The bad news for the 2009 Chicago White Sox is that the Tigers, Indians, and Minnesota Twins all figure to improve this season, while the Sox have clearly stepped backwards. They traded two players poised for rebound seasons at low value, getting no immediate help in return. They also failed to add any players under 280 pounds via free agency. They blew $5 million to break their spring training contract in Tucson but could not be bothered to offer $5 million to undervalued free agent Bobby Abreu. I have absolutely no idea why this misguided set of priorities hasn't outraged Sox fans more.
Kenny Williams seems to be the only person on the planet who isn't outraged by the mere sight of A.J. Pierzinski. Pierzynski was signed to a 3-year, $18.35 M extension at the end of the '07 season despite his decline from solid workhorse to liability on both sides of the ball. Next year, Williams should consider signing Michael Barrett to lay out Pierzynski so that Tyler Flowers can take over as the Sox' best offensive catcher since Carlton Fisk. This year, Williams had better hope that Pierzynski can dodge a few more right hooks, because his backup is career .176 hitter Corky Miller.
Paul Konerko is also signed for two more seasons, but for almost twice what Pierzynski is making. This is not as awful as it sounds. While Konerko is no longer the 35-HR, 100-RBI lock that he was between 2004 and 2006, he is not the utter waste of space at first base that he was last season, either. He's not worth $12 million, but he's a better usage of money than Jose Contreras has been since signing his 3-year, $29 million deal.
Steady-but-not-flashy Chris Getz earned the starting second base position this spring, beating out some real tough candidates in prospect flameout Brent Lillibridge, career utilityman Wilson Betemit, and an injured Jayson Nix. Getz is the ultimate Ozzie Guillen-type of player, possessing few plus tools but strong fundamentals and work ethic. He will post an OPS+ around 90 out of the #2 hole and have Ozzie crowning him as the team's MVP by May.
26-year old Josh Fields is healthy again this year and appears ready to build upon his .480 SLG compiled in 2007. The questions are whether or not he is ready to build upon his .308 OBP, his one-strikeout-every-three-at-bats rate, and his shaky defense at third base. Ozzie is also considering using him as a leadoff hitter against left-handed hitters. Since his OPS against southpaws is 1.030 so far in his young career, I assume the idea is to just get him to the plate as often as possible in those situations.
Alexei Ramirez reminds me so much of Alfonso Soriano circa his rookie season in 2001. Thin as a rail? Check. Lots of pop for his size? Check. Athletic-yet-poor defense at second base? Check. Big clutch hits? Check. Refusing to draw walks? Check. Ramirez made more contact, but Soriano was the superior baserunner. I'm sure the Sox would be thrilled to get what Sori gave the Yankees in 2002 (39 HR, 41 SB, .300 BA), but I'm predicting that the Cuban Missile sputters in his sophomore season before reaching those kinds of heights. He'll also represent a defensive downgrade from Orlando Cabrera and will almost certainly lead baseball in Defensive Misplays Plus Errors.
Carlos Quentin and Jermaine Dye return to their corner outfield spots. To me, Quentin wasn't the big surprise of 2008; it was Dye. He had his third best offensive season ever at the age of 34. Expect a return to his 2005 or 2007 output in this odd-numbered year. Defensively, he has the worst +/- figure in baseball over the past three seasons (-67), leading to a whopping 39 runs below average. Carlos Quentin has a right fielder's arm in left field, which offsets his sometimes-clumsy fielding. His offensive rate stats will decline in '09, but he'll have a similar overall value, assuming he doesn't break his hand punching his bat in the middle of a pennant race.
Centerfield will be a platoon between the left-handed hitting Dewayne Wise and the right-handed hitting Brian Anderson. Wise will lead off against right-handed pitchers, while Anderson may lead off against southpaws if Guillen decides that it doesn't make sense to begin the game with Fields' mammoth power.
Jim Thome will once again act as Chicago's designated hitter, and he will once again be one of the best hitters on the team, and he will once again miss between 12-32 games due to his chronic back issues. The difference is that while the 2008 squad had decent hitters in Ken Griffey and Nick Swisher to fill in when Thome, Quentin, Konerko, or Dye needed a day off, the 2009 squad will have no one. I believe the current replacement plan is to have Wilson Betemit man first base, shifting Konerko to DH. Wise is listed as the backup corner outfielder on most depth charts, though that's using the word "depth" somewhat inaccurately, isn't it?
The biggest dropoff from the 2008 team will be seen in its starting pitching. That won't be Mark Buehrle's fault, as he continues to be one of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball. He's had a sub-4.00 ERA three out of the past four seasons, with his only hiccup having come after being overworked in the 2005 playoffs and 2006 World Baseball Classic. Unfortunately, he is the type of pitcher who is best with a solid defense behind him, and he's not going to get that consistently this year. That means his ERA could rise slightly over 4.00, but it certainly won't approach the ridiculous 4.69 mark that THT's projection system figures. Like I said, underrated.
Much of the decline is going to come courtesy of Gavin Floyd. Floyd and John Danks were each offered identical four-year extensions in March. Danks refused his offer on the advice of his agent, while Floyd jumped at his. It's as though even Floyd knows that he's a pretender. Floyd's FIP was 1.26 higher than Danks' and 0.94 higher than his own ERA. The Sox gave Floyd 8.5 runs per starts last year, 5th most among all pitcher who threw more than 160 innings last year, which explains his 17 wins. Floyd also allowed a whopping 19 unearned runs last year. A couple of scoring changes alone would have ballooned his ERA well over 4.00.
The rest of the decline comes from the loss of Javier Vazquez' 200 solid innings. They will be replaced by Jose and the Fatman, each of whom are on the wrong side of 35. Jose Contreras hasn't been any good since the first half of 2006 while Bartolo Colon has been injured and ineffective since his 2005 Cy Young season. The Sox think it's okay to rely on two old uncertainties because they have two young uncertainties backing them up in Clayton Richard and Jeff Marquez. That's the same Jeff Marquez who supposedly has four plus-pitches, but only managed to strike out 4.5 minor leaguers per nine innings last year. He was one of the zeroes acquired in the Nick Swisher trade. Richard is actually better than his 6.04 ERA last year would suggest, but you still wouldn't want him as the fourth best starter on your team just yet.
Unfortunately, the only contention in which the Sox will find themselves is a battle with the Royals for last place in the AL Central. The Sox did nothing to help themselves in the offseason. Their offense is mostly comprised of aging sluggers with no one to get on base in front of them and no one to replace them if they need a Ben Gay break. Their starting pitching is shallow and lacks any starter with even the potential to be dominant. Their defense isn't particularly strong anywhere and is frighteningly weak in the all-important catcher, shortstop, and centerfield positions. The bullpen is fine, but many Sox games will already be out of reach by the sixth inning, particularly when Danks or Buehrle isn't starting.
The one thing Sox fans can feel good about is that their future looks much brighter today than it did one year ago. In Flowers, Poreda, and shortstop Gordon Beckham, the Sox have three of the games truly elite prospects, and there is surprising depth behind them. When they join the young nucleus of Quentin, Fields, Ramirez, Getz, Jenks, and Richard, the Sox should have shed most of their payroll burdens and once again be ready to compete.