rd straight season of at least 200 IP. Despite an egregious lack of run support,
Quintana has developed into one of the top 25 or so pitchers in all of baseball, or possibly even better depending on your way of looking at things.
And then there's Rodon, who, while inconsistent, flashed elite raw stuff this season. He finished the year on a high note, posting a 1.81 ERA in his last 8 starts with improved command. If he actualizes his potential in 2016, the White Sox could have a beast of a 1-3.
While the back end isn't as exciting, having pitchers like John Danks and Erik Johnson to eat innings is certainly passable. Combine that with a system that is pretty deep with arms- including potential 2016 contributors in Frankie Montas and Carson Fulmer- and you have a really solid core going forward. Oh, for some offense.
Jose Abreu certainly did provide some offense in 2015, and while his numbers don't pop off the page like his insane rookie campaign, a .290/.347/.502 line is nothing to scoff at. Considering Abreu was often dinged up throughout the year, it's not impossible to envision a 2016 that's more in line with 2014- and if so, the White Sox will have a force in their lineup for $10 million (which is less than Adam LaRoche will be getting paid next year).
Eaton was probably the only other consistent bright spot in the White Sox lineup, turning in the best season of his short career despite an April where he hit .192/.241/.256. Eaton set career highs in home runs and slugging percentage while posting an OBP of .360 for the second consecutive year. While a player like Eaton would never be second on a good team in home runs and slugging percentage (as he was on the not-good 2015 White Sox), he is one of the better offensive center fielders around and a very good piece going forward.
What makes most of the aforementioned positives so nice for the future is their relative lack of cost. In 2015, Sale, Quintana, Eaton, Abreu, and Rodon were paid a combined $19.4 million and contributed 23.8 fWAR, whereas the rest of the team was paid $99.2 million and contributed 4.1 fWAR (payroll info from Baseball Prospectus/Cot's Contracts). That group of players will be paid a combined $29.5 million in 2016 (less than Clayton Kershaw by himself). With a such a strong, inexpensive core, building a contender should be doable. While other payroll obligations are not pretty-Adam LaRoche's outstanding $13 million in particular- the White Sox currently only have $88 million committed to 9 players for 2016, and face arbitration decisions on Avisail Garcia, Tyler Flowers, Nate Jones, Zach Putnam, and Dan Jennings, who Matt Swartz projects to make a combined $8.2 million in arbitration. If these approximations are correct, the White Sox will have $96.2 million committed to 14 players before any additions, and $105.2 million to 15 players if they pick up Alexei Ramirez's $10 million option. Whether Jerry Reinsdorf will be willing to break the bank to contend is yet to be determined, though a a contending team in Chicago should not have to try to compete with a league median salary (as the 2015 team was). If Reinsdorf and co. are serious about contending, $20-30 million in 2016 salary could be on the table, which would give plenty of room to upgrade. If that money can be allocated to upgrade the non-core players from garbage to merely average, teamwide production should increase drastically, possibly to the point where the White Sox can contend in 2016.
While it's not an elite farm system by any means, the White Sox' prospect core has steadily grown, and for the first time in a couple years, saw no catastrophic tanks from top prospects towards AAAA-ceiling types (Courtney Hawkins and Matt Davidson, I'm looking at you). Tim Anderson remains an athletic freak and posted his best offensive year as a pro while facing AA pitching, where he is a baby in terms of baseball experience. Erik Johnson seemed to return to form as a likely backend starter, and Frankie Montas, Spencer Adams, and 2015 draftee Carson Fulmer all had positive years. While this team won't be defined by an upcoming youth revolution, its farm system is as strong as its been in years.
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And look at that! I just wrote almost a thousand words worth of optimism about the White Sox. Who'd have thought that would be even possible after that bulleted list of despair?
Now, we can't forget the negatives of 2015 (unless you're lucky enough to be able to repress such horrific memories this quickly), and many of those problems will carry over to 2016 if not addressed. But if such issues are remedied (with savviness by Rick Hahn and hopefully some money from Jerry Reinsdorf) the White Sox can absolutely be in a position to end the 4th longest playoff drought in MLB next season.