It may not seem like it, but the 2021 MLB season is scheduled to begin in two weeks once pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training complexes in Arizona and Florida. Personally, I think I had convinced myself that the season would be delayed again, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the withdrawals I had from last April through July. Nevertheless, the 2020 White Sox were appointment viewing, and no matter how frustrating certain aspects of the offseason might have been for many fans, the 2021 team should be even better.
My Thoughts on the Offseason Moves
The acquisition of Lance Lynn has been downplayed by fans far too much for my liking. It is disingenuous to present Lynn’s career stats in order to portray him as a mid-rotation arm, as doing so ignores the major changes Lynn made once he arrived in Texas in 2019 that made him an ace. While I have always been a big Dane Dunning fan, I am hopeful that the White Sox can extend Lynn’s contract so that he can be slotted in between Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel for more than just one season.
Furthermore, I have nothing but good things to say about the signing of Liam Hendriks, who has been the undisputed top reliever in baseball for the past two seasons, does not come with any unique warning signs, and was acquired for a very fair price. Provided the White Sox use him in a multi-inning role, which is how he became such a valuable reliever in Oakland, Hendriks should easily provide the team with a solid return on investment.
The Adam Eaton signing is perhaps my least favorite player acquisition of the offseason, although I understand it. I do not hold poor 2020 statistics against any player, as the sample size is too small and there were far too many unusual circumstances surrounding the season. That said, Eaton is injury-prone, his defense has fallen into negative value territory ever since he was traded by the White Sox in 2016, and players of his stature and style typically do not age well. Should he stay healthy, he will almost certainly be an upgrade in right field for 2021, but I believe the concerns about his health and defensive struggles are very valid.
Speaking of valid concerns, I have also read a lot of interesting opinions on the team’s lack of depth behind the starting rotation and top nine position players. I share these as well, but am hopeful that some minor additions will be made over the next few weeks to mitigate the issues. The White Sox are also somewhat insulated from a pitching standpoint, as Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease each have sky-high ceilings and could feasibly perform well enough to pitch in the playoffs should any of the team’s top starters suffer an injury. While Cease’s offseason work has been very public, I also have heard nothing but optimism and excitement regarding Kopech’s progress from those in the know.
My bigger depth concern pertains to the organizational philosophy concerning the additions of contact-oriented hitters to complement the team’s power bats. First of all, while Eloy Jimenez or Andrew Vaughn, for instance, can be considered power bats, Jimenez hit .296 in 2020 and Vaughn has a 65 (out of 80) hit tool according to MLB.com. Therefore, it is not like the lineup is stacked with “home run or bust” types. Moreover, Jimenez and Yoan Moncada, for example, do not have the best track record with respect to staying healthy. If they have to miss some time, you are suddenly looking at a lineup that features Adam Eaton, Nick Madrigal, Adam Engel, and Leury Garcia. A lineup with those four is, by nature, devoid of power over a decent stretch. This concern, however, can be mitigated by picking up someone like Brad Miller for depth; Miller is versatile defensively and slugged .510 over the past two seasons, while the league average over that span is .429.
While I will not defend the circus that was Tony La Russa’s hiring process and his subsequent legal issues, he should still represent a tactical upgrade in 2021 from the manager role. The White Sox feature a loaded bullpen and a fairly straightforward lineup to assemble. My only on-field worry relates to his introductory press conference, when he hinted that he would want to “play for one run” (sacrifice bunt) more often, but as long as that strategy is limited to hitters like Eaton and Madrigal rather than power bats, it should not be a major issue.
Otherwise, there are plenty of reasons for optimism surrounding the team’s young talent. A healthy Yoan Moncada could easily bounce back and resemble his 2019 level of performance, which would have put him in the MVP conversation had the White Sox been a winning team at the time. Luis Robert, coming off a Gold Glove Award, hit like a superstar for the first half of 2020 before cratering in September. He regained his form during the last week of the season and in the playoffs, however, and this was made conspicuous by his 487-foot home run in Oakland. Below is an image that shows his Statcast sliders as of September 1st of 2020.
Clearly, Robert was absolutely elite until his swing failed him for three weeks. Given his youth, pedigree, and work ethic, one can hope that he plays more like his first half and playoff self than the September version.
In addition to potential improvements from young players, the veteran position players figure to continue contributing. Tim Anderson proves every year that the new and trendy concern regarding his performance is unwarranted. The ever-productive Jose Abreu cannot reasonably be relied on to repeat as MVP, but as I wrote in 2019, the potential for such performance existed for years given his contact profile.
On the pitching side, if his ZiPS projection is any indication, Lucas Giolito is a candidate to make the jump from staff ace to one of the league’s best few starters. New pitching coach Ethan Katz is a perfect fit to help Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech realize their ceilings. Lance Lynn and Dallas Keuchel figure to stabilize the rotation as ideal fits for the second and third starter roles. And, of course, the bullpen is absolutely stacked with power arms and high-leverage options. With some injury luck and modest success from Katz’s main projects, it is not too far-fetched to envision the White Sox power offense reputation being upstaged by a dominant pitching staff.
My 2021 Projection
Last year, I thought the White Sox were an 85-to-90 win team as of February, and once the season was shortened, I had them at 30-to-35 wins (but settled at 32). They ended up going 35-25, and over a full season, easily could have surpassed my 85-to-90 win range.
As mentioned earlier, my greatest fear with the team is that injuries mount and the lack of depth (relative to other contenders) gets exposed. But on the bright side, the roster is so star-heavy that it would take a catastrophic amount of injuries and/or unexpected poor performance in order for the team to find itself outside of the playoff conversation. Even in this unlikely event, it is difficult to see the team finishing below .500.
I am a believer that the team’s young, premier talent — particularly Robert and Moncada — will bounce back from inconsistent 2020 seasons. Moreover, Kopech and Vaughn are the polished type of prospects that should contribute right away. In fact, many seem to forget that Kopech was quite impressive in his brief MLB stint before he got lit up in his last start, in which he was pitching with a torn UCL.
The most unrealistic aspect of this prediction may be assuming that we get a full season with limited pandemic-related interruptions, but I have the 2021 White Sox winning 95 games and the division. Given that the team usually exceeds my win total expectation, it feels strange to be projecting such a high figure. Yet, even with my depth concerns, the roster is loaded with high-ceiling stars, and most of the team’s improvements should come from the young talent that already existed on the roster. As a result, I believe the excitement surrounding the White Sox is well-founded. With a bit of injury luck, and perhaps a trade deadline acquisition to further bolster the starting rotation, the players’ public World Series aspirations are truly within the realm of possibility for 2021.
Buckle up, Sox fans – it should be an exciting summer on the South Side.
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Featured Photo: MLB/Twitter